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Archive for the category “Tibetan Buddhism”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.  Rupa Paperback 1997.  425 pages.

Judging by the number of reviews on Amazon, this is probably one of the most popular books on Tibetan Buddhism out there.  The reasons for this are not hard to understand.  In terms of its style it is extremely accessible and personable.  The writing is both sincere and approachable; this is a “regular guy’s” guide to Tibetan Buddhism, not a scholarly or esoteric rendition.  The author relates many personal stories about his own upbringing in the Tibetan tradition, giving it a feeling of great authenticity.

The material is quite comprehensive as far as an overview of Tibetan Buddhism goes, with a unique focus on issues of death and dying–how to relate to someone who is terminal, how to respect their feelings, help maintain their sense of integrity, and how to keep one’s own perspective on things as life passes away.  For people who are dealing with the loss of loved ones, or who are themselves terminally ill, I think the book has a lot of comfort and guidance to offer.

There are many applied discussions concerning meditation.  Practices of guru yoga and lojong are discussed, as are meditative preparations to help one deal directly with one’s own demise.  I found the discussion of the Tibetan Bardo teachings to be particularly interesting, as this is not an area of which I am very knowledgeable.  Essentially, the entire process of death, transition and rebirth is described from the inside out.  I would be fascinated to know the means by which these teachings came into being; I suspect this is probably a cumulative tradition based upon many peoples’ near-death experiences and past life memories.

Altogether, I can easily recommend the book.  What I can’t recommend is that you read anything about the author, because if you do it will give you something of a mixed feeling about what he has written.  Assuming he wrote it, that is.  Online I’ve encountered rumors that Sogyal Rinpoche is not even the author, that someone else either ghost wrote the book or contributed substantially without credit.  I find this hard to believe, but I suppose anything is possible.  I can only say that if the widespread allegations of sexual misconduct against Sogyal Rinpoche are true, then he must be something of a split personality, since it is clear he has also done much good.

My advice: read and benefit from the book, but don’t explore any further.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C.C. Chang

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C. C. Chang.  Shambhala Publications 1992.  730 pages.

Anyone who knows anything about Tibetan Buddhism has heard the name Milarepa (literally “Mila the Cotton Clad”).  He is Tibet’s Dante, Socrates and Shankara, all rolled into one.  Reading this book you cannot help get the sense he was also one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the earth and I just have to wonder: Why have I never managed to meet someone like this?  My karma, I guess.  But then, it’s also my karma to read and appreciate what has been recorded of him.

I would advise readers tackle first his autobiography, of which there are several translations.  (I will shortly be reviewing Lobsang P. Lhalunpa’s translation, done in 1977 and only the second in English since Evans-Wentz’s in 1928.)  This is critical, because without that background many things referred to in this book won’t make sense.  If the biography gives you the structure or bones of Milarepa’s life, this book fills it out with flesh.

True to the title, much of the book is in verse.  This may bother some people, and if you’re one of those who can’t bear reading verse then perhaps you should pass.  However, this is not poetry in the ordinary sense.  It is, rather, an example of “singing dharma,” of Buddhist teachings via song.  (Sadly, of course, the melodies Milarepa set his verse to are lost.  I suspect they were popular and well known tunes of the day.)  I can only say I wish I’d been there to see Milarepa sing his songs and teach his patrons, antagonists, and disciples.  Apparently he had a lovely singing voice (it is described as “deep” in one verse), and he composed his teaching-songs extemporaneously.  This in itself is a remarkable talent, and even if we didn’t consider his accomplishments as a yogi, it indicates an extremely gifted, quick and sharp-witted person.

What also stands out is the extraordinary range and depth of Milarepa’s meditative accomplishments.  He seems to have practiced and mastered most of the contemplative systems in Tibet at the time.  The book is replete with descriptions and references to these systems, so there is a fair bit of technical language; the fact that they are related via song and verse in no way means the contents are “dumbed down.”  As a result, while I am very familiar with Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism but somewhat new to the Vajrayana, I was sometimes at a loss.  So, one should be familiar not only with the general worldview of Tibetan Buddhism, but specifically with tantrism and the terms of subtle physiology.  While the translator has provided a great many explanatory footnotes of various terms, a general education in the Vajrayana is really prerequisite.

Now to the contents specifically.  Milarepa’s songs are interspersed amid a welter of biographical incidents that while seemingly random do in fact follow a roughly chronological order.  (It seems a lot of them occurred later in his life as Milarepa is always referring to himself as an “old man.”)  There are stories about how demons were subdued, how disciples were met and converted, how various antagonists confront Milarepa and then are disarmed, enchanted or just plain bowled over by his spiritual and magical acumen.  (Scholars come in for a hard whacking!)  The verses themselves have a variety of functions, chiefly instructive and inspirational.  They also serve to boast of Milarepa’s accomplishments—not, I should note, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but for letting people know why he does what he does, what they can achieve through practice, and to exhort those who seem intent on remaining mired in their particular habits of thinking.  I feel that the book is at its best in this regard.  Some might take it as a meditation instruction manual, but there is clearly a lot of explanatory material missing, so I’m doubtful just how far one would get trying to practice as Milarepa describes.  If you educated yourself in Tibetan Buddhism and language, got a lama, and then went at it in the original language, the book might indeed be very helpful as a “how-to” manual.  But without all that I think inspiration and exhortation are its best uses.

All of which makes me wonder: Why hasn’t someone with the noted credentials done an in depth study of Milarepa’s life and habits and really tried to figure out what exactly his practices were?  It seems like an obvious task for a motivated scholar-practitioner.  Using the Songs and the Life, existing tradition and the rich folklore connected with Milarepa, someone ought to create a scholarly biography that could, I think, go even further in inspiring and instructing us.  I would love to see such a book.  Please, someone, do this!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Shambhala 2003.  415 pages. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is a veritable treasure chest of information, insight, ideas and inspiration for practice, contemplation and just about everything having to do with yoga.  

Unlike the previous Feuerstein book I reviewed (The Path of Yoga), this is not an integrated text but rather a collection of essays and musings by the author.  Even if you didn’t know this, you would quickly suspect it since, while the sections of the book are arranged thematically (general orientation, ethics, practices, etc.), the “chapters” all have a self-contained feel to them.  There is also the sense that many were originally part of some larger unit and so when they end they sometimes do so rather abruptly.  You’re ploughing into the meat of some topic, turn the page, and–wham!–you’re on to the next “chapter.”  This can be a bit jolting, but not all the essays are like this–most have a fully rounded, finished feel to them–but it’s often enough that you start expecting/bracing for it.  Because the book consists of essays you will also get a fair bit of repetition which, for some people, may be annoying, but for others, who want to drum certain points/facts into their heads, may well be ideal.   As for a more in-depth review of the book’s contents, with a collection of essays, touching on highlights is the usual approach, and that’s what I’ll do here. 

Clearly Feuerstein has thought a lot about Yoga.  As noted, there is something of a”treasure chest” feel to the book; you never know what’s up next until you turn the page.  And while the vast majority of pieces aim at being informative, many are reflective as well, though only one can be truly called self-revealing.  That would be “Crossing the Boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism via Tantra-Yoga,” which describes Feuerstein’s “conversion” (if that’s the right word–probably not) from Hindu yoga to Buddhist yoga (ala Vajrayana).  Easily the best of the reflective pieces is #62, “Faith and Surrender: A New Look at the Eightfold Path,” a brilliant essay I would heartily recommend for multiple rereadings. 

As a scholar though Feuerstein excels at dispensing information.  He does this in breadth by touching on just about every conceivable application and type of yoga (I never even knew there was such a thing as buddhi-yoga!), and depth: for example, an eleven page essay on OM reveals this all-important seed mantra’s rich textual and cultural legacy.  A couple dozen regular volumes might be necessary to cover this much ground and there’s no way every topic can be considered in depth; for that you’ll have to seek other books.  But wait!  Dr. Feuerstein has most graciously already considered your predicament and provided an illuminating  overview entitled  “Introducing the Great Literary Heritage of Hindu Yoga”!  An excellent little piece unto itself, an annotated bibliography of books is appended to it, citing quality tomes on general yoga, the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Patanjali, the Epics, Gita, Tantrism and more.  All you incurable bibliophiles out there should do three prostrations in Georg’s direction.  (BTW, he lives in Canada.)

There’s very little one can complain about regarding this book.  Feuerstein is a writer of clarity and concision, thoughtfulness, depth and sensitivity–not to mention vast knowledge; the man may have read just about everything on the subject.   The only, ONLY gripe I might have is a slight tendency–which, frankly, coming from the pen of a scholar is rather ironic–toward a sort of textual fundamentalism.  For example, writing on the Mahabharata he repeatedly refers to the war the poem describes as the greatest ever fought on Indian soil and even speaks of “the godman” Krishna as a historical person.  This kind of thing comes up more than once–and invariably caused my face to screw up in an incredulous squint–so I have to assume Feuerstein actually believes these things.  Suffice to say, I would grant Krishna less historicity than Moses or Lao-tzu, and as for the battle, while I suspect the story has its roots in some historical event(s), I doubt its fidelity to facts in any way exceeds that of the Iliad or the romances of King Arthur.

That being said, buy the book!  You won’t regret it; Feuerstein’s writings will lead you on to richer yogic horizons!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Food of Bodhisattvas by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol

Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (translated by the Padmakara Translation Group).  Shambhala 2004.  144 pages.

I confess I was less than rousingly impressed by this book.  While the author, Shabkar, was one of Tibet’s greatest yogi’s since Milarepa, very little of the text is actually from his hand.

The book has three parts.  The first, the introduction, is the lengthiest at 46 pages.  It discusses something of the history and place of vegetarianism in traditional Tibet, contrasting the situation with Tibetans in exile and Buddhists in the West.  The main section of the introduction paints a portrait of Shakar himself.  I can only say he must have been an extraordinary character, living homeless much like the Buddha’s early disciples, but instead of hanging out in jungles he lived amid the cold and treeless mountain crags of Tibet.

The intro then discusses the place of meat-eating in Buddhism.  The traditions drawn from here–as in Shabkar’s writings–are from the three major “turnings of the wheel,” i.e. shravakayana (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Mantrayana (i.e. Vajrayana, the Buddhism of the tantras).  Underpinning everything is the notion that, as diverse and often contradictory as they often are, the Buddha taught all these doctrines as part of a gradual, or graded, dispensation.  And so, according to the introduction…

…there exists a hierarchy of teaching, a scale of validity, according to which basic instruction is regarded as provisional, set forth according to need and superseded by higher, more demanding instruction to be expounded when the disciple is ready.  For Shabkar, as for all teacher of Tibetan Buddhism the instructions set forth on the Hinayana level are of vital importance in laying the foundations for correct understanding and practice.  But they are not final.  They are surpassed by the teachings of the Mahayana, just as, within the Mahayana itself, the sutra teachings prepare the way for, and are surpassed by, the tantra.  It is thus that the entire sweep of the Buddha’s teaching fits together in a harmonious ad coherent system, in which teachings that seem incomplete from the standpoint of a higher view are assigned an appropriate, preparatory position lower down the scale (16).

This view has prevailed throughout much of the Buddhist world for a long time, and is the result of various cultures (China, Tibet, etc) receiving diverse canons and texts, many of which originated in different periods of Buddhist history, while believing them all to represent the Buddha’s words.  Given the discrepancies and outright contradictions of outlooks and practices between the many texts, the approach above is hardly surprising if one assumes they all sprang from one man.  Shabkar certainly believed this, and no one can blame him.  It irks me, however, that contemporary scholars and practitioners persist in perpetuating this nonsense, given what we now know about the history of Buddhist texts.   For example, the Lankavatara Sutra, a widely quoted work that harshly condemns meat-eating, is assumed to be the Buddha’s own words, yet it is clearly a composite work, first translated into Chinese in 443 CE, though probably originating several hundred years earlier.  While its dating is tricky, not even its seed ideas can in any way be attributed to Shakyamuni or any of his disciples.  (See E.J. Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought, pp. 230ff.)  Similar remarks can be made about every other Mahyanist sutra, not to mention the various, still later tantras.

Following the above, the introduction discusses the notion of “three-fold purity” in the Hinayana (meaning, the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Suttas), where the Buddha enjoins monks not to eat any meat offering if they have “seen, heard or suspected” it to have been killed specifically for them.  This ordinance, totally understandable as applied to mendicant monks, becomes problematic, however, when applied to laity, and this really is the source of the confusion and debate about meat-eating among Buddhists.  The Mahayana and Mantrayana (tantric) perspectives on vegetarianism are also discussed.

What bothered me most about the introduction–its moralising and lecturing quality, especially toward the end–got even worse in the second section of the book, entitled “The Faults of Eating Meat.”  This is a kind of compendium of Buddhist textual sources on the subject selected and arranged by Shabkar.  If one’s goal is simply to learn what Buddhists have said about meat-eating over the years, this section serves admirably.  If you are looking for well-reasoned, cogent arguments, look elsewhere.  Much of it is hellfire-and-brimstone preaching; apparently the Christians haven’t got anything on the Buddhists in this regard, sad to say.  Here’s an inspiring snippet:

It is written in the Sutra Describing Karmic Cause and Effect:

If you eat meat and chew on bones, you will lose your teeth!  If you eat intestines and the meat of dogs and swine, you will be reborn in an infernal state that is filled with filth.  If you eat fish after scraping off their scales, you will be born in the hell of sword-forests (77).

Very little of this section comes from Shabkar; he simply scoured sutras, tantras and commentaries and took whatever he could find to support his beliefs–a kind of eighteenth century Tibetan cut-and-paste creation. The third part of the book, however, is all Shabkar, though regrettably brief–only 28 pages out of the book’s 144!

Entitled “The Nectar of Immortality,” I found it a well reasoned, impassioned polemic against meat-eating.  The principal–and most persuasive–argument here can be summed up as “If there is no meat-eater, there will be no animal killer…” (101).  He discusses this idea at length, giving examples of how local monasteries, though themselves not involved in the act of butchery or animal killing, by their plentiful purchases of meat help to sustain the local meat industry.

Which cuts quick to the bone, if you don’t mind the pun.  I once had a discussion with a friend on this subject, and he pointed out that I was hardly less guilty of the deaths of animals than the butcher himself since I basically employed the butcher to do the dirty work.  Indeed, I couldn’t escape the logic of it then, and readers will be hard pressed to miss Shabkar’s points.  This section of the book was easily the most rewarding and satisfactory, worth the rest combined.  While the book as whole was something of a disappointment, it gave me a bit of a sense of Shabkar the man and I look forward to reading his autobiography.  Perhaps I’ve found my patron saint.

My Amazon rating: 2 stars

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