Saturday, July 25, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "I Was a Teenage Catholic": Book Review

Theology vs. decency? During the Troubles, this Belfast journalist mulls over how Irish Catholicism and Ulster evangelicalism tangled his generation. Long an astute observer of republicanism, he proves here a diligent seeker into belief. Stubbornly skeptic, he concludes that in a sectarian North both sides may be groping, along with increasingly secular or agnostic counterparts, towards a simple human need: to test tradition that we're born into against our hard-won experience.

Like the republican and loyalist movements, Catholicism and Protestantism have operated in the North of Ireland upon fundamentalist tenets; their adherents generally claim allegiance not after mature choice, but by habitual upbringing. "I fostered fantasies of my own martyrdom, perhaps because that was all I could ever imagine my teachers would approve in me." (22) Early on, O'Doherty chafes against a 1950s childhood among the Christian Brothers. He insists upon testing what he's told to avow against his own bold life, and he finds wanting the faith of his fathers.

Yet, such a fantasized martyrdom "became more tangible against the background of Northern Irish sectarianism." (28) Circa 1968, "I was deciding that I wasn't a Catholic when others were deciding I had no say in the matter." (53) Losing his commitment before his convictions, his faith withers. He leaves a career in journalism after three years covering Irish strife, and after three aimless years in England he snags a vague job offer to compile a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu sage. He's off in the mid-'70s down the countercultural trail to an Indian ashram outside Delhi.

Swamiji looks like a mop of black hair, whether back or front. Loneliness consumes O'Doherty, and he tells movingly of the despair that kindles desperate trust in a stronger man than what one perceives as oneself. Beaten down by the Brothers as a boy, he struggles as a man nearing thirty to recognize how the soul's longing can or cannot be separated from devotion to a cause. Those who resisted the Christian Brothers, he notes, belatedly became Provos in the IRA, bowing to an Irish need for old conservative ways drummed in by parents and teachers. Threatened early on by the British Army in an home invasion, O'Doherty covers the Troubles for three years, while figuring out how far he can go down the path to belief as a secularized Irish man, schooled in the tenets of a creed and a cause both of which he has disavowed. After England, in India his need for uplift returns. He's attracted to an even more idolatrous manifestation in the utter obesiance a guru demands from a disciple.

He drifts, it seems, into lengthy meditation, mind-expanding to the point he envisions his head swelling like a ball, until he sees a white disc hover before his eyes, after years of relentless practice. Yet, he shrinks from Swamiji's Brahmin disdain for everyone else. O'Doherty, of no caste, is as untouchable as the Hindu tradition he cannot defend for his own adaptation or appropriation. Compared to Catholicism, at least its worst priest, he reflects, would have to care for a beggar he publicly met on the street; gurus like Swamiji loftily disdain any such charity. He grows impatient with O'Doherty's humanism, while Swamiji tries to impel his Irish charge to bend to traditional ways. But, as in Ireland, O'Doherty cannot kneel.

No surrender brings eventually his epiphany: "I cannot die to the world to save my soul." (134) Religion, he reflects, seems in the Irish to be divided between magic and fatalism; neither can soothe his innate rebelliousness. After a year apart from Swamiji wandering India and resuming his writing career, he goes back to the North as a religious affairs correspondent, whose specialty becomes the soundbite from the field, or the parade route, without profanity but with enough naivete or hatred from his earnest or fiery interviewees in the field that will get the best bits aired.

The first part of this narrative began as he braved a protest while working for the BBC in the Protestant enclave of Harryville; as his name reveals O'Doherty's counted among the enemy. After the central Indian portion, the story pivots back to his continued immersion in the North, where religion battles with politics. It's where one standing on the sidelines with a BBC microphone in hand must jump into the fray again, still marked by friend or it seems more often by foe by the faith he left behind. He's a wise interviewer; he stays detached. His discovery: God keeps out of our affairs, entreaties by gurus and claims by visionaries to the contrary. "Our language about God is like the language which in our dreams describes the world. In both we are insulated by metaphor from what we cannot know or must not know." (169)

As expected by readers of "The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA" (1998), O'Doherty can be prescient about the dangers of rigid fidelity to irrational ideals and rabid trust in destructive ideologies. He's at home with Irish end-games of all pursuits. I note that he has since written more about republicanism as "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" and continued decline in Irish religion as "Empty Pulpits." I look forward to these; unlike other analysts of the Troubles and Irish culture, he's able to link the rise and fall of monolithic republicanism and inescapable Catholicism to the maturation of his fellow citizens.

He proposes that the peace process and the collapse of clerical authority came about when "literal minded and obedient religion" dissolved, and when the republican cause found itself concurrently unable to command once unswerving ranks of those who learned that for contraception or decommissioning, "truth itself became negotiable." (137) O'Doherty lacks fellow commentator Eamonn McCann's radical stance, in his similar blends of autobiography and analysis "War and an Irish Town" and "Dear God"; the two authors share an ability to move between the personal and the political nimbly, although McCann's harsher on these twin fallen idols than O'Doherty, whose faith led him not to Marx but to India along the way, expanding his perspective in metaphorical and practical ways neither lad raised in postwar Northern Ireland might have imagined. O'Doherty's tenure in these twin fields of wartime dissension and religious agitation provides many anecdotes, at first appearing perhaps as casually as this short but densely packed and philosophically challenging book's title.

That is, it seems a throwaway line. But, "teenaged Catholic," existing in the past tense for this first-person subject, stands for a whole world-view, one that younger folks like myself (exactly a decade younger), cannot truly remember. O'Doherty's exploration takes familiar topics such as priestly scandal, poverty, hypocrisy, Ian Paisley, theodicy, and the impossibility of proving God's existence. "And if God is a myth, he is the patch we cover ourselves with." But, he's too smart now to deny God. "I take God to be the mirror in space of the whole self, to which nothing need ever to be said, which acknowledged, can be taken wholly for granted." (169-70) Facing death in his family, he accepts it as "Nature's rebuttal of tradition." (166)

This 2003 memoir stands beside his peer's eloquent 1995 defense of a similar agnostic balance that measures an adult's distance from pre-conciliar Catholicism, by the late Waterford-born, Cork-based journalist-poet Seán Dunne. "The Road to Silence" tracked an interior journey paralleling O'Doherty's, if removed from the Troubles in the relative calm of the South and the Continent. Younger journalist-memoirist, Manchán Magan, in his "Manchán's Travels" in early '90s India, provides another skeptic's testimony, another republican-raised Irishman's more recent reaction to Hindu fanaticism and the predicament of outcasts and India's poor. All three writers share respect for their Irish culture, and objectivity about their own loyalties as men who've outgrown their childhood pieties, political or spiritual, while becoming cautious and patient enough to listen to the yearnings and to record the longings of those at home or abroad who hold dogged beliefs or generous decency within themselves as believers.

Enriched by his probably unique comparison of a Belfast boyhood with a Hindu exposure, plus a journalist's objectivity with a cradle Catholic's scrutiny, O'Doherty combines disparate threads and casual scenarios. Upon reflection, for this reader he reveals a carefully arranged pilgrim's progression through the byways and highways that all of us, whatever our denomination or lack thereof-- or muddle between-- can recognize as an modern man's honest tale of how he tried to look God in the eye, and what happened when he faced that moment and decided to turn away.

(I've reviewed Dunne & Magan on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on British & US Amazon; also see my review of "The Miracle Detective" by Randall Sullivan on Amazon US about the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje that O'Doherty also recounts in a vignette here; Posted to Amazon US and Britain 7-25-09.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening of the West": Book Review

"The Encounter of Buddhism & Western Culture" examines two millennia of Europe's vexed and visionary experiences when meeting what's not quite an Asian religion, but more than an exotic philosophy. Batchelor, a Scot who was both a Korean Zen and Indo-Tibetan monk before espousing an agnostic dharma interpretation, proves ideal for introducing the characters and meetings that confounded Jesuits and friars, excited explorers and mystics, and unsettled despots and dictators.

He begins by listing five "attitudes" in the "long, uncertain relationship of the West with Buddhism." Blind indifference, self-righteous rejection, rational knowledge, romantic fantasy, and existential engagement. Outside of a few ancient Greek contacts, Europeans lacked knowledge until the 13th c. when Catholic clergy ventured far enough east. From then until the end of the 1800s, the West tended to denigrate or at least dismiss Eastern teachings. The Romantic movement broke with the Enlightenment by exaggerating the Oriental Other. Others in the 19th c. strove by reason to bring science to study the East, accompanying the colonial expansion.
Finally, in the last century, a few Westerners started to practice Buddhism; until nearly 1970, however, most of those in Europe practically knew each other, so small were the numbers before the Tibetan diaspora and the counterculture built upon an earlier interest in Zen among the Beats and intellectuals to bring in the flourishing of Buddhism among many disaffected with traditional beliefs, alongside others blending the dharma with conventional faiths-- or psychotherapies-- today.

Batchelor notes how in the 13th century of change, when Asia and Europe were roiled by political and military conflict, three traditions took root in Asia that in contemporary Europe now number the most adherents. Karma Kagyu became Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala school; Soto Zen shifted with D.T. Suzuki's books and Shunryu Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center & Tassajara emerged from this California 1960s epicenter; Nichiren's insistent renewal allied with Japanese lay evangelism turned into Soka Gakkai worldwide.

The Japanese and Chinese, faced with missionizing Jesuits, found their Asian tolerance strained by European claims that the truth lay only in the Catholic way. Batchelor fairly sets out the horrific tortures inflicted by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon the recalcitrant martyrs, but he also shows how rare a Buddhist-affiliated state has generated violence against its ideological foes, as opposed to the colonial and contemporary norms. Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and India: the list of places where Buddhism has fallen before tyrants lengthens in our own times. In Thailand and Southeast Asia, the movement for an engaged Buddhism tackling injustice and advocating pacificism takes up an eloquent chapter that shows how the "interbeing" of Thich Nhat Hanh and the "universal responsiblity" of the Dalai Lama connect to overthrow the notion of Buddhism as a self-involved, nihilistic, dreary, and moribund religion. This notion, spread by Western philosophers, scholars, missionaries, and early translators, served to taint Buddhism for centuries, and still lingers in many prejudiced accounts we find now.

Sir William Jones, who figured out in 1786 that Sanskrit was the root from which Indo-European languages sprouted, as with many British in India, ignored Buddhism. It had been wiped out by the Moghul invaders centuries before; it lingered in a few Himalayan redoubts beyond real contact with all but a few intrepid travellers. Hinduism regarded it with as much disdain as the West. "Jones believed that Buddha was the teutonic god Wotan or Odin." (233) This level of ignorance took many years to overcome.

Eugene Burnouf (1801-52) stands out midway through the book as a diligent Sanskrit-adept investigator; his philological and Orientalist lessons would rub off on his student Ernest Renan who famously tried to historicize the life of Jesus. Extreme rationalism brought extreme prejudice; the hostility to a declining Catholicism exacerbated among Enlightenment-inspired intellectuals a dismissal of any elaborate rituals within the Buddhism imperial reports discussed. A Protestant-like Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand became favored in the later 19th c. by Theosophists, colonial translators, and native reformers.

Unknowingly, the search for an "Aryan" homeland to which Jesus retreated in his "lost years" for Indian wisdom, free from Jewish influence, provides a detour that Batchelor notes in passing. Antisemitism was fostered by European scholars bent on prying Judeo-Christian origins away from even the Gospels. Romantic Orientalism cast a long shadow over Indo-European studies. 19th c. German contributions that tried to push aside Latin Renaissance biases themselves have since then suffered by reputation. The barbarians were celebrated rather than Romans, via this search for Eastern origins for a purified "race" generated by Hindu and Buddhist distortions.

Buddhism as such misreadings show is often misunderstood by us. It was misused to train kamikaze pilots; but it also inspired Soviet "samidzat" tracts and learning was preserved even in the gulags. Although many have tried to crush it, as we see in Asian totalitarian states today, many try to save it at the cost of their lives.

Philology for rationalists, fantasy for romantics, but neither IE-professors or New Age dabblers pin the tail on this varied elephant, to adopt a Buddhist analogy! "To fix the elephant in space or time is to kill her. The elephant breathes and moves-- in ways one cannot foresee." (274) It's not an ethical system, psychology, philosophy, faith, mysticism, devotion, meditation, or therapy. But it can use all of these aspects. Batchelor, anticipating his 1997 book "Buddhism Without Beliefs," tells us that its "attitude towards life is neither rational nor non-rational; based neither on feeling, intuition nor sensation. Yet it includes them all."

Finally, as Batchelor's own young monastic quest demonstrates, the counterculture allowed contact with real Buddhist practice for more than a few European scholars, officials, missionaries, or explorers. It's still in a "transitional" phase, and the book alternates often between historical accounts and recent adaptations of the various schools and movements as they journey westward, often brought by Europeans training in Asian monasteries before going back home, but as often Asian monks and experts travelling to the West to start or assist at new centers across Europe and the Americas. "It required two World Wars, Hitler and Stalin, the threat of nuclear war and environmental destruction and, in many cases, a hefty dose of LSD to render Europeans sufficiently humble to seek their lost spiritual centre elsewhere." (275)

Breaking the "grid of reason" and twisting the "dreams of romanticism," the dharma manages today to transcend, in Batchelor's view, a heretical Buddhist practice in Europe now. Protestant revolt had earlier broken Catholicism's "stranglehold" but also "ruptured the cohesion of the European soul." He finds Buddhist heresy a positive force; moving "outside the Judaeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition" forces adherents to choose the dharma in the same way that Asians do traditionally. Intriguingly, he finds: "It makes little sense to regard oneself as a Buddhist by birth." (276) The choice to practice, not one's birth culture or the bought décor, makes one a Buddhist.

While some of the chapters drag with recitals of names and dates that any history may find inescapable, especially one that pioneers study of its subject, as with the American counterpart, Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake," (1992), Batchelor weaves many disparate strands into an intelligent narrative. He adds a short glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and index that assist our comprehension of a saga stretching over two thousand years, and across half the earth in its quest.

The middle of the volume, which takes on "Everyman" in his attempt to make Buddhism matter, provides the sharpest insights, as perhaps these energize from their author's own formation at this period of what's been labelled subsequently "methodological agnosticism" applied to the dharma's Western adoption and modernizing representation. In the heart of his book, Batchelor grapples with the force of culture and tradition for a European determined to become a Buddhist. He finds the salvific Christ a "consoling fiction," as he opens his book quoting Voltaire's estimate of history as a "convenient fiction." Buddhism, as its teachers show, depends on "transmission" from expert to learner; this chain can be tracked back in documented lineages to the historical Buddha. One cannot "grow up" in the practice, but must take it on actively. He cites an Hasidic tale of a rabbinical student going far to see how his chosen master ties his shoelaces. This sort of unexpected meeting, Batchelor explains, shows the type of unplanned teaching that characterizes true encounters.

People want to pin down their version, their part of the elephant that they touch and see and smell. They miss the rest of the great beast beyond their grasp. Reification presents a danger. Attributing permanence, substance, and condition to that inherently changeable, evanescent, and dependent upon its components is the basic dharma that defining Buddhism resists. Batchelor stresses adaptation for the West, and for the East as its westernized; he reminds readers that any form of the dharma must be transformative, forced to change to a new enviroment for it to survive among its practitioners. This evolution happens in the culture as well as within the practitioner. "As long as the practitioner remains unaffected, the Dharma can be no more than a consolation, a diversion, a fascination or an obsession." (279)

Later sections take us through various contemporary expounders of teachings. With "engaged" Buddhism, Batchelor finds an antidote for the pablum often "soft-peddled" as dharma that panders to romantic, nihilistic, consumerist, or passive fads. Delving into the recently popular "interdependence" concept, he finds that Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing," developed out of the peaceful opposition that brought down the Catholic despot Diem in 1963, can topple oppressors. (Of course, I add, military might as wielded by the U.S. and its Vietnamese puppet regime insured that the non-violent alternative did not last long.)

Globalization reminds us of interbeing in another context. The "'poisons' of the mind (delusion, greed and hatred) to be uprooted through Buddhist practice have become institutionalized in the forms of the multinational corporations, consumerism, and the arms industry that increasingly dominate life on earth." (361-2) If one acts with true compassion, one cannot sit on a cushion all day. One must get out and take time to make changes to trouble the complacent and comfort the weak.

Batchelor ends this book as he began, with the Dalai Lama being recognized by Vaclav Havel after the fall of Communism. Nearly twenty years on, reading his accounts, I wondered if any hope was left for Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, North Korea, or Laos where the "sangha" has been terrorized but where perhaps in a few redoubts monks, nuns, and laity try to rally opposition peacefully. He concludes with an telling and haunting anecdote from oral history conveyed firsthand that's missing from "convenient fictions" of the historical record. The Dalai Lama in his official autobiography "Freedom in Exile" omits his real encounter at the Wall of another East-West divide now broken by capitalism, migration, and global diaspora. He was on the East side, not the West as he writes.

On that side, the GDR's Communist Party had fallen earlier that same day. The Stasi, the secret police, escorted him and his entourage into then-Soviet Zone at Checkpoint Charlie. A Citizen's Action Movement had rallied, wishing to take over East Germany to make it non-aligned, demilitarized, nuclear-free, and "environmentally aware." (376) This CAM told the Dalai Lama he'd be their "first official guest," and that Tibetan independence would be recognized. But, his handlers were nervous and got him back to the western side of the Wall. West Germans intervened, and reunification under the consumer oligarchy that epitomizes Western democracy in Europe followed for the GDR.

Petra Kelly, Green Party leader, and her companion Gert Bastian told him this story. They were in the crowd that saw the Dalai Lama light his candle on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Petra had illicitly arranged the car that took the Tibetans to their clandestine (and heretofore unknown to Batchelor) roundtable. Four days after Kelly told this story, Gert fatally shot her and then himself. No suicide note, no explanation, at least of the New Year's Eve, 1992 completion of this book's manuscript. Out of such stories, multiplied in unpredictable, inspiring, and depressing fashion, history emerges into written form, and out of the scraps gleaned from past notes and testimonies, Batchelor has created an engrossing story himself.

(P.S. Readers wanting more about Shunryu Suzuki: see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber." Also, see my review of "Buddhism Without Beliefs"-- both on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on Amazon US recently, where this review was posted 7-24-09. His newest book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," awaits my reading and reviewing. Author's website: "".)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Donald Lopez' "A Modern Buddhist Bible": Book Review

>"Tired of listening to eulogistical messages with empty contents," a Thai activist castigates Buddhist leaders for smugly promoting their tolerance, scientific compatibility, and downright goodness while his people starve under dictatorship. The selections compiled show a Buddhism that turns from worship and ritual towards meditation, but also towards social justice. Many books on Buddhism tend to be slim, full of platitudes, and self-congratulatory. This one strives for a truer depiction of how, from 1873-1990, Buddhist leaders and popularizers have engaged contemporary problems, and also have perpetuated modern fantasies, about the truth of the dharma.

Jack Kerouac claimed to have stolen a copy from San José, California's public library of an earlier assembly of Buddhist scriptures arranged by Dwight Goddard as "The Buddhist Bible." The incongruity and the compatibility of such a juxtaposition reveals Western and modern attempts to package dharma for a popular audience schooled in Holy Writ, and then, like Kerouac, wanting to step beyond it or integrate it into a modern encounter between East and West, mystic and mass-market, venerable and hip. Out of such conventional dichotomies, such authors as included here seek also to bridge cultural gaps, correct (or in earlier decades continue or distort) misunderstandings, and to realign Buddha's instructions as operating manuals in an age of faster transport, bolder power, and quicker communication.

The editor introduces modern Buddhism that "rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms." Instead, "it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community." (ix)
It does not improve earlier Buddhism so much as-- and the Protestant and/or secular, New Age, and/or rational qualities of many who started the effort from both Eastern and Western backgrounds must be emphasized-- seeking a return to a truer, more primitive, simpler practice. The ancient form is argued to be the most modern.

Lopez, a Tibetan expert, does insert practically verbatim parts from his 1998 debunking "Prisoners of Shangri-La" as he introduces Evans-Wentz' "Tibetan Book of the Dead," for example. Some earlier excerpts such as the historically important Madame Blavatsky with her Theosophical flights of fancy, Evans-Wentz' rather lugubrious interpretations, and Sir Edwin Arnold's once popular "The Light of Asia" will probably bore today's reader. But, they are necessary to show the start of the dialogue between Eastern reformers and Western explorers who discovered Buddhism and wished to present it as an alternative to imperialism, Christianity, and Darwin; or, perhaps rather compatible with at least the last two.

I found my own favorites. Shunryu Suzuki (see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" biography) sensibly sums up Soto Zen's stress on simplicity. "It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master it. This is the Soto way of practice. We may say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough. There is no Nirvana outside our practice." (135)

Alan Watts seems to have fallen out of favor among current audiences, but he prepared the way for Shunryu Suzuki's impact in the San Francisco counterculture. Unlike the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder) here featured, in his 1959 essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Watts appears to have outlasted the Beats when it comes to a prescient observation of the permanence of true insight vs. the fads of a passing trend-- an aspect that continues to color how Buddhism gets marketed globally more than ever. Watts starts by nodding to the Japanese twist. Zen historically attracted the samurai class for its power to get rid of their self-conscious youthful education. But, this plays into the "Japanese compulsion to compete with oneself-- a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of self-discipline." I thought of the bizarre game shows that try to humiliate or reward contestants with death-defying or at least stomach-churning feats. Watts finds that Japan's version of Zen "fought fire with fire, overcoming the 'self observing the self' by bringing it to an intensity with which it exploded." (161)
For Westerners raised within a Jewish-Christian culture, whether or not adhering to its beliefs outright, Watts understands the appeal of a Buddhism that the Beats enjoyed, one that did not preach or moralize. Yet, Watts knows the dangers of distorting dharma into existential folly. He insists that anyone from the West must get beyond being "swayed by its promises unconsciously." One must be able to take or leave "the Lord God Jehovah with his Hebrew-Christian conscience" but "without fear or rebellion." A comparison may be Rodger Kamenetz' studies (reviewed by me) in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" about how Jewish and/or Buddhist seekers try to balance their psychic inheritance with their practical search.

Watts finds that unless one is freed from the "itch to justify" one's self, one's
"Zen will be either 'beat' or 'square', either a revolt from the culture and social order of a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other." (165)
He contrasts the "underlying protestant lawlessness of beat Zen" as calculated to annoy the squares, who seriously try to pursue the "satori" or breakthrough by gaining official stamps of calligraphed approval. Their own spiritual tourism, their rush to wander Asia to find what they can obtain in their own garden, also presents dangers, when such "fuss" gets "mixed up with Bohemian affectations." (168; 171)

Chogyam Trungpa in the last selection, after the next dozen years of the Beats turned hippies found many Americans unable to handle true wisdom, also finds that without a "spiritual friend who is a doctor with a sharp knife," seekers will fail to free themselves from "spiritual materialism" and "shopping" for one layer after another to put on and discard as they wander the bazaar of the next hip spirituality.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers another alternative to such restlessness within the modern heart. "A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty." (205)

Allying individual renewal to social transformation, Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Taiwanese activist Cheng Yen urge smiles to accompany little shifts in personal behavior that start to ripple out to those around us. While B. R. Ambedkar's Indian manifesto shown earlier tying Karl Marx to a revolutionary dharma may have never come to fruition, nor the Thai Buddhadesa's call for "dictatorial socialism" to overcome the dictators in his homeland, the gentler calls for reform dominate later appeals to apply the dharma to change the world, rather than play into stereotypes of a navel-gazing Buddhism concerned only with monastic ritual, inner exploration, or exotic mantras.

Arranged chronologically by the birth of their authors, the thirty-one selections do not follow any logical pattern otherwise. As with "Prisoners of Shangri-La," this anthology will prove difficult to plow straight through; a glossary does help somewhat, but not a book I'd recommend to beginners. Try Rick Fields' narrative history of Buddhism in America, "How the Swans Came to the Lake," first. Lopez can be less than helpful in some of his too-compressed introductions; I am not sure where a "Calvinist convent" is for Alexandra David-Neel's early education. Some excerpts are astonishingly dull, predictable, or obtuse. Still, this forces the reader like it or not into hearing a diverse array of voices demanding renewal and rebirth of Buddhism. I shared a few of my favorite passages above.

Lopez views the modern Buddhist movements as their own sect. Not mutually exclusive of earlier forms, but often compatible if with "its own lineage, its own doctrines, its own practices." Here, from "a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals," he attempts to present "its own canon of sacred scriptures." (xxxix)

While William Burroughs' rejoinder "Show me a good Buddhist novelist" (155) remains to be proven, given the lack of fiction and not much poetry of any worth within these pages, I do hope a century later readers of a "21st Century Buddhist Bible" may find much to celebrate in the genres not only of polemic, sermon, address, scientific speculation, and inspiration, but in the realms of the creative arts. (Posted to Amazon US today, and also on my shorter blog where many other reviews appear, "Blogtrotter.")

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Donald Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La": Book Review

How we idealize Tibet as the white man's spiritual treasury, protected by monks within frozen lairs, links seven essays. Acerbic, dispassionate, and unromantic, Lopez demystifies what much coverage of the Dalai Lama and centuries of fables have obscured: Tibet's reality. This book talks little of politics, but much about the predicament that the West has placed Tibet within: we cannot allow it to escape our own fanciful prison, within which levitating lamas, carefree peasants, and many monks pursue beneath rarified skies the mysteries of a higher realm.

This emphasis, despite Lopez's knack for deadpan dismissal of tall tales, can be dispiriting. While I admire his efforts to dismantle the Orientalist construct that freezes Tibet, I wondered why he remained so dispassionate about its current plight. The final chapter, "The Prison," appears to castigate the Dalai Lama for his difficult balancing act between political leader and spiritual director, but it's hard to see why Lopez ignores the destruction of so much of the learning and culture that he, as a professional Tibet expert, would surely lament.

Perhaps the "surely" betrays my own prejudice, however. In professorial mode rather than as gulled tale-teller, he seeks to distance himself from Western stereotypes of Eastern wisdom. He studies how Western reception makes "things Tibetan become not particular to a time and a place, but universal, and in the process Tibet is everywhere and hence nowhere, functioning as an element of difference in which everything is possible." And in this non-historical, non-geographical, nonsensical depiction, Westerners form their own deluded knowledge of what they claim to know.

Chapter One examines at great length the term Lamaism as a definition for what Tibetans believe. Often Protestant or rationalist interpreters sought to taint Tibetan practice and belief as "papist," and while Lopez does not cite Ram Dass' later summation of Tibetan Buddhism as "Roman Catholicism on LSD," this later, and perhaps approving, tie of the Vatican to the lamasary may be a rare instance of a positive spin on the topic. Even early friars visiting Lhasa despaired at finding an eerie funhouse mirror of Catholic ritual seemingly repeated by the panoply they found. It later became justification for the fears of the West that the Church and Tibet both represented, to be conquered by either reforming Christians and/or rational imperialists. He concludes: "The very use of the term Lamaism is a gesture of control over the unincorporated and the unassimilated, used first by the Qing over Tibet, then as a code word for 'Papism' by the British over Catholic Ireland and Europe, and finally by European Buddhology over the uncolonized and unread." (44)

Chapter Two extends the reach of the West through Jung's commentary and the various editors and renderers of the mislabelled (to allude to the 1920s King Tut craze, a point Lopez does not mention) "Tibetan Book of the Dead." Lopez repeats a minor error in recounting the tale of its earliest popularizer, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. Lopez notes that Evans-Wentz "enrolled at Stanford, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." (52) While W.Y. Evans-Wentz pursued Yeats to his Irish home at Coole in the summer of 1908, and dedicated his 1911 "Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries" (originally his Rennes thesis, published by Oxford) to WBY, I can find no record in the standard biography by R.F. Foster that Yeats himself taught at Stanford, only that his lecture tour from 27 Jan.-3 Feb. 1904 covered the Bay Area, with a lecture on 29 Jan. at Stanford. ("W.B. Yeats: A Life" 1:305; Foster makes his own minor slip, indexing "William" rather than "Walter.")

Lopez, here and in his edition of the life of Milarepa, appears to borrow the last phrase of the blurb (repeated on Wikipedia) in "Fairy Faith" that's "about the author." This claims: "He received both his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." In "Fairy-Faith," Evans-Wentz dedicates it to AE (George Russell) and Yeats, "who brought to me at my own alma mater in California the first message from fairyland and who afterward in his own country led me through the haunts of fairy kings and queens." This seems more accurate. The earlier claim repeated by Lopez about the "where" is the point in question; Evans-Wentz came in 1908 to learn from Yeats; Yeats did not come to teach Evans-Wentz per se-- unless a few conversations with WYE-W by WBY during California speaking engagements count as such.

Returning to the main text, I disagree with Lopez' assumption that Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" too heedlessly sidesteps the idea of the "six realms of rebirth" by avoiding a "literal rendering." (80) As a Californian, I liked Sogyal's analogy of my state as, for "the demigod realm," reified by deluded, "high on meditation," surfers and lounging, affluent layabouts. He, as Lopez glances at only, simply gives us a comparison Westerners can relate to. He later shows in his book much more about traditional depiction of the bardos, but his purpose is not the straight translation (or as Francesca Fremantle later in "Luminous Emptiness" strove to do, the applicability of it to life and not only the afterlife) or commentary that Thurman may have favored--admittedly with his own very contemporary slant. After all, Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa, Thurman, and Sogyal Rinpoche tried to shift the text from Evans-Wentz's esoteric eclecticism and Jung's archetypes so as to position it for post-hippie, post-lysergic readers today. This mission in the Penguin complete edition (by Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, with the inevitable if certainly welcome prefaces and comments by the Dalai Lama) continues to strive to overcome Evans-Wentz's Theosophical & New Age bias. And, as Lopez deadpans, if E-W had found in the 1919 detritus of a returning British officer instead a Buddhist logic tract, we'd be telling a far different tale of the dharma in the West today.

Lopez raises an excellent question. Perhaps New Age devotees of Evans-Wentz's Theosophical and willfully eclectic "California Cosmology" (see Ronald Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon" history of modern paganism and witchcraft) and eager Tibetophiles such as Tim Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Robert Thurman might agree: early Buddhism anticipates later Western physics, regarding deeper levels of consciousness accessible by psychedelics, meditation, tantra, or combinations thereof. Yet, Lopez interrupts, why do we believe Buddhists and their sympathizers? "When we read the claims of Hindu fundamentalists that locomotives and rocket travel are described in the Vedas or that the beam of light emitted from S[h]iva's brow is really a laser, we smile indulgently." Compare to Buddhist claims from the same time and culture for "a universe that moves through periods of cosmic evolution and devolution," for which many may "assume that this is simply something that physicists have not yet discovered." (76)

Such claims permeate those who, as with Lama Govinda, may not even know Tibetan, yet speak as purveyors of hidden wisdom from "treasure texts" long preserved in Shangri-La. By contrast, Lopez is almost gentle in Chapter Three with Lobsang Rampa, the "mystifier" in a double sense, born Cyril Hoskin in Devonshire. He handles the persistently popular New Age assertions that this British man had his "body actually taken over by the spirit of an Easterner"-- to quote him-- and so he "became" a lama, although unable to speak any Tibetan in his Anglicized manifestation, although he could communicate with cats. His many pulp paperbacks recount his adventures in Tibetan and spiritualist realms, and while shelved among "occult" titles today, Lopez notes with a touch of sympathy how many of his professional colleagues first learned about Tibet in the pages of such as 1956's début by Rampa, "The Third Eye."

Chapter Four takes on "om mani padme hum" at much length, equalling that of "lamaism." Again, he delves into how interpretations-- eventually by Tibetans themselves in their explanations-- turn into a rote recital of "the jewel in the heart of the lotus" to sum up this endlessly recited formula as speaking for Tibet.
I found its most evocative, if provocative, exposure near the end of a rather exhausting chapter. It may be that early missionaries quailed at its meaning, if they dared to penetrate its mystery. If the "feminine form of the Sanskrit vocative" for "mani padme" apparently as "O Jewel Lotus" appeals to Avalokiteshvara, who holds both items, why would this masculine figure receive a feminine form? Lopez quotes June Campbell's "Traveller in Space"-- it's unlikely that "mani" means phallus, as "vajra" [often "thunderbolt" in common translations] is "more common." Campbell posits "mani" as clitoris and so the mantra invokes "the deity of the clitoris-vagina," an indigenous deity before the coming of the dharma, who underwent a sex-change by those Campbell deems "the zealous missionaries of Tibetan Buddhism." (133)

The tendency to misinterpret art in Western exhibitions and catalogues takes up Chapter Five; Chapter Six presents a fascinating topic that I have never seen raised in a popular account of Tibetan Buddhism. Jeffrey Hopkins, along with Thurman the pioneer of Western transmission of Tibetan dharma into academia, is also a practitioner. Many of his American Ph.D.'s-- as with Lopez, I gather-- in the field turn "scholar-adepts." Unlike Continental scholars emerging out of Oriental Studies programs, for the U.S., the seminary model influenced the Religious Studies set-up for colleges here. Tibetan Studies Ph.D's often link their study to their practice.

Perhaps, one cannot easily sever study from inculcation, as one seeks "salvation by scholarship" in by collegial tenure rather than as a celibate monk. This intrigued me, for how many other departments may boast this psychic identification by professors? Can one teach communism or Freud or Islam without avowing its tenets? Certainly. Given the transmission that Buddhism relies upon of the teaching in a one-on-one chain over 2500 years, I wonder if this can be adapted to academia, or if the monastic pattern will be substituted in universities. What he does not explore is whether a non-believer in the dharma can truly comprehend Tibetan texts, that need-- if Lopez and Hopkins are correct-- to be taken in by those encountering them by methods defying mere translation or equivalents.

Lopez shows how Hopkins at the U. of Virginia took his students into in-depth re-thinking so they could learn the syllogisms and rationales upon which non-Western philosophy as taught by the lamas rested for their students. This re-orientation of the mindset necessary for understanding Tibetan teaching, due to its difficulty, means that a UVA dissertation may still aspire to the level that, among Tibetans, may be reached by a twelve-year-old schoolchild in a monastery. It's that arcane. Just comparing the Tibetan transliterations to their Western compression shows the challenge of crossing what I imagine may loom as a considerable barrier for those not fluent in Sanskrit and Chinese before tackling Tibetan and its cousin languages.

The final chapter raises how we construct prisons around fantasies. Pico Iyer in "The Open Road" (reviewed by me last year on "Blogtrotter" and on Amazon US) raises the same example as Lopez. How many who revere in stadiums or seminars the Dalai Lama know of the "Shugden affair"? Westerners tend to respond to a secularized, ethical, and non-theistic, non-ritualistic, ecumenical style of Buddhism as packaged for wide audiences. "The Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Western adherents was generally of the Buddhist modernist variety, with an emphasis on meditation on emptiness and on compassion, and did not include ritual offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat with a wick made of human hair." While Tibetan teachers themselves propitiate this controversial "demon" deity, such veneration to say the least does not constitute the retailed version of what gurus offer to their students abroad.

And, on such contrasts, Lopez ends his uneven but worthwhile 1998 study. This book feels as if he wrote separate essays on aspects of how Westerners interpret Tibetan Buddhism, and then he later linked them, often loosely, and widened them for a broader readership. Unlike Jeffery Paine's popularized "Re-Enchantment," Lopez includes substantial scholarship with complete references; many of the endnotes are essential for complete appreciation of what can be advanced academic discourse. Despite the apparent outreach to a wide readership, this book tells almost nothing about the basics; I'd recommend it after Paine, who while he eschews the learning appended and permeating Lopez, would be more accessible for newcomers. Thomas Laird's "History of Tibet" compiled with interviews with the Dalai Lama would also be a good start for those craving more background. (I reviewed Fremantle, Thurman, the TBoD editions by Dorje et al., Laird and Paine on Amazon US and my regular blog "Blogtrotter"; I also recommend and reviewed Richard Gere's reading of the Fremantle-Trungpa TBoD ed., and Patrick French's disillusioning "Tibet, Tibet" about the aftermath of Western activist enthusiasm for what seems increasingly the lost cause of Tibetan freedom.)