THE SNOW LION’S TURQUOISE MANE: Wisdom Tales from Tibet Surya Das, HarperSanFrancisco: San Francisco, 1992. 255 pp., $17.00 (paperback).
A FEW YEARS AGO, Joseph Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers on public television captured the imagination of this country in ways a historian of culture would have been hard put to explain. After all, Campbell’s treasury of mythologies and folk tales from ancient cultures had little to do with the experience of a postmodern audience. The overwhelming response to The Power of Myth series pointed to a fundamental need in the human psyche to be nourished and inspired by stories. As Campbell said
Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Myths help you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. What the myths are for is to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual.
No culture of the East has been as thoroughly religious or oral as Tibet. Buddhism in Tibet developed a unique tradition of its own, a technology of enlightenment, that has no parallel in Indian Buddhism but does trace its ancestry back to the yogic traditions of India. This is the tradition of crazy wisdom. A similar transformation happened to Indian Buddhism in China. Influenced by its native Taoist traditions, Chinese Buddhism gave birth to Ch’an (Zen); the wandering, iconoclastic figure of the Zen monk dominated the golden age of Buddhism in T’ ang China.
As the author of The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane points out in his preface,
. . . the gnostic tradition in Tibet originated with the enlightened yogic adepts and ‘divine madmen’ of ancient India. These inspired upholders of ‘crazy wisdom’ were holy fools who disdained speculative metaphysics and institutionalized religious forms. Carefree iconoclastic yogis called siddhas . . . expressed the unconditional freedom of enlightenment through divinely inspired foolishness. They vastly preferred to celebrate the inherent freedom and sacredness of authentic being rather than cling to external religious forms and moral systems. Through their playful eccentricity, these rambunctious spiritual tricksters served to free others from delusion, social inhibitions, specious morality, and complacence-in short, from all variety of mindforged manacles.
The crazy wisdom of the Tibetan siddhas finds resonance in the mystical Zen and Sufi traditions which likewise rejected institutionalized religious forms in favor of an authenticity of enlightened experience. The Tibetan tradition also stands out historically in venerating the spiritual abilities of women. Many tales in this delightful collection are of women siddhas.
This collection of more than 150 stories is the only such large anthology in the field of either Tibetan Buddhism or Himalayan folk and fairy tales, and provides unique reading material for both adults and children. It does for Tibetan Buddhism what Paul Reps’ collection of Zen anecdotes and stories in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones did for Zen Buddhism in the early sixties, and what Idries Shah’s collection of Sufi tales and anecdotes did for Sufi tradition in the seventies.
The stories that resonated most for this reviewer have a thunderous, Zen-like flavor to them. In “Milarepa’s Last Word,” when Gampopa completes his training with Milarepa and comes for some final instruction, Milarepa simply says, “What is needed is more effort, not more teachings!”
This is a beautifully produced book and these poetically translated and retold stories capture for us the vibrant wisdom of an ancient and still-living oral tradition. The author is himself a trained American lama and Buddhist scholar thoroughly steeped in this precious heritage. The stories are, as it were, straight from the Snow Lion’s mouth, as the introduction by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche generally attest.
Perhaps there is a Tibet in all of us, occupied by the alien forces of despair, in self-exile from our intuitive powers. If so, these lyrical stories point to the possibility of returning to freedom from this diaspora.
One hopes this collection is not too late, that these enlightening and instructive stories are not merely the slowing embers of a dying gnostic tradition but are timely enough to rekindle in the West an interest in the possibility of the freedom and liberation that comes through one’s own authentic experience, uncircumscribed by doctrinal puritanism. More than anything else, these authentic teaching tales told by the Tibetan lamas themselves bring home the point, like the Zen stories, that the ability to laugh, especially at oneself, is the hallmark of a liberated mind.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.