Friday, 29 May 2015

Book Review - The Tibetan Book of the Dead - Robert Thurman

Taking a break from the Blavatsky backlog, here’s a review  of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman (Bantam, 1994). With so many translations of this text out there, one might wonder if this version is redundant. I would say no, because Thurman has a distinctive, practical approach that is geared to western sensibilities. His prose style, for one, favors quite a modern, counter-culture-influenced language that largely eschews Sanskrit and Tibetan terms, which makes for a fairly easy to follow albeit somewhat quirky text with original terms such as psychonaut, pretan, and scientist deity (A glossary provides the Sanskrit/Tibetan terminological information).

One refreshing aspect is the open, multi-cultural, comparative religion perspective. He therefore liberally draws some interesting parallels from other spiritual traditions. He observes that:"There are certainly adept traditions in all the great literate and earth religions, and all of these certainly deal with the basic realities of life and death. The genuine shaman knows of the dissolution process, knows of divine allies and demonic interferences, and usually finds a ground of benevolence and trust, some sort of Lord of Compassion. The monastics of all ages have experimented with journeys of the soul, and some have lived to recount their experiences in useful works. Sufi and Taoist adepts have given instructions and maintain living traditions"(pp.80-81))

Moreover, the first 91-page section and in commentary elsewhere gives considerable attention to practical Tantric aspects of the text, an area that has been relatively unexplored, to my knowledge, showing the important insight that there is an intimate relation between funeral texts and spiritual initiation.This first section is a solid introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, with a special emphasis on a "memento mori" philosophy and helpful charts are included, giving helpful explanations of the subtle bodies. Thurman has a very bold, original, modern western approach, yet firmly grounded in traditional Tibetan Buddhism. The more conservative people could criticize the creative development of original Tantric exercizes based on Gelugpa traditions, but Thurman's credentials as a scholar and Tantric practioner make for interesting reading. He gives some interesting practical exercizes, for example:

"Practice being more relaxed in your relationships. Remind yourself that you could be dead and not there, and that your main concern for your loved one is their happiness, not just what you are getting out of them. Observe feelings of jealousy that arise for no good reason all the time, and realize how imprisoning they are, how uncomfortable you feel and how oppressed your loved on feels. Concentrate on actions that make your friends and loved ones happy, really happy, not just superficially entertained. Think about others before yourself. Realize each relationship is temporary, so put as much good energy into it as possible while it is there" (p. 54)
The third section provides a few additional texts, including The Great Liberation through Naked Awareness, another oft-translated text – and so Thurman here reinforces the trend that places a high value on this text and its importance as a philosophical component of the Bardo Thodol corpus. I don’t disagree. A nice 8-page color image section rounds out the package. Overall, even though Thurman integrates much commentary, this 275-book still manages to maintain a compact, practical quality and is probably the most accessible edition available.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Reincarnation Basics 5

Back again with more from Geoffrey Barborka's Secret Doctrine Questions and Answers book:

Question. To what extent, if any can the recently deceased discern or know anything of previous incarnations?
Answer. In the passage above quoted from The Secret Doctrine, the reason was given why only the life just lived remains vividly in the memory of the deceased. However, it depends upon the degree of evolutionary development attained by the deceased as to whether more than one life will be "visioned." To quote:

"Very good and holy men see, we are taught, not only the life they are leaving, but even several preceding lives in which were produced the causes that made them what they were in the life just closing. They recognise the law of Karma in all its majesty and justice." (The Key to Theosophy, p. 162)

Question. How long a time is there between incarnations on earth?
Answer. It all depends upon how a life on earth is lived. The importance of the daily life is the significant factor, as well as the "thought-life." To illustrate the point, a materialist will return to life on earth much faster than will a philosopher. Then, too, it will depend upon the length of life on earth. Those who die in childhood return to earthlife quickly. Mr. Sinnett asked the Mahatma in regard to the length of the interlude between lives in this matter. "And for how long? Does the state of spiritual beatitude endure for years? for decades? for centuries?" And the answer was given:

"For years, decades, centuries and millenniums. Oftentimes multiplied by something more. It all depends upon the duration of Karma. Fill with oil Den's little cup, and a city Reservoir of water, and lighting both see which burns the longer. The Ego is the wick and Karma the oil: the difference in the quantity of the latter (in the cup and the reservoir) suggesting to you the greatest difference in the duration of various Karmas. Every effect must be proportionate to the cause. And, as man's terms of incarnate existence bear but a small proportion to his periods of internatal existence in the manvantaric cycle, so the good thoughts, words, and deeds, of any one of these 'lives' on a globe are causative of effects, the working out of which requires far more time than the evolution of the causes occupied." (The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, p. 106; 103-4 3rd ed.) - Vol. 53, No. 4

Part 6 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Blavatsky - Universal Brother/Sisterhood

A classic Blavatskian mission statement, in a lyrical mode:

“There is but ONE Eternal Truth, one universal, infinite and changeless Spirit of Love, Truth and Wisdom, impersonal, therefore bearing a different name with every nation, one Light for all, in which the whole Humanity lives and moves, and has its being. Like the spectrum in optics, giving multicoloured and various rays, which are yet caused by one and the same sun, so theologies and sacerdotal systems are many. But the Universal religion can only be one, if we accept the real, primitive meaning of the root of that word. We, Theosophists, so accept it; and therefore say: We are all brothers—by the laws of Nature, of birth, and death, as also by the laws of our utter helplessness from birth to death in this world of sorrow and deceptive illusions. Let us, then, love, help, and mutually defend each other against this spirit of deception; and while holding to that which each of us accepts as his ideal of truth and reality—i.e., to the religion which suits each of us best—let us unite ourselves to form a practical ‘nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity WITHOUT DISTINCTION OF RACE, CREED, OR COLOUR.’

"What good has Theosophy done in India?" Lucifer, Vol. II, No. 8, April, 1888, p. 91 -(CW 9, 134)
Image thanks to

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Book Review - Gary Lachman - Helena Blavatsky - The Mother of Modern Spirituality 2

Prolific writer Gary Lachman, who likes to write about the influence of esoteric trends in mainstream society and mystical biographies delivered this compact 300-page, 10-chapter tome a couple of years back, just after doing a work on the history of Hermetism, so he would seem well-suited for the task of tackling the enigmatic and controversial HPB. He pens a very interesting 20-page introduction showing a keen awareness of the complexities of the history of reputations, demonstrating his bold intention to take the bull by the horns and tackle the toughest problems of the Blavatsky case head on. He perceptively remarks that, there is a marked dichotomized-tendency to portray her either as a superhuman, heroic, saintly martyr or as a shady, fraudulent, opportunistic schemer and so states his intention to avoid this black or white position and present a more nuanced, objective, neutral, and critical perspective.

I find that the first three chapters are quite excellent. He has a breezy, conversational style and he manages to juggle several strands of discussion with a remarkable ability to synthesize a lot of information into concise, focused, snappy, insightful, interesting, and original paragraphs. For example:
“If the reader feels this sounds like something out of Alexander Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo, I’m not surprised. HPB’s “journey into the unknown” had begun and at this point her life becomes a series of adventures, much like those her contemporary Jules Verne would pack into the pages of his novels. Around the World in Eighty Days, was published in 1873, the year that Blavatsky surfaces in New York, and it made Verne an international success. But between 1849, when she escaped her crestfallen husband, and that year, HPB embarked on a voyage that Phileas Fogg would have found impressive” (p. 33).

For the next seven chapters, he visits the standard events in the Blavatskian biographical corpus (Blavatsky has always been considered bio-friendly. Since her passing, there’s been a steady output of biographies, one every five years on average: He manages to deftly consider the  anti-Blavatsky and pro-Blavatsky stances on the  various issues and arrive at some sensible understanding of them. (Briefly, this means allegations by Home, Coleman, Coulomb, Hodgson, the SPR, Soloviov, De Witte, Coues, and a couple of pseudo-Blavatsky forgeries).

Overall, I think that he is quite successful in dispelling the haze of confusion that the aforementioned testimonies have created and which have effectively left Blavatskian studies in a state of arrested development for over a century. He diligently analyzes the relevant data and tends to demonstrate that there is very little substance to the various claims or any concrete evidence. Moreover, the testimony in question tend to have flagrant factual discrepancies and  the people in question tend to have palpable motivations of personal ideology or ambition.

Otherwise, he manages to place of a lot interesting, if undeveloped, digressions that can serve as placeholders for future research. For example, on page 313 he notes how Vsevolod Solovyov is the brother of Vladimir Solovyov, an important spiritual philosopher. In turns out that the latter actually did an interesting review of the Key to Theosophy to which Blavatsky issued a very articulate reply. Unfortunately, the reply was not published at the time, but her manuscript survived. This intriguing meeting of minds surely merits further study:

Moreover, he makes use of more contemporary research into parapsychology and supernatural phenomena, as well as alternative science and makes some interesting comparisons to Blavatksy’s writings and experiences.

In terms of critiques, I think that this work would benefit from a greater awareness of the classic original insights and explanations into Blavatsky’s behavior and motives from an occult perspective, as can be gleaned from the Mahatma letters and Blavatsky’s letters to A.P. Sinnett. These essentials can be found  in Geoffrey Barborka’s Blavatsky, Tibet, and Tulku. Although published in 1974, I think that it remains a very helpful work for understanding Blavatsky’s character from an esoteric perspective. Also, the description of the Secret Doctrine human evolutionary scheme  (pp. 255-56) is a little innacurate (nb. in a future post, an accurate chart will be presented here). Moreover, I think that more exploration into what is known as the "Judge Case" would be needed. Simply reading Judge's own final reply, would seem to indicate that there is more to the picture than what the press of the time had put forth (see the second reply of "Two replies" : )
Note 79 on page 266 seems a little garbled. Mead is not involved in the Johnston text.

I would venture to say Lachman’s book marks a kind of  breakthrough in the sense that it is the first bio aimed at the general public that I know of that is reasonably neutral and objective and has a reasonably critical analysis of historical sources. Hallelujah. Hopefully this clears the ground for a new phase of more original and open research into the mysterious Madame B.

PS. Below is a little-known Blavatsky text that is interesting in that she offers some interesting insights and perspectives into the difficulties of the semantics of esoteric historiography that, in my opinion, remain relevant: