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Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: The Wisdom of No Escape

 I came across The Wisdom of No Escape when someone read from it during a talk. The opening chapter was written with such wisdom and courage that I had to check the book out of the library:

There's a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we're committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we're going to run; we'll never know what's beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." "If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person." Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, "If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage." "If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get on, my job would be just great." And "If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent."

But loving-kindness-maitri-toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already.  (pg. 1)

The book, then is a collection of lectures from a series of talks that Pema Chodron gave. I'm not a Buddhist, never was one, and probably never will be one, though of course as an East Asian, of all the religions I've encountered and studied, Buddhism is still by far the least objectionable, and most admirable in its steadfast refusal to evangelize, declare itself the sole possessor of universal truths, and its practitioners certainly aren't anti-science the way many middle eastern religions are (I'm talking of the obvious big 3 that the Western world obsess over) About the only objection I can raise to Buddhism, is that by allowing big businesses to co-opt those techniques, meditation appears to have been a way for corporate American to teach their employees to handle stress better, so that the corporation can extract more work out of them, or (as is often the case with good things), monetize them, or allow evil bosses to add even more stress to the employees since the employees can now handle stress better.

With those opening words, I was prepared to be disappointed. But I wasn't. The book is full of hilarious anecdotes, and a very human attention to humility. The author relates a story about Dainin Katagiri Roshi:

When he first came to the United States from Japan, he was a young monk in his late twenties. He had been a monk in Japan--where everything was so precise, so clean, and so neat--for a long time. In the U.S., his students were hippies with long unwashed hair and ragged clothes and no shoes. He didn't like them. He couldn't help it--he just couldn't stand those hippies. Their style offended everything in him. He said, "So all day I would give talks about compassion, and at night I would go home and weep and cry because I realized I had no compassion at all. Because I didn't like my students, therefore I had to work much harder to develop my heart." (pg. 8)

The book is short, but a lot of the lessons are essentially about self-compassion. It's about not beating yourself up about your feelings, or even about your past actions. The stories of (presumably famous) Buddhist teachers and the problems they faced and had to overcome, as well as the deliberate practice of their philosophies are great and add humanity in ways that make you realize that these are human beings doing their best to live their lives, but aren't we all? 

A lot of the book is repetitive. After all, it is a collection of lectures and sermons, and in many ways it approaches the same subject from different directions to give the students a deeper understanding of what those various Buddhist principles are. While those principles may never give you a solution for climate change (only scientists and engineers ultimately will solve those problems), they give you a sense that while Western societies led by middle-eastern religions will break down, go to war, and  blame other people for their problems, the Buddhists will still be there, suffering along with everyone else, but never letting it affect who they are or letting the external world take away their humanity. If that doesn't make Buddhism a comparatively admirable religion, I don't know what would.

In any case, the language, the clarity of prose, and the anecdotes make for so much fun reading that I strongly urge you to read them. I'm not a Buddhist and I still enjoyed this book thoroughly. Recommended.

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