I was pretty sure that I was going to like Bodhipaksa's book as soon as I saw the title: "Living as a River." The subtitle was appealing also, Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.
Having grown up in Three Rivers, California (which lives up to its name, being at the confluence of three forks of the Kaweah River), I spent a lot of time in my boyhood years swimming, inner-tubing, and otherwise frolicking in the cold snowmelt from the high Sierras.
Me and my friends learned that an untamed mountain river is both a lot of fun and a creature to be respected. When the Kaweah flooded, giant boulders moved. If you got caught in a strong current, you could drown.
Eventually the river and I became good friends.
I learned that rapids which looked scary to tourists and flatlanders were easily navigable, with or without an inner tube, to someone who knew how to read the river -- which path to take in whitewater, what to do in the face of an unexpected waterfall, how to handle a rough rocky ride (feet first, head up).
I've learned the same sorts of lessons after spending many happy days boogie boarding in Hawaii.
Rivers and oceans aren't scary when you become part of the current, or wave. Usually you get hurt only when you hit a rock, reef, or beach. Or when you get stuck (underwater is a particularly bad spot for this).
This morning I read the introduction to Living as a River. It's great, better than anything I can write about it. The author has an appealing non-preachy unreligious Buddhist'y style.
Bodhipaksa generously makes his introduction available on the book's web site. Here's the PDF download.
Download Living As A River Intro
I highlighted lots of passages. These are some which I particularly liked. I'll string them together in a fashion that conveys the book's central themes.
We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind.
...We frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island amidst a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation.
This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we're afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to -- something more permanent and stable than ourselves.
Another strategy we all employ is to imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this "thing" called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing we cling to.
...The self is, in a simile I'll return to frequently, like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be permanent? There's no borderline we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river begins.
...We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes.
...Consciousness is not an entity that sits within us, awaiting contact with the outside world; rather it's a series of activities that arise in dependence upon contact with the world.
...I will not be suggesting to you that you do not have a self. I will simply try to demonstrate that the self is not what you take it to be, and that it's our idea of having a definable self we must let go of.
...I'll suggest that we cease clinging to the idea of having a self so we can embrace a life that is spontaneous and flowing, like an athlete "in the zone," with a mind clear, focused, and non-grasping.
...You may think that you, in some sense, existed before your conception and will continue to exist in some form after the death of your body. (Even committed atheists often fall into this kind of thinking, as we'll see later.)
You probably think of yourself as an agent endowed with free will, freely and consciously making choices that steer you through life. That's how we like to think of ourselves. Our ultimate layer of security comes from holding on to a view of ourselves: separate, enduring, self-owning.
...I hope that as a result of engaging with this book you will start to see yourself differently -- start to see yourself, even if just for brief periods, as more fluid and dynamic than you normally think you are. I hope you will start to appreciate yourself as more expansive -- as part of an interconnected whole.
Nicely said. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Living as a River. Sometimes I'm disappointed after getting excited by a great first chapter, when the rest of a book heads downhill, fast.
I don't think this will happen here. Bodhipaksa says that he resonates with both science and Buddhism. He ignores the difficult-to-believe supernatural side of Buddhist teachings, such as dogmas about past lives and survival of consciousness after death.
This looks like a good book to paddle along with for a while during my pre-meditation reading period. I'm sure I'll be sharing additional ideas from it after more words flow through my psyche.