Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of Tenzin Norbu's "Ocean of Compassion"

A Review of Tenzin Norbu's "Ocean of Compassion"
Tim Gannon
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

The ocean is complex and so is the Ocean of Compassion. It is complex because the simple parts go together in a surprising way. Ocean of Compassion breaks into three interrelated parts. The Introduction is extensive, and it itself falls into three parts. The second is the poetic expression of progression in the virtues to reach the Bodhisattva state. The final part continues in poetic style to present how the foolishness of philosophy since Kant is overcome by love.

The whole book, but especially the chapters on progression in virtue, is intended to appeal to individuals of every religious and spiritual persuasion. It mostly succeeds at this. The traditional Eastern references to rebirth and reincarnation are not essential to spiritual progress and can be ignored by those who do not believe in reincarnation. The progress in virtues is the key to a good and happy life and serves all who aspire to it. This progression also leads to the Bodhisattva state–the state that desires to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

The introduction previews the whole project. Tenzin Norbu lays out the origin and goal of the book. The poetry rose from his need for images that will inspire him on the spiritual path and the book is to help all others who wish to attain enlightenment and end the separation between the perceived small self and the ground of all being. He points out the similarity of the path of virtue between all religious traditions.

Three items in the introduction are noteworthy. Tenzin mentions analytic meditation and placement meditation as the two main types of meditation to utilize with the passages. His treatment of these two meditations is sketchy in the introduction but in his blog talk radio presentations (http://www.blogtalkradio. com/the-life-of universal-loving), he clarifies each type of meditation and does guided meditations on each. A passage from Ocean of Compassion is used for each guided meditation. Also, Tenzin frequently has guest musicians on each show that are on various spiritual paths. The congruence of their spiritual experience of the virtues and the ground of being reinforces Tenzin’s insight into the unity of spiritual truths.

These are interesting and entertaining interviews.

The third item in the introduction is more of interest to philosophers, but the presentation is useful to anyone who has puzzled over reconciliation between relative and absolute truth. Many people float in a frustrating morass of relativism. There is a yearning for absolute truth. Tenzin’s approach is a useful reconciliation of the concern that everything is changing and the desire for an absolute.

The poetic chapters on the virtues and progression in the virtues are very practical. They bring the truths of Shanti Deva’s (8th century CE) Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life into the 21st-century Western mind. As humans become what they think, these verses are worthy of memorization and meditation. They progress from the desire to become a Bodhisattva to arrival at the state of Bodhisattva equanimity.

These passages are also well adapted to passage meditation, a form of meditation made popular in the United States by Eknath Easwaran, a meditation teacher who moved from India to the United States in 1959 and taught the first accredited course on meditation at UC Berkeley.

Passage meditation exists in many religious traditions and Sri Easwaran’s followers keep it alive on line at Passage meditation is a practice of sitting quietly with the eyes closed while reciting a passage of spiritual import as slowly as possible while keeping the flow of the passage intelligible. It develops great concentration.

The entire poetic text of the Ocean of Compassion is well suited to this type of meditation.

Also the progression in virtue in the chapters is natural. Moving through the chapters, one first raises Bodhichitta. Pema Chodron is very delightful as she begins each dharma talk asking the student to first raise Bodhichitta in preparation to receive teaching. Then one raises effort, the desire to walk the path. Here again Pema has a pithy injunction that the desire to walk the path is an important step on the path. As desire and joyful effort are raised, one is prepared to the openness of heart, generosity toward oneself and others. With heart opening comes patience. In this context patience is the critical virtue that overcomes anger and anxiety. As this time in the world is extremely anxious and angry, this virtue is the key first to our own peace and the peace of all around us. It is a virtue that continues the growth of Love in us. Love is the desire for the good of the other as the other. It is also the desire to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

Moral discipline is a frightening virtue and a frightening idea. Patience moves the spiritual aspirant to undertake it. One usually thinks of discipline as something imposed from without. This is a virtue imposed from within. Discipline implies pain. One is prepared for the internal pain of moral discipline by the pain endured by the practice of patience. It is not easy to turn the other cheek. Remaining patient while enduring anger and anxiety prepares the self to embrace moral discipline. It prepares us to grow in Love. As patience is a response to acts, moral discipline is a response to, and guarding of, thoughts.

Buddhism has the best understanding of how the mind works. It has identified all the tricks of the mind. This section on moral discipline goes through the trick set in three manifestations. Each phase of mental treachery manifests as pain or suffering. Each suffering is a hell. Reflections on the hells created in the mind are motivation to heal the mind. The hells of the mind are Jungian. The subconscious creates and contains every horror. Each horror manifest in life. The poetic images of hell are motivation to seek remedy. The images are the stuff of “Fire and Brimstone” sermons. The poetry suggests a skillful response to each suffering to experience peace. Perfection of moral discipline leads to the virtue of concentration.

Concentration is the ability to hold the mind on one thing. This is very difficult. (Except if you are watching British TV drama.) Practice of both analytic and placement meditation improve concentration. Also memorization and recitation of the passages improves concentration. These skillful means prepare the mind to see wisdom, the ultimate virtue. One who dwells in wisdom is a bodhisattva. The ultimate wisdom is love, a dwelling in the ocean of compassion.

Many statements in each chapter inspire the careful reader or daily reciter to seek more information. For example, when practicing concentration, one seeks to develop nine altitudes of mental repose. Careful study is needed to determine what these altitudes are, and how to place the mind to arrive at “Placement in equipoise.” Progress on the path brings up a subject to study within in both placement and analytic meditation and without by scholarly investigation.

There are many opportunities for study and reflection in these chapters. Perfection in wisdom is clarity of seeing. The reflection and meditation stated in the previous paragraph is required in every line to see and experience truth in the mind and in life. Wisdom and the chapter on wisdom are very challenging. The transition from statements about the mind and the outside world to the Ella-Guardian story is abrupt.

It is an amusing story that continues mental events and words and the world in another genre. The statements and dialogue in the story ask for the same serious consideration as the earlier poetry. The story raises the question, “What is going on here?” The Ella-Guardian story is an example of philosophical silly talk about truth, persons, and life. It’s amusing to imagine Immanuel Kant reincarnated as a disoriented young woman. Unfortunately, despite the disorientation and other humorous events, Ella is committed to the Kantian view.

There just are noumenal and phenomenal persons. The world views of Annette Baier and Richard Rorty are introduced. They both maintain that only relative or conventional/contextual truth exists. Universal absolute truth is a wishful figment. Persons are only relative contexts. The Guardian argues poetically that there are two truths, one relative the other absolute. The argument is interesting. It gives a useful context for recognizing that absolute truth is possible and what it looks like. Ella experiences absolute truth in the compassionate love of the mother.

Life is complicated and lived one simple moment at a time. This is Tenzin Norbu putting life together. He served as a United States Air Force Officer (Navigator) and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the USAF Academy at Colorado Springs. After his retirement from the Air Force he continued to teach philosophy in Colorado Springs. Frustrated by the lack of certitude in philosophy, he studied and taught the religions of the world. He was attracted to Buddhism and is currently a dedicated practitioner who seeks to end the suffering of all. Oddly enough as his meditation practice deepened, his philosophical views became clearer and compassionate. Ocean of Compassion is his first published effort to make the Bodhisattva path easily available to all.

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