Relative World, Ultimate Mind
The Twelfth Tai Situpa
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1992. 
157 pp. $12.00 (paperback).  

This slim volume is the first major work by the renowned Buddhist artist and teacher Perna Tonyo Nyinje, the Twelfth Tai Situpa. As this title implies, he was recognized as the twelfth spiritual descendent in the illustrious line of the “Tai Situ,” which included some of the greatest poets, painters, and scholars ever to live in Tibet. The origin of his title goes back to the year 1407 C.E., when the Ming Dynasty emperor Yung Lo conferred the title Kuang Ting Tai Situ (“far-reaching, unshakable, great master and holder of the command”) upon the thirty-year-old Tibetan Buddhist master Chokyi Gyaltsen. Relative World, Ultimate Mind is divided into three sections: “Care,” “Sound,” and “Inner Knowledge,” corresponding to the threefold Buddhist division of human experiences into the domains of embodiment (“body”), expressive energies (“voice”), and the inexpressible dimensions of spirit (“mind”). To be truly harmonious and peaceful with oneself and others, one should be trained in all three domains. This, in essence, is Tai Situpa’s simple yet uncommon vision for worldwide peace: the role of education in the serious business of spiritual development. The edited pieces in this book had as their origin discussions held at Tai Situpa’s Maitreya Institute, established in 1983. The Institute functions as “a forum where different approaches to spiritual development can be explored and shared through the arts, as well as through philosophy, psychology, and healing, without sectarian or religious bias.”

The topics discussed by Tai Situ include such seemingly “un-­Buddhist” subjects as medicine, poetry, performance art, astrology, and geomancy. Yet those readers familiar with the life story of Siddhartha Gautama will not be surprised that “spiritual” work also includes training in so-called “worldly” arts. Indeed, the standard Buddhist curriculum consisted of the “ten sciences”: arts, grammar, medicine, logic, astrology, poetics, prosody, synonymics, drama, and the inner science of religious theory and practice. Thus, this work should appeal to anyone interested in the role of the arts to spiritual transformation. Tai Situpa discusses all of these topics in an informal and direct style, stating:

Enlightenment is not limited to any particular area of activity. It involves everything and excludes nothing. It is universal and absolute … the Buddha taught that the relative world is the means to reach the ultimate mind.

The detailed discussion of poetry might surprise some Western practitioners of the art, with its emphasis on the study of set forms and rules. Though not mentioned by Tai Situpa, the origin of these forms goes back to the Indian poet Dandin and his treatise Kavyadarsha. As if sensitive to the Westerner’s dislike of “rules,” Tai Situpa asks: “Why is it necessary to learn 280 axioms in order to be spontaneous; the answer is because we are not spontaneous.”

Thus, one must learn how to describe something through the evocation of its opposite:

Unsurpassable, universal hero, at the moment you confront your mighty opponent you are graceful as a loving maiden; your bow sings like the tamboura of the goddess.

Tai Situpa finally reveals his flair for expression when he concludes, “Poetry is body, speech, and mind interacting with the universe. It is relative world playing with ultimate mind.”

A few disappointments and lapses must be mentioned. Throughout the book one finds lovely Tibetan calligraphy; yet neither content nor artist are acknowledged, and it is obviously the work of Tai Situpa himself. The notes are overly sparse and hardly informative, and the occurrence of Tibetan terms, both in the text and the index, are given only in an unscientific and imprecise phonetic form, thereby making it difficult to make the connection to the growing body of Tibetan material increasingly available to the learned public. The foreword by editor Lea Terhune was informed by the renowned Tibetologists E. Gene Smith and David Jackson, and contains much useful background information, especially on the biographies of the former Tai Situpas and their close relationship with the Karmapas, yet it suffers from a sometimes overly journalistic style: “Tulku watching is an interesting business.”

Despite these minor points, the book is a treat, for it is composed by one of the younger Tibetans fluent in English, who not only is an artist and scholar, but who­—keenly aware of the fragility of the social and political world into which he was born—is trying to communicate a vision of healing useful to all.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .