Enlightened Journey: Buddhist Practice as Daily Life
Edited by Harold Talbott
Shambhala Publications: Boston (1995).
288 pp., $16.00 (paper).
Enlightened Journey offers the reader inspiration and discouragement in equal measure. Tulku Thondup’s description of the mind is profoundly resonant: we feel viscerally the truth that our minds are simultaneously enlightened and obscured, that we wander in a dreamlike state that nonetheless contains some weirdly hidden element of clarity. In fact, the book reads much like that. We feel hopeful, excited, and inspired, believing that we too can become enlightened Buddhas, enjoying the simultaneous, all-knowing cognition that Thondup compares to a near-death experience; but the practices intended to convey us toward that state are presented with daunting complexity.
The first half of Enlightened Journey describes basic Buddhist attitudes, mostly in the context of Tibetan cultural practices. It is the tragedy of the Tibetan diaspora that its holiest artifacts are often leached of meaning when translated outside of their cultural context. A list of the iconographic meanings contained in an image of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, for example, may seem dry to some readers, or else imbued with an exoticism that leads the mind into memorization and cataloguing rather than toward examining the nature of one’s own experience. The Tibetan Buddhist terms may overwhelm some readers, even as they whet the appetite of others. The style of presentation is clear and lucid, but nearly flavorless throughout; and the chapters seem a little disorganized.
The second half of the book consists of detailed explanations of the Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro, the fundamental practice offered by the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the author belongs. (As he explains in a brief early chapter on his own life story, Tulku Thondup was recognized as the reincarnation of a celebrated religious teacher of the Dodrupchen monastery in eastern Tibet). Much of what is here is said elsewhere; but many times the author’s descriptions offer an unexpected sweetness of meaning, or a fresh angle of vision, or a greater depth of understanding. Indeed, for one who is practicing the seemingly endless Ngondro, there can hardly be too much guidance.
It is characteristic of this book, and perhaps of Tibetan Buddhism in general, that a practice that is considered preliminary contains some extremely esoteric elements. The book offers five separate word-by-word explanations of different levels of meaning of the Seven Line Prayer (one of the first texts a practitioner learns in the Nyingma school), but we can hardly imagine plowing through such an exhausting explanation as a beginning practitioner, or even an intermediate one. Discussions of absolute essence and of practices involving “inhaling air through roma and kyangma” may make one beginner feel excited, another somewhat hopeless. However, Enlightened Journey contains visionary explanations usually omitted from other texts. Lists of tantric precepts, and guidance in subtle practices such as recognizing lights that appear in awareness, will reward anyone not intimidated by explanation. Thondup’s book will fascinate those who have a special curiosity about teachings that are often called too secret to discuss. For that reason, perhaps it is appropriate that the text has a scholarly flavor; exegesis is not likely to become first-hand experience without a more personal kind of instruction.
Perhaps the most provocative chapter is one of the final ones, “Evaluating the Progress of Dharma Practice.” It enjoins a strict honesty about the quality of our minds on a moment-to-moment basis. Any ordinary practitioner who assesses himself or herself according to its guidelines will be (quite rightly) forced to conclude that there is work remaining to be done. However, the instruction to visualize oneself as a snake or a monster when angry might cause more problems than it solves. Such visualizations certainly capture the state of anger. And yet, aren’t they likely to increase self-hatred and self-identification with negative states? Don’t many of us already see ourselves as monsters when we are angry? The subtlety of instruction in previous chapters seems a little lost all of a sudden.
Thondup’s book is a paradox, wonderful in its confusion. Committed practitioners in the Tibetan tradition will use the book to fill the gaps in their expertise and understanding. Beginners might find a great deal to inspire them, but unless they are fascinated with vocabulary and the details of highly structured practices, they may feel that the book’s subtitle, Buddhist Practice as Daily Life, is a bit deceptive.
Kate Wheeler, a Contributing Editor to Tricycle, is the author of a book of short stories, Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin).
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