Once in a while a book can change one's whole perspective, set things clear that have been obfuscated and clarify many contradictions. David Brazier's "The Feeling Buddha" certainly does that. As a long-time buddhist practitioner I had always been struck by some of the contradictions in doctrine: How is it possible to be compassionate without grasping and avoiding? Is buddhism stilted and emotionless? We seem to be biologically designed to have strong preferences and emotions, how to handle these without increasing suffering? This book explains it all in a clear and practical way. If you are interested in Buddhism and psychology, you really must read this.
I was very excited when I located a course in Buddhist psychology at Shipensburg University. Unfortunately it is not offered on the net, and would cost $1300 US if it was. So I have contented myself, and temporarily placated my monkey mind which I love and cultivate, by reading the recommended material including The Feeling Buddha.
Brazier's interpretation of Buddha's teaching is unconventional, challenging the idea that one can "overcome" suffering, so it is interesting that this interpretation fits with my own experience of Zen practice better than many more traditional works. There are similarities between existential thought and therapy and Buddhist thought and therapy that are nicely illustrated by this text, but if you don't give two hoots about existentialism or therapy this is still a very stimulating and not too difficult read. It will strike a chord with many "meditators" who don't identify as Buddhist or any "ist."
David Brazier is a psychotherapist, has practised Zen Buddhism for 30 years, spent some time as a Zen monk, and has studied original Buddhist scriptures for many years. He endeared himself to me early on in the book, by stating that much though we want to blame someone for our problems "In Buddhism there is no God to call to account. Suffering simply is." (Brazier goes to great lengths to use alternative terms rather than simply "suffering," read the book to find out why.) Later on he agrees with other Buddhist teachers that belief in rebirth is beside the point. He states, as have others, that the idea of the wheel of life with recurring death and rebirth is Hindu: not an original Buddhist idea. He is interested in Buddhist teachings and Zen practice as practical tools for making the most of this life, and so am I.
Brazier points out that suffering really cannot be overcome: physical and emotional pain is a recurring part of any life, and must be experienced. He suggests that taking the traditional approach, that Buddhist practice overcomes suffering, may make us ashamed of our suffering, thus adding to our problems instead of resolving them. He suggests paying attention to the terms "noble" and "truth" as used by Buddha. In his view Buddha was urging his followers to live noble lives, to accept the wounding reality of suffering with warrior like fortitude, not to overcome it. In his view, the term truth, as in noble truth, reinforced the inescapable reality of suffering and our reactions to it. Given this view of suffering, the first truth is enough to "revolutionise our lives, " the second, third, and fourth noble truths are "elaborations."
The second noble truth, interpreted by Brazier, says there is no shame in the feelings that arise in us as a result of suffering, it is natural to want to sate thirst and hunger, end pain and so on. The natural response to suffering is noble ("respectable") and true ("real".) As Brazier puts it "The unrealistic attempt to extinguish affliction permanently, just like the leper who extinguishes the itch by burning his arm, does great damage. The acceptance of the noble reality of our passion, however, can be a great cleansing: a catharsis that helps us make something of our life." This ties in well with the more traditional idea of the second truth as something like "understanding suffering".
Brazier takes us back to the word Nirodha, used to express the third noble truth, and it is worth the trip. Nirodha is an earth bank confining and protecting a fire, preventing it from being spread by the wind. In its most effective form, it is an oven wall. It also alludes to a sacred fire. Nirvana then means "safe from the wind," where the wind is greed, hate and delusion, which respectively dissipate the fire by using the fuel too fast, cause damage, and put the fire out. To "have spirit" Brazier says we must have fire, but use and direct it well, "riding the dragon", not killing it as in western fairy stories.
The fourth noble truth is a path to follow to protect the fire from the wind. The middle path involves doing what we can, and not giving up because what we can do seems so small compared to all the things that are beyond our control. Brazier suggests facing our own despair as a place to start.
Despair has an important place for Brazier. He says "despair is Samudaya." Samudaya is the second noble truth: that which arises from suffering, the fire we must control. He calls on members of Dharma practice communities to "be willing in our Dharma discussions to share these feelings and listen deeply to one another." In his view, Dharma practice can continuously convert suffering to bliss. Here is a strong tie to the more traditional interpretation of Buddhist teaching, we may not overcome suffering, but converting it to bliss changes everything.