Friday, March 11, 2011

Chögyam Trungpa's "Born in Tibet": Book Review

Arguably the earliest breakthrough account of his homeland before and after the Chinese invasion, when this appeared in 1968 it preceded the Rinpoche's fame and the attention his "crazy wisdom" inspired among followers and detractors. Boldly, Trungpa sought to strip the Vajrayana, the Tibetan doctrine, of its factional distinctions and to transmit to the West, among the predicted "land of the red-skinned faces" in the age of iron, the dharma.

That episode, rapidly told, appends the revised edition of this narrative. It concentrates on a rather matter-of-fact, stolid recital of how he was chosen as a "tulku," a reincarnated lama, his entrance to the monastery, his education, countless visits to other foundations, more education, and careful wisdom. While this left me less satisfied, for its tone and style keeps you apart from the inherent interest in his spiritual formation and practical experience, it does provide a first-person report on traditional Tibetan inculcation.

Lama Pega tells him how Buddhist teaching can never be theory alone, but must be tested by practice, self-examination of precepts, and reflection over the meaning. True faith emerges only after the Middle Way of moderation. "Knowledge must be tested in the same way as gold; first refined, then beaten and made smooth till it becomes the right colour and shows it is pure gold." (98)

Sadness, but not resignation, pervades this story as it follows Trungpa's coming of age in an increasingly embattled nation. As Marco Pallis (see my review of his "Peaks and Lamas") explains in his forward, Trungpa conveys the incursion obliquely. It reflects how indirectly, by hearsay, rumor, distant report the natives heard of the coming of the Chinese. While this may cast a detached, fatalistic tone over the story told, it does express the slow infiltration of the occupiers that precedes their military and political conquest.

He climbs "the holy Mt. Doti Gangkar," where the founding guru Padmasambhava used to meditate twelve centuries before. Trungpa tells of its green and black lakes, and snowy summit.
"The legend goes that in the Golden Age this snow never melted and shone like a diamond. In the following age it was like an onyx in which light and darkness are mixed. In the third age, however, it was to become like iron; everything would be dark and our time in Tibet would be over. When we reached the top of the mountain we found that the snow fields were melting and that great expanses of dark rock were showing."(120)
(One wonders, fifty-five years or so later, what the expanse now looks like after Chinese decimation and global warming.)

About five years after the first occupation of the Communists, teenaged Trungpa is warned by Chentze Rinpoche, an elder lama:
"You must look after and guide yourself, as in the future there will be no further teachers. A new era has begun in which the pure doctrine of the Lord Buddha lies in the hands of individuals; each one is separately responsible, for I do not think that we can carry on in the way we have done up till now. We can no longer rely on groups and communities. The situation is very serious, many of us are old, and perhaps it is young people like you, the new generation, who shall bear the burden." (97)
By his twentieth year, he bears many burdens. After hiding, he must flee the Communists as they turn to all-out war against a few determined Tibetan guerrillas. This picks up the pace, and the latter half of the book tells of the escape as he leads three hundred natives from the threat of imprisonment or death-- towards exile in India. He briskly tells of this poignant departure and dangerous flight.

It ends with typical understatement; after recounting the fortunes of the survivors: "Nothing has been heard of Karma-tendzin, the Queen of Nangchen and her party, nor of Lama Urgyen's group of monks who went to the pilgrimage valley." (249) The following page gives a poem that laments the nature of the Buddhist lesson of life's impermanence: "Mortal, yet once we enjoyed the masquerade;/ Now we see clearly all things perishing." (Posted to Amazon US 4-12-10)

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