I was hoping for an accessible, easily understood explanation of the Buddhist take on the meaning of life. Instead I first got a very complex analysis of Buddhism which did not adequately prepare me for the transcibed speeches of the Dalia Lama which followed. Maybe I'm not smart enough to grasp Buddhism. It certainly seems like this tape was not produced for the novice but for the more advanced student of Buddhism. If so, the tape cover did not warn me of that.
As with the other books of the Dalai Lama I have read, this book combines difficult and obscure teachings with the simplicity of the everyday. The book consists of the text of a lecture series the Dalai Lama gave in London in 1984, before he received the Nobel Prize. The title of the book together with its subtitle "Buddhist perspectives on cause and effect" give some idea of its breadth.
The first two lectures in the book, together with Professor Jeffery Hopkins's introduction discuss the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination. The discussion is based upon an exposition of a famous Tibetan painting of the Wheel of Existence which is beautifully reproduced, in whole and in a number of details following page 40. Turn to the painting before beginning to read the book and refer to it while reading both Hopkins and the Dalai Lama.
The Doctrine of Dependent Origination teaches the both the impernanence and interrelationship of things we take in our everyday lives as substantial. It talks about the pervasive effect of ignorance and its immediate consequences, lust and hatred, in poisoning our lives and attitudes. It offers an antidote twoards breaking the wheel of selfishness in the doctrine of non-self.
If this sounds obscure, it is. In a famous Sutra in the Pali canon, the Buddha rebukes his disciple Ananda when Ananda thinks he understands the teaching. The Dalai Lama presents the doctrine not as a dispositive treatment, which can't be done, but to stimulate reflection and meditation by the reader.
Following the discussion of Dependent Origination, there are almost equally difficult discussions of the Buddhist doctrine of Karma (causality and intentionality) and discussions of specifically Tibetan Tantric practices.
Interlaced with the specifically Buddhist doctrinal discussions are discussions of the goal of the doctrines which the Dalai Lama describes (page 34) as "to tame one's mental continuum-- to become nonviolent." This in turn is divided into two levels: altruism, or helping others, and, perhaps more broadly, doing no harm. According to the Dalai Lama (page 35) "The chief quality of a buddha is great compassion; this is why it is appropriate to take refuge in a buddha."
As always with the Dalai Lama, his goal is to teach and not to convert. He seems somewhat skeptical in this book with the rush of Westerners to adopt Tibetan Buddhism which, he points out, is a form of Buddhism adopted to the specific culture of Tibet rather than to Western culture. Although Tibetan Buddhism does not recognize a creator God, he urges those people comfortable with their own religions to adhere to them as proper sources of spiritual realization and inner peace. For those unable to adopt any religion, (those committed to Western secularism) he urges reflection and self-understanding as a means to end suffering.
Similarly, the Dalai Lama emphasizes that the Buddha taught different people in different ways depending on their background and their readiness for religious teachings. Many people, particularly those in the West, must find their path through life in the everyday workaday world rather than mediatating in a forest. The Dalai Lama recognizes and encourages people to work through to their salvation in a way appropriate to and consistent with their individual situation. Wise advice.
This is not one of the Dalai Lama's easier books to read. But it will stay with the careful reader. The painting of the Wheel of Dependent Origination is well reproduced, Professor Hopkins's introduction is valuable, and the book has a good bibliography for those wishing to pursue sources further. The teachings may not make the reader a Tibetan Buddhist; indeedmthat is not their intention. They may, however, bring some guidance and insight to the open reader.