I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thupten Jinpa speak about his new book A Fearless Heart, which is an accessible and entertaining presentation of traditional Tibetan techniques for cultivating compassion informed by recent research in psychology and neuroscience. It reminds me a bit of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in its ecumenical and rationalized approach to sharing Buddhist techniques for self-cultivation. It’s full of engaging autobiography and short on life stories of the Buddha or hagiography of various masters.
Dr. Jinpa has served as the principle translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years, having earned an esteemd geshe degree in the traditional monastic curriculum, and subsequently turning to lay life and earning a PhD from Cambridge.
During his presentation, I thought quite a bit about an episode in the biography of Je Tsong Khapa, the Tibetan master who founded the Gelukpa lineage in which Dr. Jinpa was ordained. According to traditional teaching, Je Tsong Khapa had a formative moment of profound personal transformation in a dream. He had been studying the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way, which focuses on the ultimate nature of reality, and in his dream he was approached by Buddhapalita, one of the key figures of that lineage. Buddhapalita held a copy of his principle treatise in his hands, and he touched it to Je Tsong Khapa’s head. At the moment the scripture made contact with the crown of his head, Je Tsong Khapa had a tremendous flash of insight into the nature of reality that animated the rest of his life.
So I remarked to Dr. Jinpa during the Q&A session that Buddhism had come to many cultures in its transmission out of India, and each time it has done so, it has taken on new symbols and new stories to serve as the matrix of its message. But its transmission to the West appears to be the first time that it has been transmitted into a context of no symbols.
I asked him, given the repertoire of profound images in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the integral role they have traditionally played in the process of self-cultivation and transformation, what happens to these practices when they’re abstracted into a scientific language, and the symbols are left behind?
Given his background, Dr. Jinpa is in a unique position to comment on this issue. He said it’s a very complicated problem, but in essence, he doesn’t believe that Buddhism will become a major religion in the West in the foreseeable future. The way he sees it, it tends to be concentrated into pockets of highly-educated elites. So the question becomes, not what form Western Buddhism will take, but how, in a larger sense, will Buddhism influence European and American culture. And in this regard, he believes that mindfulness and compassion techniques, which are already being taught in hospitals, have the most potential to provide a positive influence.
I found this a very illuminating and thought-provoking answer. Of course, Buddhism has typically first attracted the attention of well-educated elites in any new zone it enters. This has been true in Tibet, certainly, where ironically, the adoption of Buddhist beliefs by the imperial Yarlung court may have been a factor in precipitating the empire’s downfall, as doing so undermined the adherence to traditional religious beliefs that legitimated their rule.
But that is another story. The bottom line, I think, is that it becomes a question of doing the good that you can in the way you can.
It’s a nicely-written book, and if this is a topic of interest to you, you should check it out. I also like Jeffrey Hopkins’s Cultivating Compassion.
Lately I’ve been studying up on the history and culture of Central Eurasia, which has been home for millennia to important settled and nomadic people, including the speakers of proto-Indo-Europeans, the Parthians, Scythians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few.
The story about these peoples has long been told from the perspective of the high centers of civilization. To the Greeks, Romans, ‘Abbasid caliphs, and Chinese alike, these are barbarian invader-folk who periodically amass in sufficient numbers to cause serious problems by raiding and invading past their steppe hinterlands, toppling empires and bringing ruin. Such is the legacy of the Huns and Mongols in particular, who, according to popular conception, surged out of the steppes on horseback to leave smoldering ruins and piles of skulls in their wake.
While this model isn’t without a grain of truth, as usual the truth is more complicated than that. There is a widespread and traditional antipathy between settled peoples and mobile populations, and wherever these two forms of society are found we see similar stories told by the latter about the former. They are thieves, primitive warriors, and bellicose brutes – this is said not only of the Huns by the Romans, but of the Apache by the neighboring Pueblo peoples in pre-modern times.
In the last generation in particular we’ve started to see an important revision to that prevailing conception, which examines history in the light of the Central Eurasians, not as a usually-unimportant people dwelling at the perimeter of history, but as a worthwhile subject in its own right, and that shift in emphasis is challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom. What is regarded by imperial powers as infringement on their rightful borders, for example, often dissolves into complex disputes regarding encroachment into new territory and violation of trade rights by some of the societies in question. And far from the brutish horsemen of their adversaries’ histories, we’re gradually coming to appreciate the complex societies, economies, and cultures of the peoples of Central Eurasia, which has been a key nexus of cultural interchange and transmission for at least six thousand years.
In the 19th century when historians started looking closely at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the general understanding was that classical civilization and urban culture began in Greece and Rome. It took a couple of generations of looking at overwhelming evidence to the contrary before we collectively revised that understanding and appreciated the degree to which complex urban societies existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt for millennia before the Greek iron age. I think we’re in the midst of a similar revision now with respect to Central Asia, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these societies cannot be understood simply as a footnote to Roman and Chinese history. They are themselves key drivers of history, and the closer I look at them, the more I see that the history of Europe and Asia simply cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of these cultures.
There is a lot of great information out there on Central Eurasia; one source I recommend to interested readers is Christopher Beckwith’s outstanding study Empires of the Silk Road.
In other news, a great recent discover of mine is the wonderful BBC Radio series In Our Times. Our lively host Melvyn Bragg guides animated discussions of fascinating topics in history, art, science, and culture, typically with three university professor guests. I’ve listened to spellbinding episodes on the Samurai, Sappho, the Venerable Bede, and the An-Lushan Rebellion, and look forward to streaming many more. Episodes are 45 minutes in length.
It’s interesting to find how much your experience of a book can change when you’ve put on a few years. Today I’m having that experience going back to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but now I find it nearly overpowering.
“I went to see the shrine of Muro-no-yashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mount Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named Lord Born Out of The Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means burning cell. It was a custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt.”
“I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named Kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.”
Excerpts are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa.
“A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, was asked to tell a story. ‘A story,’ he said, ‘must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.’ And he told: ‘My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance and show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!”
From Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.
For some reason, it never occurred to me until this morning that Robert Bresson’s film “Au Hasard Balthazar” is essentially a Christianized retelling of Lucius Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass;” only where Apuleius passes through suffering to a towering epiphany of world-redeeming insight, Bresson’s dour world is unredeemable, unto the gates of death.
From Thomas Mann’s “On Schopenhauer,” translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter:
“The pleasure we take in a metaphysical system, the gratification purveyed by the intellectual organization of the world into a closely reasoned, complete, and balanced structure of thought, is always of a pre-eminently aesthetic kind. It flows from the same source as the joy, the highest and ever happy satisfaction we get from art, with its power to shape and order its material, to sort out life’s manifold confusions so as to give us a clear and general view.
“Truth and beauty must always be referred the one to the other. Each by itself, without the support given by the other, remains a very fluctuating value. Beauty that has not truth on its side and cannot have reference to it, does not live in it and through it, would be an empty chimera — and ‘What is truth?’ Our conceptions, created out of the phenomenal world, out of a highly conditioned point of view, are, as a critical and discriminating philosophy admits, applicable in an immanent, not in a transcendent sense.”
One of the key episodes in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake is something that occurs in Phoenix Park after midnight, involving the protagonist HCE, two ladies, and three soldiers. What exactly occurred is somewhat obscure, but there was evidently some sort of offense, and rumor of it spread widely.
Joyce’s polymorphous prose allows him to play with this idea both brilliantly and wickedly – there’s a dynamic sense of rumor running amok through transformation, and of course pious denunciations of all kinds are made from all sides, and the mood is one of wrath and retribution, but the events themselves are unrecoverable, not just in fact but in principle, because they rely on different points of view, and even the people who were there are not necessarily certain what occurred.
In reading that book it was of great interest to me that this case should be so important that he would include it as one of his core archetypes or patterns that recur in history, again and again. His ultimate model for this was no doubt the disgrace and pillorying of the Irish politician Parnell, whose movement for national independence was undone by a romantic indiscretion.
But is this pattern really so central, as to deserve a place of privilege in one of the finest novels ever written? All I can say is that since reading the book, I have become aware of precisely this same pattern occurring over and over and over again. Rumor of the event spreads far and wide, and people organize into camps, although no one is precisely sure what occurred. But it was rotten, that’s for sure.
And maybe it was rotten, but there’s a part of myself that increasingly believes that if HCE deserves it, then we all deserve it. And of course, “HCE” stands, among other things, for “Here Comes Everybody.”
Oho, oho Mester Begge, you’re about to be bagged in the bog again. Bugge. But softsies seuf-sighed: Eheu, for gassies! But, lo! lo! by the threnning gods, human, erring and condonable, what statutes of our kuo, who is the messchef be our kuang, ashu ashure there, the unforgettable treeshade looms up behind the jostling judgements of those, as all should owe, malrecapturable days.