Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jeffery Paine's "Adventures with the Buddha": Book Review

"A Buddhist narrative meant to be enjoyed principally for enjoyment," compiling lengthy excerpts from nine Westerners, this reads engagingly often enough. Five adventurers from earlier, pre-countercultural days when Asia still beckoned as exotic and when Buddhism had not spread westwards en masse combine with four representatives from the modern era, when the West found itself coming to a Westernizing Asia, and back to a changing America that welcomed Tibetan lamas and Zen masters.

Paine, as with his "Re-Enchantment" (see my Amazon US or blog review) about the spread of Tibetan gurus abroad, notes how rapidly the shift occurred. He credits Max Weber with the scheme of a magical age followed by charismatic leaders and then bureaucratic rules that both lay and clerical members of a religion subscribe to. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) spanned the transition from a remote expedition to Tibet to the hippie-era, jet-fueled connections with an Asia far closer and less distinctive. She popularized the sorcerer and yogic adepts of Orientalized lore; Lama Anagarika Govinda (b. Ernst Hoffman in Germany) symbolizes the Westerner who took, as did David-Neel, the guise of the native in a quest to become another. John Blofeld from England and Peter Goullart from Russia show the erudite, if impoverished, adventurer willing to let go of their culture to immerse themselves among the lamas.

Janwillem van de Wetering pivots; postwar he left Holland for Japan before it had quite changed, and his stint in a Zen monastery shows his pioneering curiosity that would begin in the 1950s to attract others like him on to what became a well-worn path. Jan Willis left her segregated Alabama behind for academia via the Kathmandu route during the end of the Sixties heyday; she as with Tsultrim Allione and then Sharon Salzberg describe their quests less focused on the novelty or sheer otherness of the Asia of earlier travelers. For, that has receded, and their narratives merge the political with the personal, the psychological with the feminist, ethnic, and progressive identities of their tumultuous times. Michael Roach continues this, and shows again how transformed Americans may become when immersing themselves into Tibetan practice-- and then how that can be brought back into American everyday life.

I will cite a sample from each author to give a sense of their range. David-Neel appears more anodyne and detached despite her reputation as a fearless investigator. I was less enchanted by her style, which may have suffered in translation or distance from our own attitudes. On "Tumo/tuomo," or "art of warming oneself without fire," she dryly observes: "To spend the winter in a cave amidst the snows, at an altitude that varies between 11,000 and 18,000 feet, clad in a thin garment or even naked, and escape freezing, is a somewhat difficult achievement." (63)

Govinda tells us of his acceptance as a "chela" to a guru, and his message being: "every being carries within itself the spark of Buddhahood ('bodhicitta'), but as long as we concentrate on other people's faults we deprive ourselves of the light that in various degrees shines out from our fellow-beings." (91) The guru adds: "The greater our imperfections, the more we are inclined to see the faults of others, while those who have gained deeper insight can see through these faults into their essential nature." Govinda's portions are full of such insights, formal and dignified in mood.

Blofeld's style by comparison, from his "The Wheel of Life," presents a lively and poignant array of visually arresting and vividly described scenes from the now-obliterated world of Mahayana Chinese Buddhism. He hears one Rimpoché tell him: "The wrathful, blood-drinking deities with their skull-cups and horrid ornaments are as much a part of your mind as Bodhisattva's compassionate smile." (138) His teacher assures him simply not to strive to understand so much as to accept: "Be tolerant, love, understand. The whole universe is but yourself." Sincerity trumps intellect.

After a harrowing account of deprivation in post-revolution Russia and the death of his mother among exile and poverty, Peter Goullart takes us to where he fled: Shanghai. He tells us about Taoism and Buddhism, and of his stays in China until again he had to flee as Mao neared victory. Both approaches to this Ultimate Reality, a Daoist abbot explains, share much, and also need differentiation. "The Ultimate Truth is one, but it has an infinite number of aspects and what is more beautiful than that each faith should reflect only one facet of the Divine, all of them together creating a shining gem of beauty." (212)

Van de Wetering offers a wry account of his eight months in 1958 Kyoto; his Zen immersion ends and he contemplates suicide. "But how about my soul? Buddha had always refused to answer this question. Soul or no soul, life after death of no life after, an empty question. Walk the eightfold path and the question will drop away by itself, later, now, it doesn't matter." (260) Three days before his ship sails, he returns to bid his master farewell. He is told: "By leaving here nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (261) This chapter is full of such conversations and insights, told bracingly and coolly.

This bridges the later pilgrims, who tend to open up far more about their inner turmoil and psychic traumas. Willis as a black woman mastering the most advanced levels of Tibetan practice, and teaching these in universities, shows how far one trekker's quest can take one in post-60s Asia and America. As Kent State and Black Panthers fill her mind even in the Himalayan retreats she takes, she asks the Dalai Lama how to balance activism with non-violence. She relates how their conversation informed her: "Buddhism was a process; one did not need to delude oneself or to pretend to be other than oneself, and one did not have to become completely passive in order to embrace the notion of peace, Choosing peace did not mean rolling over and becoming a doormat. Pacifism did not mean passivism. Still, patience and clarity were essential." (286) These lessons fill her absorbing account as she battles how to balance pride with humility in many guises as a noted scholar and daring, if perhaps too eager-- as she shows graphically-- ritual practitioner.

Allione also finds her life challenged-- her baby dies and her two marriages crumble even as she advances also along the way to Tibetan high levels of mastered practice. Her report feels more roughly transmitted than Willis' but Allione parallels her path. And she finds similar revelations. "One cannot force or grasp a spiritual experience, because it is as delicate as the whisper of the wind. But one can purify one's motivation, one's body, and train oneself to cultivate it. Because we come from a culture which teaches us that there is always something external to be obtained which will lead us to fulfillment, we lose contact with our innate wisdom." (323)

Later, she wonders about "this luminous, subtle spiritual energy" being a "'dakini' principle. She is the key, the gate opener, and the guardian of the unconditioned, primordial state which is innate in everyone. If I am not willing to play with her, or if I try to force her, or if I do not invoke her, the gate remains closed and I remain in darkness and ignorance." (336) This continues the common thread of the earlier authors who relate how their visits to the East turn them into devoted, if cautiously accepting and carefully perceptive, mediators between the culture they visit and the one they must return to, as Asia merges with their homelands.

Salzberg delves into suffering like the previous writers, and counters her own family's narrow limits and her own difficulties with a "state of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them." This "bright faith" contrasts with her dying father's resignation: "The boundary of his autonomy was the decision about where to have lunch if someone took him out of the hospital on a pass." (355) Far from Lhasa or Dharamsala, this contemporary application of dharma at its most basic grounds this, a more matter-of-fact entry from our milieu.

Closing the collection, Michael Roach gives a telling account of his go-getter, Type-A personality as he applies his geshe-level Tibetan study as a monk to the business of diamond selling in NYC. This case study shows the transition from the counterculture to the yuppie realm, how Eastern ideals incorporate into Western capitalism. Roach labors to show how he turns around at his office customary egotism into generous empathy, and how the millions generated in profits by his company do produce good works for Tibetans in exile, but the tone of his chapter, with its earnest engagement, left me disappointed.

Roach praises his international clientele and his polyglot workforce, but he never mentions the African miners. Nor does he consider the exploitative nature of an enterprise so bent on charging so much for a few precious stones. He defends wealth-creation as a Buddha's nature, and articulates clearly the rationale for generating affluence, but the compromises that underlay this justification, for me, closed this book with a cautionary rather than inspirational tale. Unintentionally perhaps on Roach's part, I closed this book pondering the risks in bringing dharma practices into the West if this exchange shortchanges compassion for the humblest worker responsible, and paid so little, for the gems peddled at Roach's firm so dearly. (Posted to Amazon US 3-7-10)

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