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Books in Brief (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

Books in Brief

By Mark Epstein
Penguin Press 2013; 225 pp., $25.95 (cloth)

Illness, old age, and death—the story is that Siddhartha Gautama first confronted these realities as an adult when he ventured out from the family palace. Psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein, however, points to an earlier source of trauma for the Buddha-to-be: seven days after he was born, his mother died. Though he wouldn’t have remembered her death, it’s reasonable to assume, says Epstein, that her absence permeated his life with the vague sense that something was wrong. “The presence of this early loss in his psyche,” he continues, “creates a motif that anyone who struggles with inexplicable feelings of estrangement or alienation can relate to. The traumas of everyday life can easily make us feel like a motherless child.” Trauma—from the minor to the catastrophic—is universal. But, as Epstein makes clear, it does not have to destroy us. It can, in fact, be channeled into wisdom and compassion. On the face of it, the subject matter of The Trauma of Everyday Life is somber. Nonetheless, this is an engaging read peppered with cultural tidbits and the personal experiences of both Epstein and his psychiatric clients.


Leading Experts on Buddhism, Psychology, and Medicine  Explore the Health Benefits of Contemplative Practice

Edited by Andy Fraser
Shambhala Publications 2013; 226 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Buddha has traditionally been known as the “Great Physician,” and the root word of meditate is etymologically connected with the word medicine. Now a plethora of scientific research is proving what meditators have known for millennia: meditation and mindfulness can be applied beneficially in health care. The Healing Power of Meditation is an anthology that details some of the groundbreaking new scientific research, maps out the history of how meditation became more mainstream, and explains how meditation is being integrated into hospice care, psychiatry, and other fields. Contributors include Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and the Buddhist teachers Khandro Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche. The foreword is by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence.


The First Hundred Years

Edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns
W.W. Norton & Company 2013; 424 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

Haiku in English is rich with variety. There is the poignant, such as David Cobb’s “filling the grave/more earth/than will go back in.” There is the flippant, such Allen Ginsberg’s “Mayan head in a/Pacific driftwood bole/—Someday I’ll live in N.Y.” And then there is the experimental, such as John Barlow’s one liner “a dusting of snow light on the apple skins.” In the introduction, former poet laureate Billy Collins points out that while simile and metaphor are common literary devices in Western poetic forms, in haiku they’re not. The moon is just the moon. It’s not compared to anything because that would distract from its “moonness.” The important element in haiku is positioning—setting up a startling contrast that leads the reader to see afresh. The mundane can be just a line away from the majestic, the synthetic from the natural. Collins states, “I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness. But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”


Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment
By Geri Larkin
Rodmell Press 2013; 178 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Pali canon lists the seven factors of enlightenment as: mindfulness, the investigation of phenomena, energetic effort, ease, joy, concentration, and equanimity. These factors are also, according to Geri Larkin, a clear and simple formula “for falling into a sweet juicy life no matter the situation we find ourselves swimming through.” To explain the ins and outs of each factor she mines a wide variety of sources, including her personal experiences, traditional stories from the Buddha’s life, tidbits from sutras, cooking instructions, and Zen koans. Larkin is the founder of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit and the author of Plant Seed, Pull Weed and The Chocolate Cake Sutra. With her warm and unpretentious voice, she manages to make profound Buddhist teachings something you could actually read at the beach or while soaking in the tub.


Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga

By Meagan McCrary
New World Library 2013; 240 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Maybe you’ve been practicing yoga for years or maybe your first mat is still brand-spanking new. Either way, you most likely haven’t tried every school of yoga out there and you don’t completely grok the differences between them. My suggestion? Read Pick Your Yoga Practice. In this new release, Meagan McCrary unpacks the philosophy and practice of seven leading styles, and gives us tastes of an additional ten. From Kundalini to Kripalu, Anusara to Ananda, the variety is fascinating, but, as McCrary points out in the introduction, they’re more alike than they are different. Ultimately, yoga is always about promoting mindfulness and expanding self-awareness, and, according to McCrary, every style is valid. The important thing is finding the one that works for you.


Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment

By Jay Michaelson
Evolver Editions 2013; 256 pp., $14.99 (paper)

In giving his assessment of contemporary American Buddhism, Jay Michaelson shoots from the hip. He’s grateful to his teachers; he really is. Yet sometimes he feels like he’s the only non-baby-boomer psychotherapist in the meditation hall. In short, Evolving Dharma is Michaelson’s effort to broaden our dharma discourse and strip it of some of what he sees as its hippie-dippy fear of irony. He begins by clearly stating his own point of view as a self-identified (off) white, queer, Jewish male. Then he goes on to give the executive summary of the history of Buddhism in America, primarily focusing on the last three decades and their chocablock changes. These are some of the questions that he addresses: How has feminism informed dharma practice? What’s the outcome of ancient practices meeting modern science? And what does it mean when your sangha exists only online? Moreover, what’s next? Where’s American Buddhism going from here?


By Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press 2013; 304 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

A framed narrative, The Empty Chair is two linked novellas. In the preface, a fictional version of author Bruce Wagner says he has spent fifteen years interviewing people about the pivotal events in their lives and that this book comprises two of these interviews in their entirety. The first interview/novella is the story of a gay sort-of Buddhist. (His ex-wife calls him a living master of couch-potato Zen, but he refers to his philosophy as “vanzen” because he lives in his van and can’t imagine life without “the ol’ Greater Vehicle.”) This character has a delightfully rambling voice, but his tale takes dark turns, culminating in his son’s suicide. The second interview/novella revolves around Queenie, who in her wild-child youth left no New Age stone unturned. Now midlife is hitting hard, and her grandfather’s penthouse with its infinity pool and view of Central Park is not enough to stave off the mother of all depressions. Then the phone rings. It’s Queenie’s ex-lover, Kura, a criminal mastermind with spiritual leanings, and he has a proposition. How about a trip to India in search of a long-lost guru?

From the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Editorial: This Laughing, Hurting, Busy World (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

This Laughing, Hurting, Busy World

On retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery, a teenager got up in front of the eight-hundred-plus retreatants and posed this question to Thich Nhat Hanh: “What is the hardest thing that you practice?”

As he always does before speaking, the Zen master paused. “That is,” he finally said, “not being overwhelmed by despair.”

During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh, known to his students as Thay, founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a volunteer organization that aided victims of the violence. One village located near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam was bombed, so Thay and his young social workers helped rebuild it. Shortly after, the village was again bombed by the United States, and again rebuilt. This happened four times.

“If we gave up, that would have created a feeling of despair,” Thay explained to the Blue Cliff retreatants. “That is why we kept rebuilding.”

When people have given in to despair, they can be driven to do desperate and dangerous things. So it’s important, Thay said, never to feed the seeds of despair in others. That does not mean that you should lie about dire situations, but you should think carefully about your words and frame what you say in a constructive manner.

Young Vietnamese frequently asked Thich Nhat Hanh if he thought the war would end soon. The truth was he could not see the light at the end of the tunnel; the fighting had been going on for so long that it seemed like it would continue forever. Yet Thay did not say that to the young people. “Dear friends,” he told them, “the Buddha said that everything is impermanent. The war is impermanent also—it should end someday. Let us continue to work for peace.”

In this issue of the Shambhala Sun, you will find the story of my retreat experience with Thay at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York. During the course of this retreat, I got to explore concrete tools for working with despair and other unhelpful emotions, and what I took away with me is this: for transforming suffering, mindfulness practice is key but a community is necessary to support that practice.

“In order to produce the powerful energy of enlightenment, compassion, understanding, you need a sangha, a community,” Thich Nhat Hanh says in my interview with him on page 58. “You build a sangha and together you help each other nourish the buddha and the dharma in you.”

In “Before He Melts Away,” also in this issue, we get an intimate step-by-step look at how one practitioner used meditation and mindfulness to work with his despair, grief, and fear. James Hanmer finds himself in the middle of a nightmare: his toddler son is diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. There is no silver bullet that’s going to make this situation disappear, but meditation gives Hanmer insight, strength, and a measure of equanimity. He realizes that even in his darkest hour, he’s fortunate. He is, after all, alive and can put his whole heart into easing the suffering of his family. Though I’ve read this story again and again, I choke up each time. Be prepared to be moved, but also be prepared for a happy ending.

On my way home from Blue Cliff Monastery, I went to the Earl of Sandwich in Newark Airport and had my own small experience with the insight brought about by mindfulness. A week prior, I’d have thought that the noise and busyness of the restaurant were just ordinary life. But post-retreat I was experiencing everything through the surreal lens of reverse culture shock—the cranked-up pop music, the frenetic clink of cutlery, the laughing-shrieking-talking tableful of women eating nachos.

My sandwich came and I chewed slowly without picking up my book or cell phone. I contemplated how many beings had worked to make this meal possible for me. The cows and factory workers. The farmers and truck drivers. The cooks, waiters, and dishwashers. After six days of practicing with a sangha, I was open to connecting with my world this way, bite by bite.

I looked around the restaurant and saw a little girl with a zebra-print suitcase and a solitary man lost in his Kindle. The people around me were tired and stressed, bored and excited, slightly irritated and slightly drunk. They reminded me of other people I knew; they reminded me of me. Then suddenly, if just for a moment, I saw clearly. This whole laughing, hurting, busy world—it is all my sangha.

—Andrea Miller, Deputy Editor

From the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Joyful Giving (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

Joyful Giving

’Tis always the season for giving. Six Buddhist teachers — KAREN MAEZEN MILLER, JUDY LIEF, JAN CHOZEN BAYS, GINA SHARPE, NORMAN FISCHER, and TSULTRIM ALLIONE — on why generosity is the starting place of all the virtues.

Macaroni Art
By Karen Maezen Miller 

I begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school. It was a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants. Remembering it, I can still feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.

One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.

The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.

“Between the giver, the recipient, and the gift there is no separation.” This Zen teaching tells us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing that divides us—nothing that defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.

“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.

In May, New World Library will release Karen Maezen Miller’s new book, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.


Big Hug
By Judy Lief

The practice of generosity may seem simple—it is learning how to give—but it is the ground that allows discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom to flourish. It establishes the basic attitude of magnanimity that is the defining characteristic of the path of the bodhisattva.

The word magnanimous, like the Sanskrit term mahatma, means “greatness of soul.” With magnanimity you are not pinched in your outlook or heart, but rather you have a quality of richness and spaciousness. There is room for everyone. 

I once visited a temple that claimed to have one thousand Buddha statues. Among all of those buddhas, the one that most invoked the feeling of generosity for me was a statue of a very chubby Buddha embracing piles of children who were tumbling all over him. Laughing with delight, he maintained a sense of peace in the midst of their chaos. Instead of shooing the children away because he had more important things to do, he gathered them in with a big hug. He radiated love and happiness and acceptance.

 That kind of effortless bounty is what generosity is all about, but to get there a little effort and reflection may be in order. To cultivate generosity it is necessary to understand the mental obstacles that cause us to hold back.

One obstacle is self-doubt. We may have an impoverished sense of our own capacities and doubt that we have all that much to offer. Another obstacle is stinginess. We may have a lot of resources, but no matter how wealthy we are, deep down we are afraid of letting go of even a small portion.

Generosity is based on interconnection, on looking outside oneself, noticing where there is a need and responding to it. So a third obstacle is self-absorption, being oblivious to what is going on around you. Generosity has the power to cut through such obstacles and it is available to us all. 

The sense of richness that allows generosity to flourish isn’t dependent on external factors like wealth or social status. (In fact, studies have shown that the wealthiest Americans’ level of philanthropy is less than half that of the poorest Americans.) No matter how poor or rich we may be, we all have something to offer. And when we let go of our clinging and extend our hand to others, we find that we ourselves are blessed. Our pinched state of mind, which was so alienating and unpleasant, suddenly relaxes and we are brought into a larger and more inspired sense of the world and our own capacities. Instead of feeling that something is being taken away from us, we find that the more we give, the wealthier we feel.

Judy Lief is the editor of  The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, a three-volume series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.


We Naturally Know What to Give
By Jan Chozen Bays

The Buddha said, “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing…even if it were their last bite…they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift.”

But we cannot force ourselves to be generous. True generosity comes from a deeper place than acquiescence to the Buddha’s admonition. Generosity, like all aspects of our enlightened nature, lies partially dormant within us. It has been obscured by the inevitable wounds, duties, and worries of our busy human lives.

As people sit a silent retreat, their minds quiet, their hearts relax, and their faces regain the innocent glow of childhood. Often, when this happens, they come to me in tears, saying, “I feel such overwhelming gratitude just for being alive. So much has been given, is being given to me, all the time.”

When we meditate and quiet the mind, we get a deeper look at the true nature of our life and see that it is interconnected. This uncovers in us a well of gratitude. Can we open the mind’s awareness and investigate what we’re being given right now?

We notice our breath. What in the breath is given to us? We are given the air and the body that breathes. We cannot make air. We cannot build and manage our minutely complex body ourselves. We notice the pressure of the cushion under our seat. We are given its firm support. We notice the touch of clothing on our skin. We see the people who planted, weeded, and harvested the cotton, who wove the cloth, who cut and sewed, packaged and shipped, who drove the trucks, who opened the fitting-room doors, who took our payment. We realize that the life energy of many people covers and warms us in the form of this shirt, this pair of pants.

We are not self-made. We are made of the raw ingredients of sunlight, soil, and water, shaped into the flesh of plants and animals, shaped into our life. Our life is one big gift, given by countless beings. When we truly see this, gratitude naturally arises, as does the question, “How can I repay the many beings who are continually giving to me?” 

Is there a gift we can give to anyone, anywhere, anytime? The greatest gift is the gift of dharma, the gift of relief from suffering. Who would not receive this gift gladly? We give this gift first to ourselves, studying and practicing it, transforming our own suffering into a greater measure of ease and happiness. As we do this, we pass this gift along to whomever we encounter. It could be a smile for the grocery-store checkout lady still reeling from an angry customer’s words, a nutrition bar and a look into the eyes of the homeless man asking for recognition on the corner at the stoplight, a hug for our child distressed by bullying, a refusal to bomb our far-away enemy.

We naturally know what to give. We don’t have to work to produce generosity. We just have to practice deeply. True and accurate generosity is the natural outcome of practice.

Jan Chozen Bays is a pediatrician who specializes in the evaluation of children for abuse and neglect. She’s the author of Mindful Eating.

The Heart of Generosity
By Gina Sharpe

The mental states we encounter when we sit in meditation—difficult emotions, negative thoughts, and even the pains in our bodies—are the consequences of life-long habit patterns and viewpoints that result in dukkha, or suffering.

We know from the second noble truth that the source of dukkha is greed, attachment, and craving. These cause us to hold on to what appears to give us relief from our suffering—things, people, viewpoints, habits. Yet, if these give any relief at all, it is at best temporary.

The heart of generosity—giving, sharing, and caring for others—breaks this cycle of attachment and the resultant suffering. Through generosity, we let go of self-centeredness and our mind/hearts open into loving-kindness, compassion, and tenderness. We experience our interconnectedness—how we rely on the generosity, caring, and hard work of others for our well-being. These realizations are direct antidotes to dukkha. Aligning our actions with them brings us true happiness.

Three aspects of the noble eightfold path help us practice giving: right understanding, the first aspect; right mindfulness, the seventh; and right effort, the sixth.

With right understanding, we know that selfishness and miserliness are negative states of mind. When selfishness asserts itself, we see it, and right mindfulness supports this seeing. Having become mindful of selfishness and attachment as unwholesome states of mind, we practice right effort: we make a balanced effort to abandon clinging and to cultivate the wholesome state of generosity. 

One of the ten daily monastic reflections may be helpful in cultivating the generous heart: “The days and nights are relentlessly passing. How well am I spending my time?”

Imagine a world in which we all hold on tightly, where generosity is not an option or worse, is not even known? What would it be like to live in such a world, where we work only to get and hold on to whatever we can for ourselves, without any thought for the welfare of others? Is that a world in which we’d want to live? Or can we together create a world of kindness and compassion, in which we respond appropriately with generosity?

After retiring from practicing law, Gina Sharpe cofounded New York Insight Meditation Center.


Nothing to Give, No One to Receive It
By Norman Fischer

“May we with all beings realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver, and gift.”

Zen practitioners chant these words before eating a meal. They remind us that the food about to be eaten has not been earned; it’s a gift. But this gift is not to be understood in the usual way. “The emptiness of the three wheels” means that this giving isn’t a beneficent act one performs for another, an act you can take credit for or feel worthy or unworthy of. A Zen practitioner about to eat a meal remembers that giving is life—that everything is giving, everything is given. There are no separate givers, receivers, or gifts. All of life is always giving and receiving at the same time. This is our practice and our joy. So we practice giving—both receiving and giving gifts—in this spirit.

Some gifts we see as gifts (the birthday or holiday gift) and others we usually don’t see as gifts (the gift of sunlight, the gift of breath). The practice of giving extends to all forms of giving.

Traditionally, there are three things to give: material gifts, the gift of dharma, and the gift of freedom. But really there are many more things to give: the gift of listening, the gift of love, the gift of creation, attention, and effort. To make a poem or a painting is to practice giving, as is cooking a meal, cleaning a room, putting a single flower in a vase. In his fascicle “Four Methods of Guidance for Bodhisattvas,” Dogen writes that to launch a boat, build a bridge, and earn a living are acts of giving. To be willing to be born—and to die—is to practice giving.

I usually think of four simple ways to practice giving: giving yourself to yourself (that is, to be generous in your attitude toward yourself); giving materially to others (giving money or other material gifts to those in need and to those not in need); giving fully and without reservation the gift of your presence and respect; and giving yourself completely in your meditation practice.

There are six paramitas or perfections that define the Mahayana path: giving, ethical conduct, energy, patience, meditation, and wisdom. It is no wonder that giving is the first of these. The more you study it, the more it seems that giving is the whole of the Buddha way.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His most recent volume of poetry is The Strugglers.


Feeding Demons
By Tsultrim Allione

There is a story of a rich man who said that he could not practice generosity because he was unable to give anything away. The Buddha’s advice to him was to begin by simply taking a piece of fruit and passing it from one hand to the other. The Buddha told him to notice how it felt to let the fruit go and how it felt to receive it. Using this method, the man began to experience both the joy of giving and the pleasure of receiving. Eventually he became a great benefactor.

Like that rich man, we may find that giving does not arise spontaneously and that we need to train in it. The ego-clinging mind always feels a sense of scarcity, so you might think, “I barely get along with what I have. How can I possibly give anything to anyone else?” There are, however, many ways to practice giving that transcend monetary and material means. You could give something simple like a poem, words of encouragement, or an act of kindness. True generosity brings the giver a feeling of openness, along with the enjoyment in the happiness of others.

Even imagined gifts can be powerful. There is a story about the great Buddhist king Ashoka that illustrates this. The story goes that a poor child was playing by the side of the road when he saw the Buddha begging for alms. The child was moved to make an offering, but—with nothing else to give—he spontaneously collected some pebbles and, visualizing them as vast amounts of gold, placed them in the Buddha’s alms bowl. Due to this act, in his next life the child became the powerful, wealthy King Ashoka and benefited countless beings.

To take the practice of generosity a step further, you can infuse generosity with the view that there is no inherent separate existence in the giver, the gift, or the receiver. This view, known as the threefold emptiness, turns practicing generosity into something beyond simple virtuous action. It helps us not be attached to the outcome of giving, thus setting us free from any expectations.

In chöd, a Tibetan meditation practice developed by the famed eleventh-century yogini Machig Labdrön, generosity is practiced for the purpose of severing ego-clinging. Chöd practitioners deliberately go to frightening places, such as a cemetery at night, and visualize making their body into an offering. Since these places provoke fear and clinging to the body, the offering is a direct confrontation with the ego. Many kinds of guests are invited to this imagined banquet, including personified forms of diseases, fears, and demons. As the guests arrive for the feast, chöd practitioners keep the view of three-fold emptiness and offer their body, which they visualize as nectar that satisfies all desires. The intensity of making the body offering in a frightening place is designed to push the practitioner into a state free from all clinging.

Although we may not be a chöd practitioner who deliberately goes to scary places, we still meet plenty of frightening inner demons, such as depression, anger, and anxiety. When this happens we have the opportunity to feed, not fight, these demons with the nectar of love and compassion. This goes against the grain of ego-clinging and allows the inner demons to transform into allies.

Here’s an idea: choose a day to devote to the practice of generosity. Maybe one Saturday from the time you get up until you go to bed, see how many opportunities you can find to be generous. Start by passing an object from one hand to the other mindfully. You might cook someone breakfast, offer your seat on the subway, make a donation, or spend some time with a child or someone having a hard time. See how many ways you can give in one day. Notice your motivation, how it feels to do it, and the reactions of others. At the end of the day, recall all the ways you were generous. Notice how you feel and what happened as a result of your generosity. ©


Lama Tsultrim Allione is the author of Feeding Your Demons and the founder of Tara Mandala, a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado.

Illustrations for this article are by Tomi Um.

From the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

In Search of the Genuine (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

In Search of the Genuine

Feeling disillusioned with this artificial world is the starting place of the spiritual path, say ANYEN RINPOCHE and ALLISON CHOYING ZANGMO. They offer a Buddhist take on the genuineness we long for. 

Many of us turn toward the spiritual path because of our disillusionment with the world we live in. Some of us have felt disillusioned for as long as we can remember. Even as children, we saw that the world does not match up to what we’ve being told. For others, disillusionment may start to surface as we grow into adulthood. We feel that everyone else is made happy by a hypocritical world that makes us miserable. Why is that? What is wrong with us? We may self-medicate by using drugs, alcohol, sex, or food to escape the reality of our lives. Others just “give it a go,” trying to fit into our families, our workplaces, and our social circle the best that we can. In the process, we ignore our inner experience. We self-medicate with denial.

If our disillusionment becomes too much to bear, we should consider ourselves lucky. In the Buddhist teachings, we say that human life is precious. But life is most precious when we wake up and want to do something about our pervasive feelings of unhappiness. As a result of our disillusionment, we aspire to make a meaningful change in our lives. Often, this manifests as the desire to live in a more genuine way.

One common idea is that being “genuine” means expressing ourselves with sincerity—stripping away all pretenses and being in the world “just as we are.” We begin to strip away the layers of personality we’ve built up like a shell to protect us from painful realities. We make our first step toward genuine living.

Many Westerners have come to associate this quality of living genuinely, openly, and honestly with the Buddhist path. This is one of the most beautiful ways Buddhism has interacted with Western culture. Buddhism is an authentic means of transformation, and when we take the practice seriously we start to notice changes in ourselves, our attitudes, and our habits that we thought were impossible.

The Buddhist path makes us genuine in every way imaginable. However, this raises several important questions. What does it mean to be genuine according to the Buddhist tradition? What does a genuine person look like? How do we actually become more genuine? The wish to become a more genuine human being is one of the main goals of Buddhist practice. However, there are both similarities and differences in the way Western culture understands what it means to be genuine and the way it is understood by the Buddhist tradition.

In Western culture, our wish to be a more genuine person may be associated with openly expressing what is inside of us. We feel that for so long we have been participating in a world that we do not believe in, a world that disappoints us. As a result, we want to start living more honestly right away. We want to find a way to embody our emerging spiritual values and spiritual life, to make our outer life more closely reflect our inner beliefs. We sometimes describe this process as “being true to ourselves.”

Honesty is an important foundation of Western culture and its values. It is something we hold so sacred that we teach our children about it in school and we expect public figures and presidents to uphold it. When Buddhist teachers began to teach Western students, it is quite possible that their first impression of Western culture was of the value we place on honesty. So we have an excellent place to start working with the Buddhist path.

In Western culture, being genuine has to do with changes we make on the outside—we take what is hidden inside of us and express it honestly to establish some kind of authenticity in our lives. This is a good first step. But for a Buddhist practitioner, becoming genuine is much more. It is a complete transformation of mind.

In the Tibetan language, one meaning of the word “genuine” is “free of deception,” which is consistent with the Western understanding. But it also means “perfect purity” and “flawlessness.” Therefore, we say that the truly genuine person is the one who embodies perfectly purity: a realized person.

This is because only realized people are completely free of self-attachment. We ordinary human beings are filled with self-attachment, which causes us to have all kinds of hidden agendas and unconscious motivations. Such hidden agendas never lead to true openness and honesty. For this reason the Buddhist practice of genuineness focuses on cutting through all levels of self-deception and self-attachment, whether they are related to ourselves, others, or the outside world.

Cutting through our hidden agendas is not easily done. However, this is something the Buddhist path specifically trains us to do. According to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, wisdom is realized by practicing what we call “skillful means.” These are techniques to take the aspiration we have to become genuine and bring it to fruition. Traditionally, these skillful means are described as the first five of the transcendental qualities, or paramitas : generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, and meditative concentration. But I would distill all of these into the essential transcendental quality: the paramita of selflessness.

On the Buddhist path, motivation is paramount. Motivation can seem like a small thing, but actually it is everything. After all, it only takes a single match to burn down a forest. Even very small thoughts and actions can be the cause of things that are very great or very destructive. If we cultivate and train in the aspiration to be genuinely free of self-attachment, then our motivation will ensure that our actions are genuine, no matter how it appears.

Cultivating mindfulness is the essential first step to genuine living. When we lack mindfulness, we forget to reflect on and maintain a positive and unselfish motivation. We may start off thinking, “I am going to be myself, honest, open, and genuine,” but when a situation overwhelms us, we go right back to our usual patterns. This happens because our aspiration wasn’t strong enough to begin with. We haven’t trained in it enough to make it a true habit that we can fall back on. Checking in with what is happening within us and becoming more mindful of our own selfish thought patterns help us purify and cultivate a more genuine motivation.

For that reason, we could say that the path of skillful means requires continual training in our aspiration. As long as our conduct is infused with that perfectly pure motivation, we know that our conduct is wholesome. 

Other aspects of the Buddhist path that can support our genuineness are the practices of listening and contemplation. We can listen to, study, and contemplate texts that teach about skillful means. We might study texts that present teachings on how to embody bodhisattva conduct, such as the Way of the Bodhisattva. We can also read the life stories of realized teachers, knowing that these individuals have cut through all traces of self-attachment and are the greatest examples of genuine living we could possibly find. They exemplify how to work for the benefit of others and, ultimately, for peace. 

Another way we can learn how to become more genuine is to become involved in a community and to rely on a spiritual teacher. One of the teacher’s primary responsibilities is teaching students how to embody skillful means. This is done by interaction, by example, and by direct instruction. It happens because of a deep connection that forms between a student and the teacher, which enables the teacher’s very way of being and interacting to influence and permeate the student. In this way, the teacher becomes an authentic example of genuine living—being in this world in a manner that best supports others.

Genuine living is innate and natural. Inside each of us is the potential to cut through self-attachment and express ourselves openly, honestly, and unselfishly. With repeated training in and insight into our motivation, we are able to make real and lasting changes to ourselves and our behavior. When we do this, we have found the genuine wisdom of the Buddhist tradition.

From the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Before He Melts Away (January 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | January 2014

Before He Melts Away

His son has been cancer free for six years now, but for  JAMES HANMER the meaning of Frosty the Snowman has changed forever.

I am standing at the front of the classroom, leaning on the podium as thirty-three high school students stare at me. Some eyes are alive with interest, others were glazed with boredom when they entered the classroom and have not changed. My tattered copy of Don Quixote flops in my left hand. The mad knight has fought windmills, puissant Biscayans, troublesome sheep, and now, with dreamy persistence, searches for the golden helmet of Mambrino. The eyes stare. A hand from the back rises. “Who cares?” asks the young inquisitor. “Why do we need to read this story?”

I pause, because this is the most important question of the whole school year. If I fail this question, the whole year is easily lost. “We tell stories to convince ourselves that our lives have meaning.”

Then there is a knock at the door, and the English department secretary peeks in. “Mr. Hanmer, your wife is on the phone. She needs to speak with you immediately. It’s urgent.”

This is not good. Stepping out of the classroom, I call her and hear the unmistakable tenor of tears and worry in her voice. “Come to the hospital as fast as you can,” she says. “Something is wrong with Avelino.”

Avelino, whom we usually call Nino, is our second son. He is only twenty months old.

Entering the examination room, I see my wife delicately holding our baby boy as a doctor shines a little flashlight into his eyes. After a hushed introduction, I am silent.

The doctor leaves the room, saying he’s going to bring in a colleague. I hug my wife and touch Nino’s cheek with the back of my hand. Two doctors enter, then three. I have a sinking feeling in my chest and a constricting sensation in my throat. There is the smell of hand soap and hospital, the sound of squeaky shoes on pearl-white floors and machines quietly whirring. One of the doctors finally speaks: “He has a tumor.”

Hours later, we leave the hospital, knowing only that our child has retinoblastoma—malignant cancer of the eye. Fear comes in waves; deep sorrow comes in torrents. For weeks my heart is flooded with both. In my classroom I teach that journal writing can be a life-saving practice; late one night I find my journal in my bedside drawer and, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to my little boy, to my family, to me, I put pen to paper:


Nino has cancer. Seeing it written down hurts my stomach. Over the last three weeks of hospital visits and wrenching fears, it has become unreal. Nino has cancer. Now it is real again. I will never again read Nino’s favorite book, Frosty the Snowman, in the same way.

Read the full article in the January 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Illustration by Sydney Smith

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