Between the Pages: ‘Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong’
I don’t even know where to begin with writing about this book because it is ALL CAPS REMARKABLE!!!
Seriously. I have been hooting on about this book for the longest time and pretty much everyone who I speak with gets an earful from me fangirling on and on about its simple brilliance. I’m currently engaging in Lojong practice, so it arrived on my Kindle at a very auspicious time and pushed its way past the recommended books from the list of those on the suggested reading list.
A bit of background for this review and for those who judge books by their covers. No. That isn’t a misprint and it does read as ‘Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong’. Norman Fischer is a Zen priest with a background in interfaith study, teaching, practice and writing, having previously released a book titled Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. The final paragraphs in this book alone featured some of the most powerful thoughts on religion and faith that I’ve read, but more on that later.
Now about Lojong, It’s a mind training practice in the Tibetan Buddhism tradition. No. It’s not anything spooky, despite the words ‘mind training practice’ which sound a bit like the domain of the CIA or something you’d see in an episode of The X Files. Lojong is a practice in which one studies and reflects on 59 slogans as a means to lead oneself towards compassion. Pema explains it a bit more eloquently than I do over here.
Fischer begins the book with details on how the slogans are similar to Zen koans which is a quite interesting way to view how these two traditions have much overlap. As with similar books on Lojong such as my perennial favourite, ‘Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness’ by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Fischer views his contribution as having written a ‘training manual’ and in essence, this book provides a real world approach in suggesting how the slogans can be used in a way that fit into everyday life. Written in a casual tone, Fischer’s voice is friendly, instructive and overall is like hanging out with a funny and engaging spiritual friend. Again, I’m a big fan of his now and discovering him better late than never.
While the tone of the book is friendly and not too hardcore in it’s commentary on the subject matter (read this as it’s not requiring a PhD in Buddhist Philosophy), it does offer up one of the clearest descriptions of absolute and relative bodhichitta that I’ve encountered. Given that the distinction between these two truths can get a bit sticky for some, I appreciate the author’s clear presentation of this oft misunderstood aspect of Buddhism. That is the beauty of the author’s approach in that he helps to make complex topics a bit less blurry.
Fischer is very perceptive about human nature and our motivations and delivers matter-of-fact teachings on the human condition. He deftly weaves teachings and quotes from Zen and Tibetan masters along with his own personal perspectives within the book in a way which contributes an exciting blend of past and modern approaches and insights on the Dharma.
This book is unique in that it is a Zen priest’s commentator on an Indo-Buddhist text and a new flavour of Buddhism added to the mix. While wearing different coloured robes and with a background in Zen, the author is able to convey the key points of compassion which Lojong aims to inspire in those who encounter it. The book is gentle, humorous and feels like meeting a friendly guide on the path. As my first introduction to the work of Norman Fischer, I am now finding myself wanting to experiment with his interfaith perspective as a means to explore my spiritual side a bit further as it relates to a different school entirely. Zenbetan? Tibzen? Who knows?
What is known is that this is certainly now one of my go-to Dharma books and I’ll continue to recommend it highly to everyone who’s willing to listen to me!