Steps to Happiness

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"Oh, er, I seem to be some sort of Buddhist and I want to meet other Buddhists, 'Oh, that's nice,' said the cheerful voice. 'Why don't you come round on Tuesday evening and see what we look like?".

From this rather tentative beginning Robin Hardwick-Smith proceeds to launch himself into Buddhism, and after a few years is ordained as Taranatha.

This book can be seen as Taranatha's own answer to the question that his dying father asked him many years ago: "what was my life for?" At the time this question stumped Taranatha. Death is frequent theme in this book, the death of friends, family, patients. The mood is reflective, but not morbid, and some of the best bits come when he is reflecting on the death of loved ones.

The book begins with the major turning point in Taranatha's life - his facing up to alcoholism. After his last drink he falls into depression, makes the decision to kill himself, and sets off to do it. But on the way something arises in him that changes his mind and gave him the strength to turn around and seek life. The story of his suicide attempt is dramatic and compelling, and told with a kind of chilling detail and objectivity. There is a cold, clear logic that is often present in depression - based on the false premise that nothing can change and that death is the only way out.

Glimpses of Taranatha's life leading up to his crisis make it more clear how he got to such an impasse. Life on the farm in Mangamingi, in the back blocks of Taranaki, New Zealand, was hard and austere. One childhood story stood out for me. As is still common in New Zealand the young Robin hand reared a lamb and took it to the local Agricultural show. Having won first prize and a red ribbon, Robin lead his prize lamb out of the hall - only to be met by the butcher who lifted the ribbon off the lamb, hung it around Robin's neck, and took the lamb away to be slaughtered. There was no place for tears or grieving, there was a starknes and a kind of everyday cruelty about it. The process of conditioning continued at boarding school, so that by the time he went to university his emotions were well and truely repressed.

However something was stirring in Robin. At medical school he felt an inner rebellion to treating people as body-parts, or as diseases. He wanted to see them as people. This was reinforced when he went onto practice family medicine in surburan Auckland where he met real people with problems that were frequently not about disease or broken limbs. However with his background he found the pressures of work, of the needs of his patients, too much and turned to gin at the end of each day, to the point where he could not do without and started each day with shaking hands.

Having broken the alcohol habit, and having survived the suicidal storm that drying out precipitated, Robin, begins to build a new life. Alcoholics Anonymous played an important role. Then one day while helping his sister, Mary Rose, to tidy up he found a book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphries. It took two years before he plucked up the courage to pick up the phone and have the conversation which heads this review. Robin immediately felt at home amongst the people at the Auckland Buddhist Centre.

This second part of the story, which takes up more than half the book, is one of a gradually awakening to a very rich inner life. The severe repression of his early life, is replaced by a growing awareness of and opening up to emotions and people. A blossoming of love which at times manifests in a romantic relationship, but also takes in a passionate love for the Bodhisattva Tara, a love of nature, and, though he does not say so in the book, a great deal of generosity to the FWBO and it's projects, especially Sudarshanaloka.

A feature, a quirk even, of Taranatha's inner life is the presence of a series of 'characters' or subpersonalities: there is provider - "the guy who gets things done"; and Fountain - "a woman, podgy, pale, and tender" who wept steams of tears; and many others. These characters are not quite real, and not quite fanatasy, and seem to represent aspects of Taranatha's psyche, but he describes his interactions with them with lively detail, and they quite often appear to be autonomous beings.

Before long Robin meets his teacher Subhuti, and afer an exploritory visit decides to move to the UK, and six months later is invited on an ordination retreat in Spain, and is ordained as Taranatha (Protected by Tara). The stories from around this time are quite different to the early parts of the book. Indeed taranatha warns us early on that the book might seem to be written by a family rather than an individual. He says "If you find that history sometimes mingles with disembodies states, mythical figures, and childlike fantasies, neither reject these accounts as fantastic nonsense nor revere then as spiritual revelation; they are simply experiences from different levels of awareness. The levels of awareness certainly become more refined, and more beautiful as the book goes along. Although there is a sense of events running into on into each other, the transitions for Taranatha have not always been smooth. Periods of grace have been followed by suffering, but through it all there shines a willingness to reflect on experience and learn from it.

The book concludes with a brief account of Taranatha's present lifestyle - retired, but busy; in the city, but with frequent long solitaries in the bush; and growing older. He says: "The most tangible change is that not only am I happier and more fulfilled, but my enjoyment of life continues to grow". Does Taranatha have his own answer question his father put to him? It is almost as though he does not, but that the question is not one that he would ask in any case. Life is not 'for' anything, it just is, and life lived with awareness, whatever the circumstances, is well lived.

Steps to Happiness
by Taranatha
Windhorse Publications
isbn 1 899579 63 X

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