February 21, 2010
This is one of the longest issues of Phlit that I’ve ever released. Most of this issue consists of a discussion of Tibetan wisdom (Tibetan Buddhism). The first piece in this issue is about the Straussian School, which is as far from the Tibetan School as it’s possible to be. I’m hoping that this sharp contrast will throw light on both Schools.
With help from my wife’s Internet friends, I published a volume of her writings, using the same printer (LightningSource) that I used for my own books. Elliott Banfield designed another great cover. Now I’m wondering if I should put together digital versions of Yafei’s book and of my books, since devices for reading e-books are becoming popular, and the cost of production/distribution is so much lower than with a physical book.
The local GreatBooks group recently discussed an essay called “The Politics of God,” by Mark Lilla. The essay appeared in the New York Times in August ’07, and is taken from Lilla’s book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.1 The fact that Lilla’s book was excerpted in the New York Times suggests that he’s a prominent writer. He’s now a professor at Columbia, and according to Wikipedia, he “lectures widely.” One might call him a public intellectual.
Lilla’s specialty is intellectual history; the essay that I read, “The Politics of God,” discusses Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and others. Lilla seems to have been influenced by the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin; Lilla wrote a book called The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin. Lilla also seems to have been influenced by Leo Strauss; Lilla studied with the Harvard Straussian, Harvey Mansfield. Lilla calls himself a liberal. One might describe Lilla as “a Straussian with a twist,” rather than a “pure Straussian,” partly because he’s a liberal (Straussians are generally conservative), and partly because of his interest in Isaiah Berlin and intellectual history (Straussians prefer to deal with eternal truths, and distance themselves from intellectual history).
Lilla has several traits that are typical of the Straussian School:
The Straussian mind is adept at analyzing Aristotle’s arguments, but has little grasp of religious feelings, and less of primitive man. Lilla fails completely to account for the origin of religion; his attempt to do so is remarkably superficial and silly:
Thus Lilla skips over animism and polytheism, and goes straight to monotheism, straight to the god of Aristotle and Aquinas, straight to the only god he understands. Lilla ignores the unconscious, ignores dreams, visions, voices, ignores the mystical aspect of religion. Doubtless religion arises spontaneously, but Lilla seems to think it arises like a logical argument, like a rational process. Man’s finest creations are spontaneous, but rational thinkers are reluctant to admit spontaneity. (When Hawthorne was asked about The Scarlet Letter, he said, “I didn’t write The Scarlet Letter, it wrote itself.” What’s best in man is spontaneous.) In Lilla’s view, theology is about reasons: “Theology [is] a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be.”
The topic of Lilla’s essay is Islamic fanaticism. He attempts to show that in the West as in the Islamic world, there have occasionally been attempts to govern all aspects of society according to a religious system. So according to Lilla, Islamic fanaticism isn’t as different, as foreign, as un-Western, as some people might suppose. Lilla says that, after World War I, both Jews and Gentiles were drawn to Messianic ideas. For example, the Jewish writer Martin Buber wrote, “If I had to choose for my people between a comfortable, unproductive happiness... and a beautiful death in a final effort at life, I would have to choose the latter.”
To give his essay contemporary relevance, Lilla discusses Islamic fanaticism in the first page or two, and then again in the last page or two. But his understanding of the Islamic world is unimpressive. More impressive is his understanding of the Western tradition, beginning around 1600, and most of his essay is devoted to that. His book, The Stillborn God, focuses on the Western tradition. The phrase “Stillborn God” refers to the god of 19th-century liberal theology, a theology that diluted traditional religion, and failed to meet man’s deepest spiritual needs.
Lilla argues that the Christian church had an ambiguous relationship to the secular power, and this eventually led to religious wars, which in turn necessitated a separation of church and state in order to restore order. This separation was promoted by Hobbes. In the Islamic world, however, there wasn’t an urgent need for a separation of church and state, and there wasn’t an Islamic Hobbes. Church and state remained allied, and there were repeated attempts to regulate society according to religious precepts.
The GreatBooks group discussed the question, “Did the separation of church and state weaken faith?” I’m inclined to think that faith was bound to decline — separation or no. Isn’t a decline of faith apparent in pre-Hobbes thinkers, Renaissance thinkers, like Montaigne and Machiavelli? I’m inclined to think that all faiths decline eventually, all gods die eventually. We can’t even remember the names of the gods that our ancestors worshipped 5,000 years ago. Perhaps our descendants, 5,000 years from now, won’t even remember the names of Muhammad and Jesus and Moses.
I admit, though, that the Eastern worldviews that I admire are also old — perhaps even older than the major Western religions. Perhaps those Eastern worldviews (like Buddhism and Taoism) were created by more advanced civilizations than the Western religions. Perhaps those Eastern worldviews were the fruits of ancient philosophical/religious/literary traditions. Certainly those Eastern worldviews seem to appeal strongly to people in the modern West. In my town, you can’t drive a mile without encountering a yoga studio, or a karate class, or a meditation teacher.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift takes a jab at Aristotle. He describes a visit to the underworld, the land of the dead:
One might dismiss this as a witticism, but I think it’s a penetrating criticism of Aristotle, and of the rational approach that he exemplifies. Swift implies that Aristotle’s approach is incompatible with health, with well being, with wholeness, with a good life.
I’m reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by a Tibetan guru named Sogyal Rinpoche. When it was published in 1992, it was a bestseller; it’s quite well-known, one might call it a modern classic. Sogyal Rinpoche is now about 60, and gives talks around the world. He founded Rigpa, an international network of Buddhist centers. “Rinpoche” isn’t his family name, it’s a title that Tibetans give to a religious teacher. One might compare him to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk whom he quotes, and mentions in his bibliography.
Sogyal Rinpoche spent his early years in Tibet; he entered a monastery when he was just six months old, becoming the apprentice, or adopted son, of a guru named Jamyang Khyentse. Like the Dalai Lama, who wrote the Foreword to his book, Sogyal Rinpoche has spent his adult life outside Tibet — first in India, where he was a college student, then in England, where he was a graduate student at Cambridge.
His book has a somewhat literary flavor, with apt quotations from Montaigne, Blake, etc. But Sogyal Rinpoche is primarily a religious teacher, not a literary person, and the title page of his book says that it was “edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey.” His amorous adventures have landed him in legal trouble, and in 1995, “a young English woman said she had attended one of Sogyal Rinpoche’s residential retreats and been led to believe she had been singled out for special attention, only to discover that she was being invited to join a harem.”3
I began reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying when my wife was dying, and we were looking into the question of life after death. Instead of starting the book on page one, I skipped forward to the chapters that interested me. Later, however, I went back to page one, and I gradually realized that this is a very good book — readable and profound, an excellent blend of parable, anecdote, and argument.4 It can serve as an introduction not only to Tibetan Buddhism, but to Buddhism in general. It contains doctrines about the after-life that are unique to the Tibetan tradition, but it also has the sort of universal wisdom that anyone would appreciate — Socrates would like it, Confucius would like it, Hoffer would like it.
One might say that The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a readable, Westernized version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which appeared in English in the 1920s, and was a bestseller in the 1960s. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, also known as Bardo Thodol, describes the after-life, or “bardo.” The title was modeled after The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which also deals with the after-life. What I admire most in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book is the universal wisdom about life and death; I’m not as interested in the chapters that deal with the bardo.
Here’s a story from the book:
This story is found in the chapter called “Impermanence.” The point of the story, and of the chapter, is that everything is impermanent, but we often live as if we’re permanent; we live in the future rather than the present. We don’t see the sunset, we photograph it for future seeing. The author mentions Tibetan sages who let their fires die out at night, unsure if they would be alive in the morning. Short-sighted? Perhaps, but since we have a strong tendency to live in the future, we may need to constantly remind ourselves of impermanence, and take radical measures to keep ourselves in the present. When we travel, perhaps we shouldn’t even bring a camera with us.
“It is important,” the author tells us, “to reflect calmly, again and again, that death is real, and comes without warning. Don’t be like the pigeon in the Tibetan proverb. He spends all night fussing about, making his bed, and dawn comes up before he has even had time to go to sleep. As an important twelfth-century master, Drakpa Gyaltsen, said: ‘Human beings spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing... Only to meet the next life unprepared.’”6
This is the sort of universal wisdom that can be found in the West as well as the East. In an earlier issue, I pointed out that E. M. Forster
Forster was receptive to Eastern wisdom, to a mystical worldview. Like Sogyal Rinpoche, Forster uses the thought of death to focus our mind on the present. “Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him,” Forster wrote.
If Rinpoche’s comments on preparing remind us of Western thinkers, so too his comments on attachment remind us of Western thinkers. In previous issues of Phlit, perhaps no subject has been discussed (belabored?) more than attachment. Most recently, we discussed attachment in connection with Kierkegaard’s works. My favorite example of attachment is Swann’s obsessive love for Odette in Swann’s Way (I’ve mentioned this example so many times that it must have worn grooves in the brain of every reader of this e-zine). My favorite example of detachment is Shakespeare’s Horatio:
thou hast been
The medieval alchemists used the “diamond body” as a symbol of detachment. The Tibetan sages used a similar symbol for detachment; Rinpoche says we should be like “the sky looking at the clouds passing by, or as free as mercury. When mercury is dropped on the ground, its very nature is to remain intact; it never mixes with the dust.”7
One who meditates and seeks spiritual growth must guard against becoming attached to spiritual growth. An experienced meditator “might experience states of bliss, clarity, or absence of thoughts. In one way these are very good experiences, and signs of progress in meditation.... But if you get attached to them they become obstacles.” Such positive experiences aren’t more valuable, Rinpoche says, than negative experiences. Many sages had negative experiences “and transformed them into catalysts for realization.”8
While meditating with a sage named Dudjom Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche had a positive experience:
Another idea that I’ve often discussed in Phlit is Mutual Arising — that is, the idea that events aren’t produced by one cause, but by a host of causes that work together (“arise mutually”). Sogyal Rinpoche mentions this idea, though he doesn’t use the phrase “mutual arising”: “We cannot pin down one cause,” he writes, “because any event can be an extremely complicated mixture of many karmas ripening together.”10
Tibetan society seems to have been preoccupied with spiritual matters — as preoccupied as American society is with the stock market. Perhaps Tibetan spirituality is a product of its location between India and China; perhaps it’s a product of Tibet’s remoteness and poverty, which made it unattractive to invaders, and therefore peaceful and stable. Tibetan Buddhism has a special interest in the after-life, and in the process of dying. One might say that Tibet raised dying to the level of a fine art. It was believed that spiritual growth made for a better death, and a better death made for a better after-life.
When Sogyal Rinpoche was a young boy, he witnessed the death of a monk named Samten. “It is the dream of any practitioner to die before his master and have the good fortune to be guided by him through death.”11 Samten was guided through “all the stages of the process” by his master, Jamyang Khyentse.
Later, Sogyal Rinpoche witnessed the death of Lama Tseten. Again Jamyang Khyentse was summoned to the death-bed. When he saw Lama Tseten, he recognized what meditation he was doing, chuckled, pointed out the shortcomings of this meditation, and then guided Lama Tseten through a different meditation.
Death is more than an opportunity to display spiritual mastery. It’s also an opportunity for the spirit to spread its wings, unimpeded by the constraints of the body:
The author points out that “bardo” doesn’t actually mean “realm of the dead,” it means any transition time, especially one that throws us back on ourselves, and thereby calls forth our deepest spirit, our timeless mind. As an example of a bardo/transition, the author describes a person who comes home and discovers that a robber has taken all his worldly goods. Of course, the person is shocked and distressed, but after a little while, “thoughts subside.... There’s a sudden, deep stillness, almost an experience of bliss.”14
The ultimate transition is the one from life to death, hence the word “bardo” is often used to mean “realm of the dead.” A Tibetan sage often travels through the various bardos while he’s still alive. The author describes how one sage was able to describe the bardos with great precision, “as if he was actually there.”15
The author compares the bardos to Western accounts of the near-death experience. He seems to be well versed in the contemporary literature about the near-death experience, and devotes a chapter to summarizing this literature.16 He discusses one book that describes the near-death experiences of children. One child reported “a beautiful Light that had everything good in it. For about a week, I could see sparks of that Light in everything.”17
Some people report seeing their relatives grieving, but they’re unable to communicate with them, and tell them they’re okay. Some report that they can travel anywhere, just by the power of thought: “I just felt exhilarated with a sense of power. I could do what I wanted to... It’s realer than here, really.”18 This sense of power extends beyond traveling, and includes mental powers: “Many near-death experiencers also report a clairvoyant sense of total knowledge ‘from the beginning of time to the end of time’.... ‘I felt I could see the point of everything. Everything fitted in, it all made sense, even the dark times.’”19
Many people report meeting others who have died, and communicating with them through a kind of telepathy: “I saw people that I knew had died. There were no words spoken, but it was as if I knew what they were thinking, and at the same time I knew that they knew what I was thinking.”20
Sogyal Rinpoche gives us practical advice about meditation:
Enlightenment is a feeling, not an argument, and a mantra is sound without meaning. In the Buddhist view, sound helps us toward enlightenment more than words, more than arguments, more than books.
Sogyal Rinpoche teaches a doctrine that many Buddhists before him have taught — namely, that everything in the universe is inter-connected, and nothing has a solid, independent existence:
I was struck by the tree example since I used the same example, to support the same argument, in my book of aphorisms. According to the Buddhist view, everything is “empty,” the world has a dream-like quality. What matters is our intention: “the trick is to have positive intention during the dream.”24
The Tibetan sages aim at positive intention and a light heart: “In a sense everything is dream-like and illusory, but even so, humorously you go on doing things.” In an earlier issue, we discussed the Japanese custom of treating life playfully. Nietzsche often speaks scornfully of “the spirit of gravity,” so surely he would agree with the idea of treating life humorously and playfully — another instance of East-West agreement.
Sogyal Rinpoche doesn’t treat meditation merely as a way to reduce stress, and sleep more soundly. For him, meditation is a way to reach enlightenment. He tells several stories about the moment of enlightenment. Here’s one:
The enlightenment of a Buddhist, or of any mystic, has nothing to do with arguments, reasons, proofs. It’s a feeling, a feeling of oneness with the universe, a feeling that comes over you when the barrier between you and the outside world dissolves, when your mind and your individuality rest.26
Sogyal Rinpoche describes his own moments of enlightenment:
Again we see that enlightenment is a feeling, a feeling that one has when the mind stops, and thinking is replaced by sheer awareness.
Enlightenment is a feeling, an awareness, beyond thoughts, beyond words. When I read Sogyal Rinpoche, I believe that enlightenment is real, and that he has experienced it. Likewise, when I met the Dalai Lama, I felt that he had a genuine humility, a genuine wisdom, a genuine enlightenment. And the Dalai Lama’s background and upbringing is not unlike Sogyal Rinpoche’s.
Actually, I didn’t “meet” the Dalai Lama, I merely heard him give a talk. In fact, I didn’t even hear him since he spoke Tibetan, and it was translated into Chinese. But he had an amazing ability to make eye contact with each person in the audience, so it felt like I had met him.
Sogyal Rinpoche says that meditation is a training in enlightenment. It helps us to develop a “complete absence of grasping,” it helps us to dissolve “the ego and the hopes and fears that keep it alive,” it helps us to achieve “the infinitely generous ‘wisdom of egolessness.’ When you live in that wisdom home, you’ll no longer find a barrier between ‘I’ and ‘you,’ ‘this’ and ‘that,’ ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; you’ll have come, finally, to your true home, the state of non-duality.”29
When he speaks of dissolving the ego, and dissolving hopes and fears, I hear countless Western writers — this is universal wisdom. The dissolving of the barrier between ‘I’ and ‘you’ might be compared to love, and one might ask whether the feelings of the mystic resemble the feelings of the lover.
Sogyal Rinpoche gives us an introduction to reincarnation. He’s familiar with both Western and Eastern literature on reincarnation. He discusses an Englishman, Arthur Flowerdew, who had visions of the ancient city of Petra, and seemed to know Petra intimately. Finally the BBC interviewed him, and the Jordanian government brought him to Petra. “Once in the city he went straight to the guard room, without a glance at the map, and demonstrated how its peculiar check-in system for guards was used. Finally he went to the spot where he said he had been killed by an enemy spear in the first century BC.”30 Reincarnation is an especially important idea in Tibet; when a sage or Lama dies, a search begins for the child who is believed to be the sage’s next incarnation.
When we discussed the writings of James Allen, we encountered the idea that positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes, negative thoughts to negative outcomes. (These “thoughts” aren’t always conscious, they’re sometimes the semi-conscious workings of the shadow.) There’s a kind of balance, a kind of justice, between thought and outcome, intention and result. Sogyal Rinpoche uses the term “karma” to refer to this balance, this justice.
One of the last chapters of this book is about the near-death experience, but the author briefly mentions the near-death experience in the chapter on karma. He says that one of the common elements in near-death accounts is the “panoramic life review” — that is, a vision of all the events of one’s past life, and how they have affected others. One person who had a near-death experience said, “I found out that not even your thoughts are lost.”32 All your actions and thoughts have a kind of “weight” or karma that affects you and affects others.
|1.|| The essay can be found here. back|
|2.|| Ch. 8 back|
|3.|| Wikipedia back|
|4.|| I read the first seven chapters, and chapter twenty. back|
|5.|| Ch. 2, p. 18 back|
|6.|| Ch. 2, p. 22 back|
|7.|| Ch. 3, p. 35 back|
|8.|| Ch. 5, p. 76 back|
|9.|| Ch. 4, p. 45 back|
|10.|| Ch. 6, p. 93 back|
|11.|| Ch. 1, p. 4 back|
|12.|| Ch. 1, p. 6. When the author speaks of the sage who conceals his remarkable qualities, I’m reminded of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, who fits into the everyday world, doesn’t stand out, and is difficult to recognize. back|
|13.|| Ch. 7, p. 106 back|
|14.|| Ch. 7, p. 105. A Jungian might ask, “Did he bring this upon himself? Did he leave his door unlocked? Was the shadow trying to force the conscious mind to acknowledge it? Did he bring this upon himself to foster his own spiritual growth?” back|
|15.|| Ch. 7, p. 110 back|
|16.|| Ch. 20 back|
|17.|| Ch. 20, p. 325. The book is called Closer to the Light: Learning from Children’s Near-Death Experiences, by Melvin Morse. back|
|18.|| Ch. 20, p. 326 back|
|19.|| Ch. 20, p. 326, 327 back|
|20.|| Ch. 20, p. 327 back|
|21.|| Ch. 5, p. 65 back|
|22.|| Ch. 5, pp. 66, 67 back|
|23.|| Ch. 5, p. 71. Is Orthodox, or Eastern Christianity more mystical, less rational than Western Christianity? back|
|24.|| Ch. 3, p. 39 back|
|25.|| Ch. 4, p. 54 back|
|26.|| Perhaps Proust’s experience of eating the madeleine was such an enlightenment experience. Rinpoche’s comments on enlightenment sound like a quote from Proust: “The innermost essence [of mind] is absolutely and always untouched by change or death.... Under certain special circumstances, some inspiration may uncover for us glimpses of this nature of mind.” (ch. 4, p. 47) back|
|27.|| Ch. 4, p. 41 back|
|28.|| Ch. 4, p. 42 back|
|29.|| Ch. 5, p. 77 back|
|30.|| Ch. 6, p. 85 back|
|31.|| Ch. 6, p. 96 back|
|32.||Ch. 6, p. 97. The author also speaks of a “life preview” — that is, a vision of one’s future.(ch. 20, p. 332) back|