Gail Andersen Stark
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2020. 231 pp., paper, $18.95.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
Many books have been written on the paramis—the ten components of perfection in Theravada Buddhism. Gail Andersen Stark has written a book that shares her intimate journey to integrate the paramis in her own life. What motivated her? It was a spirit of inquiry that sought to find a harmony between one’s livelihood and inner meditative pursuits.
Each spiritual journey needs a companion—not necessarily a guru—who can guide, share, inspire, and walk with you. Stark’s yearslong friendship with the noted meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein meant that she did not have to search far. This book is the culmination of their work together.
Each month Goldstein provided Stark with instruction on a parami. Stark then spent that month integrating it into her daily life. She shares her experiences with the reader. At the end of the month she had a check-in conversation with Goldstein, and these were truly heart-to-heart communications.
Stark has a wonderful view of how these paramis relate to each other. She calls it a “Path to Peace”: “Being generous [dana] makes us feel happy. We aspire to live with more virtue [sila]. We investigate and renounce unskillful habits (nekhamma). Wisdom [panna] blossoms. Energy [viriya] blooms. Now patience [khanti] is needed. Slowed down, we discern and speak with more truthfulness [sacca]. We grow increasingly resolute [adhitthana]. Loving-kindness [metta] becomes our first response. Now with equanimity [upekkha] as our guide, the bliss of blamelessness arrives.”
I was drawn to the section on wisdom. Wisdom means insight into three characteristics: impermanence, the unsatisfactory nature of phenomena, and selflessness. Goldstein told Stark, “Begin by paying attention in our daily lives in different situations as they naturally arise, hold the intention periodically throughout the day asking, ‘What do I understand here?’, let the wisdom come to you, and explore different areas of your life again, asking, ‘What do I clearly see in this situation?’ Be specific. For example, you could ask, ‘What is creating suffering in this situation? What is driving it?’”
Goldstein also asked Stark to investigate impermanence (how am I seeing impermanence in this moment of craving?), the unsatisfying nature of phenomena (what is my attitude that is causing suffering? Am I overlooking the fact that everything is arising and passing away?), and selflessness (what am I identifying with?).
Stark’s insights about wisdom come as she experiences an earthquake. She has an amazing revelation: “If I am not the cause of my happiness or my discontent, if everything is arising out of certain conditions (like this earthquake) and passing away (hopefully like this earthquake), if I am not the one constantly craving or resisting, if there is actually no me inside wanting or resisting so fiercely, if I can really see the arising thoughts and emotions as not mine and impermanent, at least in this moment . . . might I not be better equipped, and wouldn’t it be so much easier, to just pause for a moment or two and let them pass by like this earthquake?” The earthquake passes by, but the wisdom does not.
Goldstein’s “check-in” thoughts are equally profound. “We are just so caught up in the story of our lives that we’re not directly perceiving the impermanence. And we can see it on every single level. It’s not that it’s hard to see. It’s just remembering to look.”
Stark shares another insight with Goldstein: “Each and every time I think whatever is up won’t go away, I just watch as it does . . . and what I noticed was that I was never asking or investigating when I was happy . . . I don’t want to investigate happiness and cause it to go away!” Goldstein adds on investigating: “We all do this. We come home and we say, ‘Oh, I am tired.’ Or we say, ‘I’m angry, I am sad, I am happy.’ The great Burmese Master Ledi Sayadaw said to say ‘I am tired’ is wrong view about tiredness. The ‘I’ is unnecessary.”
Stark’s book is necessary in today’s confusing times. Practicing integrity takes hard work, but the rewards are extraordinary—“the bliss of blamelessness.” Even to take one parami and delve deeply into it would bring about a transformation. In the concluding chapter, Stark describes a moving experience as she feels great love and compassion towards all beings. “It is working!” she cries.
I have a personal reason to express gratitude for this book. Many years ago I heard the character J.R. Ewing in the soap opera Dallas say, “Once you give up your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.” It had stuck in my consciousness. Reading Stark’s book has finally eradicated it.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He reviews regularly for Quest and works as a volunteer in the archives department of the TSA.