2010: The Best Buddhist Book I Read This Year

 

imageUnlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki

I bought this one myself-no review copy because I’m interested in what the interface of Buddhism and psychology looks like.  Too often it is a great deal of ego wanking reassurances about fitting in or attaining happiness in that self-help kind of way with a dusting of dharma language. Not the case here.

The book does require some background in Buddhist study or at least more than a passing familiarity with central concepts.  Some people have not found much to appreciate about this book including whoever wrote the review on the Amazon site. But writing reviews about stuff you have no interest in will do that.

The Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the Amazon site:

This is not for the nightstand Buddhist; readers will require some knowledge of the Buddhist understanding of how the mind works, and they will also need some patience with highly abstract prose.

I think that’s a little overstated but by the sounds of it the reviewer didn’t have much of a Buddhist background and seems fairly critical of anything written with some amount of intelligence. Another reviewer for hire who skims a dozen books a week. But I’m not here to review the reviewers.

The prose is not all that abstract if you are familiar with the subject matter in general.

The book is comprised of a bunch of informal essays loosely grouped into categories such as “Constructing Reality” , “Karma” and “Self and Non-self”. Each of the sections revolves around a central concept of Buddhist teaching and the essays within explore different aspects of that concept.

I really enjoyed the writing style here is it’s neither academically stuffy nor is it lacking in thoughtful rigor. For example in the “Constructing Reality” section there is an essay called “Making the Best of It”. The author describes the continuum between delusion and wisdom there. It’s only 3 pages long but packs quite a punch. Here’s his description of the delusion side of things and how we make up what we consider to be reality.

The brain freezes the world into discrete mind moments, each capturing a barely adequate morsel of information, then processes these one by one in a rapid linear sequence. The result is a compiled virtual world of experience, more or less patterned on what’s “out there”, but mostly organized around the needs and limitations of the apparatus constructing it. It is like the brain and the senses are hastily taking a series of snapshots, then stringing them together into a movie we call “the stream of consciousness”.

The Buddhists have a pretty good word to describe this system: delusion. It doesn’t mean we are stupid, only that the mind and body are designed (so to speak) to distort reality into some very fundamental ways… (p.69)

Now that is pretty succinct yet provides a fairly complete description of the Buddhist approach to perceptual psychology. His way of explaining is so straightforward that one has to take some time to realize that upon first read.

What is often cloaked in huge volumes of convoluted and specialized language elsewhere, is written here with a remarkable clarity and a real deep understanding of the Buddhadharma. This is not some “scholar’s” take on the subject but the product of someone who, while being a scholar, is also a long time practitioner.

He doesn’t give a bunch of platitudes and then a set of meditation instructions (like half the books out there) nor does he suggest how knowing this information will improve your marriage or your golf game. It’s not that kind of book.

The book progresses from basics and gets into a bit of Abhidhamma theory at the end. It is a build up of how the concepts all relate to one another. A bit like climbing a mountain-the approach is relatively relaxed and then things get continually more intense. That’s one of the things I liked about it. The pacing requires one to, as they move on, slow down and consider things more deeply, to re-examine the text and what it represents in light of the distance gone thus far. The whole thing in this way reminds me of the progression of practice.

Briefly it is about the theory and construction and workings of “you” and your experience of being “you”. Which is what all psychology is about.

Some have complained that there is no “psychology” in the book. If one defines psychology using only the theories and terms of western psychology then there isn’t a lot of that. This is similar to those who define religion only according to a specific religion with which they are familiar. Buddhist psychology is a psychology, if we define psychology in terms similar to what I have just above. An apple isn’t a fruit if we only define fruit as oranges. You get my drift I’m sure.

Those who are in counseling type professions might find this work either enjoyable or challenging depending on your level of attachment to your own school of thought. And for the general reader who would like to know the “Buddhist theory of you” if I can put it that way there is also something here worthwhile.

At this point I’ve read it twice and will probably read it again as I am getting a lot out of it. Certainly my money’s worth.

[I have to say it was real close this year between this book and Rodney Smith’s “Stepping Out of Self Deception”. Similar subject matter. I reviewed that one here. So I have to give honorable mention to that one also. This one edged out due to it’s somewhat increased breadth and writing style which I preferred.]

Past Year’s Bests

2009

Best Of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years Of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight  — My Review

2008

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the WorldMy Review

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4 comments on “2010: The Best Buddhist Book I Read This Year

  1. Great review! One of my chaplaincy colleagues recommended it to me last night and I ordered it this morning. Good to see I have a challenge ahead! :-)

  2. Thanks for the great review. I just ordered the book and look forward to reading it. Hang in there on the blogisattva award stuff. Don’t let it stress you out. People merely like your stuff and want to show their appreciation somehow. We humans are fairly limited yet on ways we think we can do that. Happy holiday season!

    • I didn’t edit my message before posting it. There’s too much stuff in it. But I guess that’s all any of it is anyway – just stuff. :-)

  3. Pingback: baking bread « 108zenbooks

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