The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism
by Reginald A. Ray
Shambhala: Boston & London, 2000
432 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)

The ideal reader for Reginald A. Ray’s massive study of the Tibetan spiritual tradition, Indestructible Truth, would be a vigorous beginning student capable of following the most abstruse points of the dharma, with a great appetite for historical details and recondite facts and an awesome ability to rearrange them into a coherent picture without much help from the author.

Ray, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and Teacher in Residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center, has done a valiant job of bringing together a huge amount of material. One can’t help but question, however, why he chose the content he did and organized it in this particular way, and for whom the book is intended.

The book’s subtitle is The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, and Ray repeatedly stresses that his intention is to focus on Tibetan Buddhism as “a way of experiencing the world” rather than a historical and “overly technical” account. Unfortunately, he has done exactly what he said he wasn’t going to do and has not done what he seems to think he has. The work is clogged with details, both historical and technical, supplies few helpful transitional passages, and seldom touches the chord of present-moment experience.

Such a description is, of necessity, subjective. Any ambitious work will contain too much of this and too little of that for someone’s taste. A recent poetry anthology was widely criticized for the inclusion of too much Gertrude Stein, not enough Gertrude Stein, the wrong Gertrude Stein, and so on. The only way to transcend such criticism is to produce a work that, however idiosyncratic, convinces by nature of its internal flow, and this Ray has not done. Rather, he is given to clunky sentences such as “But fundamentally, we are all made of the same stuff, so to speak.”

The apparent confusion about the book’s intended audience is a serious problem. Anyone who can read with interest that a mala is a rosary or that a thangka is a painted scroll will run into difficulties with such sections as the one on Shentong and Rangtong (“The Shentong masters identify their third-turning orientation as Greater Madhyamaka, uma chenpo, to distinguish it from the ordinary Madhyamaka of the Svatantrika, Yogachara-Madhyamaka, and Prasangika-Madhyamaka.”).

Indestructible Truth is divided into four parts. “The Sacred Environment” is an appealing but overly brief survey of the Tibetan cosmos, including ritual, mantras, and other facets of the unseen universe. Part II, “Tibet’s Story,” explains Buddhism’s Indian origins and discusses, at excessive length, the four major lineages. Such information does not seem to belong in this book, despite its possible textbook value.

Part III, “Core Teachings,” covers the Hinayana and the Mahayana. Ray’s next book, due out later this year, will deal exclusively with the Vajrayana. As a result, each time we approach the tantric realm, a footnote refers us to this forthcoming book. It’s hard not to feel a bit miffed – the frosting on the cake is arriving after the party. Ray has chosen to organize the teachings in a linear fashion. He says, “The practitioner begins his or her spiritual journey with the Hinayana, then takes up the Mahayana, and finally enters into the Vajrayana. When a person is ready, he or she enters a particular yana and practices it until there is some attainment. This indicates readiness to move to the next yana.” This will not be the experience of all Western Buddhists, for whom the levels of work, far from being rigidly separate, may be more or less simultaneous.

Similarly he has organized the last section, “Buddhist Philosophy,” into the three turnings of the wheel of dharma (including such topics as the Five Skandhas, the Twelve Nidanas, and the Three Natures). This material is in itself daunting, almost no matter who is writing about it, and Ray does not make it any easier for the now-exhausted reader. There are some nice bits here. When he invokes his personal experiences or those of his students, Ray writes with evident sincerity and simplicity. His excesses seem to come from a generous wish to share his information rather than a desire to impress. He includes passages from Tibetan teachers, including Chagdud Tulku, Paltrul Rinpoche, and his own teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which add some texture.

It is always hard to separate the joys and difficulties of dharma study from the merits of any book written about it. Indestructible Truth contains some valuable material, but its confusing structure and stiff style render it much less helpful than it might have been, either as an introductory work or as a source of inspiration. ▼