In December 2022, Shambhala Publications released a book on cultivating Buddhist dignity by the renowned and beloved Dharma teacher Phakchok Rinpoche and history professor and meditation instructor Sophie Wu: Awakening Dignity: A Guide to Living a Life of Deep Fulfillment.
Born into a prestigious lineage of recognized masters, Phakchok Rinpoche was recognized as a Tibetan Buddhist master at just a year old. Rinpoche later immersed himself in shedra, grounding himself in the academic side of Buddhism and completing the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies. He is a lineage holder of the Profound Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa and of the Taklung Kagyu lineage, vajra master of Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery, abbot of numerous monasteries in Nepal and North American Dharma centers, at one of which Sophie Wu teaches. Rinpoche also oversees many South Asian humanitarian projects, has authored several books, and has traveled the world teaching, with a particular focus on dignity.
The concept of Awakening Dignity was born in the mind of Sophie Wu, who had discussed compiling some of Rinpoche’s teachings on dignity with a few of her friends, and then with Rinpoche himself, in 2016. They had initially thought that it would be a little gem of a book—concise in its word count—but it grew, as wisdom tends to do. And it grew into Awakening Dignity, a book compiled from more than 15 years of teachings and, at Rinpoche’s behest, delivered in a language that is as accessible as possible.
The book is nicely broken down into three parts, which are subdivided further to the meat of the lesson. These three parts hold up a mirror to the human condition of whom we truly are, how we can change, and how to trust, using personal anecdotes, lessons, and quotes from masters, with practical advice and meditations rounding off each chapter.
Awakening Dignity is described as a guide, a roadmap to who we truly are, and I agree. This is not a compendium of pithy pokes or a how-to instruction manual. It is the journey of our true nature at the core of the “sticky” negativity we collect during life, and how to live in dignity, essentially offered in the form of reflections and anecdotes from a Buddhist master—personal stories and those of people close to him, along with down-to-earth, practical advice on how to transcend our emotional house of cards built on a bed of tangled neuroses; especially in this modern, frenetic, neurotic world. We are guided in the reawakening of our innate sovereignty. We are helped in reaffirming the “ethereal bedrock” of our un-klesha’d self as we navigate the challenges that being alive can bring us.
Simply put, this book of Rinpoche’s teachings on dignity leads us, step by step, on a journey to remembering ourselves. And I think one of the most valuable, deceptively simple questions comes toward the end of chapter one: on a daily basis, when do we notice that we have dignity and when do we not have it? To really chew on this question, is quite enlightening.
Inscribed on the pediment of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were these words: γνῶθι σεαυτόν . . . know thyself.
Who we are is not what we think we are. We are not merely the sum total of the experiences this brain of ours has been through. Yet our brain will “collect” negative attributes over time—known as the Five Poisons in Buddhism, and, arguably, the negativity bias in Western psychology. However, it is through the process of alchemizing such proclivities that we can transcend these impeding afflictions and recall our true nature. And this is what this book will bring us back to, time and again, as Rinpoche guides us, step by step, through the process. Modern therapists may call it cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Buddhists, for more than 2,000 years, have called it mind training, and Rinpoche dances beautifully between the two lexicons. Buddhist in most of its delivery, the book also references contemporary cultural and scientific terminology, rendering a lovely mix for the reader.
Rinpoche and his wife have been fully immersed in the psychology of the West, and as a family man, Rinpoche also lives the obligations of a husband, father, and working adult, which gives him insights into what is more tenable in everyday practice rather than a Pollyanna-ish idealism, or a spiritual high ground at the expense of being present for the people who count on him. A point I appreciated when, for example, he discusses attachment. As a mother, this had been a contentious issue for me over the years as I am deeply attached to my children. Yes, I understand it at a transcendental level, but as a sentient being, the historical male monastic pressing of detachment never sat well with me. In fact, it felt counter to every cell of my body and, simply put, wrong. Rinpoche, however, is a father. And so he makes clear that the Buddhist reference to attachment is fundamentally different from the pure bond of “joy and freedom” of parent and child, and that of a clinging nature. Thank you, Rinpoche.
I also appreciated the advocacy of not being a zealot by blindly following an accepted narrative without profound questioning, and, if need be, even following one’s own path instead. It was for this reason that I felt the training at the end of each section was so wonderful. They are probing self-reflective meditations free of religious dogma. But this training is a practice to be practiced. Like breathing, the theory is excellent, but the realization is even better.
And this is something Rinpoche reminds us of throughout this book; not the analogy of breathing, that’s my own, but of the importance of implementing what we read rather than merely intellectualizing. So, to re-emphasize the point, these practices are exactly that: practices. Without actively embracing the lessons and letting them permeate our waking minds, they remain nothing but words on a page—as useful as reading about the practice of breathing while we slowly asphyxiate.
All in all, it is Rinpoche’s accessible language and warm delivery that make these lessons, and this book in general, such a worthwhile read. Like a parental hug reminding one that we are in safe hands, that we are loved, and that we are inherently luminous.
Nyingjé is the Tibetan word for compassion. The word is made up of two parts: nying, meaning “heart” or “disposition,” and jé, meaning “noble,” “king,” or “sovereign.” In other words, its meaning is something akin to Noble Heart. And we would do well to remind ourselves of this term. Nyingjé with others in mind for sure, but also ourselves. We are inherently of noble heart. Keep coming back to this phrase.
We are the clear, radiant light at the center of the storm. And that is the message of this gently and beautifully offered book.
Phakchok Rinpoche and Sophie Wu. 2022. Awakening Dignity: A Guide to Living a Life of Deep Fulfillment. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Awakening Dignity (Shambhala Publications)