Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pema Chodon's The Places that Scare You

Based on my own observation, my last book review had resulted in many books of "Rich Brother, Rich Sister" being sold off the shelves of MPH, Borders and Popular Book Stores. Many stores are now out-of-stock. So, I am glad to be able to help a nun raise some needed funds for her cancer treatment. Here's another review:

Today I read a book by Pema Chodron, entitled "The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times". It’s a book published by Shambala Publications. In case you do not know, Venerable Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher in the renowned Chogyam Trungpa lineage (the Trungpa tulkus are traditionally Kagyu but he also had many Nyingma teachers and taught many Nyingma teachings too. As such, he is considered by many as both a Kagyu and Nyingma master. Pema Chodron followed his style of combining Kagyu and Nyingma). By ‘places that scare you”, she did not mean a haunted house or cemetery. Indeed, these usually scary places often pale in comparison to our own ‘haunted’ mind. Our ‘haunted’ mind generates so much emotional instability, fear and grief on a daily basis that it does many times seem we would go deep into the abyss of depression and madness. That's certainly more frightening than seeing ghosts. As a result of these, we become afraid of suffering and go around building ‘protective’ walls around ourselves in the hope of shielding from these emotional topsy-turvy. As Venerable Pema Chodron said, we fortified it further with anger, jealousy, pride, etc. If we are Buddhists, we use (or misuse?) the Buddhadharma to shield ourselves further by justifying our own insecurity. In the process, we develop a kind of Buddhist ego that we do not see. For instance, we become blind to our selfish conduct within our own dharma centers. We compete with our own dharma brothers and sisters to see who has more guru devotion, or who donates more money this month, or who comes to pujas more often, etc. Sometimes we think that practicing dharma, everything will be okay. But the fact is nothing in life is certain. As Ven. Pema Chodron said Buddhist teachings do not promise happy endings. I can almost hear my readers now re-acting to this with surprise, "They do not?". After chanting hundreds, maybe thousands of mantras or sutras, you still find that you are still suffering from cancer. The tumour has still not gone away. After doing many mandala offerings and other pujas, Arya Jambala still did not give us that extra “dollars” that we need. You still need to wake up the next day and face the uncertainly of your boss’ emotional ups and downs despite having prayed to your Guru the previous night. All these are examples of how we are always looking for something expected, comfortable, predictable and safe, but the sad truth is that, things are just the opposite.

When things do not go as planned, we agonise and retreat further into insecurity. Sometimes we gloss over the insecurity and fear by doing even more similar actions. And the cycle continues, otherwise we become mentally stressed and go on the verge of insanity. On the surface of it, these examples of actions done are not necessarily bad, but it does seem sometimes that the more we practice, the more neurotic we become. Ven. Pema Chodron calls this “Heightened Neurosis”. She said that all those pictures of lamas with perpetual smiles and going about their lives with seeming easiness are those that have ‘exploded’ their neurotic behaviours. They have found the courage to face the openness or spaciousness of their environment and of their own mind. So, until then it is a fallacy to think that practicing Buddhism will immediately quell the storms of our life. Indeed, she suggested us to hold to nothing, stand on nothing, and literarily feel the ‘fall’ in a state of ‘groundlessness’. It is not 'doing nothing', rather it is an active state of true 'letting go'. She exhorted her readers to be courageous and feel our own fears and other neurotic behaviours and see into its openness/ spaciousness. She said that’s how we ‘abide in prajna paramita’. I think the below story of the woman in the Middle East describes the condition of how to abide in this state. It is only by not grasping to anything that our mind becomes truly free and then gives wisdom a chance to arise. But it's easier said than actually doing it, right? If this groundless method is difficult, try other less mind boggling methods such as practising loving-kindness, compassion, tonglen, four limitless qualities, etc.

While some of the prescriptions in this book may seem traditional in how to deal with our fears and daily emotions, Ven. Pema Chodron presents it in a fresh way by relating real stories and anecdotes to give it a powerful punch to anyone who picks up the book and reads it. At the end of the book, she appends some useful guides, including short, single sentence advices such as, not to stand in an arrow’s way, and other ageless advice but presented in a new-age way. It definitely is more than a book on how to deal with our emotional fears/insecurity but an astounding guide on how to reach out to our originally clear, bright and spacious mind in a daily setting. I find this book an indispensable 'mirror' where we are forced to look into the real nature of our emotions and how to turn these into genuine every-second-practice-moments. For those of us who hardly have time to meditate or have short limited formal practice sessions, these moment-to-moment Buddhist practice methods suggested in this book are more useful and often yield better results than formal sessions. The end result of this book, the way I see it, is how to be a real bodhisattva despite all the negative conditions in samsara.


I'll end this with a story extracted from the book, where she illustrated what is bodhicitta, the enlightened mind: -

"A young woman wrote to me about finding herself in a small town in the Middle East surrounded by people jeering, yelling and threatening to throw stones at her and her friends because they were Americans. Of course, they were terrified, and what happened to her is interesting. Suddenly she identified with every person throughout history who had ever been scorned and hated. She understood what it was like to be despised for any reason: ethnic group, racial background, sexual preference, gender. Something cracked wide open and she stood in the shoes of millions of oppressed people and saw with a new perspective. She even understood her shared humanity with those who hated her. This sense of deep connection, of belonging to the same family, is bodhicitta."

Hence, if you are confused, stressed out, or just thinking of getting a useful Buddhist book you can relate to everyday, this is it!

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