Friday, August 15, 2008

Robert Thurman's translation of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead": Review

Prof. Thurman's strength is that he combines academic skills with personal conviction about the truth of what he translates. Many scholars may scoff; many seekers may smile. The value of this formidable ninth-century "treasure-text" of considerably advanced instructions for the passage through the illusions of the afterlife lies in its haranguing-- if one's own hallucinated terrors and wonders manage to be manifested rather than the stunning blackness of unconsciousness.

You get the impression from Thurman that unless you've mastered "creation" deity visualization practices under a master teacher in this life, you may not even be able to witness, let alone try to attain enlightenment, post-mortem. Thurman does not simplify what has to be done in this life to increase the odds of attaining clarity and freedom from existence trapped in cyclical karma. He devotes in-depth coverage in his hundred-page introduction to this preparation, as well as the appendix on a Buddha-field visualization. (I assume he later expanded this into his "Jewel Tree of Enlightenment" text and tapes on this advanced dharma practice.)

You do close the TBoD, if not the supplements, probably overwhelmed. The degree of preparation required to comprehend the journey after death, from a traditional Tibetan Buddhist perspective, may discourage not only dilettantes. When you read that even deceased monks and high-ranked yogis can fail after death to read the signs explicated repeatedly in this text, you wonder how those of us raised totally outside of such conceptions, and likely to have come across the TBoD only after a considerable amount of our precious human life has passed, will fare on the eschatological rollercoaster ahead. You also wonder how stupid all of us must have been in a previous existence to fall back into the patterns that this text tells us to break away from.

I remain unclear about how everyday folks outside of Buddhism can truly benefit from the so-called TBoD-- despite also reviewing Francesca Fremantle's commentary "Luminous Emptiness" and Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord's concise "Illustrated TBoD." I've heard that the Dalai Lama encourages those raised in other faiths to stay in them to seek inspiration, but I've also read His Holiness (in "The Way to Freedom") warning how the Dharma and karma all but demand that we accept Buddhist tenets as our longshot, attenuated, but logical way eventually (he reckons the odds appear slim to practically none in any given incarnation, and I figure he should know) out of delusion. So, while I muddle through this guidebook to be recited by the living to the departed, while I am confused about its efficacy for those of us so far removed from its Himalayan contexts a millennium ago, I still am fascinated by this text and its visions and its warnings. It's the challenge of a lifetime, certainly, and for the greatest reward possible, if our hunches pay off in the karmic lottery. Yet, I wish Thurman, as a Western pioneer who earlier became the first American monk in the Tibetan tradition that I know of, could have explained this discrepancy between ancient context and rational mindset and if it matters or not to we his audience today-- more clearly in his admittedly wide-ranging preface or notes.

He appears to encourage us to transfer the cherubim and seraphim that we may know, for instance, into the "fierce deities"; he also tells "secularists" on p. 198 to follow a sort of Pascal's wager to imagine wise figures after one dies, in case the oblivion assumed by atheists does not come to pass. I agree with Scott Snyder in his review here (on Amazon); I would have welcomed a presentation placing this within a broader cross-cultural comparison of how the Tibetan conceptions overlap as well as differ with Western and other non-Buddhist realms. Yet, that may turn into a shelf of dissertations. Nonetheless, I can't fit the TBoD neatly with Dante, the visions of Ezekiel or Daniel, or the Egyptian or Norse or indigenous otherworlds as clearly as Thurman could have done, in a few pages of general orientation, in this edition aimed at an English-speaking audience, likely picked up by many non-Buddhists.

I like Thurman's attitude, speaking of a wider readership in the West, towards the likely state of wavering or denying belief that many skeptics who open this book are likely to possess. Thurman, with me reading a bit between the lines, adds the "Jewel-Tree" visualization, supplements that distill other Tibetan teachings. He intersperses bold-faced commands from the text to be read to a recently deceased individual as opposed to the other typeface incorporating the more explanatory material, and then stacks indented commentary of his own printed alas in a smaller font, as if in a Talmudic array. This enriches his text cleverly and helpfully. I get the impression that Thurman wants us to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism than the same old TBoD, and his anthology of "Essential TB" & his "Jewel-Tree" and books on the Dalai Lama surely attest to his convictions to disseminate vajrayana dharma.

The core of Thurman's exegetical insight comes, note well, quite late in the text proper. Around p. 161 the "concept of clarity-voidness" and "truth-status" on p. 186 prove profound, but they're rather buried in the details. Likewise, the glossary defines many terms we need to understand efficiently, but if they'd been asterisked in the text itself, it'd be easier to know that they lurk at the back. The photos for aiding meditation which he refers to on p. 224 as the volume's central color plates would, I concur, be helpful to accompany and guide the printed visualization. However, as may be inevitable for a mass-market paperback, they remain too small to make out satisfactorily, even when a painting's details gain separate depictions.

This translation reads a bit eccentrically, but "hey you" does get your attention now as I suppose it may in the hereafter, as "so-called so-and-so." Thurman does not let you get overwhelmed by the later "days" with their hundred deities and whirlwinds of surround-sound emanations, but he keeps the commentary moving forward. He guides us to the essential landmarks easiest to appreciate in a bewildering text much more bandied about than studied carefully.

It's therefore best read after a briefer presentation such as Hodge & Boord, or secondarily Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (although this 1975 version was revamped by Fremantle in her 2001 commentary). Such background prepares you for taking on Thurman's academic edition combined with a practitioner's depiction that can unsettle, perplex, or stimulate you. It's not some facile Tim Leary psychedelic wild ride, but it's not as dissimilar as you may think from a more familiar culture's renderings of heavens and hells. There's one crucial difference, with the Buddhist construction, ultimately: it's all in your mind. Mastering that conundrum and overcoming "duality" represents the challenge that, if the lamas who predicted these harrowing journeys prove accurate, we all must face sooner than later.

(Posted to Amazon today. And since you asked, yes, he's Uma's dad.)

No comments: