In Becoming Enlightened, the Dalia Lama is a teacher, plotting out the path to the Buddhist understanding of spiritual development. His Holiness presents a step-by-step, analytic approach to the Buddhist spiritual path that is both practical as well as accessible to non-Buddhists.The “essence” of the Buddhist religion, for the Dalia Lama, rests in living out compassion and the doctrine of dependent arising. “Totally unbiased compassion” is the highest level of spiritual practice. The Dalai Lama links personal spiritual growth with our altruistic concern for others. This is also an important teaching within Christianity, that the more a Christian can cultivate a self-less spirit, the more spiritually mature and Christ-like s/he becomes. As the Dalia Lama puts it, “working at achieving the welfare of others accomplishes your own along the way.”
This statement he makes is intriguing to me. In a general sense, I find this to be true. I think it is especially helpful as a guide for personal spiritual growth, especially at the beginning of spiritual practice. There has to be some faith that compassion will benefit us. Otherwise, it is too easy to depart form our spiritual practices and carry on with business as usual. In a general sense, it is true that our own obsession with ourselves is our biggest obstacle to happiness and fulfillment. Is it true in an absolute sense? I’m not so sure. I wonder, for example, if “the welfare of others accomplishes your own” in instances where you have enemies intent on harming you. I’m thinking particularly of instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or other forms of violence where the perpetrator couldn’t care less if you live or die.
Another core of Buddhist spiritual development is the doctrine of dependent arising. This is distinctively Buddhist. It begins with the idea that there is no thing in the world that exists without depending on a cause. More controversially, Buddhism then asserts that human beings have no permanent, fixed self. Instead, each of us merely exists, moment-to-moment, as the convergence of forces: desires, physical sensations, cultural conditioning, and for the Dalai Lama and many Buddhists, the karma of past lives. Any sensation that the self is permanent, that we exist in any fixed sense, is an illusion of the ego. It inhibits spiritual development because it perpetuates the illusion that we are not interconnected. For Buddhists (and many others as well), spiritual growth depends on understanding that we are interconnected and do not exist as separate egos, self-dependent. As the Dalai Lama says, the self “lacks a core, like a bubble.”
I listened to Becoming Enlightened on audiobook, with Jeffrey Hopkins narrating. I have seen and heard the Dalai Lama, and I was quite disappointed with the narration. In person, the Dalai Lama is light, funny, and deeply joyful. Hopkins’ narration, however, often felt tight and somewhat forceful. It struck me as quite the opposite tone that the Dalia Lama often personifies.
Another critique is that the teaching can sometimes feel boxy and bland. The writing can thus feel monotonous and mundane. This is especially true when the text reviews main points constantly! Yet this systematic approach does reinforce the points, and from my experience, spiritual development depends on coming back to basic truths time and again, because our normal way of being in the world is often reflexively negative. Training the mind is a long process. Buddhists perhaps more than any other religion recognize that “an unruly mind causes unhappiness and suffering.”
One point of particular interest to me was when the Dalai Lama said that “teachers of other religions could have been emanations of a Buddha or a Boddhisattva.” Even things like bridges or ships could be emanations of a Buddha, whatever is helpful to people. So, within Buddhist teaching that the Dalia Lama represents, Jesus or the Apostle Paul or Muhammad could have been emanations of a Buddha.
I most appreciated Becoming Enlighted for the Dalia lama’s practical tips for spiritual development, particularly in relation to becoming more compassionate and altruistic. He provides many simple strategies for gradually changing our normal self-centered perception of the world into something more generous and giving. We could all use a bit of that, eh?