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Lions Roar : July 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2008 87 among others, His Ho- liness the Dalai Lama, are conversations be- tween scientists and Buddhist monks and scholars about the workings of the mind. Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama is one account of these exchanges. Mingyur Rinpoche’s own book seems in part a result of these dialogues. He skillfully weaves the vocabulary and findings of con- temporary neuroscience with guided instructions in mindfulness, compassion, and resting in the nature of mind. He deftly explains neuronal connections as the biological basis for our most en- trenched mental habits. Yet these karmic patterns can be changed. “In neuroscientific terms, this capacity to replace old neuronal con- nections with new ones is referred to as neuronal plasticity.” There is a clear path in the book pointing to the mind’s inherent flexibility and pliability—in short to our ability to free ourselves from the control of conflicting emotions and develop an attitude of loving- kindness and compassion. Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey begins with immersion in the wisdom traditions of Asia and then expands to include insights from Western physics and neuroscience. The subtitle of his book promises a new synthesis of ancient secrets with the emerging “science of happiness.” Eckhart Tolle’s journey moves in the op- posite direction—from the postmodern, secular West to an in- clusive spiritual vision of old and new truths. As Tolle tells the story in his best-selling first book, The Power of Now, he was a twenty-nine-year-old graduate research assistant at the University of London when a spontaneous spiritual experience arose after a long night of utter despair: “The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my existence.” Later, Tolle will term this a discovery of suffering, using the Buddhist Sanskrit word duhkha, meaning fundamental unease and pervasive dissatisfaction with life itself. But he is equally comfort- able calling it “original sin,” as in the Christian teachings, or “maya,” echoing sayings of the great Indian non-dualist Ramana Maharshi. The dust jacket introduces him as a “contemporary spiritual teach- er who is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition.” Tolle’s transformation was sudden. As he describes it, “I was awakened by the sound of a bird outside the window. I had never heard such a sound before. ... I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just the m Emotions: L i amo line are tw B scholars abou come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.” He says that although he knew that “something profoundly significant had happened,” initially he “didn’t understand it at all.” It was only later, after read- ing spiritual texts such as A Course in Miracles and meeting with Theravadin Buddhist monks in England, that he began to call this transformation awakening. But again, he seems as pleased to note that in Hinduism and Buddhism this is called enlightenment as to note that in the teachings of Jesus it is salvation. Tolle’s newest book, A New Earth, takes its title from the words of a biblical prophet: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Reve- lation 21:1). He interprets the new heaven as a state of consciousness that is emerging not in the West or East alone but globally. Tolle sees his books as catalysts contributing to the arising of a new, less egoic consciousness and “a more enlightened humanity.” Human beings in this new state of being will then make a new earth, transforming our historic propensities for violence, greed, and exploitation into a saner, wiser, and gentler relationship to ourselves and nature. Tolle is careful to distinguish this from a utopian vision of a possible future. Either this flowering of human consciousness is already taking place in us, he emphasizes, or the thought of it is simply that—just another thought. These two books illuminate missing elements, each in the other. This is a key part of the virtue of cross-cultural dialogue and inter- weaving. The Joy of Living’s genuine and insightful appreciation of neuroscience verges at moments very close to what we might call “biologism.” It is as though neuroscience provides us with the hard evidence of absolute truth. This would be an unfortunate solidify- ing of a helpful set of scientific findings, and Mingyur Rinpoche himself eloquently warns us against any such conceptual solidifi- cation as a mental fixation that will only lead to further suffering. Still, there are a number of puzzling statements in the book: “[T]aking the time to gain even a partial understanding of the structure and function of the brain provides a more grounded basis for understanding from a scientific perspective how and why the techniques I learned as a Buddhist actually work.” More ground- ed than what? Modern science “helps to explain why the Buddhist practices work in terms of hard, scientific analysis.” What is the point of view from which Buddhist insights stand in need of such external validation? Isn’t that point of view sometimes called “sci- entific materialism,” and doesn’t thorough Buddhist analysis lead to the dissolution of all such conceptual, compounded solidity? Along similar lines, the book presents the neurotic confusion of samsara and the ethical impulse to help others as based in our human physiology. Our “crazy monkey” mind of deluded self- interest is “essentially a neurologically programmed response to human survival.” The problem here is that biological explana- tions of our current social patterns leave to the side the crucial JULY 78-99.indd 87 JULY 78-99.indd 87 4/25/08 12:05:22 PM 4/25/08 12:05:22 PM