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Sharing enlightenment

In his new book, professor spreads word of Buddhism

(jim daniels for the boston globe)

Three decades ago, John Makransky began studying Buddhism with Tibetan monks in Nepal. Today he lives in Natick and, as an associate professor of Buddhism and comparative theology at Boston College, teaches the practices founded centuries ago.

For 15 years, Makransky has been leading classes on campus on Buddhist philosophy, scriptures, and meditation theory. One of his courses compares aspects of Buddhism and Christianity.

The previous author of two scholarly books, Makransky's latest publication is his first for a general audience. "Awakening Through Love: Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness" (Wisdom Publications) illustrates how people of all backgrounds and faiths can access the Tibetan Buddhist practice of compassion and wisdom. Each chapter includes step-by-step guided meditations. Makransky has embarked on a nationwide book tour, which includes stops Wednesday evening at BC, and Oct. 17 at Wellesley College.

So how did a kid from outside of Philadelphia become such a revered lama and professor?

Makransky was first introduced to the practice of silent prayer at the age of 5, when he attended a Quaker school and took part in weekly Quaker Meetings, a silent form of worship where participants would speak from their place if moved by the spirit.

"I remember the first time I walked into a Quaker Meeting and feeling that it was tremendously profound," said Makransky.

Makransky's parents, both Jewish, felt the school would provide the best education. He attended until he began college at Yale University, where he majored in molecular biochemistry. But as he followed on his premed track, Makransky concluded that learning about brain chemistry wasn't really answering the questions that he had about human potential and the human mind. It was the courses on Asian religions that began to shed some light.

Before applying to medical school, Makransky spent two years with the Peace Corps in the Philippines, where he taught villagers how to purify and protect their water sources, and helped connect tuberculosis patients to treatment programs.

When the tour ended, he headed to Nepal in search of Tibetan lamas with whom to study. Unfortunately, no one he encountered spoke English, and after a frustrating month, Makransky decided to fly back to the United States and get his medical school applications in order.

As fate would have it, three days before Makransky was scheduled to leave Nepal he ran into a co-worker from the Peace Corps in the streets of Katmandu. She was meeting a friend who lived there and invited Makransky to join them.

A few hours into the visit, he overheard them discussing an annual course given by Tibetan lamas in English that usually took place that time of year. Makransky said he frantically packed his things and ran into the streets to find the town the woman had described.

"As I trekked through the various villages I was bitten by a stray dog, climbed up one mountain in the wrong direction, and became caught within a number of brambles," he said.

Despite being scratched up and exhausted, he made it to Bodhnath, home of the largest Buddhist shrines in Nepal. He also learned that the monthlong course had begun that day, a mere 10 minutes before he arrived.

It was there that Makransky found what he had been searching for all of those years. And when the month came to an end, he was invited to study in north India, where the Dali Lama lived. He spent the next year traveling between north India and a monastery in Nepal.

After three years abroad, Makransky moved back to the United States to study with Geshe Lhundup Sopa, a friend of the Dali Lama. Sopa was on the facility at the University of Wisconsin and Makransky entered the doctorate program.

Now 54, Makransky has been a practicing Buddhist for nearly three decades. In addition to teaching at BC, he is also a lama at the Dzogchen Center Cambridge and senior faculty adviser for Kathmandu University's Centre for Buddhist Studies in Nepal.

With his skills and knowledge, one might assume that Makransky is in a perpetual state of calm. When asked if he ever experiences, say, "road rage," he answered, "Of course!" The point of meditation, he said, is not to be instantly transformed into a saint who will never experience anger, but to have a spiritual place to return to - what you really mean to be as a person.

"You have to feel what humans are going through in order to have some compassion," explained Makransky. "It's not by avoiding or suppressing feelings of rage, anxiety, fear, worry, or nightmares; it's by experiencing them that we can feel compassion for others who are, or who have also shared these feelings."

Makransky talks about a time in 1988 when he experienced compassion to the core.

"My father's death opened up a window on everyone around our family, including [people] that I didn't particularly like or I'd judged," said Makransky. "We were all going through the loss, and the field of judgment was absurd compared to the reality."

Evan Zazula, a business owner in New York, has studied with Makransky on many occasions. "John's teachings and meditations on love and compassion opened my heart," he said. "I didn't know what hit me."

Makransky's wife, Barbara, a library media assistant at Brown Elementary School in Natick, also has been moved by her husband's enlightenment.

"Listening to John teach and lead meditation always amazes me," she said. The couple met in the Peace Corps in the 1970s and have two sons, ages 12 and 15. All members of their family are Buddhist.

John McDargh, an associate professor in the theology department at Boston College, said he finds it remarkable that Makransky is able to enter into doctrinal debates both within and between various schools of Tibetan Buddhism that relatively few western scholars or even native-speaking Tibetans have the depth of knowledge to negotiate.

On the other hand, McDargh said, Makransky equally wants to communicate the heart of those traditions to non-Buddhists and ordinary folks, as he does in his latest book release.

Said McDargh, "What is there not to love about a book that in only a matter of pages can expound the teaching of a Tibetan master and illuminate it with reference to a song by Bob Dylan, a line from Julian of Norwich, a moment playing with one of his boys on a winter morning, or Harry Potter's discovery he can speak to a snake?"

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