Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life
Alexander Berzin
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 1998
275 pp., $14.95 (paper)

What do you get when you cross Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology) with Lojong (a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of spiritual transformation), marry it to the contemporary Western tradition of self-help, and dress up the hybrid offspring as a workshop manual? You getDeveloping Balanced Sensitivity, by Alexander Berzin, which, in spite of its unusual and ingenious format, is unmistakably a guide to Buddhist practice.

In recent years, a number of seasoned Western translators of Tibetan Buddhism have begun to write innovative books about Buddhist philosophy, practice, and culture. This trend mirrors the Tibetan scholarly custom of writing commentaries on the classics before venturing into original composition. However, unlike Tibetan commentators, who see themselves as transmitters of tradition, many Western scholars have cast themselves in the role of reinterpreters of existing traditions. Witness, for example, the controversial marriage of Buddhism with existentialism in Stephen Batchelor’s Alone with Others, the creative history—some would say revisionism—in Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution, or the potent cultural criticism in Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La.

While these authors are all concerned with the assimilation of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan culture in the West, what Berzin does here is explore practical aspects of transforming the mind, primarily in a Tibetan Buddhist context, but using language accessible to anyone with an interest in spiritual development. Thus, Berzin—a Harvard Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies—has written primarily as a translator and transmitter of traditional ideas, rather than as a critic or self-appointed cultural revolutionary. It is the language he chooses, not his agenda, that marks him as an innovator.

Berzin’s personal study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism is founded in the Gelug tradition, but as anyone familiar with his many translations, published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, will know, he has also studied the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Nyingma Great Perfection and the Kagyu Mahamudra. Accordingly, while much of Berzin’s discussion has the kind of analytical rigor to be expected from a Gelug scholar, he also invokes theories and methods typical of the latter traditions. The keynote here is cultivating a balanced approach to self-understanding.

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