Saturday, July 26, 2008

Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord's "Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead": Book Review

I found this right after I'd finished another translator-commentator, Francesca Fremantle's, own advanced study of the so-called "TBoD," titled "Luminous Emptiness." (It's also reviewed by me.) I understood much more of Hodge & Boord's briefer, simpler, and more ecumenically accessible short text packaged with down-to-earth explanations. Well, as earthy as a guide to the afterlife's visions of self-projected terrors and wonders can be. While I did the reverse, I'd recommend beginning here, and then perhaps going on to Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's version (get the full edition, not the pocket-sized one), or Robert Thurman's scholarly version.

The authors, as Westerners trained in the East, can pinpoint such difficult notions as the illusory self or the patterns of literal enlightenment that form in the bardo realms clearly. Our ego's "our so-called self," only "a parasitical illusion without any substantial existence, something that has been constructed as a defense mechanism to deal with the experience of impermanence. It is this illusory self that suffers the full onslaught of our emotional turmoil. As it strives to create itself out of empty space and become solid, the ego-self always feels paranoid that it will be discovered for what it is-- a hollow illusion." (47) Hodge & Boord manage to make this philosophy no less rarified, yet they do so in a manner that's compact, terse, yet directly relevant to our understanding.

The authors also caution that this text may not be all accessible to those who in this life have not attained the proper levels of meditative preparation to perceive its impacts, but they also suggest that we can learn from its teachings to apply on a less daunting, everyday level in becoming kinder, more patient, and more calm. Hodge & Boord also urge us to withdraw more from the hubbub, and focus on what's truly meaningful. They show how we can adopt the more familiar panoply of what religious figures or symbols from our own tradition, and how the Tibetan renderings stand ultimately as any do-- for nothing at all.

The illustrations do often seem, as others here remarked, taken from a gallery of images, but they are credited at the back from a variety of photographers. They may be subtle, but a close reading of the text and comments, matched with the pictures, often shows a more careful pairing than a quick skimmer might expect. And, this is not a text to race through. It's not lengthy, in the concise, handsomely produced layout here, but it does reward reflection. Frequently during my reading of it, I'd pause and look out the windows of the train or bus, lost in thought without realizing it. This is the state that the blend of illustrations, text, and explanations invite you to share.

Hodge and Boord provide a less forbidding introduction, and stress that the complex mandalas and intricately arranged references to hosts of deities ultimately rest in our own encounter with our primordial truth, our grounding in that which is not ground but emptiness. The rainbow mandalas are only "embodiments of the deceased's spiritual energies,, and array themselves in mandala-like patterns that reveal the structure of the universe and form the great mandala of primordial enlightenment. They are like facets of a diamond, each unique in itself yet all belonging to the whole." (49) Profound when you think about it, or not think but meditate, and that's what this book can move you towards. A short list of readings, and contacts, follows, and an introductory set of one-page sections takes you through the context and sets up the essential background information.

It's an appealing first step towards this often overwhelming text. Unfamiliar to most Westerners, misleadingly named, and formidably dense, the TBoD deserves our concentration. But, it's from a centuries-old tradition totally outside of our heritage. It will disappoint those looking for easy mantras or pop-psychological inspiration. Full of polysyllabic titles, compressed into repetitive warnings, packed with esoteric lore that it expects its Tibetan adepts to already know, it's not a beginner's scripture. Yet, in a form of Pascal's wager, what if some exposure to its message will help us now and in the future? Therefore, before progressing if you're interested to Fremantle & Trungpa or Thurman, why not consider Hodge & Boord as your initiation?

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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