Random House: New York, 1994.
284 pp. $19.00 (cloth).
This could have been a helluva book, a marvel, a veritable gem glistening in the dull, plastic body of contemporary American fiction. Or could it? Gould a novel that mixes so many genres—thriller, courtroom drama, love story, spiritual awakening—do justice to any of them, much less to the artful telling of a tale? And could any of the subjects in which the author dabbles here—Zen, classical music, Asian culture, immigrants in America, the U.S. legal system—be given much more than a monochromatic rendering?
As a Zen student, a writer, and an admirer of Mark Salzman’s first book, Iron and Silk, I was excited to learn that he had written a novel in which a Zen student is accused of killing his teacher. It had a superb plot line, appealing not only to Zen students (who may themselves have secretly entertained such murderous notions when in the clutches of koan study) but to a more general audience interested in a somewhat offbeat murder mystery with a twist. It also seemed to present a tremendous opportunity to introduce readers to Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, especially given the relatively reflective, spiritual tone of the times.
But of course things are what they are, not what we would like them to be.
In all fairness, it should be said that The Soloist indeed works as a novel, with a likable if unlikely protagonist, Renne Sundheimer, a thirty-six-year-old virgin and former child prodigy cellist. Until he was eighteen, Renne was the toast of the world’s concert halls, enchanting audiences with his gift for “drawing sound out of a wooden box.” But then his talent vanished and with it his sense of self and purpose. When the reader meets Renne, he is teaching cello at a university in Southern California and practicing fiercely in desperate pursuit of his lost touch. Clearly this guy is ripe for a wake-up call.
Salzman stokes the plot: Renne is selected as a juror in the murder trial of a student accused of beating his Zen teacher to death with a kyosaku (encouragement stick) during a meditation period. And he begins giving private cello lessons to another child prodigy, a shy working-class Korean boy. Add to this a love interest, meanderings into Renne’s past, discussions of music, law, Zen,and this nagging thirty-six-year-old-virgin thing, hanging around as purposelessly as Renne without his cello. Quite frankly, for Americans in 1994, accepting the unreconciled virginity of a grown man requires a superhuman suspension of disbelief—and why bother? I couldn’t help wondering about the significance of this looming, curious detail
Salzman laces his story with superfluous stuff, making the perfectly simple unnecessarily complicated. Likewise with his treatment of Buddhism, as he renders the infinitely complex utterly flat His Zen practitioners are all seemingly marginal, psychologically troubled types with shaved heads and no sense of humor. Certainly there are such students, but Renne, a middle-class white male academic and musician, would have been a far more typical example. Koans—the study of which is a central element in the murder trial—are depicted as little more than ridiculous riddles, puzzles for the intellect. In fact, while paradox is essential to koans, they cannot be “solved” by logic or reason, but require the student to transcend conceptual, discursive thought.
Some fine writing could have served this novel well, making up for what it lacked elsewhere, and a bit of true intrigue would have been welcome. Instead, the story unfolds routinely, predictably, unlike the floating, ever-changing nature of life, and Salzman’s writing is more craft than art: functional, for sure, but lacking grace.
When I told my own teacher about The Soloist, she said with some amusement of the accused murderer, “He didn’t pass the koan.” Fortunately, Renne himself does attain a measure of enlightenment. Unfortunately, that is a small concession for the reader. Like the Buddha’s image of the string that is neither too loose nor too taut, but exactly tuned, so a novel’s harmony and beauty is in just telling a story, not more, not less. Salzman appears to know the story, but he didn’t tell it here.
Amy Hollowell is an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris.
Beyond Sanity and Madness
Dennis Genpo Merzel
Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.: Rutland, Vermont, 1994.
276 pp. $14.95 (paper).
The aim of Beyond Sanity and Madness, the new book by Zen teacher Dennis Genpo Merzel, is eminently
practical. The focus is a detailed discussion of three fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo that center on Zen training (“Gakudo Yojinshu”), transcendental wisdom and its transmission from teacher to student (“Yuibutsu Yobutsu”), and the compassion growing out of awakening (“Bodaisatta Shishobo”). For Dogen, these three constitute one indivisible reality.
The title of the book, Beyond Sanity and Madness, expresses the absolute necessity of going beyond all possible dualism, especially beyond good and evil, beyond mind (which generates delusion and lifeless concepts) and no-mind (which results in mere blankness), and even beyond delusion and enlightenment. Viewed from the standpoint of enlightenment, the “sanity” component of the dualism of sanity and madness turns out to be, in Merzel’s view, hopelessly shallow and thoughtless. This sort of “sanity” strives only to conform to the standards of our culture: a strong work ethic, profession, position, family. Merzel s&es a great danger in this sanity. People seek to “feel good” and be comfortable in this pseudo-sanity, and some forms of Zen have even come to serve as a kind of “feel good” therapy However, the goal of Zen is hardly this sort of comfortable adjustment, but, rather, a relinquishment and a letting go—of everything.
Throughout the book Merzel repeatedly stresses the importance of practice and finding an authentic teacher. “Zen is still fragile in the West,” he cautions, “and I am very concerned that attempts to make it more accessible by adjusting it to society’s norms could easily dilute the essence of the teaching. It is even possible that through these well-intentioned efforts the practice could wither before it has a real chance to take root in our culture.”
Over twenty years ago Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Americans, especially young Americans, have a great opportunity to find out the true way of life for human beings.” The tone of Merzel’s book, given two decades’ hindsight, is perhaps more realistic, voicing the concern that most of us are still seeking something external from Zen: fame, profit, approval. We are still upside down and need to exert every effort to get right side up.
One of the merits of Beyond Sanity and Madness lies in its stark emphasis upon a paradox that borders on contradiction: On the one hand, there is “the unreckonable abyss that lies between ‘person’ and ‘Buddha.'” The mind of an ordinary person and the mind of an awakened person cannot meet. On the other hand, “The mind… always creates another shore to cross over to, because somehow this shore is not good enough,” writes Merzel. “It creates a wall and then the illusion that there is a window to pass through. There is no barrier to begin with, no window to go through. The other shore does not exist. If this shore is not enough, it’s too bad.”
Merzel does not attempt any scholarly analysis of Dogen’s thought. Keenly aware of the urgency for undeluded training and practice, he analyzes Dogen’s practical intent. “Gakudo Yojinshu” (Points to Watch in Practicing the Way) emphasizes the need to stay flexible and unstuck. “Yuibutsu Yobutsu” (Only Buddha and Buddha) stresses the necessity of getting rid of our pictures and ideas—of just seeing things clearly for themselves. As Dogen pointed out, our basic problem is that we cannot allow things to be just as they are, we cannot let them be. Finally, “Bodaisatta Shishobo” (The Four Benevolent Ways of the Bodhisattva) stresses the activities of generosity, compassionate speech, beneficial action, and identification with others.
Ultimately, Merzel’s point is no other than Dogen’s: The other shore does not exist. All sentient beings are—already—the enlightened Buddha-nature. Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial that we realize the truth of these teachings in a form that is not watered down.
Joan Stambaugh is a Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College in New York City. Her books include Impermanence is Buddha Nature (University of Hawaii Press).
In the Lap of the Buddha
Shambhala Publications: Boston and London, 1994. 289 pp. $14.00 (paper).
Pat Enkyo O’Hara
In a fundamental way, Buddhism is about the truth of suffering and how we respond to that suffering. For that reason, Buddhism seems a perfect practice for those who are living on the edge, forced to recognize the temporary nature of their lives. That this recognition is a timely gift is essentially the point of In the Lap of the Buddha.
Gavin Harrison is a meditation teacher in the Vipassana tradition. He is also gay and HIV positive. Subjected to sexual abuse as an infant and a young boy only after years of meditation was he able to come to terms with his own sexuality and, later, his HIV status:
Initially my HIV-positive diagnosis in 1989 felt like a return to the closet. Much of the guilt, shame, and confusion of earlier years returned with a vengeance—same emotions, new storyline.
Reading the description of his gradual coming to terms with his pain is, to use Harrison’s own metaphor, like witnessing a hard, tight flower bud slowly opening to reveal an inner softness and blush.
The rest of us, lulled perhaps by a false sense of permanence, are startled awake by the clarity and vigor of those facing fear, anger, and pain. All of us, of course, are touched by suffering. Whether it be angst or only a vague sense of dissatisfaction, each day we experience fear, anger, and delusion. This is the landscape of Harrison’s book—the confrontation with one’s own suffering, with one’s own self:
The path of meditation is a process of recognizing, understanding, and eventually letting go of all painful patterns of mind. In this letting go, the truth of who or what we are begins to emerge. This truth was always there, hidden, latent, and perhaps quietly asleep. Slowly the beauty and perfection of our being emerges. This is our true essence, our birthright—what some call “Buddha-nature.”
Drawing on episodes from the life of the Buddha, the author finds parallels to his own challenges. Thus, a chapter on fear begins with a teaching on samsara, the ceaseless cycle of birth and death, and from there takes the reader through an intimate examination of the sensation of fear. We are encouraged not to “escape” our fear, but to come to know it like a companion who is always with us. A keen awareness of our mental states is the key:
Fear often seems to be a subtle and thin veil through which I experience life. It is immediately clear that the awareness needs to be that subtle and sensitive to perceive it.
There is a wonderful, gripping quality to the writing when Harrison is describing his own experience, a sense of the human heart opening to life. At other times it seems to run into the difficulty common to words that point to the mind. It is not easy to write about meditation or practice. We tend to “average it down” to the understandable explanation. It becomes a psychological mechanism, a discipline, or a goal. By explaining so much, the mystery of living in and out of every breath gets lost.
The clear, somewhat flavorless explanatory quality of Lap of the Buddha may also be its strength. By detailing point by point the mechanisms of insight meditation and techniques for coping with guilt, anger, and abuse, Harrison has written an instructive manual that can be consulted by new practitioners, as well as by those facing immediate crises. It is not so much a book for a single reading, but one that can be referred to from time to time as issues surface in our lives. If not the poetry, then certainly the spirit of Ryokan is preserved in Harrison’s book:
O that my priest’s robe were
wide enough to gather up all the suffering
people in this floating world.
Pat Enkyo O’Hara is Associate Professor of Interactive Telecommunications at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and the leader of Village Zendo in Manhattan.
Dream Conversations on Buddhism and Zen
Translated by Thomas Cleary
Shambhala Centaur Editions: 1994.
190 pp. $11.00 (paper).
The “dream conversations” of the great “national teacher” and Japanese Zen master Muso Soseki (1275-1351) are not really conversations per se, but brief letters written in response to questions posed by a Kyoto shogun. Muso is probably best known in the West through his poems written in Chinese and brilliantly translated by W. S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu (Sun at Midnight, North Point Press, 1989), a volume that amply demonstrates why Muso is among the most prominent poets of Zen literature.
A remarkably calm, gentle child, Muso entered a Shingon Buddhist monastery at the age of eight and eventually received confirmation from the poet and Zen master Koho Ken’ichi after studying with several Chinese and Japanese Zen masters. For years he wandered alone among remote hermitages and monasteries, refining his practice. During his lifetime, he served as teacher to more than thirteen thousand registered students of Zen, was abbot of several monasteries, and founded fourteen
temples. He was one of the primary figures in adapting Chinese art and science to Japanese culture, and he virtually invented the Zen stone garden as we know it today.
These “dream conversations” explore all kinds of psychological problems and misconceptions arising from Zen inquiry. Most are very short. In the chapter “Pity,” for instance, Muso says:
The pity of great saints for ordinary people is not necessarily because of the wretchedness of the human condition in itself but more because of the great potential humanity has and does not use, the high estate from which humanity has fallen.
In an essay on “Spiritual Malpractice,” he observes:
When a person takes pride in spiritual practices or experiences, that individual is certain to fall into the sphere of influence of demons. This is not the fault of the practice itself but of the attitude of the practitioner. Those who undertake spiritual practices with wrong ideas, or develop wrong views in the course of practice, and those who become conceited and oppose the doctrines or methods of others, enter states of mind and modes of being that may be referred to as “hell.”
Inquisitive and open-minded, Muso had little patience with dogma. “Unenlightened people,” he wrote, “think that the beliefs they imagine to be true are fundamental, so once they come to believe in any doctrine of any school, they reject all other schools. Once they have come to believe in someone as their own guru, some people think everyone else’s doctrine is inferior and even refuse to hear anything else. Such people are the stupidest of imbeciles. . . . We should realize that the various doctrines and methods taught by the Buddha were provisionally expounded in accord with people’s confused and deluded natures and inclinations.”
This comment, coming near the end of Dream Conversations, provides a curious counterbalance to a comment by translator Thomas Gleary near the conclusion of his introduction:
The confusion into which modern Buddhism has fallen, particularly in the West, makes the incisive teachings of Zen master Muso not only relevant but critical to the rediscovery and effective application of Buddhist spiritual technology.
Gleary elaborates no further. But no doubt “the confusion into which modern Buddhism has fallen” differs little from the confusion Muso addresses. Alert, tough-minded, incisive, Muso exposes the poseurs while gently guiding the mindful practitioner. Quoting the Lotus Sutra, he writes:
Although the teaching of the Buddha is one, because the natures and inclinations of sentient beings differ, the avenues to truth they understand are also different. It is like one and the same rain falling from the sky being absorbed differently by the plants and trees according to the size of their roots and stems, branches and leaves.
Muso’s Dream Conversations is the voice of a wise and non-sectarian—or pluri-sectarian—companion in Zen practice. The late poet Robert Duncan observed that it really doesn’t matter whether one likes‘a poem when one turns to it for evidence of the real. The same maybe said for the sayings of Muso, except that he is an appealing and compassionate personality. He just happens to come equipped with a good bullshit detector.
Sam Hamill is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His forthcoming book, The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Others, will be published by Shambhala this spring.
Two Arrows Meeting in Mid-Air: The Zen Koan
John Daido Loori
Edited by Bonnie Myotai Treace and Konrad Ryushin Marchaj.
Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.: Boston, 1994.
348 pp. $16.95 (paper).
This collection of twenty-one talks by Zen teacher John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, centers on koans (“cases” for Zen meditation) drawn from a broad collection of sources. Zen students and scholars are probably already familiar with such classics as the Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Record. Those unacquainted with the Mountains and Rivers Order, of which Loori is the director, will also encounter a novel collection of modern and revised cases known as Koans of the Way of Reality, part of the training syllabus at Zen Mountain Monastery. From the beginning, we are reminded that koans are not mere cultural artifacts from China or Japan, but matters to be made clear by students of Zen today.
The significance of the book’s title is revealed in the foreword by Daido Sensei’s teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Fei-Wei, master of the bow, had an exceptional student in Chi-Ch’ang. But Chi-Ch’ang was jealous of his teacher’s reputation, and sought to prove himself the greatest archer in the world by defeating his teacher in combat. The two met in a field, and each time Chi-Ch’ang shot an arrow, Fei-Wei let fly with one that met it in mid-air, and the two arrows fell to the ground. Chi-Ch’ang had one more arrow than Fei-Wei, and when he shot the last one his teacher picked up a branch and stopped the arrow on a thorn. Acknowledging his student’s ability, nevertheless he demonstrates that the true adept makes use of what is at hand—and in all circumstances. In taking up koan study with a teacher, you are free to shoot your own arrows if you dare.
In the introduction, Loori describes the place of koans in Zen practice, gives a glimpse of the dynamics of koan study, and presents a brief history of its use. He touches on the revitalization and systematization of koan study by the great eighteenth-century Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin and presents students with contemporary koans regarding problems of war, poverty, and the environment. While eager to convey an appreciation of koans historically, Loori maintains that “the bottom line of koan study is self-realization.”
Self-realization may be the rai-son d’etre of koan study, but modern students are sometimes left at sea by their beautiful, ponderous images, or by those obscure cases that rely on knowledge of historical figures from Indian Buddhism, or familiarity with monastic practice. Frustrated aspirants may find relief in these koans, one of which, though modeled on an old case, has been freshened up:
A visiting student began to say, “The truths of the earth continually wait. They are not so concealed either. They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print.” The master yelled, “Stop, stop! Is that Whitman’s poem?” The student said, “Yes.” The master said, “Those are words that described his reality. What is the reality itself? Show me.” The student was unable to respond.
Astute readers of Whitman, whether students of the dharma or not, must know that the old bisexual hippie was onto something. As Loori points out, Leaves of Grass positively reeks of intimacy, that state in which, as
Zen master Dogen described it, one is “confirmed by the ten thousand things,” inherently attuned with the Tao. Loori returns to Whitman repeatedly, as he clarifies not only the point of this case, but the purpose of koan study and of Zen itself. And he offers encouragement as well. To American students who, faced with the arcane symbology of ancient Chinese texts, may sometimes be tempted to doubt their capacity to understand the truth of Zen, Loori says simply, “No beings ever fail to cover the ground upon which they stand.” At the same time that he deals with the fundamental matter of realization, however, Loori also challenges us to nourish and heal others, and to confront the problems that threaten ourselves and the planet.
There are three supplements to the main text of Two Arrows. In the first, Loori takes up particular points of each case in the tradition of ancient koan collections. Next, a question and answer section reveals a more personal picture of Loori as he responds to students and their varied questions about koans, Zen practice, and enlightenment. Last, a lineage chart, somewhat elided, shows how American Zen has descended from the Buddhas of the past, and a glossary clarifies those technical terms with which some readers may be unfamiliar. Conspicuously absent are reference notes or a bibliography of any kind. While Loori acknowledges texts he has used in preparing his talks—and the efforts of their translators—readers might reasonably expect something more from the editors on this account. It might be helpful in approaching this business of koan study to know that the teacher doesn’t merely “shoot from the hip”—he consults texts, too. But the omission is a minor flaw. Two Arrows Meeting in Mid-Air is a welcome addition to the American Zen literature—a book that will aid sincere stu-
dents in discovering that koans aren’t foreign at all, but “the ground upon which they stand.”
Michael Sierchio is a computer consultant and Zen student who lives in Berkeley, California.
Selected Poems of SuTung-p’o
Translated by Burton Watson
Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, Washington, 1994.
145 pp. $12.00 (paper).
J. P. Seaton
SuTung-p’o (1037-1101) ranks with the greatest of the great Chinese poets. He was very much a man of his times, the freewheeling Sung Dynasty, a period when politicians, philosophers, and poets alike sought to reweave the fabric of Chinese culture. It was an age of creative growth in both Taoist and Confucian thought and the age of maturation for Gh’an (Zen) Buddhism. Su’s poetry, presented here in vivid translation by Burton Watson, reflects the turmoil, the freedom, and the overwhelming vitality of the age. It also illuminates the character and lifestyle of one of China’s most accomplished laymen.
People who like poetry will delight in this book. Burton Watson’s versions of the poems are bright, direct, and unpretentious—appropriate to the letter and the spirit of the originals. Occasionally they make brilliant poems in American English as well. Watson doesn’t just provide a sample of the poet’s work, he captures many of Su’s technical “tricks” too. This is translation at its very uncommon best.
People who haven’t cared much for poetry but who share with the poet an interest in Buddhist practice may also enjoy Selected Poems. Nearly one-third of the book’s 112 poems deal directly with Buddhist personalities and themes. One of the most interesting is the quatrain “Presented to the Abbot Ch’ang-tsung of the East Forest Temple.” Believed to be Su’s Buddhist “enlightenment verse,” this poem has appeared before in English, in Lucien Stryk’s Penguin Book of Zen Poetry, but Watson’s version is, if anything, even more intriguing:
Voice of the valley stream—this is his long broad tongue;
the color of the hills—is it not;his clean pure body?
Last night you mastered eighty-four thousand verses;
another day how will you explain them to others?
“Hundred Pace Rapids,” a poem that the poet presented to his Ch’an monk-poet friend Ts’an-liao Tzu, shows the warm and human nature of the relationship between the two men. Its combination of philosophical depth, good humor, and easy spiritual camaraderie makes it a favorite of mine.
In this reverie I lose a thousand kalpas;
I stare at the water: it moves with unspeakable slowness.
See there, on the face of the green rock bank—
holes like hornets’ nests where ancient boatmen braced their poles!
Only make sure the mind never clings!
The Creator may hurry us, but what can we do?
Turn the boat around, mount horse, and go home.
Master Ts’an-liao complains I talk too much!
Beyond the poems that are clearly “Buddhist,” the reader will discover a special consciousness reflected in nearly every line of poetry, be it nominally Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian in inspiration, or merely personal, as in the poem for his first wife, “Ten Years—Dead and Living Dim and Draw Apart”:
In a dream last night suddenly I was home.
By the window of the little room
you were combing your hair and making up.
You turned and looked, not speaking,
only lines of tears coursing down—
year after year will it break my heart?
The moonlit grave, its stubby pines.
SuTiing-pVs consciousness displays an enlightened appreciation of all phenomena, a spiritual courage, a compassion, and an extraordinary capacity for self-expression that provide a perfect example of what it can mean to be a Buddhist.
Selected Poems includes all the poems by Su Tung-p’o that were presented in the translator’s 1965 Columbia University Press “selections,” as well as twenty-nine new ones. The new poems have been carefully selected, filling several gaps in the earlier work with important poems like “The Stone Drum” and “Rhyming with Tzu-yu’s ‘Treading the Green.5” The book itself is one of the more beautiful designs from Copper Canyon Press, with larger pages allowing for fewer of those cramped and cut-off lines so familiar to readers of Chinese poetry in English translation. This seemingly minor change provides a tangible aesthetic difference in our experience of the poems, and it is nice to see Watson’s work treated, for once, with loving care.
Selected Poems is deftly edited. As a translator for more than twenty years, I have long held it as an article of dogma that footnotes kill poetry However, Watson’s notes are direct and without a shred of scholarly pretentiousness. I would be loath to remove a single one. In all, this book is a treat.
J. P. Seaton is Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is A Drifting Boat: An Anthology of Chinese Zen Poetry (White Pine Press).
Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies
Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington, D.C., 1993.
640 pp. $66.00 (cloth).
Many years ago, I shared a house in Kathmandu with a group of shamans from northwestern Nepal. As initiates, these men had shinnied up a pole, each clutching a severed sheep’s head in his teeth. In the big city, however, my housemates were far from the daily grind of drumming themselves into a trance. A vision of one of them still remains fresh in my mind: Rana Prasad, resplendent in his enormous necktie, wide-lapeled suit, and boutonniere, ready for an afternoon stroll. Now there was a civilized shaman.
While in Nepal researching Tibetan ritual, I often puzzled over the relationship in Tibet between shamanism and Buddhism. Now Geoffrey Samuel, an anthropologist and an accomplished Tibetan scholar, has offered a book on that very theme. Early in his career, Samuel lamented that there were no anthropological studies of Tibetan Buddhism to match those written by Melford Spiro and Stanley Tambiah on Theravadin Buddhist cultures. It was not that nothing worthwhile had
been written about Tibet—far from it. The problem was that such works had “so far had little impact on the anthropological understanding of Tibetan religion.”
Shamanssets out to fill this void. Above all else, this 725-page book is a primer on Tibetan Buddhism for anthropologists. It does this work admirably Samuel, however, has also summarized information from a whole new generation of Tibetan scholars whose work up until now has been hidden in obscure publications. By including their findings, Samuel serves a more general audience as well.
Shamans approaches its subject from three overlapping points of view: geographical, thematic, and historical. Part One stresses the unique qualities of each of Tibet’s four regions. Part Two covers everything from the ritual cosmos to the structure of religious communities, including valuable short biographies of several contemporary lamas. Part Three sketches Tibet’s intellectual and spiritual history from the origins of Buddhism to the twentieth century.
Given the scope of the book, the casual Buddhist reader will want to skip around. For the less hardy, Samuel has provided summaries at the end of many chapters. It goes without saying that experts on Tibetan Buddhism will find points of disagreement. But the service that Samuel has done for anthropologists is undeniable. He has provided them with coordinates for locating almost any Tibetan religious expression and a framework for contextualizing research on individual communities.
Samuel’s greatest service, however, is more profound. Even in these post-colonial, multicultural days, many anthropologists still believe that people become Buddhist monks or nuns to advance their social and economic status. Sympathetic to
Buddhist spiritual experience, Samuel has shifted the ground of discussion away from philosophical materialism.
The monastic life also had its attractions from the point of view of individual practitioners (ch’opa). It was a withdrawal from the karmic consequences of ordinary life in samsara and a recognized step onwards in the spiritual path. It provided time to pursue one’s personal spiritual practice and access to teachers and to training in that pursuit. Tibetans, in other words, became celibate practitioners because they regarded the goal of Enlightenment, so highly valued within their society, as personally important within their own lives, and saw celibacy as an important aid to pursuing Enlightenment.
While Samuel does not deny that “there could also be more material factors” involved in the decision to become a monastic, he offers a balance to the more common perspective.
If Civilized Shamans has a single weakness, it is ironically its use of the word shaman. Shamanism is found the world over, and the word can be defined in many ways, but the parallels between Tibetan Buddhism and the Himalayan brand of what anthropologists call “Siberian shamanism” are striking. The pole that my friend Rana Prasad climbed shows up, in miniature, inside Tibetan sculpture. The sheep’s head that he grasped in his teeth appears—minus the gore—modeled out of dough on monastery altars.
Curiously, Samuel does not devote most of his attention to such parallels. His discussion of that archetypically shamanic Tibetan practice chod, for instance, is surprisingly short. Perhaps the reason for this is Samuel’s unusually broad definition of shamanism as:
the regulation and transformation of human life and human society through the use (or purported use) of alternative states of consciousness by means of which specialist practitioners are held to communicate with a mode of reality alternative to, and more fundamental than, the world of everyday experience.
For Samuel, the opposite of a shaman is a cleric. He sees Tibetan history as a continuing interplay of the two forces: “the academic, scholarly, monastic, and clerical polarity, and the yogic, shamanic, and visionary polarity.”
It is not until the midpoint of the book that it becomes clear how pervasive shamanism is in Samuel’s scheme. Here, for instance, we learn that “the Buddha’s teachings were an adaptation of the shamanic training.” Of Tsong-kha-pa, the founder of the Gelug order, Samuel says, “his central perception of the inseparability of transcending insight and karmic causality was certainly a personal version of the shamanic vision.”
While these interpretations might very well satisfy Samuel’s definition of shamanism, one wonders where they leave poor Rana Prasad. If the Sage of the Shakyas and the founder of the conservative Geluk order are shamans, what do we call guys who climb trees with sheep’s heads in their teeth? Is the insight into reality that Rana Prasad gains when he beats his drum really the same as Shakyamuni’s vision under the Bodhi tree? As Rana Prasad sees it, his job is to travel to the other world, barter with the witches who have stolen his patient’s soul, and induce them to return it—impressive, but a more modest undertaking than curing all the ills of samsara.
Samuel believes that Tibetan lamas have taken over many of the functions of shamans. He defends this thesis well, but by diluting the term shaman, he robs his point of some of its strength. Many times, where he writes “shamanic,” we could as easily read “spiritual,” “mystic,” or “experiential.”
It is unfair, however, to judge an encyclopedic work like this by a single word. We judge a theory by how well it explains its data, and Samuel’s theory explains a good deal. He convincingly demonstrates that the polarity between the visionary and the academic (shamanic and clerical) was an engine that drove Tibetan civilization to evolve. This alone is a major contribution.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.