Book Review: Living Fully by Shyalpa Rinpoche

From time to time, I get emails offering to send me a free book for the purpose of reviewing it. This one came from New World Library. Now, in December I ordered five or six books by a particular author from Amazon (because I decided I wanted all her stuff), last week I picked up some mystery paperbacks at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop, and yesterday, I bought six books from a great bookstore in downtown Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore. (Thank goodness these were all used and therefore, cheap.) Not to mention that I am still trying to slug my way through Crime and Punishment which I swear I will read even if it kills me and it probably will. What? Am I crazy? I don’t need any more books. How will I ever read all this stuff?

So I wrote back: sure, send me your book. And they did. It’s called Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Here is the review:

Shyalpa Rinpoche is called a “renown teacher,” but I have never heard of him. Not that that means much. Apparently, he was born in the Himalayas and “trained as a lama from the age of four” and while he has received transmissions from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he is primarily a lineage holder in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition, which is more or less the Tibetan version of “original enlightenment.” From his photograph, he looks as if he’s fairly young, but from his biography I am guessing he is in his 40’s. I checked him out on the Internet and he doesn’t seem to have any controversies surrounding him, so I guess he’s okay. There’s certainly nothing in this book that strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, he seems to hit all the right notes.

I suspect that the material offered here has been culled from his dharma talks, rather than something he wrote especially for publication. It is organized in such way as to take the reader from the first steps of thinking about establishing a Buddhist practice to maintaining one, and then, beyond. He deals with such subjects as an “intelligent way to begin,” important qualities to nurture, freedom from the notion of self, facing obstacles, “Meditation is Necessary,” “Practicing on the Path,” the role of the teacher, and so on.

On the subject of meditation, Shyalpa Rinpoche says,

It is not enough to simply study the teachings; one actually has to live them. Once we have some understanding of the teachings, we need to apply discipline and practice meditation. Most of us cannot embody these teachings overnight. We may have some conceptual understanding, but we cannot put this understanding into action right away . . . If you do not actualize these teachings through practice, you may be utterly defenseless when faced with challenges, like a baby in the midst of a battlefield.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Now as you might have gathered from that excerpt, to some extent this is a book for beginners. That doesn’t mean that more experienced Buddhists will not find something of value here. We may have heard some of these things many times before, yet, frankly, there are those of us who need to hear them repeatedly until they sink into our stubborn heads. I count myself as among that number.

Shyalpa Rinpoche’s style of writing, or speaking, is simple, spare, and elegant. Reminiscent  of Thich Nhat Hanh. However, the latter will intersperse his declarative statements with interesting stories and examples. There is some of that here, but not much. In this book, it is mainly one declaration after another, and that to me, is its major fault. It becomes monotonous when nearly every sentence is a pithy little statement that could stand alone as a quote:

When you are truly integrated with the flow of your breath, you will know that all beings are blessed with this same precious gift. You will trust in your goodness and in the basic decency of others. This conviction and confidence will prompt those around you to slow down and relax and to experience their lives in a complete way. (“Confidence”)

We all experience doubt, fear, and wakefulness. We can be understanding and tolerant of others, even when they treat us badly. We are all doing our best to survive. Everyone is troubled by the stormy waves of desire, anger, greed, envy, and pride. We are full of these disturbing emotions. No one wishes to suffer, so why would we want to compound the misery of others? (“Your Highest Standard”)

The nature of the mind is unobstructed. Moment by moment, one thought is born, while another one dies. This energy is unceasing, and it springs from primordial wisdom. This energy is the essence of what we are. This essence manifests, but not in any solid or substantial way. We cannot imagine it or express it. It transcends imagination and expression. (“Coming and Going”)

Embrace freedom. Try your best not to rely on material comforts. Rather, learn how to be content by uniting with your unconditional nature. In this way, the more you challenge yourself, the more you will build confidence. (“Turn Toward Freedom”)

And so it goes. Nearly, the entire text is written in this manner. I am guilty of the same thing with some of my blog posts. I don’t know why, but I expect a little more from a book.

At the same time, it’s not the kind of book that demands linear reading, from beginning to end. Each chapter is made of several small sections of two to three pages each. They can stand alone. One can pick the book up, turn to any page, and not miss anything. In this way, Living Fully can be useful as a source of daily inspiration or wisdom.

My only other gripe about Living Fully is that in his presentation Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it seem too easy. As he says above, we should “embrace freedom.” But simply embracing freedom does not make one free. There’s a process involved. He says, “Our lives will not be truly satisfying if we cannot live each moment deliberately and grasp the essence of our precious human nature.” Well, I’ve read basically the same thing many times by many authors, but rarely have I found someone who goes on to talk about how difficult it is to achieve. Living deliberately, living fully, being in the present moment and maintaining that awareness, grasping our true nature – none of it is easy. It’s damn hard. But somehow, Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it sounds as if all you have to do is cherish life and each breath and remember the perfect moment and you’ve got it made. Well, he’s not the only one. And while he does remind us that practice is not about avoiding adversity and that there are obstacles and “obscurations” along the path, it seems to me that he glosses over these challenges.

For instance, in the section “Look inside the Fear” he asks, “How does fear arise? Where does it come from? Where does it go?” Good questions. But then he launches into a discussion of the emptiness of views which he equates with fearlessness and he concludes with, “We labor hard at boosting our image and enhancing our reputation, without ever discovering the inner beauty that is our true essence.” Yes, but what about fear? How does one look into it? How does obtain this fearlessness?

The book as a whole does answer those questions, but I think readers would be better served if he had addressed them more specifically, and with more substance. Ultimately, then, Living Fully is just a bit too sugar-coated for my particular cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, or that it doesn’t contain timeless wisdom. It is and it does.