Friday, September 5, 2008

Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living & Dying": Book Review

This earns nearly a hundred positive reviews already on Amazon US; it's been out fifteen years, and remains highly acclaimed. I read it when it came out, and remember being moved. Re-reading it (and this eloquent, accessible volume rewards such repetition) after tackling the rarified expansion of its message in the psychologically and religiously advanced study "Luminous Emptiness" by Francesca Fremantle, the richly contextual edition by Robert Thurman of the so-called "Tibetan Book of the Dead," and the pithy primer by Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord, "The Illustrated TBoD," I felt ready to return to Sogyal's earlier study. (All these texts have been recently reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon.) TBLD predates the rest of these books, and it pioneered the presentation of the after-life instructions of the bardo teachings in light-- literally-- of how we can integrate its teachings into this life as well as preparing us to assist those who are dying through its advice.

Sogyal writes with winning clarity. Edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey, this book shows what intelligent inspiration can accomplish. So much of what crowds the shelves of a religion section in a bookstore fritters away wisdom with platitudes. Sogyal, by welcome contrast, strives to encourage us with what can be a rather discouraging central lesson from the bardo. We have failed many times before in previous existences to break free of illusion. Each time we die, we must have whirred past the Grand Luminosity, without recognizing Rigpa, the primordial "nature of mind." This gets complicated, as you can imagine, but Sogyal has set up a cogent presentation of the fundamentals of meditation, Buddhist conceptions of true reality, and the danger of "active laziness."

Pages 18-20 sum up powerfully this last tendency we have to be consumed by our petty lives, and the need to wrench ourselves free of "false hopes, dreams, and ambitions." These lure us on like salty water in a desert towards a mirage, he warns. Instead, taking on the power of the bardo instructions, for those who have died and for our own preparation for death, becomes the ultimate imperative.

I confess after a second time reading this I remain rather uncertain about how, practically, we can find masters to assist us in spiritual practice. This is the missing link in many Buddhist works for newcomers, but this may impel those so changed by their encounter with the learning here interpreted to seek such spiritual direction themselves. After all, Buddhism demands that we take action to begin to liberate ourselves now, rather than wait for revelations or intermediaries. We are cautioned not to do certain practices without guidance; others, however, as with mantras or simpler visualizations, can be attained more easily. Also, the ecumenical applicability of these Buddhist lessons to those of other faiths-- or perhaps none that they can readily adhere to?-- widens the impact and usefulness of this guide.

Many of the methods that Tibetans follow will elude Westerners outside of a few contacts in a few places with gurus or lamas, of course. Therefore, one can become discouraged: how can an everyday person attain the discipline that will enable him or her after death to resist the illusion to be drawn back into existence? The TBoD constantly insists that recognition of Rigpa will bring about freedom, yet it also shows how easy it will be to remain trapped in fear, attachment, confusion, or oblivion as we pass through an unimaginable array of sights and sounds after our death.

Therefore, Sogyal and the TBoD, naturally, are absolutely correct. The utter necessity of struggling to come at least closer to these daunting visions and yearning prayers colors poignantly the stories, legends, and parallels he finds from Tibetan wise people he has known, near-death experiences, quantum physics, and meditation techniques. You sense Sogyal's grounded in profound respect for those from whom he has learned his teachings, and there's a genuine humility and open-hearted compassion that infuses the wisdom in these pages. The revised and expanded edition, by the way, does change the pages internally but I could not find, on spot-checking with the original printing, much change except for addresses of Rigpa hospices at the end and a brief introduction that places the enthusiastic reception of the 1993-4 printing in perspective.

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