The Religions of Tibet in Practice
Edited by Donald Lopez, Jr.
Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1997
560 pp., $22.50 (paper)
Until recently, “serious” Buddhist scholarship in the West was largely the province of university-affiliated professors and researchers who were not Buddhists themselves, while popular Western Buddhist authors pursued their faith and scholarship outside the ivory tower. If Tibetan Religions in Practice, edited by University of Michigan professor Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is any indication, a majority of academic scholars of Buddhism are now also Buddhist practitioners, or at least strong sympathizers. Most of the contributors to this volume are private (if not public) adherents of the Tibetan traditions whereof they write-something unimaginable twenty years ago. And their essays, which combine good scholarship with sympathetic appraisal, offer something to scholars and practitioners alike.
Unlike most collections of Tibetological papers, the abstruse theories of Tibetan scholasticism are bypassed here in favor of the various types of practice—lay and monastic, popular and esoteric—of Tibetan Buddhism. Each article includes an introductory discussion of a religious practice or textual genre, followed by a translation of a primary source—In most cases, one that has never before been published. Lopez, who also edited Religions of India in Practice and Buddhism in Practice among other volumes in the Princeton Readings in Religion series, has organized the articles thematically rather than by historical period or according to the various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Five sections-“Accounts of Time and Place,” “Remarkable Lives,” “Rites and Techniques,” “Prayers and Sermons,” and “Dealing with Death and Other Demons”—aim to accommodate a range of subjects and voices that previous anthologies have neglected.
One point over which Tibetans and Western scholars often disagree is whether, or to what degree, Tibetan Buddhism contains elements of indigenous Tibetan religion, conveniently glossed as “Bon,” an all-purpose term for the various religious currents that predated Buddhism. Many of this volume’s contributors see unmistakably indigenous strains in the Tibetan texts they analyze. An article on Gesar of Ling by Robin Korman, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, presents a distinctly Buddhist version of the great epic poem whose earlier recensions are chock-full of pre-Buddhist mythological elements. In another article, the Nalanda Translation Committee describes a ritual offering to a Gesar conceived as a Tantric
Buddhist divinity. And Richard Kohn, a researcher at Berkeley’s Center for South Asian Studies, has translated a Dharma-treasure (terma)—a poetic liturgy for the worship of the pre-Buddhist deity Nyenchen Tanglha. In his commentary Kohn wryly recalls, “I happened to tell a Buddhist monk with whom I was studying that I found [the liturgy’s] language particularly beautiful. There was one of those long silences that, even cross-culturally, signals a serious mistake. ‘It’s Bon language,’ he quietly replied.” The history, beliefs, and practices of Bon itself are addressed in chapters by Per Kvaerne of the University of Oslo, who includes a translation of a curious myth where Tibetan Bonpo (adherents) rescue Indian Buddhists from menacing heretics.
David Germano, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, describes unusual practices of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen), a meditative system, primarily of the Nyingmapa lineage, that has recently gained popularity in the West. In a chapter called “The Elements, Insanity, and Lettered Subjectivity,” Germano introduces the “differentiation of Samsara and Nirvana,” a form of meditative warm-up exercise that has not, to my knowledge, ever been discussed so explicitly. This practice is unusual by any standard, Tibetan or Western, except perhaps for those who have experimented with Stanislav Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork or Primal Scream Therapy. In the exercise, a practitioner jumps, prowls, and howls like a wolf and imitates its thought patterns, or pretends to be a mass murderer and then suddenly switches to the outlook of a self-sacrificing saint. “In short,” Germano writes, “one lets oneself go crazy physically, verbally and mentally in a flood of diverse activity, so that by this total surrender to the play of images and desire across the mirroring surface of one’s being, one gradually comes to understand the very nature of the mirror itself.”
A chapter by Jose Cabezon on Tibetan monasticism translates the elaborate rule of the Gelug school’s Sera Je monastery, which prescribes a maze of protocols for proper behavior in a monastery. These materials provide evidence that the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are rooted in cultural forms that have remained more or less constant in spite of Tibet’s history of sectarian politics, philosophical disputes, and assimilation of non-Buddhist elements. This information is compelling in its own right, and it is valuable for practitioners. Encountering the rich traditions of Tibetan Buddhism in all their diversity might help us better discern the unique spirit of dharma that informs them.
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