Because the Dalai Lama was addressing audiences of varying experience and exposure to the Vajrayana teachings, his choices of material ranged from the very basic to the rather advanced. This volume's editor, Nicholas Vreeland, did a masterful job of pulling together elements of these wider ranging teachings and preparing and unusually direct and focused document.
An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life is one of the most cogent looks at the Buddhist path (from a Tibetan Vajrayana perspective, of course) that I have encountered. As long-time readers know, I've read quite a lot of material in this tradition (sadly, I have practiced very little), and sometimes some books just don't grab me as the differences between what's in them and what's in my “knowledge bank” are sufficiently subtle that it comes out as “more of same”. This book, however, follows a remarkable arc, clearly expounding ever-more complicated concepts and practices.
To give you a general sense of how the book progresses, here are the section titles: The Desire for Happiness; Meditation, a Beginning; The Material and Immaterial World; Karma; The Afflictions; The Vast and the Profound: Two Aspects of the Path; Compassion; Meditating on Compassion; Cultivating Equanimity; Bodhicitta; Calm Abiding; The Nine Stages of Calm Abiding Meditation; Wisdom; Buddhahood; and Generating Bodhicitta.
There can hardly be a better person to speak to Equanimity and Compassion than the Dalai Lama, as his life has been one of turmoil and horrific events. So, when he writes:
This is not “platitudes”, but the voice of experience of one who has had to suffer enemies, and maintained his spiritual calm!This is how we come to see that our true enemy is actually within us. It is our selfishness, our attachment, and our anger that harm us. Our perceived enemy's ability to inflict harm on us is really quite limited. If someone challenges us and we can muster the inner discipline to resist retaliating, it is possible that no matter what the person has done, those actions do not disturb us.
As I don't operate in much of a Buddhist context, it's always useful to have “the basics” brought back to my attention … one piece of this that stood out for me was on “developing ethical discipline”:
Needless to say, it would be a very constructive environment for practice where these “nonvirtuous” activities were avoided.For Buddhists, ethical behavior means avoiding the ten nonvirtuous actions. There are three kinds of nonvirtuous actions: acts done by the body, actions expressed by speech, and nonvirtuous thoughts of the mind. We refrain from the three nonvirtuous actions of the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; the four nonvirtuous actions of speech: lying and divisive, offensive, and senseless speech; and the three nonvirtuous actions of the mind: covetousness, malice, and wrong views.
I felt rather churlish, when (in the section on Bodhicitta), I found myself wanting to raise objections to some of the examples that His Holiness was giving to illustrate how inter-connected we all are, and how we “depend” on others, however, I feel like I need to note this. At one point in this he says (as part of several examples) “So much work has gone into providing us with the shirt we are wearing, from planting the cottonseed to weaving the fabric and sewing the garment.” … and my reaction was that these steps all reflected commercial self-interest, and that were the farmer not envisioning making money on the cotton, he would not have planted and nurtured it, if the weaver wasn't planning on making a profit, he would not have bought the cotton and created fabric from it, and if the shirt-maker did not expect selling the product he would not have expended the effort … so “providing” is probably something that triggered this response, as it brought up the example of a pencil by Milton Friedman. At no point in the creation of the shirt are the actions involved being done “selflessly”, for my or any others' benefit, so, as an example to generate a feeling of connectedness, this runs up against what I'm assuming to be a “culture gap”!
Aside from my reaction to this one point, however, the rest of the book is excellent, and I would recommend it to anybody. I was quite surprised to see that An Open Heart is available via the new/used vendors for as little as a penny for “very good” copies of the hardcover (I have the paperback, which is still in print at a very reasonable cover price). This is one of those that I feel anybody would benefit from reading, so investing $4 (1¢ plus the $3.99 shipping for a used copy) is highly suggested!