Beacons of Dharma (Book Review)

Beacons of Dharma: Spiritual Exemplars of the Modern Age

Edited by Christopher P. Miller, Michael Reading, and Jeffery D. Long | Review by Ross O’Brien

Beacons of Dharma: Spiritual Exemplars of the Modern Age (hereinafter, Beacons) is a collation of essays from some of the world’s foremost scholar-practitioners in the field of Indic traditions. The collective work is part of a larger series entitled Explorations in Indic Traditions: Theological, Ethical, and Philosophical which is also edited by Dr. Jeffery D. Long. 

Beacons is divided into three parts: (1) Service, Compassion, and Humanitarianism, (2) Ecology and Environmental Activism, and (3) Peace, Knowledge, and Social Justice. Any categorical delineations are fated to inadequately contain the depth, breadth, and intersection of the innumerable contributions made by the figures detailed in Beacons. Yet the book’s structure acts as an indispensable adhesive that binds together life events, achievements, and legacies spanning almost an entire millennia. In his essay on the Tibetan Buddhist monk Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, Westin Harris aptly captures the thematic diffusion and intersectionality woven through this collection of essays when he summates that, “dharma beacons…who have operated fluidly across borders and dichotomies (traditional/modern, eremetic/socially engaged, local/global, alive/dead, personal/interpersonal) challenge us to expand our very presuppositions of what it means to be socially engaged,” (Miller, Reading, and Long, 132).

While the religious leaders comprising this pantheon of dharma beacons (Ammachi, Sri Ramakrishna, Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Vikekananda, Pema Chodron, and Sri Chinmoy, to name a few) are perhaps beyond both definition and duality, it is still relevant to identify the seams of this collective work— the primary and common threads that stitch the volume together into a comprehensive whole. Miller and Reading, in their introduction of the book, choose to hone in on religious leadership as an overarching context and the crux of their definition of the central theme, the proclaimed beacons of dharma. While most often but not always a person, these beacons, say Miller and Reading, are rare and precious assets to our world. They are wellsprings of inspiration and act as “guides to fellow spiritual seekers on a sacred journey of despair to hope, from ignorance to knowledge, from apathy to action, and from bondage to deliverance,” (Miller, Reading, and Long, ix).

On further examination, readers of Beacons will find that there is another crucial thread to the fabric from which these figures are fashioned— an upstream movement against the sociocultural current of their respective eras. To be a beacon of dharma, it seems that one must not only inspire others but also, in both ideology and action, reject or defy some existing more or institution that is either antiquated or discriminatory in nature. It is this additional piece that elevates a typical leader into a higher echelon of influence and being. It is as if these spiritual exemplars are an embodiment of evolution itself, lifting entire societies out of stagnancy and setting them on new trajectories of deeper knowing and wider inclusion of identities, ideas, and phenomena.

With equanimity and deft avoidance of the obvious pitfalls of hagiographical embellishment, the contributing authors of Beacons manage to encapsulate the boundless achievements and timeless realizations of their respective subjects and yet still ground them in a relatable humanness. Beacons is more than just a well-researched work of scholasticism— it also blossoms with a practitioner-style devotion that invokes its reader to touch their own indefatigable potential to make a lasting impression on the world for the greater good of all.