This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist is a personal memoir about a Southern American woman’s experience with dharma.
The back cover has a nice quote from the author, Sara Jenkins:
The path does not require that we approach it with noble intentions. What I brought to my spiritual seeking was the one thing I had going for me all along, although it took time to recognise its importance – the sincerity of my simple wish to be happy.
The book is about overcoming a deep restlessness and finding a place to be. We start with a brief descriptions of 1970s seeking (including the standard Hindu guru) before delving into the author’s steadily increasing engagement with Buddhism marked out by the people she meets on the way.
Two key figures are Jane, a Buddhist-oriented therapist and Cheri, a noted Buddhist teacher and guide. Sara thinks Jane is wonderful, and is devastated when Jane announces she will no longer act as Sara’s therapist. The book conveys the pain of this very well, but also Sara’s dawning realisation that, actually, Jane had a point – therapy should be an aid, not a permanent crutch.
I was struck by the suggestion of one teacher (p.54) that Jane explore the similarities between phenomenology and Buddhism, given that reading the analysis of Heidegger’s thought in Mark Lilla’s splendid The Reckless Mind, it seemed to be just ersatz Buddhism. (Further comments here.)
The appeal of This Side of Nirvana is very much in the familiarity and ordinariness of the author’s concerns.
You don’t have what you want, or you have it and now it’s not enough, or it’s fine but you are not enough? You can blame the world, you can make excuses or you can run away to that promised land where everything will be exactly as you want it, always and forever. The third option had always been my first choice.(p.58).
Her grappling with how to understand herself and the world around her, how to do and benefit from meditation are appealing in their sheer ordinary familiarity.
Cheri seems full of perceptive common sense:
We tend to think, ‘Sitting is all well and good, but I have something important to do. I just don’t have the time.’ But the real trick of it is finding the willingness. When we’re willing, everything is easy. There’s plenty of time, plenty of opportunity, plenty of energy. A large part of finding that willingness is letting go of the notions about fitting our spiritual practice into a certain framework. We can’t fit spiritual training into our lives: we must fit our lives into spiritual training. When it begins to dawn on us that there is no life apart from spiritual training, then we begin to practice. (p.112)
Which is not a point about not having a life, not being a parent, husband, lover, friend or worker, but about pervading whatever we do with what we truly decide is important (and being open with ourselves about our real decision, as distinct from our pretences to ourselves).
Another of Cheri’s comments struck home to me:
I hardly ever recommend people read about Buddhism, because they tend to do that instead of meditating. But you might take a look at some of the original Buddhist texts. What little I’ve read in them sounds pretty psychological to me. It’s amazing to find all these things we experience today right there in teachings from twenty-five hundred years ago (p.200).
Again and again, the trick seems to be to keep asking why. To dig below the surface feeling, the surface belief, the surface claim (particularly those we make to ourselves) to see what is really going on. And to make sure that our asking is really examining, rather than a surreptitious (or not so surreptitious) surrender, a trapping within, which is itself the problem. Illusion, is not about the world not existing, but about our falling into certain standard cognitive traps about the world and ourselves. What is particularly engaging about This Side of Nirvana is precisely that the author makes no profound claims about herself: she simply has had a productive journey and is kind enough to share it with us.