An ancient text beloved by the Dalai Lama is now being offered to a Western audience with the promise of genuine transformation. Margaret Evans speaks with author David Michie.
"Why be unhappy about something If it can be remedied?
And what is the use of being unhappy about something
If it cannot be remedied?"
How can you argue with that? So balanced and clear and, at the same time, so compassionate in its understanding of our human predicament.
While it sounds so matter-of-factly modern, in fact it is a verse on equanimity from an 8th century text written by one of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered sages, Shantideva. In a story that parallels to a remarkable degree the life journey of the Buddha himself, Shantideva was an Indian ruler who forsook the wealth and privilege of his court in Gujarat, in western India, to study at the great monastic University of Nalanda. Always a non conformist, the privileged young man was ridiculed until he stood to offer his first Dharma discourse to the assembled monks. His incisive and brilliant words laid the foundation for what became his greatest work, Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life.
Given that this work has been repeatedly recommended by the Dalai Lama as his own personal guide to putting Buddhist ideas into practice, its obscurity is all the more remarkable. In fact, the Dalai Lama has said of the work, "If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it." It is said that some verses still move him to tears.
Now, though, we have the chance to absorb its wisdom, or at least its core 75 verses, thanks to author and Buddhist, David Michie, already well known for his bestsellers Buddhism for Busy People and Hurry Up and Meditate. Perth-based Michie has written Enlightenment to Go "to make accessible to the West a text that is a classic and very revered, but one that is virtually unknown in the West." While he half jokes that his approach has been "blatantly populist" - it interprets 75 of the 800 verses of Shantideva's Guide - what emerges from Enlightenment to Go is a challenging but stimulating interpretation by an author who has become well known for his gift for demystifying Buddhism.
Part One introduces us to the concept of the compassionate mind of enlightenment, known by the Sanskrit word bodhichitta. Michie himself describes encountering this concept as "an extraordinary milestone in our journey of self development". When we sense that we have it within our power to transform our thoughts in every aspect of our lives, even when we're on the verge of arguing or dealing with some mundane everyday task like clearing away the dishes or commuting or sitting in an endless meeting, we touch on the essence of Tibetan Buddhism - and perhaps that's its great appeal, making it the fastest growing spiritual path in Australia and the Western world. Michie tells us it is the bodichitta vow that distinguishes the Tibetan tradition from Theravada or the southern school of Thailand and Sri Lanka, the goal of which is nirvana. Tibetan Buddhism regards nirvana as a step on the road to enlightenment or full Buddhahood, albeit a very advanced one! As Michie explains, "In fact, a Tibetan Buddhist view is that once nirvana is achieved, then it is a logical step to achieve full Buddahood."
In essence, the bodhichitta motivation is the wish to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Shantideva's verse captures its preciousness:
The intention to benefit all beings
Which does not arise in others even for their own sake,
Is an extraordinary jewel of the mind,
And its birth is an unprecedented wonder.
Michie views it as "possibly the most noble and altruistic motivation that has ever been conceived."
It's the altruistic character of the Tibetan school, the sense of caring about others rather than focusing all our energy on our own self interest that may well explain its magnetic appeal to so many people in this angst-ridden age.
Part Two of the book is devoted to an examination of how we can apply bodhichitta in our daily lives, covering such virtues as generosity, living an ethical life, patience and practising mindfulness. Anger raises its ugly head in the chapter on "The Perfection of Patience" and Michie identifies it as "our number one psychological challenge, the greatest threat to our happiness and inner peace". Outward anger is clear enough, together with its repercussions in a personal and global sense. But it's when anger is internalised and manifests as depression - we become the focus of our resentment rather than anyone or anything outside us - that we get a sense of the true scale of the problem.
And it's something that Michie understands only too well. He's open about his own battle with depression, which he first encountered at an early age before Buddhism entered his life. "I was treated then with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which, paradoxically, I later discovered is very like repackaged Buddhism," Michie tells me from his Perth home. "CBT has exactly the same premise that it's not events in the external world that cause us to feel something, it's how we interpret them, And so we look at those interpretations and challenge them. Buddhism follows exactly the same approach."
Michie credits his Buddhist philosophy as being "absolutely invaluable" in helping prevent subsequent depressive episodes. "I do sometimes experience frustration and depression to a certain extent, but now I have the tools to apply so I can only think so far before I become aware of the fact that I'm becoming depressed. It's like a rug I can pull from under the feet of my depressed feelings."
The bodhichitta perspective, to widen our awareness to embrace "the other", plays a key role. When we speak, the flooding in Pakistan is just being acknowledged as probably the worst humanitarian disaster of all time with 20 million people directly affected. "And here I am fretting about my superannuation and worrying about the property market in Australia, for God's sake. When I truly realise my affluence and material goods and access to meaningful teachings, it's hard for me to feel depressed."
Buddhism has also contributed the technique of mindfulness meditation to the modern armoury of weapons being used against the Western world's battle with depression. When we are present to each moment as it unfolds rather than dwelling on negative memories or worrying about the future, we are, says Michie, "really trying to take charge of our mind and trying to become more aware of what's going on in our mind in order to make sure it's a more positive place to be... And the moment you are experiencing now is, generally speaking, quite pleasant."
Choosing the word "enlightenment" for a book title some would deem foolish. But I ask Michie, already a bestselling author, for his view on what it is telling us now about a Western audience.
"There is a line that Buddhism is ideal for atheists who nevertheless want to experience some sort of spirituality in their life. When I first heard it I was taken aback, but then I thought hmm - kind of interesting.
"When dreadful things happen to people (by way of context he mentions 9/11 and the GFC), they search for some greater meaning. You don't have any reason to when things are going fine. But when you face your darkest hour you look for the bigger picture. People are now looking for something bigger, something more meaningful and they're not necessarily getting it from the traditional sources. We are in such a globalised world now, I think Tibetan Buddhism is no longer seen as such an exotic or mysterious thing."
In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that now the Tibetan form is well accepted in the West it will start to follow the pattern it has adopted in other cultures: "that is, having being stripped of its previous cultural baggage it will start to adopt the culture of its new destination.
"We're now only at the very beginning of a new tradition called Western Buddhism which is going to have certain different characteristics. Already we are seeing the accentuation of those characteristics which have a very secular application and do not require any belief in karma or rebirth, different from a culture where these beliefs are the norm."
Recognising that anyone reading this book will almost certainly be open to Buddhism, Michie exhorts us "not to be armchair Buddhists" and, instead, begin to practise more meaningfully. And it can be achieved with three key steps:
* Make meditation part of daily life - "Everything flows from that."
* Try to be more mindful of all your actions of body, speech and mind during the day, and
* Try to build a little "other" time into every day. Break out of the self obsessed cocoon we tend to live in and think about other beings.
And when we step more meaningfully onto the Buddhist path, all things are possible, suggests this passionate advocate.
"If enough people decide to become Buddhist practitioners then what is possible is amazing. If the world shifts just slightly more towards becoming more compassionate and more loving in that Buddhist sense of wishing happiness to others and wishing them to be free from suffering, what a fantastic place it would be. "
Read the first chapter of Enlightenment to Go at: