This Side of Nirvana: reviews

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY September 10, 2001

The storyteller’s art is an ancient talent that Jenkins (Buddha Facing the Wall: Interviews with American Zen Monks) puts to good use in her autobiographical account of the spiritual restlessness that eventually led her to the calm of Buddhist practice. She has crafted a helpful work for spiritual seekers who are unsure of the way and their ability to follow it. The story unfolds with Jenkins’s classic depiction of an unrooted personality who is certain that the next trip, town, job or relationship is the answer. While traveling in India, she received a glimmer of the light that would eventually characterize her daily path as one of peace and reasonably balanced contentment. This book is also very much. an examination of the role of the spiritual teacher in a seeker’s life, a parable of delicate balance that applies beyond this book’s Buddhist borders. Jenkins is a likeable guide and an able raconteur, especially when detailing the passage of time in meditation and the feelings of being a part of an earnest spin-trial community. She has mastered a difficult if traditional form of writing that exposes her weaknesses and transforms them into gifts for those of us who are also ‘spiritually challenged,’ which Jenkins still claims to be. (Oct.)

For Retailers Serving the Body/Mind/Spirit Marketplace
January 2002

In proclaiming herself a “spiritually challenged” Buddhist right up front, Jenkins sets a humorous tone for the candid spiritual autobiography that follows. Like so many of the Baby Boomer generation, a nagging desire for self-improvement and the need to find a personal significance in her life led her into cruising the aisles of “the spiritual supermarket.” She writes, “One after another, life improvement programs rose on the horizon, and I never quite noticed the point at which each evaporated somewhere overhead. But since I couldn’t face my subsequent anxiety, I would quickly cast around for the next idea on how to make everything better.” At one point she ruefully discovered, after the fact, that she had unknowingly taken Buddhist vows in India, repeating the strange foreign words without understanding their meaning. Eventually her path of discovery took a Buddhist direction in earnest and she went off to study with American Zen teacher Cheri Huber in the mountains of North Carolina. Her story of “coming home” to herself is fresh and appealing in its very ordinariness.

by Kathryn Rogers

Sara Jenkins’ This Side of Nirvana is a beautifully written account of a journey to and through Zen, eschewing discussion of arcane Buddhist concepts such as karma and rebirth, and offering, instead, a straightforward story of “near-terminal restlessness,” longing, self-examination and finally, compassion.
spacerHaving tried various self-improvement methods and been “fired” by a Buddhist therapist she had looked to as a mentor, Jenkins ends up living and working at a retreat center in North Carolina, where she meets Zen teacher Cheri Huber. Much of the memoir is about Jenkins’ relationship with Huber, who is no tea-sipping Zen mater but a kick-butt Californian with the message that whatever we’re longing for or trying to escape–including cruelty and hate–is in ourselves.
spacerJenkins eventually turns to look at what is in herself, and in one dramatic instance, confronts an intimidating “work Nazi” persona hiding a vulnerable, weak part of Jenkins she wants to deny.
spacer“Suddenly, the nature of suffering seemed so obvious, and so sad,” Jenkins writes. “How hard we try to insulate ourselves from threats that are purely imaginary, one part of the personality covering up the vulnerability of another. . . . All of us, pretending to protect . . . what? The semblance of invulnerability, of being in control. Our absurd need to be other than human.”
spacerIn embracing the part of herself she had rejected, Jenkins finds the point at which compassion begins—“with whatever exists in yourself that you cannot love.”
spacerBy the end of her memoir, Jenkins still hasn’t made it to Nirvana (a state of bliss defined by Webster as being apparently unattainable), her personality is what it has always been, and her old habits are “stubbornly entrenched.” She is still restless in meditation and has given up the quest for answers to big questions. But she has discovered a refuge—the present moment, where “I can allow life to be what it is, and then there is nothing wrong.”
spacerJenkins . . . is an award-winning editor and publisher. She has edited and published several books on Huber’s teachings.

by Andrea McQuillin

Those of us who dwell on “this side of nirvana” will recognize ourselves in Sara Jenkins’ memoir. It has the marks of spiritual autobiography: denial, resistance, passion and boredom. There’s the general wearing away of the peripatetic urge and the growing ability to “just sit.” As Jenkins, a freelance writer and editor, turns a magnifying glass on her spiritual search, not all of the settings are exotic, and the hopes and fears expressed are largely the everyday ones. But the honesty is refreshing and the recounting ofhow one confronts the everyday demons is instructive, no matter how often we hear it.


This book took me by surprise. When I first glanced at the cover, the intriguing title conjured up all sorts of images of smiling Buddhas with infinite wisdom available for those who seek their counsel. Yet, in reading This Side of Nirvana, I discovered a candid self-examination by a brave, yet vulnerable, middle-aged woman challenged to find fulfillment in her life. Sara Jenkins’s spiritual odyssey explores the internal struggles and complexities involved with a seemingly simple charge of being happy in the moment. Rich in a universal kind of insight, This Side of Nirvana reveals man profound truths–for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.