Years ago, the prolific Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, author of Inner Revolution and Infinite Life, gave a retreat on what he calls the distillation of the path to enlightenment. In this expansion of that course, based on a once-secret seventeenth century Tibetan text, the Fourth Panchen Lama's Mentor Devotion, Thurman challenges us to "cultivate the sensitivity and appreciation to love more fully, feel compassion more intensely, and become a fountain of cheerfulness for all you meet and know." This gifted Western teacher lays out the wisdom of these ancient teachings in six chapters: Grounding Your Meditation; The Transcendent Attitude, Compassion for Yourself, and Taking a Break; The Spirit of Enlightenment; Becoming the Engine of Happiness For All; Liberation Through Understanding; and Empowerment from the Subtle Realms. Tibetans see Buddhism as a "wish-fulfilling tree" that offers the bounties of bliss and enlightenment to all who surrender to its teachings.
We gain insight into the nature of reality and the meaning of our lives and the lives of others through the following propositions: "one, the preciousness of human life endowed with liberty and opportunity; two, the immediacy of death and the spontaneity and intensity of the moment; three, the inexorable, causal interconnectedness of our infinite past and future with our present evolutionary involvement, and four, the unsatisfactory quality of all egocentric states of existence, even the most seemingly vast and glorious and expanded." Through meditation and mind reform, we open our hearts to compassion, which is at the center of a spiritual life. This universal love for all beings is possible when we replace the project of self-preoccupation with a preoccupation with others.
Thurman sheds light on emptiness, the art of selflessness, rebuilding the world of wisdom, and embodying the spirit of enlightenment. To give but just one example of his ability to spin off epiphanies, here is an observation on the role of ancestors in the Tibetan tradition:
"It surprised me to discover that there are no dead people. I came to understand that Tibetans, the more modern ones particularly, have almost no interest in ancestors. . . . They care for spiritual ancestors such as Buddha, Marpa, Milarepa, but they don't care about blood ancestors, because the sense of there being no dead people is embedded in the culture. As told in The Book of The Dead, they know that the minute someone dies, he is no longer your uncle, aunt, or grandpa, but he immediately becomes a new being, who goes on into a bunch of new experiences. The people they meet in the street could well be their grandpas and grandmas, so they diffuse out over all beings that sense of relationship, kinship, and familiarity. So if I wanted to be nice to my ancestor, I'd be nice to you, you see. This attitude is a wonderful cultural achievement of the Tibetans, a key to transcending racism."