Friday, September 12, 2008

"Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation" (Penguin ed.): Book Review.

This handsome edition comes with many credits. The title page tells us that it was composed by Padmasambhava, revealed by Terton Karma Lingpa, translated by Gyurme Dorje, edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jingpa, and has an introductory commentary by HH The Dalai Lama. This chain of transmission parallels the Tibetan Buddhist method of instruction: oral teachings, ideally, from master to student unbroken for millennia. "The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate State" was revealed in the eighth century, but Padmasambhava foresaw its esoteric nature might be misconstrued and its power diminished, so he arranged to hide it as a "treasure text." It was found by Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth century, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz in the 1920s popularized it after what he understood as its Egyptian counterpart (one remembers the Tut craze then); the misleadingly evocative title has stuck.

What the compendium shows, well over six hundred pages in its first comprehensive presentation, is much more than the twelfth book-- what Evans-Wentz, recently followed by Francesca Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa, Robert Thurman, and Stephen Hodge with Martin Boord have separately translated as the TBoD. That chapter seen in context here falls into place as part of a broader set of pre- as well as post-mortem litanies, guidance, and rituals. Its editor-translators here capture its essence well when they refer to Jung's conception of the work as used in a "backwards" trajectory in reference to psychoanalysis. That is, we can interpret its teachings moving not only with us after death, but reversed towards our primordial life-force, "right back to a pure original cognitive event." (xxxii)

Coleman sees chapter 1 as setting out a perspective to realize this shift in awareness, 2-6 building a framework for mental and spiritual realization, and chapter 7 as setting up a framework for modulating and refining our motivations and actions accordingly. Perhaps non-Buddhists can benefit from such visualizations? It's not easy, especially when confronted with a mass of terms in Tibetan that will challenge the uninitiated, but an 85-page, small-type, glossary with comprehensive definitions is provided, along with pithy contextual prefaces to each chapter. Endnotes are also given with more scholarly transliterations of phrases and cross-references to a bibliography. This apparatus should therefore satisfy academics as well as practitioners. Yet, it may well overwhelm the more casual inquirer; I'd start with the smaller versions of Chapter 12 published separately and read more about Buddhism first.

Chapter 8 offers recognition of the signs of impending death, inner and outer; rituals to avoid premature death follow in Chapter 9. A very advanced practice of "consciousness transference" comprises Chapter 10. The "TBoD" conventionally translated in the West takes up Chapter 11. Aspirational prayers make up Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 gives a "Masked Drama." The last section's a litany of a mantras amulet to be worn for "the liberation by wearing" by the dying person-- it reminds me of the scapular or miraculous medal in Catholicism. Two appendices list and catalogue the plethora of peaceful and wrathful deities enumerated in Chapter 11.

In his rather elevated if concise commentary, the Dalai Lama quickly discusses the text within "Higher Yoga Tantra." He makes a vivid comparison between karma, the Buddhist laws of cause & effect, and the weather on pg. xv. Today's weather is linked to yesterday's and tomorrow's even as we view each manifestation as distinct. Our body's health ties past, present, and future together similarly. Likewise, in our consciousness according to Buddhism our past, present, and future tie together even as we perceive them as discrete phenomena.

Unlike Thurman's translation-edition (reviewed by me as is Hodge & Boord's; see also my review of Fremantle's commentary on the TBoD, "Luminous Emptiness"), there's little attempt to make these contents fully accessible within an ecumenical or (post-?)modern setting. Coleman's references to Jung are about as far as it goes. Dorje sets the text in its literary history, and the Dalai Lama keeps to Buddhist concepts. The team, assisted by eminent Tibetan scholars also credited, strives rather to set the teachings within the lineage tradition of Nyingma, the oldest extant school of Buddhist knowledge from Tibet. So, newcomers may want to start with a simpler presentation such as Hodge & Boord's, moving into Thurman's snappier version, before tackling this comprehensive edition. The language is a bit more British and refined than Thurman's direct vernacular. For example, what the American scholar renders as the frequent Chapter 11 vocative "Hey you so-and-so," Coleman & Dorje mediate into "O Child of Buddha Nature, listen without distraction."

There's lots of vivid examples here to show the depth of entry into the territory edging towards our mortal transformation, for a Westerner, to find in this in-depth look into one of the oldest and most formidable of death-ritual texts. Chapter 8 enumerates many visual indications of the signs of remote, impending, and actual death that may remind medical observers in our hospitals and hospices today how carefully, even obsessively, old-school Tibetans watched the body and the mind for predictions of its end. Perhaps, the filter of a thousand years removed, those who care for the dying today might find valuable testimony within admittedly daunting symptoms such as those metaphorically called "rupturing of the Wish-granting Tree from the Summit of Mount Sumeru" (171) or "ceasing of the monks' smoke in the cities of the earth element." (170) I left out the passage about sniffing semen. Certainly more memorable than Latin or Greek terms used by doctors today with detachment and bureaucratic efficiency.

Speaking of efficiency, one editorial addition that I would have added would be not only the chapter phrase headings atop each page under the title of the "book," but a number for the chapter, and also numerical references by paragraphs, to standardize references and to facilitate easy consultation. If this work is to be used by those needing an English translation, such "chapter-and-section" types of organization would have aided those looking up passages more rapidly. It slows the reader down when only the general chapter heading is given, although the last part of the book is a page-by-page topical index within each chapter, so this lack is somewhat balanced.

The paper, also, I wish would have been more durable. I have the hardcover, but it seems flimsy and pulpy inside vs. the elegant binding and dustjacket. This may be a trade-off for what's an affordable edition, and the fact such a volume will stay in print as a mass-market trade paperback attests to the continuing relevance with what might well have languished as an obscure devotional tome if not for a surprising literary history. Also, this text has corrected earlier inconsistencies "inherited" in translation of faulty versions.

A final thanks for the illustrations of the Hundred Peaceful & Wrathful Deities by the late Shawu Tsering, a scroll artist from Amdo in Tibet. These, commissioned for Dr. Dorje's collection, show a clarity and precision often missing from photographs of "thangkas" in book form. They beautifully help the reader see what the text tells.

(Posted, with the omission of one sentence, guess which one, to Amazon today. I figured it might not pass the 'bot-censors otherwise.)

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