Book review by Derek Ayre....
by Christopher Hansard
The Tibetan Art of Living is not usually a book I would read, but I picked it up in a New Age shop on a recent visit to Glastonbury. After skimming through one or two pages a few paragraphs intrigued me.
I tend to be a rather sceptical person, but I keep open minded about subjects preferring to EXPERIENCE truth rather than conceptualise it. Before going any further in the review of this book, let me explain…
I see an experience as something that is absolute truth – you know it because you experience it. On the hand, a belief is something that may or may not be true. I see it like this… Books generate beliefs, and truth will either be realised or not realised by what you experience after digesting the content of a book and “looking” for yourself.
What follows are the feelings that were generated in me as a result of reading this book. Some are positive and some are negative. With this genre of book, each reader would get his/her own unique experience. Here’s mine…
Christopher Hansard, author of The Tibetan Art of Living, asks us to treat his work primarily as a book of self-exploration, which inspired me to buy the book, because he is asking his readers to explore and not necessarily form beliefs of what he has written. He says, “when you can understand the roots of your suffering, you can become stronger through the wisdom of knowing how and why your illness has been caused.”
As a psychotherapist, I can agree with this and to a degree, his other claim that our well-being and good health is dependent on the unique way each of us interprets the energies generated by our brains.
He talks about an ancient form of Tibetan culture called “Bôn” than precedes Tibetan Buddhism by around 17,000 years. The founder of Bôn was Tonpa Shenrab Miwo who was born enlightened and helped others cure their suffering. Like Buddha he gave them a formula of living and mindfulness that helped them transcend and transform their suffering into health and well-being.
In the opening chapters Hansard takes his reader into an analysis of how most of us tend to see the world from our past experiences – in other words, how we are living in the past. We tend to re-act (i.e. act again) to situations the way we have been conditioned to react and we rarely respond spontaneously, even when we think we do.
Illness is a matter of karma he claims – I can agree with that to a degree, but tend to think, what about the karma of a new-born baby who arrives in the world with a terminal disease through no fault of his/her own? A mystic might say that it is his karma from a previous life. But that is asking for a big leap of faith from me, since most of us do not have memories of previous lives and are being asked to just accept it as if it were gospel truth. So here the book poses a question, but I like being presented with such questions, to which as yet (for me), there are no apparent answers.
So what we need to do is to learn to live in the present moment, letting go of the anticipation of “what if this/that happens…” and the regrets of “if only I had done this/that…” This Hansard says, it the essence of Tibetan Spiritual Teaching. And the potential to live in this way resides in all of us. We need to learn to allow every experience to come to us without judging it, simply accept what is.
This may cause some confusion in some. So… If a person finds he has a terrible illness, does it mean do nothing, and just die of it? No, I don’t think it means this at all, because ignoring it, is not accepting it. That is not doing nothing – it is doing something, namely “ignoring it”. If one is to respond (take responsibility) to such an illness, he/she would take off to his doctor or specialist, fully accepting of what’s going on in his/her body. But many of us do not do the “fully accepting” part. We divert our attention away from the problem and hope that medical science can save us. Still, I digress.
Coming to the second chapter, the author claims that we are born without a soul. This is something he is asking his reader to accept as true and I believe he believes it himself. To me I would prefer statements such as this not to be made. For a start they contradict other “gurus” of enlightenment who claims that the soul of a new-born baby is absolutely pure, and then slowly, as life conditions him/her, that purity is lost. Babies have no souls? That they have to create one? It can’t be proved or disproved.
He goes on to explain how he created his soul with a teacher in New Zealand and his description reminded me of someone who has taken an hallucinogenic drug. I find this sort of thing very difficult to accept. Not that I am saying he is wrong, but that I cannot accept something to be true unless I experience it.
In Zen practice this sort of imagery is called makyo – hallucination brought about by intense zazen (meditation), that is nothing more than the ego attempting to thwart a practitioner from realising true enlightenment. I have experienced makyo on several occasions and I do not feel that it was anything to do with creating a soul. I do not know whether I have a soul or not. If I did pursue my soul, according to Zen, it would be something else I would become attached to, and true spiritual enlightenment involves the release and freedom from all attachment.
So I must ask myself, if this the absolute truth, or an embellishment to make the book sound more interesting? Well I have got to admit, it does make interesting reading.
Next the author goes on to the subject of food and diet, with some practical advice about the effects of dieting and the diet obsession of the modern age. And then there is some interesting things about work and career and how it can revitalise you rather than wear you out. And the benefits of sharing, giving and taking that really reiterate what both Buddha and Jesus taught.
The book then goes on to outline the benefits of meditation and gives exercises to enhance the five senses using meditation and visualisation. Working through the book, I have used some of the meditation and found the results to be quite relaxing and revealing, and whilst I am more inclined to use Japanese zazen to still the mind, the exercises the author outlines can only do good and are much easier than the strict Zen practice I use. Visualisation of colour and chanting sound is used.
Karma is life, life is karma – without it we learn nothing. Once we have learned that karma is constant, is the law of cause and effect, and is present in all life, we can then begin the task of transcending it. All this is very much in most Zen and other spiritual books, but the way the author explains it in very easy language, would be of interest to a person just starting out on the task of questioning the meaning of life.
Creating good karma begins with observing our automatic and negative response mechanisms in daily life and changing them into deeds of kindness and compassion that will naturally occur when the essence of our Being can shine through our conditioning.
A whole chapter is devoted to inspiring the reader to become aware of what karma he/she is creating using case histories of some of the author’s students. Through self -knowledge, a single thought can change your life forever, he claims. He is not talking about over-optimistic thinking here because for to become overly-optimistic is not an energy that is unrefined and as a therapist, I can fully agree with that.
Wisdom is available to everyone, if we would but connect to it. Its underlying essence is force or energy that holds the spiritual and material world together. After reading this, I had to think a little but then it occurred to me that it is more than likely true. I’ve been doing zazen now for around 25 years, and there is a wisdom that has been produced that has seen me through some of the worst times of my life.
During the bad times when I experienced multiple bereavements of my parents, brother-in-law, uncle all within a period of two years, a profound experience of the impermanence of life came into my consciousness and I experienced that that was the way of things and I felt a transcendence of my grief that words cannot explain. The intellect cannot provide that sort of wisdom. What became very apparent was that my search for happiness was preventing me from getting it - that what I thought was happiness, wasn’t true happiness.
Hansard states that Tibetan Bôn followers all believe that life has meaning that empower our wisdom through eight mental building blocks – four negative (loss, shame, guilt and suffering) and four positive (achievement, fame, approval and happiness) and in agreement with the Zen tradition that I follow, the negative cannot exist without the positive and are of equal value to us regardless of what we may feel about them. What comes next are analogies and anecdotes that I found quite pleasurable and inspiring to read.
He then talks about living more with the mind focused in the here and now, and how to free oneself from anticipation, regret and anxiety, by outlining a series of meditation exercises that can be used for aspects of one’s life such as the emotions, intellect, health, adaptability, friendship, morality, honesty and karma.
Hansard states, that according to Bôn, our emotions are the origin of our physical health. What this statement does is to make one think, but it would not be true for the reader unless he/she experiences it for him/herself – would not be true unless the link was made and consciously recognised.
The books continues focusing on the subject of the cyclical nature of our mind and body with advice on how to tune into the energies that flow through the body, harmonise with them and remove any blocks that are found. Apparently there are ten painful extremes that we all have to go through in some part of our lives and meditation and advice is given to assist us through these periods.
Something referred to as the Three Humours is touched upon. These are terms for personality types and how they need to be in balance to sustain health and well-being, and the author discusses ways of rectifying any imbalance that may occur. The Three humours are named as wind, bile and phlegm and put me in mind of a sort of Feng Shui for the mind and body as too much of one Humour would cause in an imbalance in another and would need to be addressed.
And so the book goes on to many other subjects all with the basis that, according to Tibetan medicine, day-to-day life is a psychosomatic experience, and as our psychological nature interacts with the world about us, we create good or bad health.
Personally, I found the book to be an excellent read, some things I agreed with, some things I did not. Although I read it from cover to cover, I wouldn’t regard it as a book to read in this way, but one to refer to from time to time, using either the chapter contents at the front or for more specific information, the index at the back.
I think what needs to be considered when reading these sort of books is that the reader is reading about the author’s experience and not his/her own. Even though what is written may be true, to the reader unless he/she can totally identify with it, it will be conceptual information and not experiential information (experience). I am not saying that these sort of books have no value, on the contrary, this one in particular can be of tremendous value if used in the correct context and that is as an inspiration that encourages the reader to discover for him/herself absolute truth.
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