Our Human Potential

The Unassailable Path of Love, Compression, and Meditation

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Dalai Lama
Core Teachings of Dalai Lama
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Our Human Potential: The Unassailable Path of Love, Compassion, and Meditation was recently reissued by Shambhala Publications as part of an eight-part series entitled The Core Teachings of the Dalai Lama. It was first published under the title The Dalai Lama at Harvard in 1988. In the present edition, there appears to be no revision or emendation to Jeffrey Hopkins’ original translation and notes taken from a week of lectures in 1981.

Here, His Holiness the Dalai Lama assumes an intellectually advanced audience to “speak about Buddhism and particularly about its philosophy” (1). While the book’s title and summary are vague on this front, these lectures form a wide-ranging and intensive introduction to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, inclusive of its epistemology, logic, metaphysics (ontology, time, cosmology, etc.), and meditative practice. The book’s ten chapters alternate between morning talks and afternoon question-and-answer sessions followed by additional lectures. Working within the overarching framework of The Four Noble Truths, the Dalai Lama focuses primarily on the views of the Mind-Only (dbu ma pa, mādhyamika) and Middle Way (sems tsam pa, cittamātra) schools. Hopkins’ notes provide the necessary original Tibetan and Sanskrit for many translated terms. 

Chapter 1, “The Buddhist Analytical Attitude,” delves deeply into epistemology and exegesis with a protracted series of lists structurally similar to modes of ancient Indic (āstika) philosophical investigation (e.g., Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā). The reader who is not expressly seeking a thorough understanding of logical postulates may therefore be deterred from moving deeper into the text, as the subject matter here is indeed highly technical. For many readers, it will be wise to keep a notebook close at hand to track the numerous doctrinal and philosophical “divisions,” which the Dalai Lama imparts effortlessly from memory. These divisions index historical distinctions made by Buddhist epistemologists in the development of Indian Buddhist philosophy primarily in the first millennium CE.

We then move to chapter 2, “The Situation of Cyclic Existence,” in which His Holiness elaborates upon metaphysics in Tibetan Buddhist thought including the effects of both coarse and subtle levels of mind-consciousness on reincarnation. The initial Q & A session also introduces the doctrine of Buddha Nature and its connection to Highest Yoga Tantra practices. In chapter 3, “The Psychology of Cyclic Existence,” His Holiness distinguishes between the ontology of the Buddha in the Shravaka (“Hearer” or Mainstream schools) and the Mahayana triple-body system (45). He then enters into a discussion of the effects of one’s mental state (i.e., one’s emotions and resulting actions), on karma and well-being. The content and language in this chapter continues in the technical vein—the Dalai Lama is painstakingly deliberate in the mode of an accomplished logician. The following chapter, “More About Consciousness and Karma,” yields gems of Dharmic thought for the patient reader. It stresses, for example, that selflessness does not contradict an inherent sense of necessary “courage” and belief in our own capabilities (55-56).

It is in chapters 5 through 9 that the general reader will encounter far less epistemic gymnastics and a bevy of material useful for daily practice. In chapter 5, “Cessation and Buddha Nature,” His Holiness begins a Q & A session that includes his views on the treatment of depression and Tibetan Buddhist views on abortion. He then further expands upon “The Cessation of Suffering,” “Buddha Nature,” and “Levels of Emptiness” in accessible and at points even user-friendly passages. In chapter 6, “Paths and the Utilizations of Bliss,” the Dalai Lama addresses topics from suicide to tantric sex prior to enumerating “Thirty-Seven Harmonies with Enlightenment,” inclusive of “how to achieve calm abiding” in meditation (118). The pragmatic bent of this chapter is evident in the Dalai Lama’s teaching on preparing for meditation. Here he states, for example: “If you face the wall, as is done in Zen, it is truly helpful” (119.)

Moreover, chapter 7, “Techniques for Meditation,” is an invaluable resource for the Tibetan Buddhist view on this topic, including the use of “objects of observation” and the goal of “purifying afflictive emotions” (132). For the latter, “as an antidote” to undesirable behavior, the Dalai Lama teaches that one should “meditatively cultivate” its opposite (132).

Chapter 8, “Altruism,” discusses doctrinal views on deepening one’s meditation practice and achieving the compassionate activity of a Bodhisattva. Here and in the following chapter, “Valuing Enemies” (chapter 9), His Holiness details the Bodhisattva Path as taught by the 8th-century scholar-monk Shantideva. It is at the close of this chapter, however, with a discussion of “the three types of wisdom,” that the text turns back to technical expositions geared toward the specialist (176). Amid this in-depth discourse on emptiness ontology, which constitutes the final chapter “Wisdom” (chapter 10), we find His Holiness’ fascinating response to the following audience question: “Does emptiness also mean fullness?” He replies, “It seems so. Usually I explain that emptiness is like a zero. A zero itself is nothing, but without a zero you cannot count anything; therefore, a zero is something, yet zero” (182). Overall, the teachings in this volume combine Dharmic instruction for the Buddhist practitioner with scholarly discussion of a bevy of Buddhist philosophical systems.

While this new Shambhala series offers an alternate volume for those new to Buddhism, portions of Our Human Potential will provide valuable insights into doctrine and practice for most readers with some prior knowledge of Buddhism. On the whole, however, the rigor of many of its chapters—which deal with highly-technical aspects of Buddhist ontology and philosophy—demand specialist knowledge in order to be fully unpacked. That said, the text will be both useful and challenging for graduate students, providing a tightly organized presentation of a great swath of Tibetan Buddhist analytical methods, philosophy, doctrine, and practice by the foremost teacher of the tradition. Experienced scholars will also find this text to be an important resource for its fully developed view of Buddhism from a modern Tibetan perspective. This view, in turn, has the potential to enrich and inform an instructor’s presentation of Buddhism in the undergraduate classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hillary Langberg is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Bard College.

Date of Review: 
July 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. The exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and a remarkable teacher and scholar who has authored over one hundred books.


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