Saturday, October 29, 2016

Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas: The Story of Siddhartha and Other Buddhas Interpreted in Modern Nepalese Painting / Ben Meulenbeld -- Havelte/Holland: Binkey Kok Publications, 2004

Beyond its most basic tenets, Buddhism is not simple.  It contains complicated psychological and metaphysical theories that are difficult to understand, except after long study.  This posed a problem for monks bringing the religion to communities that had no previous experience with Buddhism's Indic background.  In Tibet, propagation of the religion relied, therefore, on stories of the Buddha and his past lives, a form of literature called the jataka.  Another method of propagating Buddhism was through art.  In the 10th century, when Buddhism was experiencing a renaissance in Tibet, the Indian tradition paintings, called thangkas, representing buddhas and bodhisattvas were used as a teaching aids to convey complicated ideas and to serve as objects upon which one could focus one's mind in meditation.  They were easily transported and could serve to set up a portable alter.

Ben Meulenbeld's Buddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas provides a fine introduction to the thangka and its common subjects.  Moreover, it is a beautiful book with 37 colorful plates reproducing thangkas of a large private collection of modern works painted in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.  The first chapter provides an introduction to the purpose and creation of thangkas, from their design through their painting and ultimately to their framing.  The second chapter provides a brief description of the religious background of thangkas, particularly a recounting of the life of Siddhartha Buddha.  It is illustrated with four thangkas.  The third chapter is an extremely brief account of Theravada Buddhism.  This is a Buddhist tradition that survives in Sri Lanka and in parts of Southeast Asia.  As Tibet is not heir to this tradition, the chapter is brief  and illustrated with only one thangka of the historical Buddha.  Instead, Buddhism was brought to Tibet by Mahayana Buddhists.  So the fourth chapter, on the Mahayana tradition is much longer and illustrated wigh 13 plates.  This tradition laid great emphasis on the bodhisattva, an enlightened figure who forswears liberation in nirvana to help all other sentient beings attain enlightenment.  Many of the thangkas in this chapter depict legendary buddhas and important bodhisattvas that make up a kind of pantheon of Buddhist personalities.  The fifth and longest chapter deals with the Vajrayana tradition.  It is illustrated with 18 thangkas. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism is now the dominant tradition in Tibet.  The thangkas here depicted actual figures in the history of Tibetan Buddhism along with several other miscellaneous subjects including, the Wheel of Life, a Yogini, a Gathering of Saints, Kalachakras, Herukas, the Mandala of Yama, and two Kalachakra mandalas.  The final chapter deals with paubas. These are like thangkas, but include with Hindu themes.  It is short and is illustrated with only one pauba.

Most all of the thangkas follow a very standard rather symmetric design with figures seemingly placed on a two dimensional surface, usually in a cross-legged position facing forward.  They hold or are accompanied by items that indicate their identity.  In the case of the historical figures in the fifth chapter, the image is much more naturalistic.  The figures do not face directly forward, but sit facing obliquely amid a naturalistic background.

The two greatest strengths of Meulenbeld's work are first, the explanations of the various legendary buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other beings in the Buddhist "pantheon."  One is given a good understanding of their primary features and the symbolic objects and hand gestures that are characteristic of the being.  Second, are the illustrations themselves.  They are simply exquisite.  Unfortunately, despite the folio format of the book, seeing the details of the illustrations requires strong lighting and a magnifying glass, and the reproductions are not as sharps as one would like.  However, rectifying this shortcoming would involve printing the work in an over sized format using much more expensive reproduction technology.  Consequently, having the work in a more manageable format is a compensating virtue.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right / Arlie Russell Hochschild -- London: The New Press, 2016

It is common for political commentators to lament the political divide that has become a chasm in our country.  In 2004, the divide was the subject of Barak Obama's breakthrough speech at the Democratic National Nominating Convention, but since then the divide has only become worse.  Among liberals, the main question the divide poses is, "why are so many people in the working class voting against their economic interests?"  This question was made popular by Thomas Frank's 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas?  Frank's explanation was that clever deception by establishment Republicans -- supported by right wing media -- has duped many working class people into betraying their economic interests, and all they get in exchange are empty promises to enact a socially conservative agenda.  Other authors have picked up on this theme.  Upon closer examination, though, this explanation appears too shallow and demeaning to account for the long-standing allegiance to the Republican Party among many working class voters.  Indeed, the explanation seemed too facile to UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, especially as she spent five years in southwest Louisiana getting to know citizens on the other side of the divide.  Her book Strangers in Their Own Land is Hochschild's report on her "journey to the heart of our political divide."  It is an admirable contribution to the attempt to communicate across that divide.

Hochschild's contact with conservatives in and around the town of Lake Charles, Louisiana was facilitated by the liberal mother-in-law of one of her former graduate students.  Hochschild's Louisiana contact was able to introduce her to what was to Hochschild a warm and welcoming community of conservatives with whom she became friendly in the course of numerous formal and informal interviews.  These interviews were conducted over the course of five years.  Hochschild's project might be considered a classic anthropological study in which the anthropologist embeds herself in an alien community in an attempt to understand that community from the inside -- that is, from the perspective of the community members.  This requires a concerted effort to discard as much as possible the previous, external perspective and social assumptions the anthropologist brings to the study.  Hochschild describes this as overcoming "the empathy wall."  In doing so, Hochschild claims to have understood the "deep story" of conservatives living in and around Lake Charles.

By "deep story," she means a perspective that is not necessarily based on simple facts of the world, but on the what seems true emotionally.  Some deep story or another, in this sense, predicates everyone's sense of and explanation of the world.  One's deep story will predispose one to either be credulous or skeptical of the many dubious claims we routinely encounter.  The deep story is critical in constructing our system of beliefs.  By discovering the deep story of the conservatives in Lake Charles, Hochschild believes she is better able to understand the motives the people on the other side of the political divide.  By doing so, she was able to open up avenues of communication heretofore closed to her.  It is clear that her work encourages us not only to appreciate her own effort, but to follow in her footsteps -- to seek a more charitable understanding of those with whom we disagree.  We'll look at the deep story that lies behind the conservative worldview a little later.

To begin to understand the perspective of conservatives, Hochschild investigates what she calls a "keyhole issue:" environmental destruction.  Hochschild seeks to understand why people who have been severely harmed by pollution from Louisiana's the petrochemical industry would be so hostile to government regulation.  She calls this "the great paradox."  Curiously, the solution to the great paradox is one that environmentalists understand all too well.  Hochschilds interviewees recognize the damage done to their communities by industry.  The first portion of her book recounts the horrific effects she heard described.  In one instance, the 700 acres of Bayou d'Inde became so saturated with contaminants from illegal dumping by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company that the property value of the residents crashed and their livelihood from fishing was destroyed.  In another, a subterranean salt dome was punctured by the drill from a mining company, Texas Brine, causing a 37 acre sink hole to form which devoured the entirety of Bayou Corne, home to 350 residents.

While this is not part of the region of Louisiana known as "cancer alley," Hochschild heard story after story of cancer deaths.  Everyone in the area knew or was related to someone who had developed cancer.  In one instance a man recounts eleven people in his family and close neighbors (including himself and his wife) who died from or were fighting cancer.  Hochschild recounts so many tribulations faced by the residents of Lake Charles and its environs that it is bewildering to read of the general hostility to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality; but their hostility is not without some foundation.  These residents see government regulatory bodies failing to protect their land and health.

Indeed, the primary role of these regulatory bodies has been to permit the destruction of people's lives and communities in the interest of the petrochemical industry.  Among environmentalists this is said to be a consequence of "regulatory capture" by industry.  Due to the revolving door between industry and agency executives, regulations designed to protect people and the environment are merely one consideration balanced against business and economic interests.  The role of the regulator is to determine the extent to which exemptions can be made to "balance" these interests.  The agencies are reduced to exemption-granting bureaucracies.  Hochschild reports that "according to [Louisiana's] own website, 89,787 permits to deposit waste or do anything that affected the environment were submitted between 1967 and July 2015.  Of these, only sixty -- or .07 percent -- were denied."  In light of this, it is understandable that the residents would see the regulatory agencies as aiding and abetting their suffering.  (For an excellent examination of how regulatory agencies function and their failure to protect the environment, see Nature's Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age by Mary Christina Wood -- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.)

This plays directly into the hostility to taxes that is prominent among working class conservatives.  Far from providing value for the cost, government merely appropriates the workers' limited income for useless bureaucracies or for welfare programs that they believe go mostly to people other than themselves, including unproductive government bureaucrats.  Many of Hochschild's interviewees acknowledge that they or their family and neighbors take advantage of some of these programs, but they do so with some embarrassment and with the attitude that as long as its available and necessary, they might as well take advantage of it.  In many cases, they claimed to be willing to forego the assistance, if the entire program were abolished and attendant tax burden were removed.

The deep story behind these and other attitudes that Hochschild believes she has discovered was confirmed by her interviewees.  They imagine themselves in a long line in a open field.  The line is moving slowly toward a distant hill.  Over the hill is the American Dream.  They are patiently waiting their turn, when after a while, people who had been behind them, begin cutting in line in front of them.  They are expected to allow this because of the disadvantages these line-cutters (or their ancestors) experienced.  Of course, they see themselves as responsible and hard working, and that the line-cutters are getting something for nothing.  In this analogy, they are white and Christian, while the line cutters are members of minority groups: black, Latino, immigrants, Muslims, women, and government bureaucrats, often no more disadvantaged than they are.  To add insult to injustice, many in the line in front of them turn around to hurl unkind epithets at them: racist, homophobic, ignorant, cracker, redneck, hick, white trash, etc. and criticize them for a lack of empathy.  Recently, the President of the United States is actively facilitating the line cutting.  He himself is a line cutter.

Given this deep story and the tribulations faced by a clearly marginalized population, it is easy to understand why working class conservatives feel "anger and mourning" over their fallen status and why they might choose different means to rectify their loss than the means chosen by historically marginalized groups.  It is also understandable why they might resent a media that ridicules them, a liberal elite that ignores them in preference to people they see as their competition, and even a Republican establishment that works in tandem with the corporations in a system of crony capitalism.  Their condition, while possibly slightly better than minorities and recent immigrants, is not markedly different when compared to the owners and managers of our society who are clearly beyond their reach.  Consequently, their dignity requires an even playing field, not vis-a-vis the corporate and government elite, but vis-a-vis their ordinary fellow citizens.

While Hochschild does not mention meritocracy, her observations support the idea that working class conservatives ardently support the values implicit in a meritocracy.  They do not want what they have not earned and they find it morally objectionable that anyone would be required to sacrifice (in taxes) their hard earned money for the benefit of others.  Charity must be voluntary or it is little better than theft.  This also provides the basis for excusing the excesses of the most well-off and defending them against high tax rates.  For the conservative working class, work and business is the essence of social life, and those who have become successful deserve admiration and respect, not envy and disdain.  Government intrusion in the market merely interferes with the working of a meritocracy.   It is just another obstacle in their path to someday joining the wealthy class.  One need not have a highly developed defense of laissez faire capitalism to recognize the relative value of hard work and frugality in markets dominated by small business and service sector employment.  In much of the country, particularly in rural areas, this is business environment.  Large corporations, even with their downsides, can be believed to be beneficial engines in an otherwise stagnant economy.  In the words of one of Hochschild's interviewees, "pollution is the price we pay for capitalism."

Perhaps the most admirable features of Strangers in Their Own Land are the effort to overcome the "empathy wall" and the goal of seeing those on the other side not as simple cardboard cut outs described in political polemics, but as real people living difficult lives with a genuine sense of dignity and morality.  In many ways, this morality is different from people on the other side of the wall, but in other ways it is similar.  Indeed, this was the message that Barak Obama attempted to communicate in his 2004 speech before the Democratic National Nominating Convention.

Furthermore, Hochschild is able to distinguish species of thought within the people she interviewed.  In Part 3, Hochschild describes "the team player," "the worshiper," and "the cowboy."  One can see these personalities in wider political discourse.  The team player is a loyal member of the Republican establishment, well-acquainted with the ideology of conservative politics, particularly deregulation and reduced taxation.  The team player places trust in the party and its allied institutions in its contest against the Democrats and their allied institutions.  The worshiper places his or her faith in God and the Church above any other social or political institution and is in common cause with the conservative (read Republican) movement insofar as he or she believes God, the Church, and Christian morality is under attack from a secular (read Democratic) society which has largely dominated government and our main cultural institutions.  Finally, the cowboy is the classic rugged individual, willing to resist social forces larger than himself or herself in defense of his or her dignity.  Team players might be just as familiar to many as Democratic Party team players, differing only in that they are motivated by a different ideology, while worshipers and cowboys cut an honorable figure, if one accepts the values that they accept.  But clearly, liberals must scale the empathy wall before allowing themselves to adopt this point of view.  Hochschild's work should help liberals understand that conservatives must not be treated as a monolith, but that they are as various as any political grouping and as people, they have legitimate interests and are deserving of basic respect.

This, however, introduces one of two criticisms that I have of the work.  Hochschild consciously sought to study "the geographic heart of the right."  For her, this turned out to be Louisiana which cast only 14% of its votes for Obama in 2012, has 50% of its residents supporting the Tea Party, and is second only to South Carolina in Tea Party state and federal legislators.  Furthermore, she studied only people in a particularly, environmentally hard hit parish, Calcasieu Parish.  While this admittedly would provide her a clear picture of people on the other side of the political divide, it is also a rather rare -- perhaps unique -- corner of the other side.  Hochschild wondered if her subjects were "odd-balls," not representative of conservatives in other locales, but she was reassured to find that the same relationship between environmental damage and politic ideology held across the country.  In an appendix she writes, "The Louisiana story is an extreme example of the politics-and-environment paradox seen across the nation."  But this is precisely what should concern her.  An extreme example is by definition an odd-ball.  Working class conservatives, Tea Party supporters, and Trump supporters live in communities all across the country, each with their own local history:  Peoria, Illinois; Manchester, New Hampshire; Grand Junction, Colorado; even Seattle, Washington and New York City.  So her exploration of "the heart of the right" may not tell us as much about the right as she suggests.

My second criticism of her work is its relative neglect of the elephant in the room: race relations.  The deep story that was being told to her studiously avoided discussions of race.  When it did arise, her interviewees reported not being racist.  After all, they rejected David Duke, did not use "the N-word," and did not hate black people; however, the deep story of a lot of other southerners would include a long history of slavery at the hands of white people, followed by apartheid, Jim Crow, and now the incarceration state.   Granted, Hochschild was acting in the fine tradition of anthropology in attempting to understand her subjects from their own perspective, but the family legacies of racism, particularly in the South, and the barely disguised (and sometimes undisguised) racial animosity among Tea Party members, the Alt-right, and Donald Trump's campaign seems to demand that the question of race be seriously dissected.  Hochschild's subjects may not consider themselves racist and they may not be racist on their own understanding of the concept, but they also might be simply disingenuous or in denial about their own subconscious motivations.  It seems that Hochschild was simply too polite to really explore this hot topic, possibly because she might lose access to her subjects.

Nonetheless, Strangers in Their Own Land is a remarkably valuable look into a world that academic authors seldom approach dispassionately, much less with sympathy.  A dispassionate approach is necessary to understand and address the political divide that has paralyzed nearly every attempt to address important social, political, and economic problems.  Additionally, a sympathetic approach is necessary in order to demonstrate respect for a population that objectively speaking has suffered grievous harm from our social, political, and economic order.  Hopefully, Hochschild's work will initiate a new phase of social and political analysis that will bridge the chasm that separates us and bring us greater understanding, peace, harmony, and justice.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Words of My Perfect Teacher / Patrul Rinpoche -- Padmakara Translation Group, trans. -- New Dehli: Harper Collins, 1994

In the 8th century, Buddhism came to Tibet.  Among the first and most important Indian emissaries was Padmasambhava, who is venerated by all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, but particularly by the Nyingma tradition.  Anticipating the persecution of Buddhism, Padmasambhava is believed to have hidden Buddhist texts to be discovered by future generations.  Many of these "treasures" are claimed to have been found. Some are physical texts.  Others are "mind treasures," recovered in the course of meditation.  Among the most significant treasure hunters was the 18th century monk Jigme Lingpa.  In the course of a long period of meditation, Lingpa is believe to have received a teaching from Longchen Rabjam, a 14 century master and scholar of the the Nyingma tradition.  The teaching is understood, however, to have originated with Padmasambhava.  Lingpa set it to writing as The Heart Essence of the Great Expanse, a cycle of teaching that become central to the Nyingma tradition and was passed down from teacher to student for centuries.  In the 19th century, Patrul Rinpoche put into writing a portion -- the preliminary practices -- of this teaching as he learned it from his guru, Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu.  It is titled Kunzang Lama'i Shelung, or The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher is an extremely popular exposition of important ideas of the Tibetan tradition.  Its popularity stems in part from it clear, direct prose.  Divided into three parts, The Words provides an account of "The External Preliminaries," "The Internal Preliminaries," and "The Swift Path of Transference."  "The External Preliminaries" explain how ordinary human life is uniquely situated to bring about liberation in that beings in lower realms (animals, pretas, and hell-beings) experience too much suffering and delusion to achieve enlightenment, while beings in higher realms (asuras and devas) experience too little suffering (and delusion) to seek enlightenment.  Second, "The External Preliminaries" point out the impermanence of all things, particularly human life, underscoring the importance of seeking enlightenment as one has a rare chance in this human life.  It goes on to point out the ubiquity of suffering, how karma applies to our actions, the benefits of liberation, and the methods for following a spiritual teacher.  These preliminaries are "external" in that they largely describe the context in which one finds oneself in pursuit of liberation and overt techniques to do so.

"The Internal Preliminaries" addresses techniques for controlling and developing one's mind to further one's progress to enlightenment.  This begins with "taking refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teaching), and the Sangha (the community of Buddhists).  "Taking refuge" might be understood as placing one's faith in these three "jewels."  Just as a traveler might place his or her faith in a map maker, in the map, and in his or her fellow travelers to reach the destination, the Buddhist places his or her faith in the three jewels.  Furthermore, The Internal Preliminaries discusses what is perhaps the most critical aspect of mental development: the development of bodhicitta (the enlightened mind).  This is an attitude of unconditional love and compassion for all sentient beings.  Developing bodhicitta will purify one's past negative actions and generate the strength to pursue the path to liberation.  The techniques involved in developing bodhicitta involve in part concentration and meditation on mandalas and mantras.

The practices involved in The Internal Preliminaries require a spiritual guide, i.e., a qualified teacher.  In the Tibetan tradition, these teachers directly descend from the Buddha through Padmasambhava, known as the Second Buddha.  Some are believed to be reincarnations of important bodhisattvas.  The Dalai Lamas, for example, are thought to be reincarnations of Avalokitesvara.  Reliance on a spiritual guide is a salient feature of Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called "Lamaism," though some authors reject this as an overestimate of the importance of the veneration of the spiritual guide.  In any case, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (in its title alone) does emphasize veneration of the spiritual guide and presents the guide as critical to one's progress toward enlightenment, though when one does not have access to a genuine lama, a simple monk or even lay Buddhist can serve as at least a beneficial substitute.

The third part of The Words describes the transference of consciousness at the time of death.  Five sorts of transference are possible: transference to the dharmakaya, the sambhogakaya, and the nirmanakay, as well as "ordinary transference" and transference performed for the dead by a spiritual guide.  Transference to the dharmakaya is the supreme transference, where the person's consciousness becomes one with the true and auspicious qualities of the Buddha.  The dharmakaya is the abstract, cosmic Buddha-nature.  Transference to the sambhogakaya occurs when one's consciousness becomes one with the Buddha-nature that is instructive to all bodhisattvas, and transference to the nirmanakaya occurs when one's consciousness is capable of becoming reborn as a buddha in a worldly realm.  Ordinary transference involves rebirth into "a pure land of great bliss" and transference performed by a spiritual guide at the time of death will prevent rebirth in a lower realm.  The rituals involved in this last transference are described in the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The content of The Words of My Perfect Teacher are limited to the expounding the preliminary practices in the larger work The Heart Essence of the Great Expanse, which continues by describing the rest of the path to liberation.  The continuation involves three phases: the generation phase, in which one visualizes oneself as a buddha and employs mantras and mandalas in meditation to make spiritual progress; the perfection phase, in which the meditative practices become a living experience; and the Great Perfection, in which one comes to understand the ultimate nature of the mind and immediately experience Buddha-nature itself.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher certainly lives up to its reputation.  I have read few expositions of the central ideas of Buddhism that are clearer or more simply expressed.  I would recommend to readers who don't necessarily have a deep background in Buddhism, though it is a classic which anyone interested in Buddhism would benefit from reading.  Of particular interest are the chapters on impermanence, training the mind through meditation on impartiality, love, compassion, and sympathetic joy, arousing and developing bodhicitta, practicing the Six Perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.  These ideas, however, are presented along with chapters dealing with culturally specific religious ideas which will strike a Western reader as superstitious or at least mythic.  Nonetheless, taken as an anthropological text, even these make for fascinating reading.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Tibetan Book of the Dead / W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed. -- Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, trans. -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1960

The Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol -- as it is more properly titled -- was first published in 1927, but it gained enormous attention in the 1960s and 1970s when interest in Eastern philosophy was rising in the West.  Traditionally, the text is believed to have been composed by Padmasambhava, an 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar who was among the first Buddhists (if not the first) to bring Buddhism to Tibet.  Anticipating the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century, Padmasambhava is believed to have hidden numerous texts to be uncovered by future generations.  In the 14th century, Karma Lingpa is said to have discovered one of these texts, titled Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, the Natural Liberation of Intention, part of which is the Bardo Thodol or Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State.  This English translation of the title is apt, as the text describes the experiences of a recently deceased person as he or she passes from one life to the next.  Furthermore, the text is read ritually in the presence of the deceased in order to focus his or her disembodied consciousness on liberation with the hope of achieving a more fortunate rebirth or escaping the cycle of rebirth entirely.

The intermediate period (bardo) between lives is said to last 49 days.  This period is divided into three stages:  the Chikhai Bardo, the Chonyid Bardo, and the Sidpa Bardo.  During the Chikhai Bardo, the consciousness of the deceased is confused.  Consequently, the reading of the Bardo Thodol in the presence of the deceased's body is intended to focus his or her attention on the Dharma, allowing the deceased to achieve immediate enlightenment.  Immediate (or sudden) enlightenment is thought to be possible by Tibetan Buddhists and it is particularly possible during the bardo between death and rebirth.  The Chikhai Bardo is known as the Bardo of the Moment of Death.  Enlightenment and liberation come to the deceased if he or she is able to recognize the clear light of reality that appears during this stage.  If, however, the deceased becomes frightened of the clear light, he or she will go on to experience the Chonyid Bardo, known as the Bardo of Reality.

During the Chonyid Bardo, the deceased is visited by peaceful and wrathful deities.  In the first five days the deceased is visited by peaceful deities, namely, the five dhyani buddhas: Vairochana, Vajrasattva, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi on successive days and each accompanied by their consorts and retinue.  With the appearance of each dhyani buddha, the deceased has the opportunity to recognize reality and attain enlightenment.  If, however, he or she fails to do this, then all of the deities, their consorts, and retinues appear on the sixth day, presenting another opportunity for enlightenment.  Failing this, the deceased is presented on the seventh day with a final chance for enlightenment by peaceful deities: the "Knowledge-Holding Deities" from the "holy paradise realms."

The deceased then experiences seven days of wrathful deities (or hekula).  The first five of these deities are in fact the same peaceful deities that appeared earlier, but now appearing in their wrathful forms.  On the 13th day, eight other wrathful deities appear to the deceased and on the 14th day, four female "door keepers" appear along with numerous additional wrathful deities.  In the Tibetan tradition, hekula are guardians, representing a person's determination to defeat the obstacles to enlightenment.  So while they appear fearsome, they offer the deceased additional chances for sudden enlightenment.

Failing (or fearing) to recognize reality when presented with it face-to-face during the 14 days of the Chonyid Bardo, the deceased enters the Sidpa Bardo, known as the Bardo of Seeking Rebirth.  Here, the deceased flees from the terrors of the previous bardo and seeks escape from the terrible face of reality that appears to the person encumbered with bad karma.  The deceased is attracted to wombs out of which he or she might be reborn into the realm of samsara.  The text explains how the deceased should go about closing wombs to avoid rebirth in particular bad circumstances and how to choose a womb out of which to be reborn.  One's karma, however, will tend to determine where one is reborn.  One might be reborn in any of the six realms as a denizen of hell, a hungry ghost (preta), an animal, a human, a demi-god (asura), or a god (deva) depending upon one's karma.

The Bardo Thodol is considered among a genre of literature known as a tantra.  These works are central to the form of Buddhism common to Tibet known as the Vajrayana.  Tibetan Buddhism is often considered a form of Mahayana Buddhism, but the veneration of the tantras justifiably separates Tibetan Buddhism from Mahayana Buddhism.  The Vajrayana emphasizes a number of ideas that make this clear.  First, the possibility of sudden enlightenment distinguishes Vajrayana from the Mahayana tradition which emphasizes the need for numerous reincarnations to build up the necessary merit to achieve enlightenment.  Second is the veneration of the lama or teacher.  All forms of Buddhism recognize the importance of respect for the Buddha and other spiritual guides, but the Vajrayana takes this veneration much more seriously.  The trisarana, or "three refuges" which Buddhists embrace, are composed of the Buddha, the dharma (the teaching), and the samgha (the community of Buddhists).  Taking refuge in these three "jewels" is something like offering a basic profession of the Buddhist faith -- that is, committing the Buddhist to an intent to gain enlightenment.  In the Vajrayana, a fourth jewel is sometimes recognized, i.e., the specific teacher who initiates the follower to the path.  Third, the Vajrayana is characterized by an elaborate set of symbols that is used to educate and focus the attention of the Buddhist on the path to enlightenment.  This has generated a rich body of art used in its rituals.  Fourth, throughout India and the cultures it has influenced, there is a belief in the magical, superpowers of enlightened beings called siddha.  Such beings play a prominent role in the Vajrayana.  Much of these aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are consonant with the shamanistic beliefs of the Bon religion that had been practice in Tibet prior to the coming of Buddhism.

The Bardo Thodol exemplifies the importance of many of the above distinguishing features of Vajrayana Buddhism.  Upon death, sudden enlightenment is the goal of the elaborate rituals conducted by the "spiritual friend" (or lama) who reads the text in the presence of the deceased's body with the expectation that the disembodied consciousness of the deceased is capable of hearing the guidance the lama is offering.  These practices seem like so much superstition to a materialist way of thinking; however, adept practitioners of the Vajrayana emphasize the symbolic nature of the seemingly magical elements of their tradition.  The symbolism in the Vajrayana is, of course, lost on many lay practitioners.  Consequently, the tradition is characterized by both common teachings and esoteric teachings.  The former is meant for the layperson while the latter is meant for the adept.  In light of this, one can see the importance of the rituals and descriptions in the Bardo Thodol in two ways.  First, one can understand them literally as efforts to assist the deceased in achieving liberation or a preferable rebirth.  Second, one can understand them as disguised (symbolic) efforts to manage the grief of survivors and remind them of some of the basic tenets of Buddhism: life is temporary, attachment to it produces suffering, and the acquisition of merit and an clear understanding of reality will bring about a better future circumstance or even final liberation.

The Bardo Thodol is a fascinating window into a much misunderstood tradition of Buddhism.  Much of the text is gripping and colorful.  Unfortunately, it will be rather puzzling to anyone without a fairly good background in Buddhism and particularly Vajrayana Buddhism.   

Monday, October 3, 2016

Buddhism for Beginners / Thubten Chodron -- Boston: Snow Lion, 2001

When I picked up Buddhism for Beginners, I had very high hopes.  Having recently read Buddhism: One Tradition, Many Teachers which Chodron co-wrote with the Dalai Lama, I was expecting a clear and concise treatment of the most important elements of Buddhism, written for the novice.  That is, I was expecting a shorter and more popular version of One Tradition, Many Teachers.  To a certain extent, that's what it is, but unfortunately, it also contains a great deal of material on the more religious, non-falsifiable elements of Buddhism.  Others may, of course, welcome this, but my own interests lay in the moral, psychological, and philosophical elements.  Chodron's One Tradition, Many Teachers is among the best expositions of these elements that I have read and having a more readable version that could be recommended to "beginners" would be a real asset.  Unfortunately, Chodron deals with these elements only in the first third (50 pages) of the book.  Still, these pages are well worth recommending.  Most of the remainder will likely strike a critical Western reader as, at best, a anthropological or sociological gloss on the quaint beliefs of a pre-scientific culture.  This is not to say that the remainder does not contain any interesting material.  Indeed, their is a fair share of Buddhist ethics and psychology in the later pages, but it is scatter among discussions of such things as past lives, karma, ritual, and sundry friendly advice on being a Buddhist in a non-Buddhist society.

The scatter-shot character of the work is likely a product of its format.  One hundred and forty-nine pages of text are divided into 21 chapters, and each chapter is composed of answers to questions posed to Chodron by both Westerners and Asian.  A question is first posed as a section heading in bold, followed by usually a three paragraph answer.  In many instances, this provides us with a clear and concise answer to the question.  In other instances, it begs elaboration.  In general, it causes the work to lack a larger, well-developed treatment of Buddhism.

In the end, I would recommend the first 50 pages to beginners, but direct them to her masterful work Buddhism: One Tradition, Many Teachers.  There, here literary style is more demanding, but it is likely accessible to most readers and it certainly pays enormous dividends.