Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness
by Sylvia Boorstein
(320 pp., Ballantine Books, 2002, $24.95)
Reviewed by Norman Fischer
This is Sylvia Boorstein’s fourth book of dharma teachings, and her readers will immediately feel right at home. “My first mindfulness retreat,” she begins, “. . . was very difficult. I didn’t know anyone. It was hot. We sat crowded together. . . . No one had told me there wouldn’t be any coffee and I had a huge caffeine-withdrawal headache.”
Good spiritual books abound these days, but few bring Boorstein’s sense of personal voice and down-to-earth honesty. “Write like you talk,” writing coaches are fond of advising, but any writer knows that this is easier said than done. Boorstein makes it look easy. You feel as you read on that a close friend is talking to you over coffee.
Boorstein’s project, however unselfconsciously she holds it, is to bring the Buddhist teachings home to the carpool and the mall so that people who live ordinary lives can make use of them. It’s not a question of altering or simplifying or adapting. Rather Boorstein takes the Buddha at his word when he said that his teachings were for the purpose of transforming our lives. As she says early in the book, she and her old friend Mary long ago devised a series of questions as tests of any spiritual practice: “What do you do? How do you do it? Toward what end? Is it working?” I suspect these are questions the Buddha would have understood and responded to.
I love Boorstein’s willingness to make a friend out of the Buddha so that she feels permission to say again in her own words what he said in his, thereby making it more available to us. With no sense whatsoever that she is doing something radical (though her teaching is, despite its outward simplicity and ordinariness, daring), she succinctly restates key teachings. Here, for instance, is her version of the Four Noble Truths:
This simple, homey yet skillful restatement of the traditional language makes a huge difference.
Boorstein’s message—that mindfulness will eventually lead to kindness and a simple life of goodness—is organized around a discussion of the ten traditional Buddhist paramitas (virtues), and proceeds from a “periodic table of virtue” that she sets forth at the outset (periodic table because she was a chemist in her early years). This large chart lists each paramita, the factors that help to bring it into focus as a practice, and the fruit that will be produced once it has been mastered. In shorthand form, the chart shows how, beginning with the effort to practice generosity and proceeding step by step through the other nine virtues, we develop in the end an openhearted compassion.
All of which seems rather neat and idealistic, but Boorstein is anything but. She lets us know very soon that the paramitas set forth as ten separate and distinct practices is just a way of talking: in real life everything is mixed up together, each thing leading to and reinforcing everything else. Neither is the journey straightforward nor progress clearly marked; we make plenty of mistakes (as usual, Boorstein recounts many of her own), but they can be turned into encouragements if we pay attention.
In a tradition that emphasizes storytelling, Boorstein is renowned, and this book is studded throughout with tales short and tall. It’s amazing what she can make out of brief encounters with a young woman in a ladies’ room, an elderly couple on an airplane, or a cheerful checkout person at the supermarket. Then there are those that seem more obviously significant: the friend who is dying but decides not to take an overdose of morphine because there is still some good he can do for his relatives; the Orthodox Jewish widow who lives in Boorstein’s old New York apartment and manages her loneliness with common sense and good-spiritedness; the Muslim cabdriver who teaches Boorstein the essence of Islamic prayer. Such characters abound in all of Boorstein’s books, as if the hand of the novelist had swept through. Her world is populated with sympathetic souls doing their best to bear witness to life’s pains and joys, and she is moved by them all.
It is not easy to present serious spiritual teachings without pontificating, at least a little, but Boorstein almost entirely avoids this. Her humble honesty is so natural you might well miss the fact that it is rare. Somehow she makes it seem perfectly reasonable and natural that an ordinary Jewish grandmother is also a spiritual master who flies all over the world leading meditation retreats. I am sure there are those who find her approach to dharma a little too homey and suburban, preferring instead the apparently lofty expressions of the classical Buddhist literature or those interpreters who stick closer to the ancient tone. But I wonder how the early suttas sounded to their first listeners and readers. Could it be that the Buddha, speaking in the vernacular of oxen and rice fields, of butchers and housemaids, was the Sylvia Boorstein of his day?
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to sharing Zen teachings worldwide. His recent book, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, is reviewed in this issue of Inquiring Mind.