Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun and author of five books, including the bestselling When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You. Whether she is explaining loving kindness and the tonglen meditation practice or dealing with the messy parts of ourselves that give us so much trouble, Chödrön speaks directly to the human condition. Her relaxed teaching style, evident in both her writing and her audio retreats, relies on colorful personal anecdotes and illustrations from her Tibetan teachers.
In this ambitious and profound new work, she hits high stride creating a wide-ranging, accessible, and soul-stirring commentary on the classic Buddhist text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, written by the eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva. Chödrön calls it "the essential guidebook for fledgling bodhisattvas, those spiritual warriors who long to alleviate suffering, their own and that of others." It contains Shantideva's instructions to himself about compassion and the cultivation of non-dual wisdom.
Now more than ever, we need people who are willing to set aside the "me-first" thinking that is the source of so much suffering, alienation, violence, and separation. Chödrön gives abundant examples of people who have moved beyond a preoccupation with their own comfort and safety in order to help others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a spiritual warrior whose nonviolent civil rights campaign aimed to heal both the black and the white communities in America. Instead of seeking revenge for inequities, King sought to bring peace to the hearts of his enemies.
Chödrön shares an account of a Tibetan monk who wept when he remembered how the Chinese had tortured him in prison. His listeners assumed he was remembering his personal trauma, but he was actually crying for the Chinese who, as a result of their cruelty, would reap such intense suffering in the future. This same kind of empathetic understanding is evident in the actions of one of Chödrön's Buddhist friends who is in prison. One day he was harassed by a guard but did not retaliate. The other prisoners saw this and asked how he kept his cool. He explained that if he made the guard madder, the man might go home and beat his children.
How can we engender such noble and touching empathy, compassion, and openheartedness? Shantideva illuminates the path through chapters on freeing ourselves from the self-absorption that comes from emotional reactivity. Chödrön's comments on patience, enthusiasm, meditation, and emptiness are filled with practical tips and helpful insights. For example, she recommends rejoicing in the good fortune of others especially those we dislike instead of succumbing to envy or resentment. She advises that we direct our attention to people in cars, or individuals on cell phones, and wish them all to be happy and well. When we have insomnia, a headache, or a physical emergency, we can let it become an occasion for empathy with all others who share our situation.
In one of our favorite passages in The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva writes: "Do not, acting inconsiderately, / Move furniture and chairs so noisily around, / Likewise do not open doors with violence. / Take pleasure in the practice of humility." Being a bodhisattva even requires etiquette towards inanimate objects.
If you want to gain a fresh perspective on what brings both joy and misery to this world, look no further. This book offers so many spiritual practices that you could spend a year trying them out in everyday encounters with difficult people, your fears, and all those petty irritations that accompany trying to have everything your own way.