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Book Review: Awakening Wisdom—Heart Advice on the Fundamental Practices of Vajrayana Buddhism by Pema Wangyal Rinpoche

In February 2023, Shambhala Publications released a book called Awakening Wisdom—Heart Advice on the Fundamental Practices of Vajrayana Buddhism by Pema Wangyal Rinpoche. Originally transcribed from his English lectures in 1989—to a diverse audience, both newcomers to Buddha’s path and those more familiar with it—into a French book, and from that book back into English, this translation serves as a valuable companion for those on the Buddhist path.

From amazon.com

This book—where we feel Rinpoche himself holding our hand and walking with us, neophyte and initiated alike, from the first steps of Buddhist practice through to the door of advanced Vajrayana practice—is primarily based on Dudjom Rinpoche’s text, The Preliminary Practice of the New Treasure (Dudjom Tersar Ngöndro) and similar to The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. 

“The Preliminary Practice of the New Treasure” is a specific set of practices within Tibetan Buddhism, associated with a particular treasure or terma tradition. Terma are hidden teachings and treasures, concealed by enlightened masters and later revealed by tertöns (spiritual discoverers) for the benefit of future generations. Often called “Ngöndro” in Tibetan, they are foundational practices designed to purify the mind and prepare practitioners for advanced Vajrayana practices.

Rinpoche’s approach differs from Patrul Rinpoche’s lessons as it is culturally neutral, aiming to reach a contemporary European audience, who will have had a very different cultural experience from those of thirty-five generations of Buddhism.

In this book, the spiritual practices are not new inventions but have been passed down for over 2,500 years. They were passed down to Rinpoche by his teachers, Kangyur Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who also emphasized the importance of healthy skepticism and, as far as possible, personal experience—something Rinpoche advocates when adopting these teachings, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. Therefore, the practices shared in this book are rooted in practice, not theory, and it encourages readers to explore the practices firsthand.

We are offered a structured journey through Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, comprising three parts: preparation, basic practices, and preliminary practices.

From the beginning, this wonderful little book reminds us of the fleeting nature of our existence and, just as the grains of sand slip through the hourglass, so too will our body end one day, marking the closure of our chance to awaken in this lifetime. We are reminded of the vital importance of the nature of our mind. Our thoughts and intentions not only shape the integrity of our actions but also possess the potential to resonate far beyond ourselves—by virtue of placing the proverbial oxygen mask on ourselves first so we can ensure that we can help others, by virtue of the mirror neurons we all have in our brain, and even by virtue of resonating into the intricate fabric of the quantum realm itself—one way or another, we influence the experiences of others.

This is done by a practice known as Tonglen in Tibetan. It is a Buddhist meditation practice where you inhale the suffering of others, embrace it with compassion, and exhale positive energy and relief to alleviate their pain. We are also empowered to remember that Buddhahood is a potential within us all.

The book emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and self-awareness, even in everyday environments like our homes, offices, or cars. By practicing various structured postures and breathing techniques, it guides readers to cleanse both body and mind, expelling negative energies and blockages associated with emotions like hate, aggression, attachment, and ignorance. This method, when integrated into daily life, helps cultivate calmness, mental clarity, and the ability to be present in the moment, making it a valuable tool for personal growth and conflict resolution.

It serves as a manual that will offer practical meditations using visualizations of colored lights and sacred syllables to develop wisdom. It uses five main colors and three syllables (oṃ āḥ hūṃ) to affect different aspects of the body, speech, and mind. We are guided to imagine white, red, and blue lights spreading blessings and purifying blockages associated with emotions. The colors and syllables correspond to the purification of afflictive emotions and have various practical applications, such as balancing energy, communication improvement, and protection against negativity The syllables, especially oṃ āḥ hūṃ, have a powerful transformative effect—especially when they are both recited and visualized at the same time—and the practices shared in this book, can aid self-healing and also help others when applied regularly. 

The book also explores the four topics that lead the mind towards intrinsic freedom: the value of human life, the impermanence of existence, the significance of mindful actions, and the influence of past deeds on present experiences. It touches on the five main poisons hindering recognition of basic freedom, emphasizing the transformative power of meditation techniques, and how it is crucial to echo the Buddha’s teachings against violence—at all levels—emphasizing that negativity cannot lead to positive growth. We should be vigilant not to be swayed by any advocacy of violence as a spiritual path and instead strive for personal development toward liberation.

Controversially or not, as we progress through the pages, the practices become deeper until Rinpoche also shares some meditations that certainly once were on the precipice of the secret Tantras. However, correct motivations and preparations have been laid down and these meditations are safely explained rendering them blessed inclusions. And so we are introduced to the visualization of deities like Vajrayogini and Padmasambhava, along with the recitation of the Seven-Line Prayer and the Vajra Guru Mantra.

Pema Wangyal Rinpoche. From shambhala.com

The writing clearly explains the practices, postures, visualizations, motivations and reasons, remaining warm and friendly, contemplative, insightful and yet perfectly pithy. And while the meditations, visualizations, mantras, and translations fill nearly every chapter, Rinpoche effectively conveys the complex philosophical concepts in a comprehensible manner, with the use of history, analogies, and examples that enhance the reader’s understanding. 

It is a book that ought to be on every practitioner’s shelf and never permitted to collect dust. But even for those not following a strict Buddhist path, this book offers reflections we would all benefit from considering and meditations we would all benefit from practicing. 

See more

Awakening Wisdom—Heart Advice on the Fundamental Practices of Vajrayana Buddhism by Pema Wangyal Rinpoche (Shambhala Publications)

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