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Training in Compassion

  Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong
by Norman Fischer
Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2013
176 pages
Reviewed by Monique CM Keffer

Walk into any bookstore today and look at the shelves. More than ever, those shelves are crammed full of books about how to find happiness and the wave of neuroscience that supports these claims. Most of the books have two things in common: the role of persistent positive thoughts and compassion’s importance to the brain’s experience of happiness. Increasingly, science proves that what humans think and what they become are indelibly intertwined. Interestingly, these recent findings are not new to Buddhism. Buddhists have set out to train the mind to become more compassionate for centuries.

Specifically, the age-old practice of lojong, or mind-training, employs positive thoughts to allow one to feel and act upon increased empathy. Norman Fischer’s book Training in Compassion: Zen Teaching on the Practice of Lojong describes this process, opening it up for everyone to explore the extraordinary value of the practice. Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a priest, a writer, and the former abbot of the Zen Center in San Francisco, California, USA. He continues instruction, spreading Zen teachings worldwide through his work with the organization he founded, the Everyday Zen Foundation.

The first slogan Fischer introduces is “Train in the Preliminaries.” Fischer shares how to make lojong a part of all of life, describing how to train in empathy and compassion and, perhaps particularly helpful, how to transform bad circumstances into the path. With everyday language, Fischer sets forth his straightforward approach to developing the admirable, yet sometimes elusive in the twenty-first-century chaotic world, qualities of compassion. Clearly Fischer works tirelessly on these pages to make the peace of Zen approachable to each and every reader. The last paragraph of the afterword truly communicates Fisher’s earnest attempt. He writes: “My life has been dedicated to finding a way to practice religion … that speaks to our contemporary condition. If we are facing hard times … better to face them with compassionate hearts than with fear and panic.… We need sermons we can understand and use. We need many reminders and encouragements. I hope this book has helped” (148). This paragraph alone makes the book’s importance to spiritual direction abundantly clear.

Spiritual companions could use this book for a text on increasing empathy without burning out. Spiritual directees can enhance their experience of spiritual direction sessions with this book as they struggle—as most everyone does—with how to become an active compassionate presence in their world. Indeed, goals of spiritual direction can be more easily accomplished through lojong, bringing seekers ever closer to listening and acting with compassion.

Monique CM Keffer, MA, is a writer and spiritual director in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, USA. She is a teacher in the Spiritual Direction Training program at Sacred Ground Center for Spirituality in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.

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