Sunday, November 21, 2010

Books of Interest: Andrew Olendzki, "Unlimiting Mind--the Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism"

Let me start out with simple statement about this book.  I have read it twice in the past two weeks.  It struck me as precisely where I need to go a this time.  I suspect that many new and old students of Buddhism, who find themselves occasionally lost in the vagaries of "Buddha Nature", "the Unborn", the "True Self", "Buddha Mind", "the Source", and "Enlightenment" would find this book a helpful return to the very concrete phenomenological observations that are Buddha's original insights into human psychology and the sources of suffering.  Any student of Buddhism should be intimately familiar with these elemental psychological insights.  It is upon these experiential groundings that all of Buddhism's various traditions erect their scaffoldings, and it is upon them that each of us builds our personal practice.

Andrew Olendzki, who has a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, served as executive director of the Insight Meditation Society and studied in the Theravadan tradition in Sri Lanka.  Through a series of short essays collected together under such topics as "Constructing Reality", "The Practice", "Self and Non-Self", "Karma", and "The Bigger Picture", Olendzki takes us through Buddhist psychology in a way that is very accessible while rooted in his scholarly study of the Pali texts.  He addresses Buddhist psychology both from a theoretical perspective, which touches on such details as the Pali Abhidhamma's minute dissection of the mind's contact with phenomena, as well as from the very practical perspective of one who is seeking relief from suffering both on and off the cushion.

For me, these essays evoke the hopefulness that comes from a deep appreciation of Buddha's psychological insights.  His observation that what we refer to as the "self" is plastic because it is recreated in each moment's contact with reality, and his teaching that the tools for shaping who we as a psychological being will be in the next moment are readily available to us, are the foundation of all Buddhist practice.  To reduce our suffering subjectivity, we need only undertake the simple but hard work of holding a firm intention to follow Buddha's instructions on how to be mindful, and to practice sharpening our ability to see clearly each moment as it arises into the instrument of our own liberation.

Olendzki walks us through Buddha's early teachings in a way that is readily accessible and intuitively persuasive.  Regular resort to these foundational psychological insights would be one of my prescriptions for a solid structure of practice.

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