Posts by Pam Dodd

“Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland,” by Sangharakshita

Buddhism’s ethical code was formulated in Iron-Age India. How relevant is it for people living today? Pam Dodd, our guest reviewer, delves into Sangharakshita’s book on Living Ethically.

Living Ethically is the first of two planned volumes by British Buddhist scholar and former monk Sangharakshita on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice for a King (Ratnamala). This first book follows a beautifully laid out interpretive journey through the Precious Garland’s rich array of common and uncommon directives for leading an ethical life.

These lessons will be a welcome addition to any Buddhist teacher or serious student of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Those from other Buddhist traditions or who wear their Buddhism more lightly may find the reading a challenge at times, but with patience and persistence most apparent mountains quickly turn into meaningful molehills.

Like the second century India philosopher Nagarjuna, Sangharakshita tackles ethical issues head on, never beating about the bush. His writing is honest, practical, and perceptive, helping the reader navigate the finer nuances of Nagarjuna’s advice to an ancient king with thoughtful attention to how it applies today.

Title: Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 9781899579860
Available from: Windhorse (UK) Amazon.com.

Nagarjuna is a master at showing the subtle ways we evade the spirit of the Buddhist precepts. Both Nagarjuna and Sangharakshita make it patently clear how easily we let ourselves off the hook and what we need to do to hold ourselves more accountable to being more skillful as we go about our day.

The book begins with an informative chapter on Nagarjuna and an explanation of why it’s important to have a wise, experienced teacher to interpret old texts. The seven chapters that follow discuss Precious Garland verses using the framework of the Five Precepts overlapping the Ten Good Deeds.

1. Friendship

Beyond killing people, the first Buddhist precept extends more deeply to not harming living beings. Breaches include hunting (chasing and killing animals for pleasure), frightening others, violent or pornographic films, political and journalistic doom mongering, giving up on someone we find difficult, and generally getting in the way of people’s positive development as true individuals.

Several sections cover the fruits of practicing the kindness of metta bhavana. True metta towards others and ourselves puts us in an effortless, positive, and spontaneous state that brings loving friendship, mental and physical pleasures, easily getting what we need, and protection from violence.

Also discussed is right livelihood (work that doesn’t require us to violate the precepts in any way). Work we should avoid includes producing or selling alcohol and weapons of war; butchering; holding any job based on deception or dishonesty; and wasting our lives working at something we hate, find repetitive or boring, or that offers no incentive to improve our performance.

2. Generosity

Likewise, Nagarjuna says that the second precept means far more than not stealing physical things that don’t belong to us. Generosity arises from not treating things and people as commodities. The ethical person should not, for example, block other people’s development or violate their individuality by wasting their time or robbing them of their energy or be possessive or manipulate situations to his or her advantage.

Much discussion is devoted to clarifying giving and taking, including the importance of gratitude. In an ideal society, we give what we can and take only what we need. But most of us live far from the ideal. For instance, a gift is not really a gift if you’re thinking about what you will get in return. Moreover, unsolicited advice is the one assumed gift that is best withheld.

Perhaps the greatest generosity is offering help out of a sense of love, not merely a sense of duty. In other words, we should make ourselves useful when needed, not only when we feel like it.

3. Sexual Relationships

The third precept, to abstain from sexual misconduct, initially meant forsaking other men’s wives at a time when wives were considered property. Reinterpreted for the present day, Sangharakshita shows how in the broadest sense this precept is concerned with what we do with our sexuality.

At a more obvious level, we should not violate another’s individuality by using them for sexual gratification against their wishes, not knowingly break up a marriage or other sexual partnership, and not misuse sexuality thoughtlessly to get what we want. More deeply, it involves understanding the effects of our sexual activity on our state of mind.

Today Sangharakshita believes that romantic emotional attachment is a far more dangerous issue than sexual desire itself. He explains how romantic projection, or finding qualities we are missing in our romantic partners, causes many people to feel lost or incomplete when their loved one is not around or their relationship breaks up.

4. Skillful Speech

The fourth precept, abstaining from false speech, is not just about lying. Precious Garland elaborates at length on skillful and unskillful speech.

The positive consequences of lying are short-lived. The negative consequences are not. When we don’t tell the truth, eventually we’ll be found out and our word will be worth nothing. This goes as well for divisive speech like backbiting, malicious gossip, frivolous chatter, and creating dissension and disharmony between people. Special note is made of democratic political representatives who often rationalize and self-justify lying by saying people don’t necessarily want to be told the truth, their political party comes first, and that the truth is rarely obvious.

In general, skillful speech should be timely, helpful, and bring about harmony, even if it sometimes means we must tell a truth that causes pain. Hearing the truth is equally important. Nagarjuna advises that we should be non-defensively open to hearing an unpleasant truth about ourselves, accept it, and act upon it immediately.

5. The Ethics of Views

This chapter focuses on two false views, Nihilism vs. Externalism. While the analysis can seem overly philosophical, it is worth wrestling with for the useful perspective it provides for ethical practice.

Nihilists are averse to the world, asserting strongly that the world does not exist and nothing about a person remains at death. Externalists take the world and how they live seriously, believing that a permanent self or soul continues to exist after death. Externalism is better than Nihilism, however it is also not a positive mental state since it is based on attachment.

According to Buddhism, neither of these views leads to liberation. Buddhists see existence as process or flux, the flow of ever-changing mental events continuing from life to life through rebirth or re-becoming.

Also addressed in this chapter are the negative effects on mindfulness of overindulgence in drugs, alcohol, and gambling and underindulgence via self-mortification and punishment. Neither approach helps us lead a more spiritual life. Yet most of us would rather follow either than take the middle way of self-discipline and spiritual training.

6. Mental States

No Buddhist book would be complete without discussing mindfulness. Nagarjuna stresses the importance of regularly taking stock of ourselves but cautions against being too self analytical or too spontaneous. We need to be active and spontaneous and aware and mindful at the same time.

Precious Garland lists 57 unskillful mental states and how they affect our peace of mind with instructions on how to cultivate contentment and develop a more aesthetic attitude to life. Nowhere will you find a more thorough but succinct analysis of the various forms of anger, pride, hypocrisy, flattery, jealousy and all the seemingly unimportant ways our minds stay attached, scattered, or entangled.

7. The Results of Actions

Although the law of karma operates over a series of lives, there are very real consequences of our actions in this lifetime.

Nagarjuna says we are creating the world we live in every moment, by our values, our character, those we associate with, and how we treat them. If we don’t like the world we’re making, rather than accept our circumstances as given, we can change the conditions to support more positive mental states.

While Nagarjuna recommends sacrificing a life of pleasure for the promise of less tangible future spiritual rewards, Sangharakshita says that today it’s probably wiser to enjoy pleasurable experiences as long as they’re not incompatible with our spiritual life. The main question we should be asking ourselves about living ethically is “Am I becoming skillful according to the precepts and eliminating what isn’t skillful?”

Overall, Sangharashita proves a worthy guide to the Precious Garland, helping us navigate an ethical life now. Anyone who reads this book will have a hard time retiring it to a bookshelf. Its value seems to grow with rereading and recommitting to its ancient advice.

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“Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With” by Gaylon Ferguson

Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon FergusonA new book by Gaylon Ferguson argues that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the materialism that has us all in its grip, and that meditation and spiritual community are the antidotes. Pam Dodd is our guest reviewer.

Gaylon Ferguson, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, has studied and taught meditation for over 30 years. During that time, he has probably met all kinds of people from all walks of life who have actively pursued, or fallen onto, the spiritual path. Ferguson believes that the normal human condition is natural or basic wakefulness. Wakefulness is the fundamental goodness of who we really are, independent of our circumstances, that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be actualized.

Unfortunately most of us have learned from infancy to be distracted by thoughts and feelings that keep us reacting to life automatically, like robots. We get stuck in the past. We fantasize and daydream. We think incessantly, allowing our monkey mind to jump wherever it pleases. Ferguson calls these habitual patterns reruns. We blindly move through our lives, in prisons of our own making, and we don’t even know it. Looking outside ourselves for our inner well-being, we live with a restlessness that never goes away.

Title: Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With
Author: Gaylon Ferguson
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-657-4
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

The way to wake up from this “sleepwalking” state is not by trying to force or fix ourselves but by gently befriending ourselves in the practice of lovingkindness that is meditation.

Meditation is a commitment to being here now, no matter what. It’s accepting ourselves exactly where we are, working with what’s available in us, and bringing ourselves back to the present again and again whenever we our minds wander. Ferguson maintains that “sitting quietly in meditation is the best research lab to observe the mind’s behavior when it isn’t being interrupted” (p.98).

Meditation is nothing special. Yet if practiced consistently and regularly, it wakes us up to the basic goodness of our lives, not while we’re squirreled away in some far off, quiet sanctuary, but in the midst of living out the ups and downs of each ordinary, busy day.

Ferguson goes to great lengths to provide useful insights and instructions to the practitioner (for the reader of this book must be an active practitioner if the lessons are truly to be learned). It’s clear he knows the ins and outs of meditation.

 Practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change

After the initial chapters on wakefulness and natural training, the middle chapters cover guided exercises, reflections, stories, and student questions on the most important aspects of meditation practice. Central to the book’s approach is the idea of “bare noticing.” This is not “thinking about,” reflection, deliberation, or theorizing, but rather the application of one’s unadorned attention to what currently is. Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.

The book’s meditation lessons start with guided training on mindfulness of the physical body and breathing and move on to mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of feelings.

Along the way we learn how important it is not to be too tight or too loose; how to touch the texture of our emotions; how to lean in to unacceptable thoughts and feelings without being hooked by them; and how respectfully to watch the inner critic or voice of judgment that continuously comments on and criticizes what we think, say, and do.

The last two chapters discuss two central contexts for awakening, the nightmare of materialism and the spirit of community.

Ferguson maintains that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the world of materialism that has us all in its grips. He traces the roots of our constant sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and feeling like something is missing to our neurotic pursuits and thinking. We “fake it,” putting on masks to compensate for what we think we lack. We constantly chase after physical comfort, security, and pleasure. We rely on belief systems and concepts to filter our perceptions. We become addicted to altered or higher states of consciousness through drugs, prayer, yoga, and even meditation.

One antidote to materialism is genuine community. Communities of sanity, generosity, and celebration help us learn how to overcome a sense of scarcity and fear. In community, we work productively with our attention, care, and concern as we learn how to be present with others’ strong feelings without running away or trying to fix things. We nurture the compassionate heart, strengthening our wishes for the well-being of others. We learn to be skillful, waking up into trust and living courageously with others. In this larger sense, “practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change” (p. 170).

 Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.  

The hopeful message of Natural Wakefulness is much needed in today’s stressful times. Unfortunately, the book’s structure gets in the way of a full appreciation of its wisdom and lessons.

First, the wording of the chapter titles is too abstract. The clearer descriptive subtitles would have made better titles. Also subheadings throughout the book are uneven; some make sense while others are too vague.

This lack of clarity carries over to the numbering of the guided contemplations and exercises, which doesn’t follow a consistent style from chapter to chapter. Also, the exercises would have stood out more if each had been put in boxes or otherwise highlighted so the practitioner could return to them easily. The same goes for the valuable question-and-answer exchanges; their inconsistent formatting is distracting, making it difficult to follow the insights meant to support the main instruction.

Other issues include the lack of a bibliography, a few muddled metaphors and analogies, and several abrupt or incomplete transitions that leave the reader hanging.

Last, teaching meditation necessarily involves using abstract language. While much of this language may be familiar to the seasoned meditation practitioner, it can be difficult for the neophyte. Add the burden of structural issues like this book has, and despite the great content, it will be a challenge for some to read.


Pam Dodd, PhDPamela Dodd has practiced Korean Zen Buddhism since the mid-1990s. She’s always returning to beginner’s mind as her love of learning takes her into new fields of knowledge.

Pam has a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. She’s the co-author of The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques, an Amazon bestseller.


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