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An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life    by The Dalai Lama order for
Open Heart
by The Dalai Lama
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Reading this book in September 2001, I found it ironic that it was drawn from lectures given by the fourteenth Dalai Lama to audiences in New York City in 1999. However, in the aftermath of the storm of hatred and violence that hit the city on September 11th, these teachings on compassion were both relevant and comforting. After a display of the depths to which humanity can sink, they give us a glimpse of the heights to which we can aspire. The book cover displays a wonderful image of the Dalai Lama, showing the benign face of a man at peace with himself and the world.

The book is taken from three days of teachings before 3000 people, and includes the full transcript of a Sunday talk given to over 200,000 in Central Park. It was edited by Nicholas Vreeland, himself a practicing Tibetan Buddhist monk. This is not an abstruse tome but rather a small and accessible volume that explains 'the key methods by which Buddhist practitioners have cultivated compassion and wisdom in their lives'. It is written by the most authoritative living source on the subject, the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Sources for the teachings are three sacred texts of Buddhism: Middle-Length Stages of Meditation by Kamalashila; The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas by Togmay Sagpo and Eight Verses on Training the Mind by Langri Tangpa. The emphasis is on ways to train the mind and heart in order to develop compassion towards all beings, and the explanations are clear and comprehensible. The author quotes the Buddha himself, who said 'do not accept my words simply out of reverence. You should subject them to critical analysis and accept them on the basis of your own understanding.' The Dalai Lama encourages critical analysis of his words, pointing out that research and scrutiny 'should be thought of as one form of meditation'.

In fact, this book changed my notion of what meditation is all about, suggesting that there is a great deal more to it than simply sitting cross-legged and focussing on an object - which the author describes later in the book as a technique for developing a skill which can be used to different ends ... 'Meditation is merely the process whereby we gain control over the mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction. Meditation may also be thought of as a technique by which we diminish the force of old thought habits and develop new ones. Yet the techniques themselves do not lead to enlightenment or a compassionate and open heart. That is up to you'.

The Dalai Lama discusses the consequences of negative emotions like anger and hatred. He explains the irrationality of 'responding to injustice or harm with hostility' whose symptoms do not harm our enemies but ourselves, and suggests that responses, free of hatred or anger and taken with a cool head, can be much more effective. 'You must not consider tolerance and patience to be signs of weakness. I consider them signs of strength.'

An Open Heart is a book to be kept close by and re-read on a regular basis by all sentient beings, no matter their religious affiliation. These verses were part of the Sunday talk in Central Park ...

May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find new hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.

May the frightened cease to be afraid,
And those bound be free.
May the weak find power,
And may their hearts join in friendship.

I hope that many will open their hearts to the Dalai Lama and to his teachings.

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