The Heart : the art of meditation, by Vessantara

Review by Dharmacari Vidyavajra

Meditation books seem to fall into one of two camps; an inspirational read that gets beginners started; or something akin to a reference manual for the experienced practitioner. This book primarily is aimed at the tentative beginner. It studiously avoids Buddhist phrases or jargon, explains things in a clear, concise way, consciously taking into account a beginners initial feelings, likely stumbling blocks or misapprehensions. As you read through the book, it goes progressively deeper into the practice, anticipating difficulties that may arise as a beginners practice becomes more established. It efficiently acquits it’s brief. If you’ve learnt to meditate at any FWBO Centre, all the material here will be very familiar.

The central concern of ‘The Heart’ is the cultivation of loving kindness. Informative and practical as the content is, I found the presentation, at times, lukewarm. It’s heart feels reticent, as if afraid to fully revel in enthusiasm for its subject matter. Vessantara, on too few occasions, recounts an amusing story, or salutary tale drawn from his own experience, the use of which was amusing, yet insightful. Having heard and read Vessantara before, I had hoped more of his imaginative flair as a storyteller would have come through onto the page. Though he articulates well, drawing on his wide experience as a meditator and teacher, his personality seems ,at best, subdued by the books format. Regrettably, this leaves ‘The Heart’ reading more like a prescribed text book, rather than something you’d grow to treasure for its warmth and perceptiveness.

Meditation books seem paradoxical beasts. Meditation usually takes place in a room half- lit by candle light, with the meditator’s eyes closed. This seems hardly the best place to be reading a guide book. So, books on meditation can only be read either before or after, but never during the very thing they are describing. There really is no substitute for the intimacy of being taught to meditate one to one. A teachers sincerity and warmth of delivery, is often what captures a beginners interest in meditation, and subsequently, Buddhism. In this respect, the clarity and informative nature of the content, seems of less importance. A beginner’s book, to be successful, must somehow reflect a meditation teachers personality through its presentation. Though getting the balance right between clarity of exposition and personal style cannot be easy, ‘The Heart’ does, for me, rest uncomfortable on the side of instruction, prioritised over inspiration.

Meditation will, inevitable, require some form of interaction between a teacher and a beginner. Being taught from a book, seems a bit cack-handed and ‘old tech’, when put alongside CDs, DVDs and online meditation sites. This raises a few questions; why would anyone choose a book, particularly when there are these more user friendly options?; why is publishing a series of three pocket introductory books on meditation believed important? This book is entering an already overcrowded niche market, where a books appeal cannot rest solely on the information it contains, it also has to possess a distinctive heart.

The Heart : the art of meditation.
by Vessantara
Windhorse Publications.
ISBN: 9781899579716
144 pages, paperback