By B. Alan Wallace
Snow Lion Publications
605 West State Street
PO Box 6483
Ithaca, NY 14851
607 - 273 - 8519
Trade Paper, 288 Pages.
When I picked up this book on the Tibetan “Seven-Point Mind Training”, I have to admit I expected to find an easy to follow step-by-step course in psychological programming. However, what I discovered inside was an odd collection of cryptic statements (from Eastern texts) and apparently disjointed personal anecdotes intended to expand upon or illustrate the statements. Practical instruction was impossible to find at first glance, and I was all set to write my first negative review...
Yet, once I had progressed into the book a few chapters, something very interesting indeed took place! All of this “apparently disjointed” information began to have a cumulative effect. That is to say, the more advanced concepts presented along the way began to reflect back upon concepts merely hinted at earlier in the text. It was then it dawned upon me that I had started reading this book in the mindset of a typical “fast-food culture” American- expecting some kind of workbook for enlightenment, in seven E-Z steps. (I still fall for that every once in a while!) However, what I actually had in my hands was a journey- an exploration- through uncharted philosophical waters. Just as is true with Eastern music, this text had no established “beginning-middle-end” such as Westerners so often demand. The more I read, the more it made sense. And this new sense will make it necessary to go back and read the beginning again- perhaps several times over many years. It’s that kind of book.
The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training might be called a body of philosophy that just happens to have seven chapters. Yet, it does not make a false claim to “mind training”- because it is also a system that has direct application. For instance, a large portion of the training focuses upon learning how to recognize and counteract self-grasping (ultimate bodhichitta) and then to counteract self-centeredness (relative bodhichitta). It is between these two that the serious challenges arise to our usual concepts of happiness and objectivity.
In many ways, the style and intent of Mr. Wallace’s book- as well as the Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training itself- remind me of Robert Anton Wilson’s “Prometheus Rising.” If you have read this or other works by Wilson, Tim Leary (etc), then you will see in “Buddhism with an Attitude” a kind of Eastern version of the lessons learned in the West during the consciousness movements of the mid 20th centuries. If you have not read work from these people, I would suggest that reading them along with “Buddhism with an Attitude” could make a powerful combination.
Yet, Mr. Wallace’s book remains an exploration of Eastern philosophy. One will find- hidden throughout the anecdotes in each chapter- little ideas that seem alien to the typical Western mind. Take for example the concept of “Unborn Awareness”- or the awareness you had in the womb before you had a name or personality, or a language to think with, or an emotion to feel. This is the state of mind the Buddhists consider the natural state.
Or, how about the idea of sitting around and thinking about your own death- for spiritual development?! You bet! The death-bed is where everything un-important ceases to matter, and everything truly precious comes into focus. That’s a mind-set that should be cultivated.
Here’s one to make the materialist recoil in horror: try viewing every day of your life as if it were a dream. Now, how can that possibly be a useful- or even wise- thing to attempt? Because, say the Tibetan masters, no matter how horrible a dream may be, or how awful the people in our dreams treat us, we can wake up the next morning and shrug it all off. “It was just a dream.” Try to feel that way when you’re awake, too.
The author also speaks much about the falsity of “separateness”- or the delusion of objectivity. Nothing that exists possesses its own objective reality separate from the universe around it. More importantly, nothing that we perceive in the universe actually exists- because we can only see a mixture of that thing’s reality and our own perceptions of it. That makes the entire universe as we know it- a delusion.
Westerners (including myself!) have a hard time with this concept. We insist there ARE things in this world that are objective and verifiable. Run as hard as you can into a brick wall, unprotected, and it will hurt. Every time, no matter what you believe. If the reader also feels this way, he will be happy to find that Mr. Wallace does not leave us in the cold on this point! While he insists quite often that there is no true separation between “object and subject” in anything we perceive, he never suggests that there is not, in fact, an objective reality.
The idea that “nothing is real” turns out to be a Western MIS-interpretation of an Eastern concept. Buddhism doesn’t suggest the brick wall isn’t there. It merely asks that you- finally- admit that you don’t truly know one iota about that brick wall. You know everything you’ve heard about it. You know what signals your eyes, ears, fingers, nose and even tongue can send back to your brain from it. You’ve got a really great idea of a “brick wall” built up in your mind- but you can’t prove to yourself or anyone else that this idea you’ve got is accurate. In the end, you’re simply a blind man feeling his way around some lump of matter out there in space. What we know as “brick wall” is just some combination between that lump of matter out there and what I think a brick wall is all about.
Thankfully, this idea has not been lost to the West forever. Mr. Wallace tells us that Quantum Physics and Chaos Theory have caused some excitement among such men as the Dali Lama. Quantum Physics is teaching us that the observer really does affect the observed, while Chaos Theory has finally illustrated that everything really is connected after all. Can you imagine a bunch of American Physicists just hanging out and chatting with the Dali Lama- with all of them understanding each other perfectly? Apparently, it happens all the time, Mr. Wallace has been in attendance to several such conventions, and he takes us there with him in several chapters.
This only scratches the surface of “Buddhism with an Attitude” and all of the shocking and enlightening ideas Alan Wallace shares within its pages. I wouldn’t recommend trying this one out as your first introduction to Eastern practices and concepts. However, this one should definitely be on your list, and be prepared to read it (even study it!) more than once.