November 28th, 2006

Books!

I should have read this 25 years ago ...

Well, poking around on my shelves for "what to read next" I hit a stack of books which either date to or right after the Kalachakra Initiation that His Holiness gave in New York City (at Madison Square Garden, of all places) back in 1991. I don't recall if I bought these books on-site, or if I ordered them afterward, but there are like a half-dozen various titles (still) waiting for me to get around to reading them.

The Opening of the Wisdom Eye by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was not what I expected. Not that I had a specific idea of what this was about (I was thinking it might have to do with visualization exercises, the type that are central to Vajrayana practices like the Kalachakra), but I really didn't expect this to be something of a "Tibetan Buddhist primer". It turns out that this is a re-print of a book that H.H. wrote back in 1963 (translated to English in 1966) which was intended as "a clear and comprehensive introduction to the teachings of the Buddha". I'm not sure that the book actually achieves that goal, at least for Western readers, though ... it struck me as more a volume on "how Tibetan Buddhism (and especially Vajrayana) fits into the over-all Buddhist world" as H.H. puts quite a lot of focus into framing Vajrayana as part of a continuum from basic Theraveda practices on through the very complex exercises of his own lineage.

When I say that I don't feel that this book achieves clarity, it's because this is, to a certain extent, a technical manual and it seems to assume a certain level of pre-existing knowledge on the part of the reader. Now, I have read quite a lot of Tibetan Buddhist material over the past few decades, but have not practiced this in any more than the most cursory fashion (I've worked intensely with certain developmental exercises, but have not worked with the material in any systematic form), and there are substantial parts of this book that have me scratching my head and going "oh, uh, yeah ... OK". To randomly pick out an example of this, in the "Training In Supreme Collectedness" section (part of "The Threefold Training" part of the book), there are the Nine States of Mind, the Six Powers, and the Four Mental Activities. Of the latter, #1 is "1. Manonivesapravartak-manaskara - By means of this activity the mind enters into the object." ... that's it, not defining terms, not contextifying action, just the statement as it is. Now, I'm not asking for some Klintonesque "definition of is", but it would be nice to have some commentary about what is meant by "the mind enters into the object"!

However, with this (reasonably serious) caveat, this is a very useful book, because once one gets past (or skims over) the technical jargon, it is, as intended, a very detailed "road map" to what Vajrayana Buddhism is, coming from one whose opinions on the matter could certainly be held to be definitive! As I noted above, this would have been a VERY good book for me to have read prior to my first Kalachakra Initiation (Madison, 1981), as I sort of stumbled into Vajrayana by way of these major public events (I've taken the Kalachakra 3 times, and the Avalokitesvara twice), without much background knowledge other than basic College Religion Major data regarding Buddhism in general.

The Opening of the Wisdom Eye is still in print, so if you were so inclined, you'd likely be able to get it through your local book retailer, but Amazon has it at a very reasonable discount price, and their new/used vendors have "like new" copies under three bucks. Again, this is awfully technical, but is quite a valuable addition to any Buddhist studies collection!


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Books!

Catching up ...

Yeah, I know, two book reviews on the same date, what is this world coming to? I figured that I'd cover this now, as it was a very quick read, and came out of the same stack as the last book. This is also a bit odd in that I can't find anything about it on the web ... although I did find a page with info on the author, Lopön Tenzin Namdak. I'm also not 100% sure about the title, but I think it ought to be Tapihritsa: The Condensed Meaning of an Explanation of the Teachings of Yungdrung Bon. The booklet is one of those "Asian" formats that seems to be hand-set with actual metal type, with newsprint interior pages, and not a whole lot of publication info. Oddly enough, this was printed no earlier than 1991 as the translator's note in the book is dated from May of that year ... looking at it you'd guess it had been made decades ago, but I guess that's Kathmandu for ya. In the links that I would usually have going out to Amazon, I've targeted the English language top page of yungdrung-bon.net, which has info on Lopön Tenzin Namdak and is run by the Paris-based Yungdrung Bön Association.

Now, if you're not familiar with it, Bön is the native "shamanistic" religion of Tibet, that strongly influenced the way that Vajrayana developed. I suspect that I picked this up at the NYC Kalachakra just to get some info on the Bönpo traditions. Frankly, though, I have a hard time really separating what's in this volume with the general stuff I've been exposed to of Vajrayana teachings. Perhaps Bönpo has become so intertwined with the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, that it has become something of a "heretical" close cousin, something like Sufism to mainstream Islam. Most of the materials that I can find on the web refer to it as the "Bön Buddhist tradition", which confuses me somewhat, as Bön is a survival from the pre-Buddhist times in Tibet.

Anyway, this is a fascinating little book ... it does, however, read very much like the last one in that there are a lot of things being "defined" in terms that are themselves technical and don't necessarily make things clear for the "outsider" reading it! Maybe some day I'll find a nice over-view book of the history (and survival) of Bön to get me up to speed with the subject. As noted, I was unable to find any source for this, so if you have a hankering for a copy, you're pretty much out of luck, although there do seem to be some decent basic web pages (http://bonpo.net/, http://www.bonfoundation.org/, etc.) with good info if you're interested in checking it out.


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