As Dharma teachers go Ethan Nichtern is hot, or at least that’s the impression one gets from the number of his podcasts that people are downloading and the blurbs on the back of his new book One City: A Declaration of Interdependence.
The book attempts to express the fundamental truths of the Dharma using contemporary language and popular culture, and is aimed at a generation for whom iPods and podcasting are as natural as breathing. The great challenge for a book like this is to ensure that the essence of the Buddha’s wisdom isn’t thrown out with the bath water of traditional expression. One City has a good shot at rising to the challenge.
Ethan’s honesty about his own struggles to practice the Buddhist path is compelling, and I’m sure it is this that makes him such a popular Dharma teacher. One City is packed with examples of how his own states of mind fall short of the ideal, but not in a self-deprecating or self-loathing way, rather with a kind awareness that to be human is after all to be imperfect, and that this is okay! In fact avoiding the pitfalls of self-loathing is one of the strongest themes of the book; clearly something that Ethan feels needs to be emphasized again and again in our anxiety-ridden times. The second chapter on the Inadequacy Principle explores this in detail.
Ethan has a deeply humorous and at the same time common sense and serious take on the absurdities in our culture. Take for instance his thoughts on infotainment: “And did you ever wonder why you need to be told what’s going on in a war-zone by someone who has to spend an hour on hair and makeup before she can tell you?” Or there are the deceptively challenging reflections on the icons of “MegaGirl” and “MegaGuy” and the way in which we sacrifice so much to try and achieve these unachievable ideals. It’s a pleasure to see humor and irony communicate common sense with a punch.
The focus of One City is primarily self, the experience and mind of the individual, especially as seen through meditation, and the way in which one’s choices ripple out into the interdependent world. For instance in chapter 6 Entertainment Ain’t So Entertaining Ethan introduces the practice of discipline – more often referred to as ethics or training principles in the Buddhist tradition. The discipline described here is all about overcoming addictive habits, for instance compulsive video-gaming so that one can lead a more satisfying and fulfilled life.
This is of course a very important point, no meaningful life or endeavor can be achieved without some measure of self-discipline. However there is much more to discipline in Buddhism than just overcoming addictive habits. The most basic Buddhist ethical trainings, the five precepts, which are practiced by millions of Buddhists all over the world, are essentially about one’s relation to other beings.
The fundamental Buddhist training or precept is abstention from violence or killing and the development of loving-kindness. Killing is the ultimate denial of interdependence, taking from another that which is most precious to them, their own life. In the Buddha’s own words “He who loves himself will never harm another.” To kill or harm another is also to kill the awareness of interdependence in one’s own heart, and to go cold, dead to one’s essential humanity. Since the practice of non-violence is so fundamental to the development of positive states of consciousness and thus awareness in meditation, it was a little disappointing that in Chapter 8, “Nonviolence or Nonexistence,” Nichtern did not take his reflections on meat-eating to their logical conclusion. He makes the important, and hard-hitting point, that it is really the meat-eater who is responsible for the death of the animal, but falls shy of saying that therefore vegetarianism is the natural practice of non-violence and developing interdependence.
I don’t know whether Ethan is a vegetarian or not, but it would seem to follow naturally from his passion for interdependence, not only because of the expression of compassion that flows towards animals from this practice, but also because the huge global meat-industry gobbles up so much of the world’s resources that could be more efficiently used to feed more of us in other ways.
One City is certainly a stimulating read. I found myself oscillating between being impressed with the little jewels of insight and striking images that are strewn throughout the book, and thinking “no, he hasn’t quite got that, there’s something missing here.”
For instance Ethan’s definition of the fundamental Buddhist value of sangha as synonymous with community dumbs-down the meaning of the word. In saying that “the NBA is a sangha” (page 43) he misses the essential quality of sangha; that it is a spiritual community of people who come together on the basis of an ideal to live a more aware, more compassionate life. Sangha is so important that it is valued as one of the three most precious things in Buddhism, along with the Buddha and the Dharma. How many of us could really make any progress on the spiritual path without contact with other like-minded friends and teachers? Sangha is so much more than a community thrown together by basketball, race, class, hobby, or any other grouping to which we happen to belong.
If there were more space in this review it would be great to share more of the jewels and critique more of the lacunae. I guess that’s an invitation for you to read the book yourself and see what you think.
Ethan’s passion for life, in particular modern city life, is infectious and his care and concern for the bigger picture and the craziness at large in our world make for a compelling vision. One City is an expression of this vision in a young Dharma teacher who has something to say, in contemporary terms, that’s worth listening to. He’s one to watch!
Rijumati became a Buddhist over 20 years ago whilst studying for a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University. For much of the time since he has worked as a director for a Buddhist “team based right livelihood” importing business based in Cambridge that supports the spiritual practice of its employees and works with supplier communities in developing countries to improve their basic living and working conditions. He is currently taking a sabbatical year to deepen his Dharma practice, travel and go on pilgrimage.