Thursday, July 24, 2008

Francesca Fremantle's "Luminous Emptiness": Book Review

This commentary on "Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead" combines an extended introduction to the fundamentals of Vajrayana philosophy-- an advanced form of "dzogchen" Tibetan teachings-- with the medieval text itself, interspersed with her explanations. The misleadingly titled TBoD directs the departed soul which finds itself in need of listening to a posthumous recital by a living guide to acheive its "Great Liberation by Hearing in the Bardo-- or Intermediate or Transitional Realm." You can see even from such vocabulary how this book discusses terms beyond the level of absolute beginners to Buddhism. Fremantle, as an English Sanskrit scholar who then came to translate Tibetan and practice at an elevated level its instruction, does enable those with no previous exposure to follow her fascinating insights and elegantly composed discussion. However, I'd suggest that one may wish to begin with Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord's concise translation with an ecumenically accessible brief commentary, published as "The Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead," for an overview. Such preparation would assist the learner; I found Hodge & Boord only after finishing Fremantle, but I'd recommend progressing the other way around!

I faced many conceptual difficulties as I began this work. Like a philosophical treatise, Dr. Fremantle's exegesis builds inexorably, but sentence stacked on sentence. It demands slow, careful, active engagement. This work cannot be skimmed, used as a time-filler, or as light inspirational encouragement. It's of one of the most serious, formidable, and valuable books I've encountered. Fremantle, except for a few paragraphs in her preface, self-effaces herself entirely from the text. She makes her presence transparent, filtering her academic knowledge and her own dharma elucidation into a complimentary study that explores the TBoD as a book for the living, not only the dead-- for the latter group already may be beyond its appeals.

We, however, can learn from it how to recognize the manifestations of what she calls our "buddha-nature," our primordial state that combines the emptiness of constancy beyond time or space with the luminosity of an actively generated matrix of energy. This all sounds arcane, but Fremantle strives to keep her focus accessible, and if you persist with what may be one of the most important books you'll ever find, gradual enlightenment will begin. Trust me, it's a challenge if, like me, you know little about Buddhism. Yet, it's such a bracing intellectual and psychological trek.

You begin slowly to comprehend Buddhism's message from the TBoD: "like the moon reflected in water," (253) visions of the deities as peaceful or wrathful, colors and sounds generated in these bardo journeys, and fractured space and time all represent only our own nature. All's illusory in the sense that nothing's permanent. Our minds, the TBoD implies, are nine times sharper in the afterlife, so Fremantle interprets this to show how much more powerful imagery will be and also how much more capable we may be-- if prepared by meditation and "creation" and "deity yoga" under a guru's supervision-- to recognize all the TBoD tells us reduces to our own "self-display." No gods threaten or cajole outside of our own qualities. These become analogues, to be heard and seen. The TBoD is recited so the dead person's soul can learn to take advantage and overcome fear so nirvana-- "passing beyond suffering" in Tibetan rendering-- can occur and enlightenment can free us by extinguishing our ego, which keeps getting lured in the bardo into another subsquent round of life in "samsara."

TBoD, Fremantle emphasizes, expresses our own imminence. We can begin to see glimpses of this awakened state here, on earth, if we try. Our everyday choices can be linked to the symbols of the TBoD, and here, as with the realm of hungry ghosts and the "four false views," she articulates the mundane equivalents to these overwhelming otherworldly immersions well. Our own qualities, powers, and functions, she stresses, provide the true counterparts for the deities imagined. The visions in the bardo turn "samsara" inside out, the daily phenomena we witness but may not perceive in its transformed quality. It's aimed at "sacred vision," and while we're trapped in language to convey its meaning, ultimately the TBoD pushes us beyond its symbolic forms into inexpressible magic. Again, this may all sound too proverbial or platitudinous until you make your way with awareness and concentration, and it will begin to become clarified if you have the stamina to remain on this arduous but rewarding narrow path to wisdom. A good summation late in the book, pp. 340-44, may serve as a resting place and a point to pause and recoup near the summit.

She warns us against what her guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, castigated as "spiritual materialism," our tendency to hang on to a particular state of our soul's evolution, rather than to accept "hopelessness," to let ourselves with a trust in "crazy wisdom" let go into seeing the TBoD as representing, as if in a funhouse mirror, our own present possibility, unveiled. It's a daunting task, but Fremantle's example, with learning to anchor her counsel, may prove the goad we need to delve further. You might try her earlier translation with Trungpa, the versions of the TBoD by Robert Thurman or Hodge & Boord, and the similar elaborations on its meaning as Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living & Dying."

The book has been prepared with great care. It's written beautifully, yet without the author interfering with her teaching. This skill must be credited to her own practice of its teaching, and she avoids what I assume for lesser scholars might be the impulse to assert her own theories. Instead, she tells us about them. While her book does not go into any real detail about how we can do this according to specific meditation practices, this undoubtably can be obtained from other sources. I'd have liked a glossary rather than an index with a few terms in parentheses, and the endnotes are not always as helpful as I'd wished. These remain minor shortcomings in a text that on every page tells of its depth and mindfulness. The sun is always, she urges us, behind the clouds, and the chance to reach our fulfillment waits for us.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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