Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Matthieu Ricard's "Bhutan: the Land of Serenity": Book Review

Unlike other photo narratives on this often mythologized kingdom, this one from a practicing monk takes a sober, almost detached approach that reveals his calm. After a decade in the company of the Dalai Lama's tutor there, Tibetan refugee Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and now the Dalai Lama's French translator himself, French-born Ricard brings the same considered evaluation of Buddhist practice and culture that his sponsorship and appearance in the films Brilliant Moon and The Spirit of Tibet (see my Dec. 2012 reviews) demonstrate about his devotion to his mentors. What this has to do with Bhutan as a larger entity comes across more gradually, and the brief three pages introducing each of these eight sections of his brilliantly reproduced color photography, 1980-2007, convey this more vividly than the miniscule font (too small, let alone the captions even smaller) do in this admittedly handsome, compact text, translated by Ruth Sharman.

About half of this content in words and images features or complements the surroundings of his dharma teacher in Bhutan. This complements Ricard's other treatments of him; it means that much of the photography documents monasticism and ceremonies around its operations. As for the country, this is not the best introduction, as no reading list, no map, and very little background is given about the region. The urbanization of many Bhutanese and the complications of modernization are barely glanced at. Intentionally, no doubt, but readers may want to consult other titles as well.

The typeface is as noted tiny and may not be legible for some readers. The book is elegantly laid out, but rather small. You get much less attention to the natural landscape and everyday people, although some stunning depictions of scenery (not only the expected panoramic vistas--one of Everest on the plane's way from Kathmandu to Paro--but abstracted patterns in reflected water) introduce the terse overview of the nation and its situation as the last Tantric Buddhist realm.

Taksang, the cover's Tiger's Lair, endures as the iconic image of the land, and its chapter shows it as before and then restored after the fire of 1998: it looks splendid in both incarnations. Sacred architecture and crafts show the incorporation of the spiritual landscape into art and costume, the Great Accomplishment ceremony, the intricate movements of dance and the composed presence of ritual. Ricard observes the "clear" lesson exemplifed by such as the Trongsar five-day festival dramatizing the message of Buddhism: "we are the architects of our own being." (153) 

While Ricard does not delve into his own manner of entry into such situations, one may assume his own position allows him a privileged status and a rare insider's perspective that allows him to bridge Himalayan contexts and Western expectations of what such mysterious presentations of Buddhism mean. Bhutan here shimmers more in its less commonly depicted textiles, paintings, and decorations that grace the inside walls of places perhaps prohibited to tourists, and his combination of exterior and interior illustrations works well to provide a Buddhist point of view. (Amazon US 1-13-12)

No comments: