Monday, March 19, 2012

Matteo Pistono's "In the Shadow of the Buddha": Book Review

This Wyoming-raised environmental activist turned Tibetan advocate interweaves his own near-decade pilgrimage and political action with the story of his inspiration, Tertön Sogyal, whose two incarnations Pistono learns from today. One, Sogyal Rinpoche, has gained fame for his "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" and his Rigpa hospice foundations and outreach from his French base. The other, Khenpo, had taught the current Dalai Lama, and was his only lama still living in Tibet. Pistono--fascinated by Tertön's story a century ago as he turns from banditry to great influence in recovering termas or "treasure teachings" to assist the Tibetans in staving off British and Chinese takeovers--now during Chinese takeover goes on a journey to four key places in Tertön's life.

Pistono, from a politically active union family, clearly knows his way around corridors of power. He intersperses his surreptitious adventures, as his spiritual quest impels him to smuggle out documentation of imprisonment and suppression by the Chinese communists of monks, nuns, and laypeople who dare to shout out support for the Dalai Lama. He learns from Ming--a policewoman caught in her own half-Chinese, half-Tibetan parentage her own ambiguous position in power--of the "conviction quota" police must achieve monthly, and how "a case is closed" by torture or murder.

His connections with Richard Gere and the International Campaign for Tibet add cachet to this account. Pistono does now and then give of a sense of moving in elevated circles not opened to most folks, but his upbringing appears to account for his ease in lobbying, as his Wyoming youth prepared him to endure long treks in cold climes. The map may be vaguely drawn and the illustrations sometimes few, perhaps to protect the identities of those he assists, but the details, connected elegantly if sometimes very subtly, tie his own venture to that of his inspiring guru a hundred years and more ago.

Pistono underplays, sensibly, how he's able to get in and out of Tibet and smuggle out hard evidence (hard to come by--see my review of Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya") to show Congress and human rights organizations (who appear as many entities not to be able to overcome a growing Chinese manner of brushing such reports with disdain or indifference or platitudes). While this ability left me wondering, the slight elision in parts of his narrative is understandable. He adds notes for his sources and a glossary of terms and a bibliography point one to research and provide welcome help for lots of unfamiliar Tibetan names. Throughout this accessible, straightforward tale, his courage in getting out information in the soles of his shoes, straps of his backpack, or false bottom of his satchel remains admirable. You learn how difficult it is to sneak photos and reports used by the communist regime out of Tibet, and how necessary such an endeavor is if the West (or a few caring people among so many disinterested), is led to care and act. 

Early on, he gets the first of many temptations to simply meditate and study. He's as overwhelmed with the seeming near-futility of changing this sixty-year situation as most of us are; still, he listens and watches for his chances to apply the doctrines and disciplines he begins to practice.

He must alleviate suffering, and "in the shadow of the Buddha" subtly phrased here reminds me of the citation he includes from the "Dhammapada" sayings: "Speak or act with a pure mind/ And happiness will follow you/ As your shadow, unshakable." 

Of course, the "shadow" also conveys the sense of dread, as Tibet's bullied. Its natives "were asking me to plug their stifled voices" from the plateau "into an amplifier in the West for the world to hear and act upon." (38)  How can one help? The Dalai Lama is cited as advising a woman to go there, and then report what she sees. Few can do this, or know how (Pistono's facility in Tibetan appears to come quickly when he studies for his master's degree in London) but we can "bear witness" as Pistono does, by reading this account and acting on its imperative.

Pistono, as crackdowns post-2008 continue in Tibet, concludes his account "through that sacred topology where I ricocheted between inspiration and sadness, meditative sadness and anger, an inner pilgrimage was born, a pathway that continually brought me back to where the vast potential for enlightenment abides, and is always present." (217) During his account, he hesitates in accepting that his practice can lead him to enlightenment. Yet, in building a stupa to commemorate Tertön's last home, he seems to come home to reside in his own acceptance of how liberating can be a cause to pursue, freer from anger at the predicament in which his second homeland finds itself, this century.

(Amazon US 3-11-12) Author's website.

No comments: