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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Becoming Enlightened." A Book Review.

I have two altars where I keep my Buddha statue and other sacred objects. The main one where I meditate is in the front room with a framed picture of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh with prayer beads draped around it. Along with of course a lovely statuette of Buddha. I keep a second but smaller one in the bedroom with a picture of the Dalai Lama and one of Thich Nhat Hanh above on the wall.

Well, whenever I look at these pictures of these two men I think of loving grandfathers who patiently pass on wisdom to the younger generations. I smile looking at their kind and warm faces feeling comfort that they are with us. They are two of the world's grandfathers and we are very lucky to have them in ourlives. I was recently sent two copies of the DL's latest book, "Becoming Enlightened" to review one and to give the other away to one of my readers.

This latest book is a real gem to add to your Buddhist literature because it is a well written introduction to the Buddhist path. That said, however, it has much to offer the long-time practitioner and it did me a lot of good to reread the basics so to speak. It is a very quick read (I read it in 3 days) and it offers contemplation exercises at the end of each chapter, which are summaries of what was covered. I think they will be very useful when I want to meditate upon something said in the chapter without having to reread the entire chapter.

The Dalai Lama begins by saying that we should be open minded about other religions and Buddhist traditions because religion is relative to each individual. And as he mentions, the Buddha did not always teach the most profound teachings to all students. He taught according to the individuals interests and dispositions. So in other words, whatever benefits that person most is best for them. It makes a lot of sense and explains why there are so many religions and sects.

He reminds us that we are in a favorable position to make great progress toward enlightenment with this very human existence. It is a precious state and we must do our best not to waste it upon afflictive, selfish things. He speaks a lot in the book about the benefits and importance of selflessness as it is hard to have hatred, greed and delusion in our hearts if we are acting in an altruistic and selfless manor.

Another teaching that I really responded too was that of how if we realize that much of our suffering is our own fault from past actions that we can accept the pain easier and move past it because as he said, "This is the nature of cyclic existence." I think I'm going to use that phrase as my new mantra because I have experienced its power to help already in the few meditations I've incorporated it within since reading this book.

He also warns against worshiping gods instead of putting all confidence in Buddha saying, "Altruism based on love and compassion is the avenue to all these benefits. This is the beauty of Buddhism. But if you leave your afflictive emotions as they are, then even if you imagine a god of long life to your right, a god of wealth to your left, and a god of medicine in front of you, and you recite a mantra a billion times, still you will find it hard to achieve anything."

He spends a lot of time discussing our relationships and how we should practice compassion toward all beings regardless of if we agree with them or get along with them. All are deserving of compassion--even the most hardened criminals. In specific this quote really put this into perspective and like usual the truth often only requires a few words. "Real compassion does not depend on whether the other person is nice to you."

I was happy that His Holiness added a section on including animals in our compassion and spoke of the horrors of the factory farming of animals for meat. It is curious then, however, why the Dalai Lama still chooses to eat meat. I know his doctors tell him he needs the meat for his health, however, I wonder if he's getting the best and latest advice/information because It is very easy for people to be healthy without eating meat.

Though I am a strong advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism it is not my place to judge anyone who decides to keep eating meat (least of all the Dalai Lama). I am not a militant vegetarian who screams and yells at those who do eat meat because it doesn't do any good and becoming vegetarian must come from a place of sincerity and personal conviction to last--not from being guilted and shamed into it. I do not think that one must be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist but I think it helps in cultivating compassion.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and will keep it as a handy desk reference to the foundations of Buddhist practice. It's a great read for say a weekend get away or a overseas flight. As I alluded to above, some of the best wisdom is said in few words.

As I stated in the top of the post I have a second copy of this book to give away. Due to a lack of funds though I can only open this up to those living in the U.S., Mexico or Canada. Unless you are willing to pay the overseas shipping and if you are then I'll be happy to send it to you. So just leave a short message in the comments saying you'd like your name to be entered into the mix. Or email me:

I'll leave the submission period up for a week, which means have your name submitted by next Thursday and I'll make the selection on Friday. Here's how it will go: I will write each name on a piece of paper, fold it in half, and drop them into a hat. After all names are dropped in the hat I will have a third party (my wife) pick a name out of the hat that I will hold up high so that she can't see the pieces of paper. Good luck!!

~Peace to all beings~

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Tim said...

put my name in the hat, James!

release_in_extremity said...

hey james,
put my name in the hat, too. i will email you my information. i like to keep my blog anonymous.

GZ said...

Well this seems like a fine hat to have your name in. Please consider mine in the hat as well sir.


Eileen said...

Please put my name in the hat James. Thanks for running the contest.

Tara Seaks said...

i would love to be part of this drawing as well. :-)

TMC said...

I'd like to enter the giveaway. Over the years I've given away all my HHDL books to interested folks. It'd be nice to have one in my library.

zen master said...

Sign me up, James and have a wonderful day!

Noonshyne said...

Hummmmm....gambling........Sure, I'm up for that. No bribe, but I enjoy your blog/thanks

Shyne said...

Please add my name to the hat. Thank you for your blog.

clay said...

Please put my name in the hat. I enjoy your blog. Thanks, Clay Koontz

St.John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
St.John said...

I have often wondered myself why the Dalai Lama eats meat, given the precept of non-killing and everything else that I included in my blog, but it's not my place to judge either. Add my name to the hat, I would love to read this book.
In Gassho - _/|\_

anonymous said...

As The Buddha himself pointed out, people have many more serious concerns than eating meat, and when it comes to enlightenment practically everyone who does become fully enlightened, as opposed to those who become a little enlightened, eat meat (more specifically, in the case of members of The Sangha, they cannot pick or choose, and within limits eat what is given to them). Thus, in the end for those who do choose to be vegetarian it is a ‘personal’ choice.

No doubt the DL’s book is a good read, he is a fine person, but it is interesting that love and compassion are related to enlightenment. Correctly, such things are related to moral behavior (sine), one of the foundations of wisdom, rather than the actual wisdom or enlightenment.

The readily accepted popularity of love and compassion as a key to enlightenment is a social phenomenon; ordinary people generally think that such traits should be the core of enlightenment, plus they are much easier to talk and write about than real enlightenment, which is the pure or empty mind.

Interestingly, I asked my own source Ajarns what part love and compassion played in enlightenment, and they said no part whatsoever (other than by expressing love and compassion for your own being by purifying the mind), as enlightenment is based upon letting go, so you must also let go of attachment to love and compassion.

As for having compassion for every being, this is quite a tall order, or easier said than done. While this aspiration may be a core teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, and is probably easy to accept in a Christian culture, in many Buddhist cultures it is not, because the correct teachings are non attachment.

Some cultures would perhaps consider the pure or empty mind as being cold or unfriendly without these social traits, however, love and compassion attain their true expression in the pure mind.

As for enlightenment, it is about letting go and realizing the pure mind.

Ted Bagley said...

And there ya' go...

They call him James Ure said...


I never said that one must become vegetarian to become enlightened or even just being your basic, garden variety Buddhist. In fact, in my post I went to great lengths to say that it is not necessary to be a Buddhist.

And yes I do realize that monks can not pick and choose, which alms to accept and not to accept.

I just simply state how it is helpful in generating compassion, which brings me to my next point.

Perhaps the love and compassion issue is a difference of traditions because in the Mahayana traditions it's pretty important. Such as the Bodhisattva vow.

The Buddha taught the following to his son Rahula (from "Old path white clouds" by Thich Nhat Hahn):

"Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.
Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.
Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success."

Thus compassion is an essential step toward realizing enlightenment. Because if it is essential to overcome anger and enlightened beings don't experience anger then compassion is vital to enlightenment.

Plus, you can express love and compassion without attaching to it. Just as one can have wisdom without attaching to and should.

And what of the Brahmavihara, which speaks of the "Four Sublime States" (Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity? I know that these are taught and accepted in the Theravadan schools.

Also, consider the precepts (moral behavior as you said). I think it is safe to say that compassion is a must to maintain the precepts.

And if all beings must maintain the precepts to realize enlightenment (which I think we can all agree on) then how doesn't enlightenment depend upon compassion?

It is a common teachingthat compassion and wisdom are interconnected and an enlightened being can not have one and not the other. Therefore, compassion is essential to enlightenment.

And finally a question: How can compassion attain its true expression in the pure mind if it isn't actively cultivated and practiced along the way?

Compassion doesn't just show up once you become enlightened(the pure mind as you describe it) as if as a reward for doing everything BUT cultivating compassion along the way.

For example, a master carpenter doesn't gain his skills unless practiced over time. Thus, compassion must be cultivated for it to be present upon the realization of the pure mind/enlightenment.

As for love and compassion only being "social traits"--As opposed to what? Many of the traits of enlightenment such as wisdom and compassion can be parsed as "social traits" but that doesn't make them any less important.

Compassion is intrinsic to Buddha-nature and I just do not see how one can realize that level of compassion without cultivating it here and now.

Ted Bagley said...

Maybe compassion is cultivated until it's realized that it's dependent on what others think, then the thought of cultivating it can be let go of as well? Same with wisdom?
Maybe a Sage is only bound to cause and effect by one who calls him a Sage while not being one himself.
Maybe we have to practice compassion to prove to ourselves there is no compassion to practice? If so then TNH is telling the truth, just not the whole story in order for you to figure that out.
Rahula, just try to practice this and see what you run up against.

They call him James Ure said...


Yes, true. In the end it's all just words and labels. Unfortunately I think they are necessary evils until we realize a greater understanding and state of being.

We need some words to teach the Dharma. Otherwise Buddha wouldn't have said a word. I can see how an enlightened being wouldn't need many words.

Ted Bagley said...

I didn't say it was just words and labels in the end as the meaning is always somewhere else. Humans have no choice but to use them and there's nothing unfortunate about it. The unfortunate part is in accepting a truth as the real story when it's not and killing the speaker's intent. It's only a pointer to our response. The Buddha forces us to learn how to read if we want to know what he's really saying. That "really saying" will come from our own mouth as the one that read it, not his.
In a sense one does have to become a vegetarian to become enlightened because it points out being attached by avoidance of something.
You brought up a lot of great things with your responses, I thinks.
Maybe a Bodhisattva is an imaginary being and doing Metta practice is the next best thing to a magic wand to use to keep ourselves from really doing good and screwing everything up. Something to entertain the idea of ourselves with? (Gadfly Revolution blog site)

They call him James Ure said...


I mean no offense by this but you often confuse me in your comments. It feels as though you are speaking in riddles and non-sequiturs.

I honestly am trying to understand but am having a hard time deciphering a lot of it and often fail (I think) to glean the points you are trying to make.

I honestly am not trying to be confrontational but just confused and I want to be able to understand you better. So we can communicate on the same level.

I apologize if this offends you but I can't respond on topic if I don't understand the intent and meaning behind your comments.

Lori said...


I think you're saying that compassion is illusory, which I believe practicing Buddhists already agree upon. Do we not have to follow some kind of path, however, until this is realized? Isn't that the point of the eightfold path and the precepts? In the end we have to ditch the raft, but we need some kind of raft to start out with, do we not?

We all have different ways of learning and we have to do it conceptually until we can realize enlightenment for ourselves. That's the beauty of this blog, in my opinion. The way I see it, we are sharing concepts with an underlying understanding of what you are pointing out.

anonymous said...

Regarding vegetarianism, from an ethical point of view it is the best path, however it does have its disadvantages. The principal one being energy; if you eat only once per day, as do members of The Sangha, then it is difficult to have enough energy to practice the whole day on just one vegetarian meal. In the beginning stages, following the breath and noting whatever arises in the mind, you don’t use that much energy. However in the later stages, I am told, the practice is all about expending energy; unbelievable amounts of energy. The other disadvantage is that vegetarian food, less protein, slows down the rate at which karma arises, thus the mind is calmer (which practically all vegetarians attach to), and this slows down progress.

As for Metta and the Divine abodes, I know that there are some monks who teach them, but I don’t know anyone who does. Generally, they are considered a Brahman import by the wise and they have no use for them. No doubt they can be useful as aids for beginners, just as the sutras and discipline are used as aids

As for the idea of practicing love and compassion, I don’t disagree that it is a very nice idea, and I like your logic of using a carpenter as an example. However, you have to look closely at what is practicing love and compassion. It is the ignorant mind ruled by greed anger and delusion, and when it is not practicing love and compassion it is practicing ill-will and unfriendliness, the other side of attachment.

Therefore, you can practice whatever goodness you like, read sutras, follow hundreds of rules, but it is not going to make any difference because you still have the dark mind, which makes you primitive and dangerous (not you personally of course, all of us).

The only practice that is truly Buddhist is the development of awareness. Like the Zen drawings, first you see the tracks of the mind, and then you are able to tether it with the rope of mindfulness.

What does awareness show you? It shows you the mess you (we) are in, and in the end enlightened beings express love and compassion because that is all they are capable of, even though they never practiced it (like the nightingales that come to my garden to sing).

anonymous said...

Furthermore, as Spock (Star Trek) was fond of saying, "Logic is only the beginning of knowledge."

They call him James Ure said...


The problem in not practicing vegetarianism is that the first precept seems to conflict with a meat based diet. And as for energy? Is the life of a fellow sentient being worth sacrificing for a temporary boost in energy?

Plus, a vegetarian diet can give a person just as much energy as a meat based diet. Beans for example are very high in protein and give me great energy. As does tofu, cheese, milk and eggs.

However, a vegetarian should eat more than one meal a day to live healthily. So in that sense it is logical for monks to accept other foods.

And also since (as you reminded me) that from the monastics point of view it is difficult because they can not pick and choose which foods to accept or not during the alms round.

This all said, however, we lay people should have no problem maintaining a vegetarian diet.

You said:

The other disadvantage is that vegetarian food, less protein, slows down the rate at which karma arises, thus the mind is calmer (which practically all vegetarians attach to), and this slows down progress.

Can you clarify this more please? I don't understand how a vegetarian diet slows down progress toward reducing karma. I have a hard time believing this but that is probably because my Zen tradition doesn't teach this.

I agree with you on the deities and Divine abodes. Perhaps initially for some they help them make sense of what to do and not do etc. And I agree that later on in one's practice they are more reminders of how to act, etc. than reality.

You said:

However, you have to look closely at what is practicing love and compassion. It is the ignorant mind ruled by greed anger and delusion, and when it is not practicing love and compassion it is practicing ill-will and unfriendliness, the other side of attachment.

True. I agree. However, simply because the mind also practices ill-will and such at other times doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue practicing compassion as well.

At least in my mind. That's my understanding. In fact, I have been taught that practicing compassion reduces the desire for ill-will, hatred, greed and delusion. It's about which seeds (habits) we water.

You said:

Therefore, you can practice whatever goodness you like, read sutras, follow hundreds of rules, but it is not going to make any difference because you still have the dark mind, which makes you primitive and dangerous (not you personally of course, all of us).

I absolutely agree and is why I quoted the Dalai Lama saying the same thing in the book review I did for this post.

You said:

It shows you the mess you (we) are in, and in the end enlightened beings express love and compassion because that is all they are capable of, even though they never practiced it (like the nightingales that come to my garden to sing).

I agree that enlightened beings practice compassion because that is who they are--that is the nature of being an enlightened being.

However, I still disagree that one can become enlightened without practicing compassion in the here and now.

Where does the seed of the compassion that flowers and bears fruits for the enlightened beings come from then? If not from being planted and cultivated through out this life, past lives and future ones.

Ted Bagley said...

I'm saying illusion is half the story and we cant live without it. It's what truth is after all. The only path to transcend it is a direct one through it otherwise it's avoidance. The Eightfold path can be the raft or our own life/body can be the raft. When the Eightfold path is realized as merely on of the other Truths affirming attachment we can give our own life/body a try and find out the water wasn't as deep as we thought it was.
Yes to you're last paragraph and only if we have the guts to do it. When we do then that's the joy of it. We're rubbing stones together. Yes? We all have different ways of learning that we are comfortable with. Learning is really an uncomfortable thing though so we are just patient with our being uncomfortable.
I don't insist that you "get' all my points. You're not supposed to understand me, you're supposed to understand yourself. I'm not trying to confuse you so there is no offense taken. My intent is to hear what you say and repeat what resonates with me in my own words.
Anonymous has some good stuff there!
Check out Buddha of Hollywoods blog.

Ted Bagley said...

Maybe an Enlightened Being is just what a Good Noble wants to become.
"If you meet the Buddha on your path then kill him." The only Good Noble" is a dead Noble.

anonymous said...

The mysterious, illogical (to ignorant minds) part of the practice is that we are not the source of everything, we merely have the choice of direction.

As for where this compassion comes from, then it depends upon the being. Most people get their ideas, their direction, from the world. Those becoming enlightened, those who have gone beyond the world of the five aggregates and made contact with the void, i.e. have experienced path fruition consciousness in the practice, then take everything from the void.

It is not that Fred becomes enlightened, his owner (his mind) has to let Fred die, then he starts to become enlightened.

That's why they have the Zen pictures, talking about it logically is difficult to impossible.

It is good that people practice love and compassion, but it is the ignorant version, and the only way beyond that is through the practice.

As for food and being a vegetarian, the main problem is that it becomes an issue for many people, a distraction from the practice, and often leads to even more selfishness in spending one's life being concerned about diet.

As for vegetarian food slowing the karma process (it doesn't reduce karma, just the speed at which you experience it), this is based upon energy intake. Try fasting for a week, the mind calms down to the point of bhavanga, barely any mental arisings (the same type of consciousness experienced by young children and old people).

Most schools have the all the basic knowledge, just that they tend to focus on particular areas and neglect others. My own teacher taught vipassana to Zen Roshi, who later realized that it is an almost forgotten part of their knowledge base too. I note that even the Tibetan teacher in the following article is teaching basic vipassana, noting and letting go. It doesn't matter what you call it, as long as you practice it.

They call him James Ure said...


I think we're all basically talking about the same thing but are using slightly different words to describe it. Because I agree with much of what you are saying and I think we're starting to talk in circles. lol. :)

anonymous said...

Agreed, on that tack we do end up in the abstract, thus I went back to my source, and here is what I got.

Going back to the original aim of enlightenment and its connection to love and compassion.

My teacher says that love and compassion would make an ideal world, if such things were possible, but unfortunately they are not because this is after all samasara.

He then said that when it comes to the practice of enlightenment only three things have any use, meaning that all else is completely useless.

These three things, qualities, or characteristics are unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self.

Thus, this is all we work with in our practice, and during our development we examine everything closely in the light of these three characteristics.

As we are all different, one of these characteristics will have more meaning to us than the other two, therefore we will later begin enlightenment with the particular characteristic that means more to us. He said that we don't really have to make a choice, this is just how it works out.

Thus, whether you begin enlightenment by Zen, Tibetan, Thai, or any other Buddhism, you only need to focus on unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and non-self.

The real love and compassion comes much later as a quality of puremindedness, once the metamorphosis from an ordinary being is complete. However, you can only begin enlightenment with unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and non-self; you can practice love and compassion until the end of time but it won't make you enlightened.

Ted Bagley said...

And by my wanting to engage with what you say the three things mentioned can't help but show themselves which gives you the forced choice of either to continue or to run away/tell me to leave/get angry, etc. There's always a third choice, though. Nothing exposes ourselves to ourselves better than speaking, but it's useless if someone else doesn't hear it and say it back. If I don't hear any suffering in what you say then there's not much for me to say back, eh? To me the joy is seen in keeping the links of the chain going back and forth no matter what until we disappear in the conversation.
My friend in the blog next door plays Devil's advocate as his practice and mine is to take on the Devil himself. That's why I can sound the way I do sometimes as it's an affect I can't do anything about. I can sound more antagonistic than him because I'm not trying to be and he is. It's a weird contradiction, I know. Keep plugin' along.

They call him James Ure said...


Yes, I practice the three teachings of unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and non-self too. They are powerful teachings and I respect them greatly.

I also practice a lot with the teaching of interdependence. And I agree that there is no ideal world but I think it doesn't have to be either or with compassion despite being in samsara.


I have no problem with those three things as I said to Anonymous. I practice them too and find them to be very wise indeed.

Ted Bagley said...

I think anonymous is hinting that to focus on the three characteristics is to question the notion of inter-dependnece in the first place. His teacher also hinted at there being no ideal world based on love and compassion if the ideal world is dependent on what is not love and compassion which is the idea of needing to be loving and compassionate. The need to be loving and compassionate is the samsara part. Or in linguistics, loving and compassionate are empty signifiers dependent on other signifiers to give them meaning, therefore the ideal is never fulfilled exposing the desire behind using the words. Otherwise there is no-depedency, or no-suffering.
There is an ideal world.

anonymous said...

As for 'interdependence;, I assume you mean 'paticcasamuppada' or dependent orgination as I know it. Anyway, everything certainly is dependent upon something else, everything is cause and effect.

I more or less started out wanting to portray the importance of 'love and compassion' as somewhat culturally influenced, particularly when using the English language. You can see a little of this in the fact that in some cultures people may consider Buddhism to be an extreme in aiming to cut desire, and not going along with slogans like "All you need is Love" and "Love will save the World".

While virtue is good, and love and compassion are certainly good, virtue also happens to be part of the four attachments that make enlightenment impossible.

These four attachments are:

1. Self Illusion

2. Doubt due to attachment to 'personal' views and opinions

3. Attachment to virtue, rites and rituals

4. Sensuality

This doesn't mean that we ignore virtue, or rites and rituals for that matter if we so wish, just that we should not be attached to them and consider them to be powers by which we can change the world, etc.

These four attachments are the primary causes of suffering, thus attachment to virtue is also a source of suffering.

The view of the wise is that as we are already born human beings, then we are expected to be virtuous, loving and compassionate (unless you happen to be a Venezian money lender working on Wall St., perhaps).

Thus, the task at hand is not in trying to perfect love and compassion but to get out of the movie altogether by letting go of our primal instincts.

P.S. Yes, elephants are really something aren't they?

Ted Bagley said...

Ahh, elephants. I've never met one I didn't like.

Paul said...

If its not too late can you enter my name in the hat for that book?

One of the first books I read on Buddhism was from a UK set of books called Teach Yourself. I say UK as I have never seen them in North America (I'm a British Expat btw living in Canada now).SO this was teach Your self Buddhism.

Anyway, to get to the one point in hand in there it had a section on vegetarianism. Now, I am a veggie, a recent convert. First of all I too have no problems with protein and energy at all. I read a great book called Becoming Vegetarian by a lady in Vancouver.
Sorry, ADD! The point I was heading towards was that in Teach Yourself Buddhism it said taht although it is favourable that it is not necessary to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. It justified this by saying that someone else killed the animal (probably) so it is their karma that is being affected. Also that by eating the meat you could be helping the rebirth of the creature as the buddha himself in one incarnation sacrificed himself as food for a starving tiger.
I am not saying I agree with it as I am veggie. I just thought it was an interesting perspective on the whole thing.

Namaste to James and all readers (oh...OK...and all sentient beings too)

They call him James Ure said...


Same here. :)


That is an interesting perspective and probably why eating meat will most likely never disappear.

They call him James Ure said...


Not too late. I'm selecting the person to get the book on Friday. :)

Tom said...

Yo, James,

THANKS for the review, and thanks to your many readers' nice words in this comment stream.

I've requested the book at my library; I am eager to read it.

Ted Bagley said...

It's more fun when people aren't anonymous, though.

Paul said...

Speaking of altars I noticed in the Spring Tricycle they have a section on page 43 about setting up an altar

Peter Horrill said...

I like your blog,some interesting reading, and buddhism itself seems to prompt an open heart and mind, however, for time management sake I may have to "unsubscribe", how do I do that?

Peter H.

They call him James Ure said...


Sorry I didn't get to you until now. It depends on your reader service. I use Google reader and it walks you through it. Sorry I can't be much more help.

They call him James Ure said...


You're welcome. I hope you enjoy the book and I hope all is well with you. :)

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