Sunday, May 03, 2015

Isolation, Retreat, Renunciation, Concentration.

The way to Zanabazar's retreat place

I just started reading a new volume that’s part of Halvor Eifring's bigger project to study meditation as a phenomenon in a broad spectrum of religious cultures. The book is entitled Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One thing I noticed very quickly is that in its opening efforts to define meditation, one aspect foregrounded is “setting aside from other activities in time.” When I read this, given as I often am (and have been) to space-time metaphysical speculations, I wondered why in the world the professor hadn’t included "drawing boundaries in space," or to put it in more quotidian terms, retreat.
Mar Sabas in the Kidron Valley, Judean Desert,
founded 483 CE

In truth retreat hasn’t been regarded as equally important in all times in all the three major Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions. Still, we keep finding it mentioned or even emphasized for its importance here and there, especially in contexts of prayer and contemplation. I believe seclusion would qualify as one of the ‘technical’ aspects of meditation practice that are so much emphasized (over and above the deity-oriented or devotional) in this particular professor’s project, although I have no intention to criticize that general approach here and now. 

Consulting with Googlebooks, I found only about three occurrences each of the terms isolation, seclusion and retreat in the whole book. That doesn’t amount to much, and their mentions are in fact incidental.* My perspective is that isolation (of various kinds and degrees) is essential to some at least of the traditions treated in this book, as well as to the traditional understanding of Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism, so I think the near lack of attention to it in this book ought to be underscored and addressed.

(*with the exception of a few pages by Jamal Elias on a person we've mentioned before, a conduit for Indic / Buddhistic ideas into Islam named Simnani, at pp. 191-3)

I’ve been doing an unusually large amount of socializing this year. I have to tell you that because otherwise you might start reading this post as one of those cries for help. This isn’t about the emotional state of being lonely, not at all. It’s about using time alone for a contemplative purpose.

My friend M. asked me recently if I had ever done a lengthy retreat.  I unhesitatingly answered no. Still, I’ve often thought of one three-year period of my life as a kind of retreat, the years I spent as a night janitor in a physical education building at a large university campus. I lived alone in a very small room (the kind they call an efficiency), sleeping on its hardwood floor on top of a few folded blankets during the day. Not only did I have the ‘purification’ thing going on, but I had plenty of time for contemplation in varying degrees of silence in the depths of the night. Sometimes it was such an intense silence I could hear my own thoughts.* 

(*Did you ever go deep into the countryside to sit alone where there is a thick blanket of fresh snow, and huge snow flakes descending straight down from the sky without the least puff of a wind?  If you have, you get my idea of silence. It’s a silence you can hear.  This same audible silence yoga teachers call the unsounded sound.) 

I was also much more intently engaged in Buddhist meditation then than I ever have been before or since. However much the custodial duties, not to mention the very low pay, might be considered the lowest depths of my personal employment history, I see it as the high point of my spiritual life. In fact, thinking back on it, it’s as if I could never regain that high ground, and my life ever since has been one long steady decline, getting more and more enmeshed in sangsaric ordinariness, until the particularly low point you find me today, dodging missiles in the middle of a struggle I had nothing to do with creating.

Meditation isn’t just a time set aside, it’s a space set aside, a space divided off, both bodily and mentally. It’s not for escaping, but for facing, the harder realities of life. For a certain stretch of the way, it isn’t going to ease your heavy load, the exact opposite. Isolation can be dangerous for your health. Isolation can be the best medicine. No contradiction there. Now, where was I? Right, a brief word on renunciation and concentration and we’ll call it a day.

The connection is and ought to remain simple: For what are all those monastic vows? Why all the maddening detail? Because they are supposed to free people up in a lot of particular ways (well, that’s my take at this moment on what so-sor thar-pa means). Even renunciates, especially renunciates, are likely to get hung up on a variety of everyday issues so much so that their way isn’t clear to do the necessary work of contemplation. The general design is to simplify and get things out of the way, become less distracted by eliminating sources of distraction in order to focus... all very necessary for concentrated meditation practice. In important ways renunciation enables contemplation. We simply can’t do the one without the other.

Töwkhön, Zanabazar's retreat place, Mongolia


PS: A post-it note on isolation in the five stages of completion stage meditation.

In a book by Block that we’ve mentioned in a previous blog,* he has a paragraph I found most remarkable, taken from the words of the famous scholar Moshe Idel, about what they believe is an example of a direct Kabbalistic borrowing from Sufism. The details of it don’t matter for the moment so much as the content of these stages of isolation (or if you prefer, abstraction):
“According to the Hebrew version of al-Ghazali [translated by Abraham ibn Hasdai, c. 1230], the Sufis had a fixed path by which they attained communion with God, which involved several clearly delimited stages:  1. separation from the world; 2. indifference or equanimity; 3. solitude [hitbodedut or khalwa]; 4. repetition of God's name; and 5. communion with God...  The similarity of Abulafia’s aproach to this subject to the Sufi system is well known.”
(*He takes it from a book by Moshe Idel I don't have on hand at the moment, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, so if you do have it check pp. 106-107. Anyway, it was while reading Block’s book that the similarities struck me. And the square bracket insertions of Block are helpful for present purposes.)

Now, let’s put those five things in the Block quote into the form of a list to make it more clear:

  1. isolation from the world.
  2. equanimity (i.e., an indifference to the things and affairs of the world).
  3. solitude.
  4. repetitions of divine name[s].
  5. communion or union with God.*

(*Of course the monotheisms have a strong resistance to the idea of nondual union with the deity. In Judaism, and particularly in Kabbalah and Hassidism, they call the sought-for union devequt, sometimes translated into English as cleaving, related to the word for glue — getting stuck, but in a good way.)

Now let’s compare these five to another list of five used to define the entire course of the completion stage practices of Vajrayāna (or tantric, if we can still use that overworked term) Buddhism. I’ll take the Guhyasamāja  system as the norm, since there is a splendidly detailed commentary about it published just recently in a remarkable translation by Gavin Kilty.  The first of the five stages here has two parts, a and b.

  1. a. body isolation.  b. speech isolation.
  2. mind isolation.
  3. illusory body.
  4. clear light.
  5. union.

Or, if you prefer Tibetan:

  1. a. ལུས་དབེན་ b. ངག་དབེན་ 
  2. སེམས་དབེན་
  3. སྒྱུ་ལུས་
  4. འོད་གསལ་
  5. ཟུང་འཇུག

As Kilty explains in his introduction, the first three (i.e., 1-2) are all about abstracting (or isolating ourselves) from worldly concerns, here equivalent to withdrawing the winds into the central channel (the winds and the mental conceptions are made of identical stuff and when one dissolves so does the other). Speech isolation (1b) in particular involves mantra repetition (corresponding to no. 4 in the Block list, divine name repetition, Islamic dhikr).

It is possible to see the two lists as very nearly identical if we simply identify as a whole 1-2 (meaning 1a, 1b and 2) of the Kilty-derived list with 1-3 of the Block-derived list. Take the mantra or divine name repetition as a relatively free-floating element shared between them, and finally collapse 3-5 in the Kilty into no. 5 of the Block. Without going into academic dissertation mode, that's the simple way I know to express how I see the two lists corresponding impressively one to the other. I’m not sure it will be welcome news in every quarter, but future students of the Sufi/Kabbala isolation practices will have no choice but to take the five stages of completion stage practice in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism into account. And by that I mean not only the Guhyasamāja, but all the  other systems as well. Not to say that the Guhyasamāja system isn’t a crucial one:  If we isolate out the temporal factors, the dates of the sources, and focus on that, I think the Guhyasamāja's five stages idea precedes the Islamic/Judaic.**
(**The root text of the five stages literature, attributed to Nagarjuna etc., was translated by Lochen Rinchenzangpo, who died in 1055 CE.  Of course the Indian text Rinchenzangpo translated is much older than that, at least a century or two, I'd say, and very likely more.  So if it goes back just to al-Ghazali, who died in 1058, there is no question which must have been first.)

Did the one borrow from the other? Perhaps yes and maybe no. It needs quite a lot of study and reflection, and so many things are going on around this in terms of background and context, what may seem like like a small issue threatens to become unmanageably large. I like to think that the life devoted to meditation may in and of itself be the source of these descriptions of five (or six) stages. In other words, the Kilty and Block lists would be two variant descriptions of the same sorts of developments as experienced in two distinct cultures of meditation — of meditation and yet other isolation practices not normally understood as essential or central to meditation. At the very least we ought to be ready to reflect on the ways this may be so.

- - -

Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

For more evidence Jesus advocated private prayer, look here.

§   §   §

Significant readings:

Thomas Block, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, Fons Vitae (Louisville 2010); our quote is on p. 149. I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry. If the idea that aspects of modern Judaism derive from Islam comes as a huge surprise to you, by all means read this book.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “Advice to Three-year Retreatants,” tr. by Adam Pearcey.  Look here.

Paul Fenton, “Solitary Meditation in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism in the Light of a Recent Archeological Discovery,” Medieval Encounters, vol. 1, no. 2 (1995), pp. 271-296.  Highly recommended, particularly remarkable for its inclusion of the archaeological, and not just textual, evidence for dark retreat practices in Safed, with photographs.

Eric Haynie, Karma-chags-med’s Mountain Dharma: Tibetan Advice on Sociologies of Retreat, master’s thesis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado (2013), in 95 pages.  Ri-khrod Mtshams-kyi Zhal-gdams.

Moshe Idel, “Hitbodedut as Concentration in Ecstatic Kabbalah,” contained in: Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, State University of New York Press (Albany 1988), pp. 103-169; contained in: Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality, from the Bible through the Middle Ages, Crossroad (New York 1987), pp. 405-438. The 1988 publication is preferred because it has many more footnotes.

Tsongkhapa (1357‑1419 CE), A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamāja Tantra, tr. by Gavin Kilty, The Library of Tibetan Classics series, Wisdom Publications (Somerville 2013); the five stages are simply listed on p. 4, but we should point out these five stages are the theme of the entire 648-page book. This same title by Tsongkhapa was published as Tsong Khapa [i.e. Tsongkhapa] Losang Drakpa, Brilliant Illumination of the Lamp of the Five Stages, tr. by Robert A.F. Thurman, Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences series, American Institute of Buddhist Studies (New York 2010).

Tzvi Langermann, “From Private Devotion to Communal Prayer: New Light on Abraham Maimonides' Synagogue Reforms,” Ginzei Qedem, vol. 1 (2005), pp. 31-49. Linkages indicated here include Judaism's absorption of Sufi retreat (khalwa) practice as well as prostration, and developments in ideas about private vs. communal prayer.

Nawang Tsering, “Ascending the Ladder of Highest Realisation in This Life: Instruction for Retreat,” The Tibet Journal [Dharamsala], vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 17-27.

Ngawang Zangpo (Hugh Leslie Thompson), Jamgon Kongtrul's Retreat Manual, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1990).

Robert A. Paul, “Solitude in Buddhism and in Psychoanalysis: The Case of the Great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa,” American Imago, vol. 68, no. 2 (2011), pp. 297-319.  Milarepa is here portrayed by Tibetology's most thoroughgoing Freudian as a victim of childhood trauma, and so the hermit life of isolation and solitude can be explained as a reasonably good therapy choice. We’ll never get over those early childhood conflicts, now, will we?

I’d like to say I've read them, but in case you have the time, I’ll ask you to read these two new books on dark retreat for me and let me know what you think:  Martin Lowenthal, Dawning of Clear Light: A Western Approach to Tibetan Dark Retreat Meditation, and Ross Heaven and Simon Buxton, Darkness Visible: Awakening Spiritual Light through Darkness Meditation.  The second one is not about Tibetan Buddhism, but shamanism-oriented as far as I can see. 

If you are looking for something very readable on what it might be like to experience Tibetan Buddhist-style retreat practices, try Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment.

§  §  §

Websites worth a look:

"Hermitary."  This website has a lot more to say about solitude than I ever will.

"Hermits and Anchorites of England."  Webpage for Eddie Jones’ project.

"Amongst White Clouds." I don’t know of a more inspiring as well as informative movie about living the retreat life in a remote place.  

When I went to meditate in mountain-range solitude,  
I briefly encountered realization of mind itself. 

When I practiced without distraction,  
a continual understanding arose. 

Now it doesn’t depend on a state of mind.  
I’m content with resolution in a birthless state. 

I wandered in mountain-range solitude,  
or else performed sealed retreat in a cave.  
If you’re in the midst of an assembly, you’re no yogi.

— Cyrus Stearns, Hermit of Go Cliffs: Timeless Instructions from a Tibetan Mystic, Wisdom (Somerville 2000), p. 105.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Birthday Party of the Year

For the video, look HERE.

"One day you will be dancing and singing in Tibet, your home country."

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at a party honoring the 80th year of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  

The Archbishop's own 80th birthday was celebrated in Dharamsala a few years ago (see it HERE).

Read more about it, and see nicer photos, HERE.

The last week has seen plenty of news to be unhappy about in the world (earthquakes, a rash of executions, rumblings of unrest and conflict), so I thought we could use a little relief.

I think the next blog will be about  Padampa's dietary advice, but no promises.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Finding Phadampa in Bhutan

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to Bhutan without first factoring it into their annual budget. It’s pricey to go under a tourist visa, and difficult to get any other kind. I would have gone there 30 years ago if it weren’t for the expense. Now that my trip there is over (maybe now you understand why I’ve been silent here in recent weeks), I still think Bhutan is very much a Pure Land with no blemish getting in the way. That there was one disturbing incident didn’t change my thinking one whit, although it did take the GNH (Gross National Happiness) for that one day down a notch.

One night years ago as an undergraduate I had a dream I was flying in slow motion over Thimphu in a glass aeroplane, gazing down on the city in rapt awe. The first thing in the morning I went to a bookstore and bought a small picture book, one I could scarcely afford at the time, a book about Bhutan by Blanche Olschak that meanwhile got mislaid along the way. Maybe my brother has it.

In Bhutan I was fortunate enough to be able to meet several learned Khenpos (མཁན་པོ་), and to each of them I asked about Phadampa in Bhutan. The only thing they told me was that there is a holy practice cave (སྒྲུབ་ཕུག་) where he meditated together with Machik Labdrön (མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་). Evenings, confined to some fairly remote resorts, I mostly spent reading a great new book about Bhutanese history by Karma Phuntsho. Believe me, there isn’t much nightlife, and not every room came equipped with a TV (but in case there was one, the BBS news report at 9 p.m. was the highlight of the evening).

Almost every Bhutan traveler (and every Bhutanese, needless to say) ascends the hill to reach the practice cave[s] of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. Temples were built around the caves, balanced on top of vertigo-inducing cliffs. It requires a whole day, whether you take the ponies part way up or not. The path is quite steep, but I’m here to tell you it is the downhill that kills your legs for days afterward.  

Eventually, after much heavy breathing at nearly 3,000 feet, you reach a small building said to mark the birthplace of Gendun Rinchen, author of the history we’ll mention again, and one of the most prominent Bhutanese scholars of the 20th century.

A little further up, at the top-point of the path (not far from the dip that at long last takes you over to the temples pictured in our frontispiece) is another sign inviting you to climb even higher to reach a side temple where Machik Labdron and Phadampa did their sâdhana practices. I’d been told by several people that this temple, built in front of the practice cave, was situated there, and had determined to go to it.

Roughly translated: “This is the pilgrims' way to the Machik Cave that may be reached in 10 minutes’ time. In the middle of it is a footprint of Machik and her temple. On the right it is the practice cave of Phadampa, while on the left it is the Skygoer’s Secret Cave.”

Unfortunately no photographs are ever permitted inside Bhutanese temples (but if there were no exceptions to this rule, then how can we explain the photographs we do find in some books?). That means I can’t show you the footprint of Machik Labdrön in the upper cave. I also can’t show you her central image in the temple below with a large Phadampa (holding kangling trumpet, and for this reason clearly in his Cutting form) on her left side. Here as elsewhere, you donate your 10 Ngultrum note, bump your head on or touch the base of the holy object, and then receive from the temple custodian a palmful of holy water to sip and wipe over the top of your head. I won’t belittle the faith that goes into these gestures, let alone the resulting blessings, just to say that there is nothing specific to Phadampa involved in it. It could be any saint or holy object, and the identical same things would happen. Also, I imagine Phadampa wouldn’t like it, not that he necessarily ought to have any say in the matter. 

I also felt moved to be in a place popularly connected with Phadampa and I warned our driver (who had climbed up with us, but wasn’t quite as out of breath as I was) that I wanted to try and prostrate. The area was quite small, my body is very long, so there was some reason for concern. In fact, going down for the second time I somehow bumped into a small table behind me holding a mandal set. Not quite the huge disaster it could have been, the world-representing offering called a mandal (not a mandala, mind you) was slightly shaken and half askew. On our way back down the mountainside the driver told me half seriously it would likely have consequences for world peace. My response was that the world had been on the edge of a great war for a whole year now, with none of the credit for it due to me (my usual method of avoiding taking responsibility, I suppose). The whole world should be praying for the peace of the whole world like never before. I’m deadly serious about that.

The temple built in front of a cave associated with Machik Labdrön and Phadampa. It is possible to glimpse it above the waterfall when you look back from the main temples of Taktshang. If you decide to go there, beware! There are no proper railings along the cliff face (only some flimsy wooden railings), and I would advise not looking down before you get past the cliffs.

In Karma Phuntso’s history (pp. 189-190), he gives brief accounts of the prominent Indian Buddhists said to have came to Bhutan in the past. The first is Phadampa and the second is Vanaratna. Vanaratna is associated with several sites in both Paro and Punakha areas. K.P.’s discussion of the two figures is inconclusive, he says their visits “are not found in any contemporary or early sources.” In the case of Phadampa, I can verify this. One searches in vain for Paro and Taktshang in the earliest available sources on Phadampa and the initial members of his lineages. There is a possibility that Phadampa intends Bhutan (which didn't technically exist in his time) when he mentions Mon, but this is far from certain since Mon could be applied to a number of peoples and their territories along the full east-to-west extent of the lands south of the high Himalayan plateau.* Phadampa mentions Mon when he talks about bears who crave honey so much they neglect their cubs.
(*See Karma Phuntso’s discussion at his pp. 2-3, and for the ethnic term as used by Phadampa, look here)

I even tried looking into Gendun Rinchen’s history of Bhutan, thinking since he was born in a place so close to the site of Padampa’s meditation cave, he would at least mention it. I did find a brief discussion of Zhijé at folio 30, but nothing there about a visit to Bhutan.*
(*I take this back, see below.)

That may sound like bad news for Phadampa lovers hoping to find his traces in Bhutan. But there is some very good news to tell as well. Phadampa has been quite a popular figure in Bhutan, and one sign of this is that a few extremely valuable collections connected with his earliest Zhijé teachings have been preserved there. Some of these have been made available recently by the British Library's Endangered Archives project, under which Karma Phuntsho himself supervised the filming work in Bhutanese monasteries in recent years. See this article about the project in the Bhutan Observer, and for photos, look here. You can check out the results for yourself (I hope) here. If you are a Tibetologist, you are bound to make some exciting discoveries by just looking around.

The most remarkable of all these treasures, to my mind, is the one with this title page:

I never had the least idea that a collection related to the Rma lineage — one of the three major lineages of the Middle Transmission of Zhijé — even existed. It appears to me that this collection (if not this particular manuscript of it) is just as old as the collection that comes from the early part of the “Later” transmission from Kunga. 

Yet another manuscript collection found there, although basically a further version of the Zhijé Collection (not quite identical in title content) tells me that there was a Later Zhijé transmission that descended through the famous Nyangral Nyima Özer (ཉང་རལ་ཉི་མ་འོད་ཟེར་). This is completely new news to me, and quite significant for understanding how the Zhijé and Nyingma schools crossed paths.

Before bidding adieu for today, I thought I would tell you one small story about a strange and dreadful thing that happened on the road in Bhutan. We were sailing down from the heights of the pass named Dochula, rounding one of the many many curves, when I saw something that filled me with horror. I shouted to everyone else in the car, “Look at that man!  His face is covered with blood!”

He was running wildly around a parked truck, so our vehicle slowed down a little. When we got along side him, he was flailing his arms and throwing a large rock at a group of 3 or 4  people between him and an ambulance.  I saw a rock (or was it a large clod of dirt?) whiz past the window on the left-hand side of our van. Seeing an ambulance was already there, and seeing that one man had a cellphone pressed against his ear, we just continued on our way. I commented to the driver that we would probably see something about it on the evening news.

I wasn’t wrong. In the evening BBS news at 9 they said he was an employee of the Dochula resort who had fallen over the very high retaining wall. When the ambulance arrived, he resisted the ambulance people and eventually escaped the ambulance and broke some of its windows. This report on the incident ended by saying that the person in question had “no history of mental disturbance.” In the airport two days later I saw a story about the incident in the Kuensel (the online version is here). Lesson? Not quite everything in the world’s happiest country (or 13th-happiest country) is absolutely perfect. Given the truth of this, I still wonder what kind of karmic causes may underlie the fact that we happened to be there to see the only negative newsworthy event in the world’s only Vajrayâna country during all the time we were there.



Michael Aris, Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom, Vikas Publishing (Ghaziabad 1980).  See p. 198, where he speaks of miscellaneous or isolated figures that include Phadampa and Vanaratna:  “Even though there is no doubt about the visit of the latter, neither left any discernible effect apart from the places that are still associated with them.”

Blanche C. Olschak, Bhutan: Land of Hidden Treasures, photography by Ursula & Augusto Gansser, George Allen & Unwin Ltd (London 1971).

Karma Phuntsho, The History of Bhutan, Random House India (Noida 2013), in 663 pages. This is the first ever continuous narrative covering the entire span of Bhutan's history, although the most recent decades are covered in a brief survey only, ending with a lucid discussion on GNH and its critics.

Gendun Rinchen (དགེ་འདུན་རིན་ཆེན་), Dpal ldan 'brug pa'i gdul zhing lho phyogs nags mo'i ljongs kyi chos 'byung blo gsar rna ba'i rgyan (དཔལ་ལྡན་འབྲུག་པའི་གདུལ་ཞིང་ལྷོ་ཕྱོགས་ནགས་མོའི་ལྗོངས་ཀྱི་ཆོས་འབྱུང་བློ་གསར་རྣ་བའི་རྒྱན་), An Ornament for the Ears of New Intellects:  Origins of the Dharma in the Southern Forest Land, Field of Conversion for the Glorious Drukpa, a beautiful 192-folio woodblock print on traditional Bhutanese paper distributed by the Bhutan National Library, Thimphu.  I believe the woodblocks for this 1972 history were made in 1976.

On Taktshang, there is a fairly extensive entry in the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki (look here). Nothing is said there about Phadampa's visit beyond just saying that he visited. There is also an discussion by Sonam Kinga that you may find interesting (look here).

Lindsay Brown & Bradley Mayhew, Lonely Planet Bhutan (March 2014), p. 88:  “After visiting the Tiger's Nest and reascending to the previous viewpoint, it is possible to take a signed side trail uphill for 15 minutes to the Machig-phu Lhakhang, where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for children. Head to the cave behind the chapel and select the image of the Tibetan saint Machig Labdron on the right (for a baby girl), or the penis print on the cave wall to the left (for a boy). The main statues inside the chapel are of Machig and her husband Padampa Sangye.”  

I have to say I think they got the right and left sides switched around, I never saw anything like a penis print, not that I was looking for one, and Padampa was never the husband of Machig  (their supposed relationship has been way overrated). It may be that prospective parents do go there for the promise of children, I haven't the slightest idea about that.

§ § §


Wait just one minute.  I did find (with the help of a footnote in Aris’s book, p. 323) the passage in Gendun Rinchen's history book that tells of Phadampa’s — and Machik’s — visits to Taktsang or Tiger's Nest, at fol. 83 verso:

དེ་ལས་རབ་བྱུང་གཉིས་པའི་སྐོར་འདི་ནང་རྒྱ་གར་གྲུབ་ཆེན་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱང་ལྗོངས་འདིའི་ཡུལ་གྲུ་མཐའ་དག་ཞབས་ཀྱིས་བཅགས་ཏེ་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད་ནས། སྤ་གྲོ་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བཞུགས་གདན་ཕབ་སྟེ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་ཤུལ་རྡོ་ལ་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་ཡ་མཚན་ཅན་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་ཕ་དམ་པ་ཞེས་མིང་ཐོགས། ཡང་སྤ་གྲོ་སྐྱེར་ཆུའི་བྱང་ངོས་རི་འདབས་སུ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་པས་དམ་ཁང་ཞེས་མིང་ཆགས་ཀྱང་། དེང་སང་སྒྲ་འཕྱུག་སྟེ་དག་ཀོ་དགོན་པ་ཟེར། དེ་བཞིན་མ་གཅིག་ལབ་ཀྱི་སྒྲོན་མ་ཡང་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བྱོན་ནས་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་མ་གཅིག་ཕུག་ཅེས་ཡོངས་སུ་གྲགས། དེ་བཞིན་སྟག་ཚང་ཡང་རྩེ་བྲག་ཏུ་བྱོན་དུས་མཁའ་འགྲོ་མ་འབུམ་འདུས་ཏེ་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་འདུ་བར་སྤྱོད་པས། དེར་འབུམ་བྲག་ཅེས་ཐོགས་ཤིང་ནང་དུ་མཁའ་འགྲོ་འབུམ་གྱི་ཞབས་རྗེས་ཀྱང་ཡོད་པར་བཤད། གཞན་ཡང་ཧད་ཕྱོགས་འབྱུང་གནས་བྲག་ཏུའང་མ་གཅིག་སྒྲབ་གནས་མཛད་དེ་བཞུགས་པར་གྲགས།

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reading at a Slow Pace

Take it easy, partners, and slowly move your hand away from the holster. This is not supposed to be anything like a critical book review. I gave up doing those a long time ago. I just had the idea to report on some of the high points in my recent reading experience. If I don’t have time to cover all the books I’ve planned to, I’ll just save them for another time. It is also not an advertisement to help anybody sell books. If you have the money, and can’t be bothered with visiting your local library, it’s entirely your fault if you buy them, not mine. 

I didn’t choose these books because I think you will necessarily like them. I don’t know exactly who you are and what your interests might be. I do assume you must be interested in things Tibetan, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation right here right now. I will just talk about newly acquired publications that I’ve enjoyed the most or found especially useful, thinking that if you are somehow like me, you'll enjoy and make good use of them too. You and I both know that no book is perfect, they all have their +'s and -'s, so forgive me if I only say good things about books that I anyway consider to be excellent.

I gave a lot of thought to the question which recent book in Tibetan and Buddhist studies might be regarded as the most beautiful (in terms of book presentation a well as content). I’ll exclude a few books from consideration just because I’ve mentioned them already in some earlier blog. In this category are Michael Henss' huge 2-volume boxed set on the artistic monuments of Central Tibet, as well as Jan Westerhoff's Twelve Examples of Illusion.  Are you ready for it? Today's award in the category of most beautiful Tibetan and/or Buddhist studies book goes to...

Cyrus Stearns, Song of the Road:  The Poetic Travel Journal of Tsarchen Losal Gyatso, bilingual Tibetan (in Tibetan script) and English on facing pages, published by Wisdom Publications & Tsadra Foundation, Somerville, 2012.

Congratulations Cyrus — and of course everybody else who had a hand in it — for producing such a handsome and different book. The translation is splendid. Thank you so much for allowing us the pleasure of reading back and forth between the Tibetan and English, so we can be amazed at just how well you’ve managed the transition from one to the other. As a translator (or so I think) myself, I’m certain other translators will find reasons for jealousy, or a gnawing sense of inferiority, or both.

It’s a travel account, and as such it’s amusing to read it in light of all those early western travelogues (some of whom, like Giuseppe Tucci, visited many of the same places), noticing the differences and similarities. This one, written in the early 16th century, is not about a destination but about the life on the road and the encounters along the way. It isn’t very long, but it took me a whole day to read, since I found myself slowing down and reflecting here and there. There is a considerable amount of candor for a text of its age. There are occasional accounts of visions, but miracles and magic do not figure in any major way. It is not a hagiography. It isn’t all about the author, still you get much insight into his personality. You start liking him. You feel sorry about his sore legs. And there are truly amusing bits. One is the vignette on p. 76 of a grouchy old Kagyüpa he met who wore one of those 'bear wall' (དོམ་ར་) sun vizers we once blogged about, but also wore another item even more seldomly mentioned, something called 'concealment wood' (སྒྲིབ་ཤིང་) a kind of wand of invisibility said to be quite rare yet discoverable in the nests of crows. I know I’ve only encountered this item once before.* Anyway, there is something here for just about everyone. Spiritual seekers, meditators, poets, historians, ethnographers, philologists, explorers and wannabe Napoleons will find their special brands of entertainment here. There are route maps, and black-&-white photos of many of the places Tsarchen visited. Some of the things he saw are now gone or in ruins, like the giant Maitreya of Tropu (ཁྲོ་ཕུ་) and the many-door Jonang Chorten.
(*No, I don’t mean the item itself, but the name for it.) 
Well, there are several other new books I was going to talk about, but they can wait. I have places to go and people to see. Don’t we all? And I doubt I’ll have much time to read in the coming month. Now that mailing prices for books have shot sky high, I recommend going on strike to protest. Ask your library if they can do the buying. If reading Tibetan-language books is one of your high priorities, think about sending a donation to TBRC. You know who they are. They are having a funding drive right now, so I advise you to calculate your book buying budget for the spring and send it to them instead. It will be money well given, and you can imagine much merit toward easy traveling in the future.  (And if you are the type that likes expressing outrageously high hopes, as Buddhists particularly tend to do, aspiring altruistic bodhisattvas such as yourself will bear in mind that a donation to them makes the inspiration available not to you alone, but to all other Tibetan-reading beings in the triple chiliocosmic universe.)

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Here is your counterintuitive (or is that oxymoronic?) homework assignment for today:
Google "contemplative reading."
And if you do look for Song of the Road at Amazon, check out the review by "Inner Exile." It is so much better than anything else I've seen written about Cyrus's book.

I’ve found that if you locate a book in Googlebooks, they supply a “Find in a library” button. Assuming you've allowed your computer to know your location in the world (and you very probably have), you should be able to know if the book is in a public collection near you by simply clicking on that button (OCLC's Worldcat can do it, too, supplying as they say access to “two billion items”). Then all you have to do is bike over to the library, get a library card and check out the book. Books are so much better companions than screens are. Books don’t have so many other distractions built into them. OK, it’s true, with an especially tedious book you might feel the urge to flip through the pages quickly, but this problem is many times compounded when reading off a clickable device. Just because something has flashed in front of your eyes doesn’t mean you’ve read it. And a good reading experience is always accompanied or followed by reflection and inspiration. Always. There is no way to speed it up.

If reading difficult Tibetan cursive manuscripts is something you would like to try, then you may like to know that the text that Cyrus translated, Tshar-chen Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho — ཚར་ཆེན་བློ་གསལ་རྒྱ་མཚོ་  (1502‑1566),  Rang gi rtogs brjod lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i dga' ston — རང་གི་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་ལམ་གླུ་དཔྱིད་ཀྱི་རྒྱལ་མོའི་དགའ་སྟོན་, has been published in the form of a manuscript reproduction as Blo-gsal-rgya-mtsho, Rang gi rtogs par brjod pa lam glu dpyid kyi rgyal mo'i glu dbyangs (cursive ms. in 17 fols.), in the Dpal-brtsegs history set, vol. 58, pp. 401-432.  I think this 17-folio manuscript is the same one, albeit in a different publication, that Cyrus used, although I'm not completely sure of it (being a little concerned about the different forms the titles take).