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by Dzigar Kongtrul
Review by Elizabeth McCardell, Ph.D. on Jan 18th 2006
At the heart of the Dharma is the aspiration of bodhichitta: compassion for others and their struggles in samsara. We ‘wish,’ so Dzigar Kongtrul puts it, ‘for all those who are unaware of the cause of suffering to be free from suffering’ (p. 103). Here is the motivation of Buddhists, and the central raison d’etre for writing and reading such a book.
Unless It’s Up to You is bought to be read and read again and used as a life tool, there is no point to it at all.
The author of this little gem, Dzigar Kongtrul was born in India to Tibetan refugee parents, recognized as an incarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye at a young age and trained in Buddhist philosophy and meditative practice by the renowned Nyingma spiritual master, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche is steeped in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In 1990, he began a five-year tenure as a professor of Buddhist philosophy at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He founded his own teaching organization and then established a mountain retreat center, Longchen Jigme Samten Ling. The essays in this volume are based on Kongtrul's weekly "personal link" teachings.
The goal of the Buddhist path is enlightenment, but what does this really mean? How do we reconcile the idea of enlightenment with what we see when we look into the mirror: our face tightened by insecurities, doubts, self-centredness, tired old habitual reactive responses, secret or not so secret self love, and all that stuff? Dzigar Kongtrul suggests it is pointless feeling doomed by all these things; rather we should simply let everything extraneous to consciousness itself arise and pass by without judging them or investing them with any power at all. This approach to experience is what the author calls self-reflection.
Self-reflection is a practice, a path, and an attitude. Instead of pushing away what we decide as negative things, or grabbing at what we decide are positive things, big or small, our practice is to be witnessing to whatever it is that arises – emotions, thoughts, habits, belief, etc.
What would our lives be like if we didn’t practice the art and science of self-reflection? Dzigar Kongtrul says that we would ‘be like a train with its wheels on two tracks, trying to go in two different directions at once’, there would be a ‘dichotomy between our spiritual path and the way we live our lives’ in the here and now. Put simply, we would be at odds with ourselves, for the craving of outward things -- desiring, and coveting, as the author puts it – more and more of the world as our personal tangerine (that lovely citrus fruit, the juice of which dribbles down one’s chin) -- leads to pain and suffering, for the desire for more is never satisfied. And so we seek to avoid pain, or dulling it with more extraneous things. The two things of desiring more tangerine and avoiding the pain and suffering can only be transcended by treating the highs and lows, the passing parade of cravings and desires, depressions and sadnesses in the same way, as clouds drifting by in the sky.
Self-reflection is the common thread that runs through all traditions of Buddhist practice. It breathes life into our practice, protecting it from becoming just another enterprise. When we practice self-reflection we take liberation into our own hands and accept the challenge and personal empowerment indicated in Kongtrul's title: it's up to you. But more than this, we seek to simplify our lives through a clarity of intention, we lose the seriousness of the clasp of the ego that works so hard to maintain itself, we laugh more, and we care more. In this way the heart of the Dharma, the bodhichitta, brings the deep compassion for all the world.
So, as the author quotes the Buddha as saying, “Examine my words the way a goldsmith examines gold. Don’t just take my word because it is my word.” ‘Examine everything, not with a sense of obligation or suspicion but with an open mind. If something makes some sense and brings meaning and benefit to your life, apply it creatively. I would be so grateful to have brought something of benefit to your life. This is my only intention.’ (Dzigar Kongtrul, p.128)
Highly recommended for life’s journeymen.
© 2006 Elizabeth McCardell
McCardell, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia.