On My Bookshelf: “Living as a River” by Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa, a member and teacher of the Triratna Buddhist Community [formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order] recently wrote an interesting book “Living as a River.”  Mr. Paksa has a personal blog worth checking out “Bodhi Tree Swinging” and can be seen chatting along on the twitter-stream under the handle [surprisingly] @Bodhipaksa.  For some more info on thi fluvial character check out his ‘about’ page. [but be warned, if you have an irational fear of the Scottish and a phobia of New Englanders then you should avoid this one like the plague]

The book is a presentation of the Six Elements Practice as described by the Buddha in the Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta.  The Six Element practice outlines a simple but interconnected contemplation on the impermanence of self through reflection on the four primary elements [Earth, Water, Fire and Air] as well as the lesser known elemental properties of Space and Consciousness.  Each of these elements is the focus of a separate chapter where they are expounded upon to the eventual understanding that while each element is present within our being [and we can attach meaning and permanence to each], none of them define us.  Thus the mantra continuing throughout the book. “This is not me.  This is not mine.  I am not this.” or to paraphrase Carl Sagan:  “We are all Star-dust.”   This is meant to imply that our bodies are constitued of the same elements found in stars. At the end of the star’s lifetime, all the elements within are released, when it explodes, to be incoporated by other stars, planets and eventually us.   We play our own part in this process as we are really just leasing those elements for a short time.

What is surprising about this book is that the process of the six elements is taken beyond the realm of metaphysical allegory or spiritual contemplation and into current physical and psychological science.   Now, this can be a touchy subject.  Either the science is twisted and molded into a context that agreeable to the religious dogmatic view or some false a-priori ‘science’ is created [think Creation Science] in order to provide some semblance of evidence or legitemacy for what is ultimately bunk.

Bodhipaksa’s book doesn’t fall into either category.  What he does is use scientific knowledge in a manner that helps clarify and explain the process.  Scientific knowledge and skeptical inquiry provides a necessary foundation for Buddhist Practice.  Science aids in the description of the world around us and skeptical inquiry helps us to view that evidence and read the story in an objective manner.   As stated by Bodhipaksa:

‘the science that engrosses me outside meditation lingers in my mind and mourishes my practice’

By looking at current scientific studies as well as classic psychological and sociological explorations we can glimpse how the brain generally works and specifically learn how the brain loves to avoid the idea of an impermanent self.  The reader, through each chapter, conducts his own skeptical investigation of self through Bodhipaksa’s blend of Buddhist insight and explanation mixed with current science.   The book read as a personal reflection on current science as it applied to the self through the eyes of a practicing Buddhist but did not fall along the lines of a “Buddhist” book.  It felt more like a book on popular science with a thread of Buddhist sewn throughout.  But even discounting the spiritual, the science itself lead me to pause, put the book down and reflect.  As such I think it was a success.

Take Home Message:  Bodhipaksa masterfully blends science and spirituality without depreciating the skeptical or marginalizing the spiritual.  The concept of no-self is a difficult one to get across to Westerners where individuality and uniqueness is of primary concern.  Personally I thought some chapters ran too long and the last “wrap-up” chapter was as subtle as lead pipe to the cranium.  However, even with those caveats, the book was well worth the read as a wonderful [and skeptical] look at the self.

What remains after the six elements practice from the Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta.

“There remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous. Just as if a skilled goldsmith or goldsmith’s apprentice were to prepare a furnace, heat up a crucible, and, taking gold with a pair of tongs, place it in the crucible: He would blow on it time & again, sprinkle water on it time & again, examine it time & again, so that the gold would become refined, well-refined, thoroughly refined, flawless, free from dross, pliant, malleable, & luminous. Then whatever sort of ornament he had in mind — whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain — it would serve his purpose. In the same way, there remains only equanimity: pure & bright, pliant, malleable, & luminous. One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure & bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of space, I would develop the mind along those lines, and thus this equanimity of mine — thus supported, thus sustained — would last for a long time. One discerns that ‘If I were to direct equanimity as pure and bright as this toward the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, I would develop the mind along those lines, and thus this equanimity of mine — thus supported, thus sustained — would last for a long time.’

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