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.