Although not a book dealing strictly with Buddhism, the manner in which important Buddhist principles are interwoven with Western psychotherapy makes for an especially palatable, accessible overview and introduction to the subject for Western readers. I'm not crazy about the "case histories" either, another review mentioned them I think, but it's a minor qualm and they do serve their purpose. Overall the writing is clear and characterized by a modesty that gives the book a cozy and inviting feel; but it does this without becoming inappropriately simplistic or trite, taking care that the reader does not fall victim to many of the common misunderstandings of Buddhism, and Zen thought. A reader who is already very familiar with Buddhism would likely find this book refreshing and pleasant, while a reader who isn't as familiar might find it a very profound and, due to the tie-in with psychotherapy, relatively practical introduction to the subject indeed. I knew only a little about Buddhism when I picked up this book, and the book served to stimulate and propel that interest greatly. All in all, an intelligent, interesting, and accessible book. Recommended.
A friend loaned me this book, and from the notes in its margins, it looks like it has passed through many hands before mine. "It's Epstein's best book," my friend explained, "and it changed my life." Mark Epstein is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and this book is his result of twenty years' experience in both Western psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation (p. x).
In the Dalai Lama's Foreward to Epstein's 1995 book, and in his own more recent books including THE ART OF HAPPINESS (1998), STAGES OF MEDITATION (2001), and AN OPEN HEART (2001), he tells us the "purpose of life is to be happy" (p. ix). However, as Epstein reveals in his insightful book, clinging to the self causes suffering. Whereas attachment, aversion, delusion, and faulty perceptions not only cause suffering, they also offer the potential for "release" (p. 16). "We are locked into our minds," Epstein writes, "but we do not really know them. We are adrift and struggling, buffeted by the waves of our minds, having not learned how to float" (p. 17). (Perhaps this is what my own Zen teacher meant when he once told me that I "think too much.")
To find enlightenment, the Buddha encouraged us to become as lamps unto ourselves (p. 40), and Dogen observed that, "to study Buddhism is to study the self" (p. 20). This is also the premise of THOUGHTS WITHOUT A THINKER. Epstein has organized his book into three parts, the Buddhist psychology of mind (pp. 11-102), meditation (pp. 103-155), and therapy (pp. 157-222). In Part I, he demonstrates how Buddhist teachings are the key to understanding the psychology of mind (p. 41), and how those teachings are "less about religion (in the Western sense) than they are a vision of reality containing a practical blueprint for psychological relief" (p. 45). In Part II, Epstein examines the basic Buddhist meditation practice of "bare attention." Meditation, he explains, promotes the therapeutic goals of integration, humility, stability and self awareness (p. 129). In Part III, using non-technical terminology, Epstein integrates Freud's practice of psychotherapy into Buddhist teachings. In the end, Epstein's book is not so much a "feel-good" book about finding happiness in our lives, as a feel-real book well worth reading.