Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mind the gap

A man is hit by a truck somewhere in Tibet.  As he lies dying by the side of the road, a red-robed monk hurries up to him, rouses him, and leads him through an elaborate ritual.  When the monk has finished, the man dies, apparently in peace.  This is one of a number of wonderful tales of old Tibet told by Sogyal Rinpoche in his Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  Some are believable, others less so.  But the book as a whole is a warm and candid overview of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism by an acknowledged master with considerable experience of teaching to Westerners. 

I took this book out of the library (a cardboard box) at Wind in Grass before heading to Europe in September.  I'd heard it was a classic and wanted to have a survey of the Tibetan path after my exploratory incursions into the Tibetan Tse Chi Ling center in the Lower Haight.  It does offer a good introduction to Vajrayana thinking and I can see why it's become a classic, since it's engaging and clearly written.  Having said that, my sense that I was getting the best possible presentation of Tibetan orthodoxy made it easier for me to recognize that this particular style of Buddhism is not for me.

The book is actually many books in one.  It's a repository of yarns about the great masters and odd characters of a Tibet that was lost under the tank-tracks of the Chinese invasion.  It's a memoir of Sogyal's own experiences of that world, and a tribute to his various teachers.  It's an accessible handbook of the most important Tibetan meditation techniques, especially those focusing on the hour of death, like phowa (the practice the monk administered to the man dying on the road).  It's a meditation on death itself and of the way it's approached and handled in traditional Tibetan and contemporary Western culture.  And it's a guide to and defense of traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about death, rebirth, and karma.

In this last aspect, Sogyal has been very impressed by accounts of near-death experiences, which he sees as confirming traditional Tibetan teachings about the stage of transition between life and death.  For a fuller defense of the doctrine of reincarnation, he turns to scripture, where he finds appealing analogies for the way consciousness might be passed on - the transference of a flame from lamp to lamp, for instance.

Later in the book, though, we're plunged into an eschatology that such attractive images can't justify.  We're told, for instance, that we'll wander for 49 days after our deaths as invisible homunculi, during which time our karma will sweep us towards a good or bad rebirth.  It reminded me of Aquinas, whom I studied at college, whose Five Ways argue that a God (at least, a first mover of the chain of causation) must exist, but which do nothing to legitimate the entire panoply of Catholic religiosity that the philosopher goes onto sanction in the rest of his work.

I was also reminded of religious types who stop you in the street by asking questions like, 'are you interested in life?'  The answer is yes, of course - but the connection between that affirmative answer and their crackpot theories of what valuing life should consist in almost always seems a great deal more tenuous than they take it to be.  Sogyal is not quite as vapid, but the transition from his statements about the importance of death to his detailed descriptions of his own culture's account of death is at many points an uncomfortable one. 

Still, there is much to cherish here.  The book is steeped in a ready ecumenism which often has its author recommending that people meditate on an image of Jesus if they prefer him to the Buddha; the Virgin Mary often features as an acceptable substitute for Avalokitesvara.  The sketch of meditation at the start of the book as a time when the mind is allowed to sink into rigpa, the ground of being, is one of the best that I've come across.  And there are plenty of statements which did strike me as straightforwardly true, such as the tendency of our developed lifestyles to make the mind skittish and distracted. 

If old-fashioned religiosity isn't your thing, be prepared.  Sogyal will assure you of the occurrence of several miracles, including the manifestation of a 'rainbow body' at the death of his teacher (an event which was sensed, he insists, by monks hundreds of miles away).  And although he usually tries to hone in on the essence of a practice for Western consumption, he still lists the full mantras that you should use to ease your loved one's journey across the gap between death and rebirth. 

Since I was often touched by this book and the practices it described, I tried one at Wind in Grass the other night.  I simplified the phowa practice, invited everyone to picture themselves as drops of water merging with a great ocean, or as a candle-flame being absorbed in a greater light.  People here take readily to this kind of experiment, which I'm grateful for, and most of them seem to have enjoyed it.  One woman said that as a vet she encounters death all the time, and it's good to have a way of dealing with it that isn't simply pretending it isn't significant.  I told them I wanted to try the practice as an experiment, not because I thought we were all going to die after the session.  Although, of course, as one person pointed out, at some point we were.