The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey
Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, 1992.
356 pp. $22.00 (hardcover)
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is an ambitious endeavor. Sogyal Rinpoche, a charismatic Cambridge-educated tulku with a worldwide constituency, has teamed up with Andrew Harvey (a former don at Oxford; Journey in Ladakh, Hidden Journey) and Patrick Gaffney (an expert on all things Tibetan) to recast the soul-craft of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in a way helpful to Westerners. The nature of the bardo (intermediate) states is seemingly well-known to Tibetan practitioners, but the existing translations of this book (by Evans-Wentz, Trungpa and Freemantle) are desiccated, highfalutin, or obscure.
Here the authors have sought to place the work, which is a sort of guidebook for the initiated to the hereafter, in the broader context of living and dying. The book functions alternatively as an epistemological defense of karma and rebirth; as a critique of Western systems of denial; as a systematic guide to revealed knowledge of the bardo; as a kind and very practical manual for caring for the dying and looking at the feelings that arise for the living in such situations; and as a comparison of Buddhist theory with modern physics. Overarching is the aspiration to usefully apply the insights of a distant culture to our own. Such a complicated and ambitious project is bound to encounter a number of interesting problems.
“What is at stake,” say the authors, “is the knowledge of absolute reality.” Access to this primordial field is blocked by the accretion of thoughts and concepts coming from our dualistic identifications. In the bardo, as in life, “the ordinary mind clings onto the illusory experiences as something real and solid” but “… they become spectacularly magnified.” Thus, these universes parallel each other in a meaningful way: “What is occurring in the bardo of dharmata at death, and whenever an emotion begins to arise in our minds, is the same natural process.” Sogyal Rinpoche asks if perhaps the “process the bardos reveal is true not only … of all the different levels of consciousness and of all the different experiences of consciousness, both in life and death, but perhaps of the actual nature of the universe itself.” And this search for parallelism is expanded into a fascinating comparison of bardo lore to the work of Sogyal Rinpoche’s friend, David Bohm, the avatar of the New Physics.
Given this approach, it is disappointing that while the emotions are very much at issue, there appears not to be a single reference to psychoanalytic theory in this long work. The psychoanalytic vocabulary is the master discourse of our culture, along with art, for examining states of interiority. The idea that there is an absolute reality is common to Freud and Buddha; and unlayering the supervening states of consciousness that form character and identity (and are also known as delusion) is an endeavor common to both schools. To neglect the opportunity to discuss cathection, transference, and identification, in this context is a wasted opportunity.
The effort to transpose one culture onto another, which is probably the leading motif of our era, is a curious affair. To do this in the interest of an open border between life and death is especially interesting. And indeed this seems to be the very point of the Tibetan diaspora, if there is one. But interesting cross-cultural collisions occur. For example, the Tibetan tradition of teaching rhetoric relies on song, repetition, exaggeration, metaphor, anecdote, and the substitution of one synonym for another to reveal layers of meaning. These devices arise in any given paragraph of the book; and also permeate its whole structure. Stylized language recurs throughout the book, such as “when the waves lash at the shore, the rocks suffer no damage but are sculpted and eroded into beautiful shapes, so our characters can be molded and worn smooth by changes,” or “liberation will happen simultaneously with the arising of thought and emotion, like a snake uncoiling and un-winding its own knots.”
What is frustrating for the reader, and may arise out of the culture of bakhti (devotion) or because linear discursive thinking cannot lead here (or from some other reason), is that when the book approaches the real nub of a practitioner’s questions, the authors invariably tell us that here we need a master. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying “One fact that you must bear in mind is that [these practices] can only be achieved through the guidance of an experienced master, and through receiving the inspiration and blessing from a living person who has that realization.” When the various bardo states are disentangled (dhannakaya, sambhogakaya, ninnanakaya) it is nevertheless only a highly realized being, whose “perception [is] completely different from our own,” who can see through to the inner nature of these realms—this kind of qualification just seems to come with the territory when trying to give expression to the ineffable.
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.