Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Tibetan Book of the Dead": Audiobook Review.

This supersedes an earlier version that paired a blue-covered "pocket" condensation of the TBoD with a shorter audiotape. While the added material may overwhelm a first-time student of this daunting text, here's some suggestions for how to get the most out of this tape. Read the book first, study its commentary, and then you'll benefit more from hearing it in this eloquent presentation. No book, however, is provided in this unabridged 3-CD set.

Listening to this set of recordings can be very beneficial. Provided that one understands the basics of the content first. Unlike many other audiobooks, I'd advise the user to read the book first, perhaps repeatedly, and then let the assured, steady voice of Richard Gere, admirably suited to this formidable set of prescriptions, encouragement, and cautions from the world beyond, sink in to enhance one's comprehension of this quite disorienting-- literally-- set of precepts for making one's way through the projections of beauty and terror as the spirit encounters the passageways through the days after death.

The three CDs begin, disc one, with a brief introduction and the first part that follows the physical death of the body and its entry into the next array of apparitions, projections, and sensations. Disc two takes one through the bardo of "dharmata" into the visions of calm and turmoil. Disc three concludes as the spirit read to fails, presumably, to find freedom and becomes tempted to return to another body; guidance for finding the best match is offered in this dharma of becoming, for another go-around of existence.

However, I would not start simply by cuing up the CDs of this calm, modulated, and well-paced recitation of "The Book of Liberation in the Great Bardo by Hearing," although that's how this medieval Tibetan "treasure-text" is meant to be heard-- spoken by a guru at the deathbed, aloud for the soul that's recently left its body. Why? We in the West nearly all will lack the familiarity that its original audience would have had with the advanced practices in this life meant to prepare the spirit-body for its entry into the complex sounds and visions of the afterlife.

This text remains esoteric, challenging, and erudite for Westerners. It's necessary to study it first, as you may easily be baffled or your attention may wander unless you have made an effort first to comprehend the gist of the translation included. Therefore, I'd read it first, with the introductory material that translators Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa provide. I remind you that the yellow-covered edition here offered differs from that earlier issues-- in a blue cover-- which was the condensed "pocket" version rather than the fuller 1975 publication by Shambhala. I'd recommend the whole deal; this is essential material that newcomers need for grasping what can be a very slippery compendium of exhortations, warnings, and appeals.

You may even want to go further with finding out more about what's rather misleadingly called the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," named by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, its first popularizer, to associate it in the 1920s with the Egyptian pop culture craze. Curious readers may want to take on other renderings for comparison and deeper appreciation. I've reviewed on Amazon (and this blog) the following texts: a simpler telling, Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord's "Illustrated TBoD;" Robert Thurman's expanded edition and translation of the "TBoD" and supplemental texts-- much greater detail than the version provided and recorded here; the entire "TBoD" recently issued from Penguin by Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman and others; and Fremantle's incorporation of a revision of some of the earlier translation in this book-CD set, as her commentary on the TBoD after an additional twenty-five years of study, "Luminous Emptiness."

After studying these texts, I found this CD recording. Hearing the TBoD for the first time, then, I appreciated nuances that had escaped me before. I found my concentration drifting, and the ability to rewind a few seconds or sentences to focus again proved a great stimulus. I wondered how Gere or any actor would take on such lists as the 58 wrathful deities, but his skill shows in small details.

He almost hesitates a millisecond before pronouncing the Tibetan polysyllabic names, and this prepares you to pay attention. This shift prepares you for the instruction; similarly he softens his tone when giving the invocations, appealing for their liberating message to be made manifest. He subtly accents even "buddha" and gives the final stress to "dharmata" in a way that gently reminds you of the difference of this elevated but somehow direct and unforgettable teaching, and of its poetic presence.

(Posted at both the older book-CD and newer unabridged CD versions in slightly different variations on Amazon US today.)

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