WHITE SAIL: Crossing the Waves of Ocean Mind to the Serene Continent of the Triple Gem
Thinley Norbu
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1992.
205 pp., $15.00 (paperback).

THINLEY NORBU RINPOCHE, author of White Sail, is well known in the Tibetan Buddhist community as a gifted poet, artisan, and meditation master. Like the famed Manjushri, the bodhisattva of compassionate wisdom, Thinley Norbu’s style is startling and refreshing as it lays bare deluded views in a language which marries frank earthiness to the precision of nuanced argument. The depth of analysis and the wide range of subject matter make it virtually impossible to give a comprehensive “review” of this work; the attempt is like trying to trap a rainbow with a butterfly net.

White Sail is not a conventional book about Buddhism; it is, rather, an artfully woven collection of sustained insights into what the author recently characterized as a clean presentation of views, classed as nihilistic, eternalistic, and Buddhist. The “worldly” views of nihilism and eternalism are defined and discussed at length in the chapter called “Cleaning Deviations.” The Buddhist views elaborated encompass the whole gamut of Indian and Tibetan understanding: the Hinayana emphasis on renunciation, the Mahayana philosophies of yogacara and madhyamaka, and the tantric Vajrayana, including the special domains of visualization practice, transitional meditative states, the six yogic practices, mahamudra and mahasandhi (dzogchen). In the beginning chapters, Thinley Norbu gives concise accounts of the differences between ordinary logic and Buddhist logic, the source of phenomena, the origin and functions of the senses, and karma. In the final chapters, he deals with the importance of love and faith, the meaning and purpose of accumulating merit, and the varieties of Buddhist yogic meditation.

It is said that the teachings of the buddha dharma have the unique flavor of liberation. In part, ‘liberation’ encompasses the process of elucidating perspectives through which one learns to confront patterns of deception and abuse, for these patterns block access to the healing qualities of ineffable wisdom mind.

White Sail is quintessential buddha dharma, for its purpose is:

to establish the basis for learning how to enliven and increase positive phenomena by transforming the limited, tangible, finite deception of the nihilist delusion into the vast, intangible, infinite appearances of enlightenment.

Like a modern-day Nietzsche, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche addresses the dangers of nihilism, showing how we are all at risk of suffering from its effects. Simply put, the author defines the essence of nihilism as “any view which has a basic disbelief in the continuity of mind.” It is the attitude which:

only relies on trusting temporary circumstances that cannot be depended on any more than a prostitute can depend on the uncertain appearance of her customers.

Being conditioned by such uncertainty, which is never reliable, we distort perception, with the result that:

intangible spiritual phenomena cannot be seen clearly and intangible continuous mind cannot be recognized.

To the modern mind, which doubts the existence of both spiritual phenomena and continuous mind,

this inability to recognize intangible wisdom mind, the source of all phenomena, both tangible and intangible, is the root cause of suffering.

The author goes on to show how even Buddhist lifestyles have come under the sway of the nihilistic paradigm, with the result that Buddhist philosophy “is used to build selfassertive, intellectual philosopher’s ego, in order to acquire and support one’s position in this present life.” Yoga is practiced “to make the karmic body healthier and more shapely for this momentary life.” Spiritual retreats are done “to brag to others about the quantity of one’s accomplishments to create a false siddha ego.”

In the burgeoning Buddhist marketplace, there are many books purporting to show the compatibility of science and Buddhism, but can the discoveries made by modern scientific endeavors disentangle us from the causes of suffering? Unequivocally, Thinley Norbu states:

Any discoveries that are made within science, art, philosophy and even spiritual conceptions are only aspects of different habits at different times and in different places if they are not connected with wisdom qualities.

  But what about our attempt to control phenomena and transform the world into a better place? Sounding similar to Berkeley’s renegade philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, Thinley Norbu replies:

Phenomena are just the miraculous flirtatious show of mind. Since mind cannot stop, we uselessly cause infinite self-deceiving phenomena by continuously remaining in duality, creating dualistic projections of worldly phenomena such as philosophy, art and science, then we create theories about those dualistic projections, which in time we think of as facts until they are disproven by new theories. We perpetually examine whether or not new theories are true, although these objects of examination are only temporally arising interdependent appearances that will not remain.

With the spread of the dominant scientific paradigm of nihilistic materialism, it is far rarer to encounter those who genuinely hold the eternalist view, the conviction that:

gods and heavens have a permanent existence which is distinct from physical phenomena…For eternalists, these gods are not recognized as reflections of mind. Because etemalists do not have the point of view that Buddha-nature is inherent within us they always relate to their gods as originally existing independently of their own mind.

By contrast, “the Buddhist aim is to go beyond this duality by transforming the separation of self from other into indivisible deity, which is enlightenment. “

Lest we draw the conclusion that the nihilist and eternalist views are somehow objectively existent, we are reminded that, ultimately, these are habits and, as such, “are only the momentary vacillations of mind.”

These critiques of modern views, and the lifestyles which they support, suggest to this reviewer that any stance of self-satisfied secular “humanism” is, paradoxically, severed from its root, its base in “humanity” in the deepest sense. A close reading of White Sail leads me to the conclusion that what is at stake here is nothing less than our understanding of what it means to be “human,” and how we choose to live in the light of that understanding. What would it be like to live in the light of understanding that:

From the beginningless beginning the essence of nondualistic wisdom mind is pure and stainless like a mirror.

It might keep us awake. In fact, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche advises us not to read White Sail at night, for it will keep us awake. Instead, he says: “It is better for you to read White Sail in the daytime. At night, you should read cookbooks.”


Steven D. Goodman is Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and the co-editor of Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation (SUNY).



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