In the Buddhist world, a book with precisely 108 pages makes a statement merely with its size. The number signifies auspiciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, and in the case of Sadness, Love, Openness, it also tells the reader that this small but remarkable text is deeply embedded in the Tibetan tradition. Yet, while clearly inviting us into a traditional space, the author Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche—a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who heads institutions around the world including the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Nepal—does so with acute sensitivity to the cultural needs and points of confusion faced by contemporary Buddhists, especially those in the West. Rinpoche’s refreshing perspective thus lies between two extremes: boring adherence to dry tradition and fawning attempts at attracting modern readers with promises of happiness or other treats. In the former camp lie straightforward restatements of tradition, and sometimes these are perhaps best replaced by actual translations of traditional texts. In the latter camp are found various attempts at stretching and shaping Buddhism in a way that makes it maximally attractive to stressed-out professionals hoping to make their frenetic lives a bit less unpleasant. Readers who might pick up a book in one of these two categories may both benefit greatly from Sadness, Love, Openness.
For some time now, the stressed-out professional has been the target of a type of Western Buddhism decried by the cultural critic Slavoj Zizek as a salve that deadens the pain of rampant consumer capitalism. While Zizek’s critiques are characteristically hyperbolic, it does seem that some ways of practicing Buddhism—or its various derivatives in the self-help marketplace—can function as something like an opiate for the elite. Faced with an overburdened professional life that may even involve perpetuating harms great and small, the cosmopolitan elites of our world are easy targets for something that promises a respite through relaxation, meditation, or some other therapeutic encounter with the vaguely spiritual.
As may already be evident from the title, Sadness, Love, Openness does not offer a new method for the reader to avoid or deaden the suffering of modern life. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche puts it, “Dharma practice is not a hobby.” Instead, it invites us not only to acknowledge our pain and sadness but also to see how they play a crucial role in the transformative process that is the Buddhist path. Here, Rinpoche brings us back to a foundational Buddhist motif: the contemplation of impermanence. Repeatedly and poetically, he invites us to set aside any attempt to avoid the inevitability of change and loss, and instead encourages us to ask questions such as, “What happens when we understand that no matter how well we take care of ourselves, one another, or the whole world, for that matter, it’s just a question of time before we will have to say goodbye to it all?”
With this emphasis on impermanence, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche courageously engages a topic that is often neglected—or at least downplayed—in Buddhist books for Western readers. The book’s attention to the sadness that comes from contemplating impermanence, however, is not simply the repetition of a deeply traditional motif; instead, sadness itself becomes a means for radical transformation. Here again readers may encounter a significant challenge to cultural assumptions about the role of Buddhist practice. In contemporary contexts, sadness can too easily be interpreted as a psychological symptom that we seek to avoid through treatment. But as the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere points out in his essay “Buddhism, Depression and the Work of Culture in Sri Lanka,” in Buddhist cultures sadness can place us at a spiritual crossroads where the opportunity for change becomes clearly manifest. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche puts it, “Reflecting on impermanence is not a means to make us miserable. But without the sorrow of knowing nothing will last, we will never get anywhere on our path.”
One of the key features of Sadness, Openness, Love is the particular version of the Buddhist path that it articulates. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche received from his father, the renowned Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a unique combination of Tibetan nondual traditions, and the developmental arc of that approach is expressed in the book’s title: the sadness of impermanence leads to a loving and compassionate response that opens the mind to the realization of the ultimate nature of reality, expressed in the nondual wakefulness that is the essence of the mind itself. While philosophical analysis and inquiry can certainly play a role in this tradition, here the emphasis is on a more direct experiential approach. Under the right conditions, “When we realize that everything is impermanent and unreal, we open up to the pain and suffering of others. That is how love and compassion become heartfelt and genuine.” And, “When the realization of impermanence has set us free so that there is a welling up inside us of love and compassion for all beings, true insight will expand and grow by itself.”
Although not articulated in theoretical terms, the underlying perspective here is that the loving, compassionate mind that emerges in response to sadness can be universalized so as to embrace all beings, and that universal compassion itself naturally opens the mind to a realization of its own innate “wakefulness”; namely, the primordial wisdom of Buddhahood itself. Universal compassion works this way because it induces a state in which conceptualization diminishes or disappears, and since conceptualization is the main manifestation of subject-object duality in our experience, by lessening conceptualization, the innately nondual aspect of awareness becomes more readily manifest. By then releasing all effort through a meditation—or, more accurately, a “nonmeditation”—known as “uncontrived naturalness,” the mind’s innate, nondual wakefulness can readily be recognized.
Obviously, much more can be said about the process of generating the wisdom that comes from realizing the nondual nature of the mind, and in his concise and straightforward way, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche unpacks some of the key issues in concrete terms that are especially helpful for avoiding some common problems. While speaking, for example, of the crucial “pointing out” instructions that are a key component of this process, he notes how they can become a point of unproductive fixation. He thus says, “So, let’s not spend our lives fantasizing about a magic moment when our teacher introduces us to the nature of mind and we live happily ever after.” Likewise, he notes how the contemplative practices involved in opening the mind to its true nature can be misconstrued. For instance, in attempting to sustain our recognition of the mind’s nature, we might think that “it’s just a matter of being mindful of our thoughts as they come and go” such that “we try to monitor every little impulse and perception.” He then adds, “Unfortunately, that has nothing whatsoever to do with recognizing the nature of the mind.”
Overall, Sadness, Love, Openness follows the progress of the path from a starting point in the contemplation of impermanence, through the various steps, including the all-important preliminary practices, that culminate in the blossoming of one’s innate wakeful wisdom. The presentation, however, is meant to be more experiential than systematic, and the topics that are treated with particular care (such as the contemplation of impermanence itself) are those that pose real challenges for contemporary practitioners. While certainly accessible for newcomers to Buddhist practice, it will thus be especially useful for those who already have some familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism. Likewise, readers who seek a philosophical articulation or defense of this particular approach should look elsewhere. But for readers to whom this style of practice makes sense, this small book can provide enormous support. True to its genre, this book is best incorporated into a daily contemplative practice: a few passages are read at an unhurried pace, and then they are contemplated in a way that perfumes the rest of one’s meditation session. Although the text can profitably be read more continuously, it lends itself best to being slowly savored, passage-by-passage.
The book’s kind and gentle voice offers great encouragement for facing the challenging practices that it offers. For some who feel “stuck” in sadness to the point of clinical depression, however, the challenge may be considerable. Among clinicians, it is widely acknowledged that a compassionate response can be profoundly difficult for the clinically depressed, and in that context, the move from sadness to love becomes exceedingly difficult. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche implies, part of the problem here may be the difficulty of embracing the possibility of moving beyond sadness, in part because one may feel that one does not deserve to do so. Written between this book’s lines are various ways beyond this difficult problem, including the gentle encouragement to drop any fixations on the stories about oneself.
Regardless (or perhaps because) of the challenges, practitioners of all kinds and all levels may benefit greatly from incorporating Sadness, Love, Openness into their contemplative practice. It is traditional, yet novel and fresh; challenging, yet kind and encouraging; profound, yet clear and concise. For serious practitioners, aspiring meditators, and those who seek to enhance their practice, this book holds immense promise.
Read an excerpt of the book here.