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Living the Compassionate Life

The Dalai Lama explains how the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion lead inevitably to feelings of self-confidence and kindness.

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Severing the Roots of Our Discontent – The Buddhist Way

By B. Alan Wallace

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You don’t have to be perfect to create positive change. Jessica Little reviews eight inspiring new books.

JESSICA LITTLE 31 JANUARY 2024

In Becoming Gandhi: My Experiment Living the Mahatma’s 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times (Sounds True), author Perry Garfinkel sets out to live like Gandhi for three years. Garfinkel, a freelance journalist, worldwide traveler, and self-proclaimed “bon vivant,” attempts to model his life on the principles of truth, nonviolence, vegetarianism, simplicity, faith, and celibacy. In this funny and poignant personal story, Garfinkel shows that Gandhi made a difference in the world, despite his flaws, and so can we. Garfinkel also wants to know how much has changed since Gandhi’s death in the countries where he worked. He travels to India and walks the same route that Gandhi walked during the famous Salt March, a nonviolent protest against the British colonizers’ tax on salt. He goes to London where Gandhi studied law and was a member of the Vegetarian Society. He also visits South Africa, where Gandhi fought with mixed success against segregation and apartheid.

Author Sarah Anderson will never forget her visit to Antarctica. To get a closer look at the icebergs, the passengers disembarked from the ship and approached in rubber dinghies. All the motors were turned off—they were simply drifting—and it unexpectedly began to snow. The silence was awesome. The Lost Art of Silence: Reconnecting to the Power and Beauty of Quiet (Shambhala Publications) celebrates the capacity of silence to bring us peace and to inspire us. Anderson explores silence in nature, including the muffling effects of snow and fog. She addresses religious silence, writing about hermitages and meditation, as well as silence in the arts—even the silence in music. Near the end of the book, Anderson looks at the darker side of silence, touching on the eerie quiet after a battle in wartime and the use of solitary confinement in prison.

Rejection, loneliness, jealousy, and other challenges are part of the human condition. When Things Don’t Go Your Way: Zen Wisdom for Difficult Times (Penguin Life) provides comfort and guidance when the going gets rough. The best-selling author Haemin Sunim is a Korean Zen Buddhist teacher and founder of Dharma Illumination Zen Center in Seoul. Saying “I can’t” is often seen as a sign of weakness, but Haemin Sunim identifies contexts wherein it’s the best and bravest thing to do. We often search for grand feelings of joy derived from outstanding experiences, but Haemin Sunim urges us to find happiness in our daily lives. His latest book draws on Buddhist philosophy and his own experience. An easy read, the book includes essays and advice as well as short adages—stanzas that express either “a-ha” moments or “ouch” experiences. 

Chade-Meng Tan is a former software engineer who was employee 107 at Google, as well as the founder of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Now, he has teamed up with Soryu Forall, an American Buddhist abbot, to pen Buddhism for All: The Joyful Path to Enlightenment (Buddhism.net Publishing). Delving deeply into early Buddhist texts, this book serves as a general guide to Buddhism, covering karma, the four noble truths, and other essential teachings. It’s written with a whimsical sense of humor and even incorporates cute cartoon drawings. The authors show the ways in which Buddhism is joyful, secular, scientific, and inclusive. They assert that it’s possible to be a Buddhist Christian, or a secular Buddhist scientist, and because there are such a variety of approaches to Buddhist doctrine, everyone is bound to find something that suits his or her life and value system. 

Peter Coyote is a powerhouse. While perhaps best-known for narrating Ken Burns’s documentaries, he’s also a writer, actor, activist, and Zen priest. Coyote generously provided dharma talks over Facebook during the Covid lockdown, and Zen in the Vernacular: Things as It Is is based on those talks. Coyote, who grew up on Zen in the fifties and sixties with Gary Snyder as an important influence, aims to take the Japanese “gift-wrapping” off Zen and create a slimmed-down, secular version of it that Americans can easily digest. Social justice, climate change, and race in America are approached with a Buddhist lens. Coyote convincingly shows the connection between Buddhism and social activism. In fact, his whole life is testimony to this connection.

The subtitle, “Things as It Is,” was a favorite expression of the late Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi. It was derived from the Chinese expression “the ten thousand things,” referring to the world’s infinite forms, which fuse with the truth of a single, unbroken, and interdependent universe.

What does it mean to lead an ethical life? The Buddhist and the Ethicist: Conversations on Effective Altruism, Engaged Buddhism, and How to Build a Better World (Shambhala Publications) explores this question through a series of dialogues between Peter Singer, a preeminent philosopher and professor of bioethics, and Venerable Shih Chao-Hwei, a Taiwanese Buddhist monastic and social activist who was a recipient of the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award. The two discuss sexuality, gender politics, the death penalty, animal welfare, and more. The probing questions they explore include: How does one become a good person? Is it all right to commit harm for the sake of the greater good? And when does a fetus begin to feel pain and what actions must we take in consequence? This book models how to have a respectful conversation when moral viewpoints differ, a skill much needed in today’s world. 

After the success of A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, monk and meditation teacher Gelong Thubten wants to give us a map for navigating moments that are less happy. In Handbook for Hard Times: A Monk’s Guide to Fearless Living (Yellow Kite), he asserts that the way out of suffering is through it. We cannot avoid suffering, and trying to hide from it just makes it worse. Personal anecdotes from the author’s life bring the point home. He talks about partying when he was in his twenties, which he says was his attempt to run away from deep suffering. And he explains that his misguided attempt to avoid burnout led to a deep depression. The decision to spend a year at Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Scotland was his path out of this bad place. Gelong Thubten discusses the roles of compassion, courage, acceptance, and forgiveness in healing suffering. Each chapter is followed by a guided meditation to help the reader lean into their pain and work through it.

A Zen Life of Bodhisattvas (Sumeru Press) by Rafe Martin is the companion volume to A Zen Life of Buddha, which explored the centrality of the Buddha’s legendary life to the Zen tradition. Martin’s new book looks at bodhisattvas and their role in Zen. Koans about Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, and Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion, among others, are studied. Martin then examines the Buddha himself as a bodhisattva, employing the Jakata tales, which are stories the Buddha told about his previous lives. The last section of the book is devoted to the study of earthly and imperfect bodhisattvas, with a subsection devoted to the author’s teacher and another focused on Zen and failure. Finally, there’s a discussion of Zen and creativity.

This article is from the March 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.