In this book Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is able to wrap her teaching around that kind of modern “first-world-problem” ego and instead of scolding it, acknowledge it while showing a better way of being in the present. Living with empathy and purpose isn’t a theory, but a practice born of perspective and your empowered choice to shape meaning in the world around you. The book provides excellent examples on how compassion can be lived by anyone, even me.

By Kellie Schorr

 

“When I was living up in the mountains in Lahaul, there was a pack of wolves that looked like large German shepherds with yellow eyes…At night they would gather above my cave and howl. It is very beautiful, the howl of wolves.”

The Heroic Heart: Awakening Unbound Compassion, pg 126.

Though I have never met her, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo occasionally appears in my life, like a Dakini in a wisdom tale.

The story of her 12-year retreat in the Himalayas, Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie, was an international best seller. A little closer to home, my own root teacher, Pema Khandro Rinpoche, participated in a dialogue with her for Lion’s Roar about illness and the path of Buddhism. In 2019, my tattoo artist who is a cherished dharma sister, told me of an encounter where she ended up meeting Jetsunma while waiting for a plane from Dharamsala.

The personal accounts I’ve read and heard reveal her to be compassionate, joyous and so determined that when I received The Heroic Heart, I almost expected the book to muscle its way out of the envelope and hug me.

You know what?  It did.

The Heroic Heart: Awakening Unbound Compassion is described as “A modern commentary on The Thirty-Seven Verses of the Practice of a Bodhisattva  but that doesn’t really cover a book this enjoyable and essential. Jetsunma’s voice, sure and empathetic, rings out through the chapters that guide the reader through those classic verses about what it means, and what is required, to be walk the Bodhisattva path in our time.

It’s not theory—It’s practice.

I sometimes find myself resistant to books or teachings from people who live in vastly different circumstances from myself. It may be my short-sighted humanity, but I wouldn’t go to a priest for marital advice, and I’m often skeptical of life lessons handed down by monastics who do not live in the world of traffic jams, work-place tirades, and having 200 channels on your television and still nothing to watch. When challenged by teaching, my entitled, defensive ego immediately cries out.

“Oh, when the garbage company doesn’t provide the pick-up I paid for, I’m supposed to consider it a samsaric condition and wish them to be well and happy?  Well, that’s a great theory but you’re not the one dealing with two weeks’ worth of piled up trash on your front walk.”

In this book Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is able to wrap her teaching around that kind of modern “first-world-problem” ego and instead of scolding it, acknowledge it while showing a better way of being in the present. Living with empathy and purpose isn’t a theory, but a practice born of perspective and your empowered choice to shape meaning in the world around you. The book provides excellent examples on how compassion can be lived by anyone, even me.

Outer Circumstance, Inner Strength

The author is very careful to show her awareness that the Thirty-Seven Verses were written for male monastics in a specific time and place.  However, the spirit and understanding of these teachings can guide anyone, anywhere on the path to enlightenment.  She carefully delineates the “outer approach” of renunciation from the “inner approach” of equanimity.

She covers topics many people in our political, violent, and distracted age would see as “hard truths.” She encourages us to renounce revenge, retaliation, and attachments to embrace empathy and space for those with whom we do not agree or feel have done us wrong. It’s all done with a realistic recognition that if someone cuts us off in traffic our language may be “ripe” (her word), but we can also wish for them to be happy.

The book is written in a voice so authentic you feel as if you sat down on a bus, began to complain about “the problem with everything” and the woman in the adjoining seat pats you on the leg and says, “I hear you, dear.  You know what you can do? Think about someone besides ‘me’ for a moment.”

Then, she’d laugh. And you’d laugh too. And think of someone besides yourself.

The real gift of this offering is its humility.  The writing flows from topic to topic, challenging idea to revealing truth without ever seeming like someone on high (who once lived in a cave at 13,000 ft) is tossing some dharma crumbs down to you.  It feels like she’s sitting with you –in the doctor’s waiting area, in your work cubicle, or on the couch sobbing over what was lost in the fire, the divorce, the diagnosis, the humiliating online comment, or the inner critic’s damage.  She is empathic, and instructional.

In that moment her voice is so beautiful, it sounds just like the howl of wolves.

 

Photo: Shambhala Publications

 

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