Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Book: The Secret of the Seven Seeds

The Secret of the Seven Seeds
The Secret of the Seven Seeds

A perfect, textbook parable of Buddhist transformation.
191 pages, ★★★★★

The great “Western Disease” is rapidly spreading around the world! The disease is called, “I will be happy when…” When I get that money, when I get that racy car, when I get that new house, when I get that promotion. — Foreword

It seems contradictory to review a book that says, “Don’t evaluate this book—evaluate yourself” on page ix.

Protagonist Ignacio Rodríguez—he might as well be called Ignoramus—is a stereotypically stressed businessman who’s worrying about hitting his company’s performance targets and bullying his staff to “try harder”.

Ignacio’s stress-induced, non-fatal heart attack prompts his doctor to prescribe some rest. He resists at first, but eventually—reluctantly—seeks the help of a spiritual guide who shows him how to improve his life through restful, mindful meditation and by cultivating compassion. (See my review of Cultivating Compassion here.)

After following the master’s advice, every aspect of Ignacio’s life improves: his marriage, his relationship with his children, his sales performance, his company’s profits, his physical and mental health, and his happiness. His co-workers even get along better with each other. Compassion spreads.

The Secret of the Seven Seeds Character Map
Click to enlarge.

The Secret of the Seven Seeds is a slightly-too-perfect version of a life transformed by Buddhism. Being fictional, the transformation story is more ‘textbook’ than in Tiny Buddha, which was autobiographical. Both books inspire, but The Secret of the Seven Seeds is more parable than legend. Read whichever one works best for you. ★★★★★

Book: An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy

An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy
This book is advertised for $155 on the publisher’s website.

Just too scholarly. Buddhism backwards.
434 pages, ★

I’m a follower of the Venerable Master Chin Kung, a Buddhist teacher from Anhui Province in China. One highly memorable thing I learned from his lectures (which are all on YouTube), is the distinction between 学佛 (xue-fo) and 佛学 (fo-xue).

The distinction is much clearer in Chinese than English. The former, 学佛, describes the study of Buddhism with practice and spiritual belief. We can these students “Buddhists”. The latter, 佛学, describes Buddhism as an academic subject like chemistry. We can call those students “Buddhologists”. Even more beautifully, in Chinese, the words for “Buddhist” and “Buddhologist” are palindromes, implying that the latter of these opposing groups has learned Buddhism backwards.

The Venerable Master Chin Kung said:

我们是学佛,不是搞佛学,搞佛学那就是《没学》。现代人把佛学当作学佛,这个错了,观念上错了,这一步错就错到底,永远都错了!

In English, roughly:

We are Buddhists, not Buddhologists. To treat Buddhism as an academic subject amounts to learning nothing at all! When modern people make the mistake of studying Buddhism without practicing it in their everyday lives, they are failing to grasp Buddhism’s fundamental concepts [of compassion in our everyday lives]. This method is rotten to the core. Buddhology will forever be the wrong way to learn Buddhism.

Given that one of my most-respected teachers said that, how can I give this book any more than one star? It was also dry, academic, picky, and boring. Buddhism is supposed to make you feel good, but this book fails at that, too. Read Tiny Buddha or An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama instead. 

Book: An Open Heart

An Open Heart
Hello. Up-close and personal speeches from the Man Himself.

Classic Dalai Lama speeches. Buddhism on Earth.
191 pages, ★★★★★

The Dalai Lama has the following of a rock star. The book begins with a scene of the Dalai Lama giving addressing 3,000 followers in New York City. The book explains the fundamentals of Buddhism.

I love this book for its thick, soft, sepia-tinted pages, and its large, readable font. This book looks as close to an ancient Tibetan prayer-sheet as a mass-production publishing house can make it.

I also love this book for its secular, practical simplicity. This book is Buddhism on Earth, not Buddhism in Heaven.

Perfectly suited for a crowd of multicultural, metropolitan New Yorkers. ★★★★★

Book: The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World
This book has many covers, all of which feature a large photo of the Dalai Lama.

A non-interactive version of McKinney’s “Happiness”. Practical psychology that’s coincidentally Buddhist.
368 pages,

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World tells us why we should be happy. It does so in fluent prose, a substantial proportion of which is paraphrased from dialogues between the author and the Dalai Lama (hence the Dalai Lama’s name and giant picture on the front cover). It teaches us that we should all be happy, that happiness is contagious, and that happiness is always the antidote to suffering. Very Buddhist.

The author raises many points that would make interesting conversation topics. He argues that hit TV show “Survivor” is the epitome of American individualism and greed: when a dozen strangers are left stranded on an island, they are rewarded for infighting (not co-operating) and all strive to be the last one standing—alone, atop a huge pile of cash. “How unhappy the winners must be!”, the author writes.

He also argues that racism is rooted in a human evolutionary preference for remembering negative news over positive news. Positive news can make you happy (e.g. “we have a bumper harvest this year”) but negative news can save your life (e.g. “a hurricane is coming”). He says this is why one group will more easily remember negative information about another group, unless they are well-acquainted. He thus infers that racism can be eliminated by cultural understanding. I like that.

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World more closely resembles a psychology book than a Buddhist book. He talks about the roots of fear, and recovery from trauma with the soothing tone of a psychologist. Like McKinney’s book, The Power of Happiness (see review here), The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World is Buddhist by coincidence.

This book concludes with a dramatic change in tone. First, it resembles Thomas Freedman’s The World Is Flat. Not only are we are all equal human beings on a level playing field, who achieve great things when we work together, but we are also much more interconnected than we realise. (The latter example is illustrated by the famous Milton Friedman question, “how many people does it take to make a pencil?”). Answer: probably billions, both past and present. The effect here is to remind us that happiness is not only necessary and possible, but also contagious in the modern world. Happy people make people happy. 🙂

I’m glad I’ve read this book, even though it’s not the best in its genre. (Those, I gave five stars: see Tiny Buddha, Happiness and The Power of Happiness for better-written, 5-star examples.) I gave this book four stars because I’m such a fan of the genre. Most other reviewers would give it just three. ★★★★

Book: Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions

Tiny Buddha by Tiny Author. She's "petite" and so's the book!

Buddhist by coincidence; written from a self-help perspective; story of my life.
278 pages, ★★★★★

I’m anything but tiny. But after three days of doing stressful bank-related stuff, I really needed to read this book. I’d already waited several weeks for it to be published (I got caught up in the pre-release internet hype) and yesterday, it finally arrived at my lavishly-decorated front door. Happy Lantern Festival! It was well worth the wait.

Tiny Buddha is Buddhism without Buddha. Author Lori Deschene steers so clear of jargon that the usual Sanskrit and self-help vocabulary (except “mindful”) are nowhere to be seen. Rather than teach us the basics, the history (or anything) about Buddhism, Tiny Buddha condenses all the worthwhile advice from hundreds of self-help manuals down to one easily-readable book. Read this book properly and you can ignore everything else from the self-help section. By omitting Buddha almost entirely, Lori Deschene both proves that Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion, and that the new-age self-help genre is merely Buddhism re-evolved.

The author’s journey is the most inspiring aspect of this this book. She spent years drifting (as I did) in what David Brooks would call the “Odyssey” (the stage between adolescence and mature adulthood). She hopped between tiny apartments, overworked, underslept, and didn’t trust anyone long enough to maintain friendships or relationships. She did almost exactly the same things as I did (there’s mention some friends of teaching in China) and uses her own experience justify her authority as a teacher.

Episodes from Tiny Buddha resonated with me. The author analyses why she once overworked and found it unsatisfying (I used to set financial goals before I realised that nothing happened when I achieved them). The author also tells us why she felt cheated after a $495 “life-changing” seminar (I can relate to this). Read this book and you’ll find your own stories. All of them are accompanied with covertly Buddhist solutions.

Tiny Buddha might not be a book about Buddha, but it’s certainly a book about you. ★★★★★

Book: The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching

This book is as gold and shiny as a Lama Temple

Your map to the labyrinth of Buddhism
282 pages, ★★★★★

I never thought I’d read this book. Yet I never thought I’d be a vegan who likes to stay at home, bake bread and read books (especially on Buddhism). But here I am.

The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching is an elementary roadmap to enlightenment. You know you’ve arrived at your destination (happiness, compassion) when you no longer need the map (or this book). Like any map, this book is quite theoretical. It made me hungry for practical Buddhism more than it taught me how to practice. It’s thus a perfect starting point for non-Buddhists to learn about Buddhism.

Buddhism grips you with irresistible numbered lists. Each one opens doors to yet more numbered lists of wisdom. “The Four Noble Truths” leads to “The Eightfold Path”; each of which leads to yet more numbered lists (“The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” and “The Seven Factors of Awakening” to name just two). It’s highly-structured, but, like a labyrinth, could make you feel lost at the same time. Each list solves tiny problems in our lives—ideally, before they even occur.

The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching lends itself very well to being mind-mapped. All the Buddhist theory in this book could be mapped onto a very large, beautiful poster, with “suffering” at the centre, followed by “The Four Noble Truths” as the first-level branches. That’s a project for another day.

The layered structure of The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching also lends itself well to lesson plans. Each lesson would contain one numbered list. The title would intrigue students, and there are enough stories and personal examples in the book to be shared in the class.

The book becomes repetitive after the middle. You’ll start seeing the same metaphors and ideas rearranged in multiple fashions towards the end. In the last few pages, you’ll even read the same sentences over and over with minor modifications in the “discourses” section. The book does this to train your patience and focus. It prepares you for the repetitive, meditative approach used widely throughout the rest of Buddhism, which it leaves me very tempted to read. ★★★★★

This book is full of circular diagrams like this one. But the whole book's contents would also fit onto a huge mind-map… that's a project for another day.

Book: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Healthful soul tonic that everyone needs. Read it with Orchid-Scented Phoenix Tea.
272 pages, ★★★★★

Happiness is an extroverted book with nothing to hide. You’ll notice this from the moment you open it. The friction coefficient of the paperback cover is equal to that of the pages inside, so the fingerfeel of the inside and outside seem to be ‘one’ (very Buddhist). The paper is grippable, not polished, and the pages are slightly imperfectly-cut, which helps author Mattieu Ricard emanate his soothing modesty and humour onto paper. Watch him speak here at TED.com, again, with nothing to hide.

Happiness covers Buddhist teachings of the ego, karma and inner happiness. First, a true Buddhist is egoless. Second, karma (or 因果, “cause-and-effect”) rules the universe: “If we sow the seeds of poisonous weeds, we cannot expect to reap crops”. Third, happiness is independent of external circumstances, particularly material abundance. This is illustrated with numerous examples and meditation exercises. The classic anecdote of a lottery winner becoming ecstatic, then indifferent, then increasingly depressed over time (sometimes suicidal) is used. However, metaphors that relate to nature will dominate this book (in a very Tibetan way), for example, “sating desire is like drinking seawater—it only makes you more thirsty”. The best anecdote of how happiness differs from pleasure comes in the form of the lab-rat who, in control of an electrode that stimulates the ‘pleasure’ parts of its brain, will continue to stimulate itself until it dies of hunger or exhaustion. Happiness uses science and Buddhism, East and West, modern and traditional in tandem.

Science is used throughout Happiness. Compassionate people can withstand pain for longer. Optimistic people live 19% longer. Experienced meditators exhibit significantly-higher gamma-wave activity in the left pre-frontal lobe (associated with happiness) when meditating. Despite knowing that we should never take the pop-sci genre for face-value, the author’s biochemistry background leaves me questioning not the credibility of his research (which has been submitted to Nature), but the credibility of a slightly-conflicting book, A Whole New Mind (read my review here). Both books discuss brain-waves and happiness.

There was an apparent contradiction in this book. The author writes that enlightenment needn’t be preceded by suffering or wrongdoing; that benevolence is not merely practiced to counteract previous crimes. But at the same time, the author writes in the first chapter, that “the first step to ‘happiness’ [in the book’s sense] is to acknowledge that our way of acting and feeling has been wrong”. Whether suffering is to alleviate our own pain or that of others, it does seem that experiencing pain and focussing on it does seem to be a prerequisite to enlightenment. Fight Club‘s chemical burn scene was right.

Another thing that surprised me were his repeated references to China. Being a compassionate monk, he showed no anger in writing (8 times) about the plight of the Tibetans during the Chinese Liberation period. But as a Sinophile, I’m tempted to now go and read more books by Tibetans in exile, and the Communist Party’s official view of this slice of Tibet’s history. Did Tibetans suffer any more than the Han suffered during Liberation and the Cultural Revolution? Possibly not…

I should have read this book years ago (it was published in English in 2006). The section labelled “Why blame the world?” would have been particularly educational for me when struggling a few years ago. I found guidance in Marxism and Maoism, but would have been infinitely better-off with Buddhism (and happiness). I recommend this book for anyone caught up in the superficialities of democracy, the “captivity of negativity” or the trivialities of daily life. ★★★★★