#165: TIBETAN BUDDHISM: THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS. Pico Iyer wrote in Sun After Dark, “What exactly you believe, and how much, and why, is a question Tibet asks you more searchingly than any place I know. It’s part of what travel involves everywhere—the stepping out of the bounds of what you know, and into the realm of wishfulness and illusion and real marvel—but in Tibet it comes with centuries of legends, and a self-consciousness, on both sides, you don’t find in other cultures. We go to Tibet, often, to be transported, and so, inevitably, we are (as we might not be if we saw and heard the same things in Wisconsin); ‘Tibet’ is the name we give to whatever we wish to believe, or can’t quite credit.”
Traditional Tibetan culture is as saturated with Buddhism as the medieval culture of Europe was with Christianity, and one of its literary genres, the namtar—the account of an enlightened being as an exemplar of Buddhist virtues—very much resembles the medieval lives of the saints. A classic in this field is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s biography of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, a twentieth century teacher associated with the ecumenical rime movement. When Dilgo Khyentse’s biography was to be translated, it was the notion of the contemporary teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to have it augmented with stories gathered from the people still living who had known Jamyang Khyentse. We may be accustomed to the hagiographical tone of many biographies of religious leaders, but to have this prefaced by a long section of what I call what-happened-the-other-day stories can be pretty startling. “Hey, you know what happened the other day, Rinpoche was having fits very like epilepsy, but they burned some hair from a woman he’d known for years before and now he’s just fine.” “You know what happened the other day, Rinpoche wasn’t feeling at all well, but they recited some mantras from the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel Essence Manual and danged if that didn’t do the trick, he’s up and around now.” I remember running into something similar while reading a biography of the twentieth-century Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun, in which stories of his navigating the Boxer Rebellion are right there with stories of his exorcising a spirit in a camphor tree. Or, to bring things closer to home, being told stories by a Chasidic friend of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson having been seen in two places at the same time. Reports of something very unusual sometimes step into our plain old everyday world, and what do you do with them? Every person makes their own negotiations with such things.
Still another effect of what-happened-the-other-day stories can be, if not exactly debunking, then a bit demythifying. The tales in the Jamyang Khyentse biography can show you monks behaving as a bunch of nervous, gossiping little hens very limited in the transcendental wisdom department—you know, sort of like the rest of us. Contemporary Americans (Europeans? Westerners?) can sometimes be a little shocked when they discover that human nature doesn’t change when you throw a monastic robe over it—or a nun’s habit, or a clerical dog-collar. When I was growing up priests used to get a really strange bit of social credit if they cussed or smoked or had a drink—it was a (relieving) sign that they were regular human beings. Sexual activity was sometimes winked at (if it was heterosexual), other times it was the fuse for explosive scandal. In the Jamyang Khyentse biography there are any number of arguments and feuds and whisperings and people making off with each other’s prime relics, but nary a syllable about sex. From this I can only assume that it is the last taboo, rather than that it didn’t happen.
Your reaction to this may depend on from how far outside the culture you’re coming in. In Gesar Mukpo’s film Tulku, he interviews a young Dutch man, Reuben Derksen, who was recognized as an incarnate teacher at the age of eleven. Derksen says: “I had an image of these Buddhist monks as being holy and serene and all-knowing and wise and that they could really teach me the whole Buddhist philosophy and everything. Most people have no idea of what goes down in a monastery. I mean if you put six hundred men together, what do you expect you’re going to get? I mean there are some people in the monastery who were good leaders, who were practicing every day, who really were people you could look up to. However the majority of the cases, the monastery there was basically a cesspool of jealousy, of gossip, of hate, of violence and very un-Buddhist in a lot of ways, at least un-Buddhist in the sense that they preach one thing and then they turn around and do something exactly the opposite. You have, anything you find you would find in a Christian monastery, from homosexuality to child abuse, to beatings.” Gesar Mukpo, the director, who was not only the son of Chogyam Trungpa but recognized as a tulku at the age of three, responds with something said to him by Dzongsar Khyentse: “There’s a difference between Buddhism and Buddhists, and you’d better recognize that there’s a difference between them or else you won’t be able to make any sense out of it. Just because someone’s studying Buddhism doesn’t mean that they represent the values of what it talks about.”
A similar demythologizing and common sense might happily be applied to the whole recent debate as to whether Buddhism is a philosophy, a religion, or, in the new phrase, a “science of the mind.” Evan Thompson examines this last notion in his book Why I Am Not A Buddhist—the title’s a riff on Bertrand Russell, and a bit misleading. Thompson is disputing the notion of Buddhist exceptionalism, the idea that Buddhism is more scientific, more rational, than other religions, as well as the much-bruited notion that Buddhism is not a religion at all. Thompson suggests that the incidental likening of Buddhist terminology and method to scientific terminology is a matter more of resemblance than identity and of fairly loose talk from the scientific point of view. One can see why, from the Buddhist point of view, the notion of Buddhism-as-science makes sense, but Thompson makes a convincing case for why, from the point of view of western scientists, it doesn’t. Similarly, when years ago I asked Eddie Farhi, who was then a professor of physics at MIT, about the likening by Gary Zukav and Fritjof Capra of quantum physics to Hua-Yen Buddhism, Eddie looked very patient and said, simply and decisively, “No.” (He afterward gave me an explanation so far above me that I assumed he could see my bald spot.) I suspect that science and religion may have to go on a little longer agreeing to disagree.
Re-enter Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, also known as (the film-maker) Khyentse Norbu. He can often be relied on, for all his mastery of Buddhist teaching, to say something marked by irony and sharp common sense. In Gesar Mukpo’s film, he points out that the search for incarnate teachers does not exist in the early Buddhist texts. “All this is a bit of a Tibetan thing,” he says. “That culture is dying. It’s not going to work any more… And if it doesn’t work I think it’s almost for the better…. At the end of the day Buddhism is more important than the tulku system.”
And in two of his books, What Makes You Not a Buddhist and The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, he tackles both the problem of definition—whether you’re a Buddhist or not, and why do you ask?—and the issues of working with a spiritual teacher, with remarkable good sense and humor. He teases himself; he teases you; he deals with the four truths and the four seals as helpfully as in any text I’ve seen, and he takes the skin off the question of having a teacher with an intensely practical approach and language.
I have always had a skittish distrust of titles and group affiliations. Many years ago, approached by a Gideon offering me a pocket Testament, I told him I’d been given one the year before, and that I was glad to have it and had read it. He brightened right up and said, “Oh! Are you a Christian?” I said, “Oh, no, sorry. I’m a poet. I’m not allowed to sign any papers.” The answer seemed to puzzle him. Once, in Bodh Gaya, I was asked by an American woman what I was doing there. I answered “I’m an American Buddhist on pilgrimage,” and immediately felt a terrible fake. One of my co-workers has said, “You are of the Buddhist persuasion,” which is a handy phrase. I’ll leave it at that. We all make our own negotiations, so few of which are final.
--The Life and Times of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, with other stories. Shambhala, 2017.
--Tulku, a film by Gesar Mukpo. National Film Board of Canada, 2009. Viewable on Youtube.
--Why I Am Not A Buddhist, by Evan Thompson. Yale University Press, 2020.
--What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Shambhala, 2007.
--The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Shambhala, 2016.