The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 10 October 2018

Inner Revolution

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness

by Robert Thurman

The world sure can use all the help it can get right now. Forces of progressive good are in deep retreat. Xenophobia, provincialism, tribalism, suspicions and hatreds have come to the fore, crowding out our better natures. One can't help but wonder how the promise of the 21st century has turned into this bitter retreat from change and growth. We look ahead with foreboding, and we wonder when or if we can set the ship of humanity back on a course of compassion, understanding, and common experience. Twenty-six centuries ago, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the essential connectedness of all sentient beings and how a fundamental understanding of that interconnectedness leads inevitably to compassion, a drive to the end of suffering, and reaching out to make life better for all beings in each of their paths to enlightenment. Now, religion doesn't really have a good track record, in general, as far as making the world a better place. It is apparent that, today, religious differences across the planet remain a reliable source of human conflict rather than any cooperative engagement for the future of humanity. Buddhism is one of the world's great religions, but practitioners tend not to see it as religion, but rather as a philosophy of inner exploration, a scientifically rigorous exploration of the nature of existence through contemplation and meditation. How can this practice save humanity?

Buddhist scholar, teacher, one-time monk and author Robert Thurman brings us a concise and highly accessible history of Buddhism in human culture and a detailed proposal in which he asserts that a new inner revolution is at hand. In 1998, this may have been a much more plausible notion than it seems in 2018. Humanity has turned pathologically cynical. The existence of life on Earth may have never felt so threatened. By tracing the path of Buddhist thought through a string of its most notable teachers, Thurman attempts to demonstrate the global effects of a localized culture of inner exploration and enlightenment thinking. In the sixteenth-century enlightenment, he argues that the flowering of Buddhist culture across the Himalayas coincided, not coincidentally, with the European awakening to scientific and humanist thought. He further asserts that the highest achievement in Buddhist enlightenment culture was in Tibet just prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950. There are complications in history that make some of his argument a bit of an idealization. Thurman would agree that nothing was perfect, but he does somewhat gloss over some of the retrograde forces in human history (not least those that he couldn't anticipate in 1998). Ultimately, though, his argument is that the practice of inner contemplation taught by Buddha, and not necessarily within the structure of Buddhism, can result in a greater enlightenment culture that benefits all of mankind through compassion and the active effort to reduce suffering and increase the individual opportunity to reach enlightenment. This is compelling stuff, but almost tragic to read when considering how very far we seem to be from even approaching the fringes of the world Thurman envisions.

Evoking Thomas Jefferson, Thurman ends with a detailed political platform based upon the discoveries of human compassion found in the deep meditative exploration of human identity, our interconnectedness, and the true nature of reality. Some of this will sound a bit esoteric, almost religious, but the planks of his political platform are grounded in the possibilities of our reality. As with any ambitious movement for change, all this takes, really, is for mankind to turn its intellectual energies in a positive direction. Not surprisingly, most of this political platform is built upon some familiar progressive ideals. These are ambitious ideas based in Buddhist compassion and inclusion. If you are politically progressive, these may seem reassuring and hopeful, if a bit idealistic in our present world. If you're of a conservative bent, you're unlikely to have read this far to begin with, but the platform might make you skeptical, doubtful, and hold closer to a materialistic individualism with which Western culture has been wrestling for five centuries.

The book, though, remains a hopeful exploration of the history of Buddhist culture and a call for an enlightenment transformation that is entirely within our grasp, if not for our lurches toward unreason. Thurman has a gift for telling the basic story of Buddhism, where it's been and what it entails for the individual and for nations. The book is highly accessible, self-deprecating and witty. And it just might leave the reader with a faint glimmer of hope.

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Also by Robert Thurman: [Circling the Sacred Mountain]

[Other Books about Buddhism, Tibet and the Himalayas]