In The Backdoor to Enlightenment, we meet Otto and Hannah, two depressed but wise-cracking librarians who discover a mysterious parchment panel containing a cryptic message that seems to point the way toward self-actualization. Intrigued, the two bibliodrones set out on a clandestine scavenger hunt, scouring the library and its environs for additional panels supposedly hidden by the library's founder. They eventually assemble all the clues, decipher the meaning of existence and head off happily into the sunrise.
Otto and Hannah's saga is just a story, but Za Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, and Ashley Nebelsieck, an author and adventurer residing in Scottsdale, assert that their good fortune is also a possible achievement for us denizens of the real world. All it requires, they suggest, are some changes in the way we think. To facilitate our cognitive overhaul, they have interwoven the tale with a discourse on the Six Paramitas, or Perfections, Buddhist practices viewed as essential to spiritual development and intended to reveal a clearer picture of reality.
Rinpoche and Nebelsieck attest that things are, indeed, quite a bit different from how we usually perceive them. However, they say, we don't have to become Bodhisattvas to realize it. Enlightenment, they observe, doesn't stem from esoteric, world-renouncing experiences, but rather from lucid, logical and open-minded thinking.
The Perfections--generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom--also have nothing to do, they contend, with being perfect. Instead, they refer to the basic structure of the universe as it relates to human consciousness. Once understood, they write, the Paramitas can help us see the world as one of limitless possibilities.
The first Paramita, generosity, is connected to impermanence, a phenomenon that many people resist like it's the plague. However, Rinpoche and Nebelsieck tell us that change is actually the force that gives life its "richness, beauty and complexity," an ever-flowing stream of potentialities. The kaleidoscopic nature of life, they declare, can also shape us into more generous people.
"Living (with change)," they say, "will bring a natural openness, a willingness to give and receive without obligation or expectation. "
Rinpoche and Nebelsieck write that morality, the second Paramita, is not so much concerned with matters of good and evil as it is with freedom and the ability to respond appropriately to reality. This ability is often impaired, because our ideas fuse into a "map of the world" which, limited to begin with, tends to remain static while reality moves on. The way out of this bind, they note, is to cultivate a higher level of mental fluidity by examining our assumptions and discarding ideas that no longer seem to align with reality.
"The power in freedom," they declare, "is that it allows the mind to be capable ... engaged by change, not overwhelmed ... confident that it can solve whatever problem it encounters ... (striving) to instill hope and a spirit of exploration in others."
Patience, they tell us, is essentially the byproduct of knowing we're free to act as we choose, and using logic and experience to pick actions that will lead to the most desirable effects. Meaningful efforts, in turn, are fueled by intent--essentially, the will to grow--a powerful mix of imagination and courage that enables us to conquer fear and live creatively. Concentration teaches us that the present is the only real aspect of time--the past and future, they say, are just fantasies, and the key to wisdom is the awareness that everything in the cosmos is connected.
Which brings us back to Otto and Hannah. While everything may very well be connected, some things are a bit less connected than others. The story passably illustrates the transformative power of the Paramitas, but it's not well-integrated with the book as a whole in terms of writing quality and the ability to sustain interest. It's cut from the same contrived cloth as many teen detective yarns, and I found myself hurrying through each chapter to get to the next section of annotation.
However, the commentary more than makes up for the story's shortcomings. Full of empathy and insight, it's essentially cognitive therapy with a spiritual twist, having the potential to deliver on the promises made in the title.
"To live an enlightened life," they say, "you don't have to follow rules, radically change your behavior or adopt a new belief system. The world of enlightenment is there for you to see with your own eyes and interpret with your own mind. All you have to do is wake up."