Book Review: Pema Chodron’s “Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”

2012 October 5
by Tanya McGinnity

Pema Chödrön is my go to for books that both kick me in the rump and provide that warmbelly feeling after eating a nice bowl of soup on a cold winter day. How can it feel both good and bad at the same time? How can it be like medicine that burns going down but yet helps to soothe? Well that’s just Pema’s teachings. They’re like that.

Based on a series of talks delivered at Gampo Abbey in 2009 during a winter retreat, the material in the book centers around how we as laypeople can work with The Three Vows (Pratimoksha, Boddhisattva and Samaya). Before you start to get freaked out about the word ‘vows’ and envision running off to a cave with a freshly shaved head, the book treats these in a very general way rather than in the depth that one studying and making a commitment to the dharma would pursue with their teacher.The vows are viewed as a way to work with our lives and to provide us with an opportunity to wake up and be more gentle with ourselves and others. If you wish to go further than what this book touches upon, then ‘consult a licensed spiritual teacher.’

Much of Pema Chödrön’s teachings (to those unfamiliar with her) touch upon the themes of being human, suffering, clinging, ego and the level of solidity that we expect from our birthright, only to be met with the confusion and pain that comes when that solidness escapes us.She works to help untangle the confusion that comes from being born into the human realm such as uncertainty and impermanence and uses her own experiences as a nun, teacher, student and human being to illustrate the points within the book. Within ‘Living Beautifuly’, she presents the Three Vows as the instructions that can help us to awaken from this confusion.

In a nutshell, the vows relate to different methods and areas of focus to help work with ourselves and navigate in our world and link with the Three Vehicles of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana and are as follows:

  1. Pratimoksha Vow: This vow relates to the commitments around personal liberation and not causing harm via words or actions.
  2. Bodhisattva Vow: This vow moves towards helping others and working to ease the suffering of all sentient beings.
  3. Samaya Vow: This vow centers around the mission to take the world as it is, without any duality or bias and to see all around us as ‘awakened energy’.

The book is chock full of guidance and good advice and digs deep into feelings and emotions and how the vows can help us to untether from the usual storylines we find ourselves embroiled in. The advice provided isn’t heavy handed or relating to a moral code of good and bad, but conveys principles centered around living in a decent manner that is sane for ourselves and for those around us. Take it or leave it.

It’s hard work to break out of ingrained patterns built up over time, but these vows provide the architecture for building a foundation for sanity and a life free from perpetual torment and confusion. The Eight Worldly Concerns are also mentioned in the book and hook into these teachings quite well on how the vows can guide us from being at the whims of such emotions, feelings and distractions. Many exercises, practices and overall bits of good advice are mentioned within the book as well as quotes and teachings from Pema’s teachers.

Considering the author has put out numerous books, audio and video teachings, to a seasoned Pema fangirl like myself, some of the material is a bit repetitive (ie: teachings on breathing, meditation, tonglen), but there is enough meat within to have kept me captivated regardless.

“Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change” is a good gateway guide to Buddhist teachings on the Three Vows and provide a framework for how we can work with our minds, let go and break from our habitual tendencies. While it may seem daunting, knowing that we can work on this and seeing that bit by bit, we’re able to generate awareness and lead more compassionate lives.

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