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).

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