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Essential Tibetan Buddhism

by Robert A. Thurman

Buy the book: Robert A. Thurman. Essential Tibetan Buddhism

Release Date: December, 1996

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Robert A. Thurman. Essential Tibetan Buddhism

Difficult material, and cheerleading.

Thurman is a Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition (as am I), and his introduction to this volume, while very valuable and succinct, makes no claim at objectivity. He asserts that the Tantrayana (Tibetan Buddhism, to simplify) is superior to the Mahayana and Theravada traditions because it represents the culmination of Buddhism's "progression." Right off the bat, that makes me uncomfortable. Why must the pious Theravadins be consigned to an inferior, "early-stage" Buddhism? Why make such hurtful invidious comparisons? It seems beneath a genuine practitioner. To answer my own rhetorical question, perhaps it is because Mahayana Buddhists are often a bit defensive. This is the result of being accused of not having a "genuine" canon, in the sense that most admit the works were composed (not just written down) after the Death of the Buddha. Similarly, Thurman attempts to argue against those who claim Tibetan Buddhism represents an effort by early proselytizers to offer a pantheon of gods and a lurid conception of the Buddha(s) to Hindus. His response to this argument is limited to two sentences and is not convincing. He simply asks, rhetorically, If that was the aim of Mahayana Buddhists, why did they keep the Buddha at all? Why not just become Hindu? But surely it is believable to assert that Buddhists wanted to broaden the attraction of their religion while keeping what they saw as its key elements.

On the question of which miracles to believe (and Tibetan Buddhism is chock full of them), Thurman simply accepts a great number of them, while consigning other claims, such as the 500-year lifespan of one "living Buddha", to the realm of myth. How can he tell the difference between myth and religious reality? Either accept all the fantasical claims or tell us how to pick and choose among them.

A word of warning, as well. Despite the claims of other reviewers, most of the material in this book is quite difficult and will not reward those who do not have considerable background in Buddhism. If you'll note the cheap prices for used copies, above, you'll see that I'm not alone in this view.

The weirdest thing: Thurman apparently has decided to replace the word "karma" with "evolution". In the classic texts, therefore, where one would read "fruit of karma," or whatever, Thurman offers "evolutionary progress," for example. This is perhaps defensible, but he offers no justification. That seems quite a big departure for translators of the Dharma. Doing away with karma to make it a) more accessible to modern readers?; 2) more attractive to modern readers?; 3) because perhaps Thurman (as many of us are) is uncomfortable with the teachings that claim starving babies are simply reaping the fruits of miserly conduct in previous lives? Such a major change needed at least some justification and explanation.

All that said, get this book if you are a Tibetan practioner with considerable knowledge of the Dharma. It offers a nice collection of very important works.

From Amazon.com

The Politics of Enlightenment

As a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies, and chair of the religion department at Columbia University, Robert Thurman has had a great career devoted to the task of making the Buddhist teaching and scriptures, particularly those of the Tibetan people, intelligible to students and interested laypersons.

'Tibetan Buddhism increasingly rivals Zen in its popularity as a path of Buddhist wisdom and practice.'

Thurman has written and translated many texts in this area, particularly the well-received 'Tibetan Book of the Dead.' In this book, 'The Essential Tibetan Buddhism,' Thurman does a thorough job at laying out in concise and accessible terms the history and development of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as an explication and explanation of the core beliefs and practices.

Dedicated to the Dali Lama (who I have had the honour to be near during his regular trips to Bloomington, my current home -- his brother has been on faculty at Indiana University), this book shows how Tibetan Buddhism grew out of a sense of having been personally touched by Buddhas dwelling among them. Indeed, Tibetans often take for granted the idea of a constant presence of Buddhas among them. While many varieties of Buddhism allow for the theoretical attainment of the absolute freedom required to be a Buddha, Tibetan Buddhism is rare in accepting that there are many Buddhas currently at hand.

Tibetan Buddhism also preserved the Indian Tantric traditions, as a means for the attainment of complete Buddha-hood. Indeed, some of these Tantras contradict the cosmologies which speculate that there is a cycle of Buddhas, and that another Buddha is not due for thousands of years.

'Thus at least one of the levels (the highest, most would say) of the Tibetan sense of history sees the planet as progressing positively toward a time of unprecedented fulfillment. Tibetan Buddhist society therefore is perhaps unique among Buddhist societies in that the people live within a consciously articulated myth of historical progress, carrying within itself a fascinating complexity.'

Tibetan Buddhism is far from nihilistic, as indeed most Buddhism is not nihilistic. One discovers a unity of awareness and of all creation, something at the heart of many of the great religions of the world, if not so specifically laid out as a premise or as a possible attainment. The Buddha obtains total consciousness, a kind of universal omniscience; this is not to say a Buddha is God or becomes God (in fact, the Buddha will eschew God-like powers and domination over other creatures).

Grant the vision of direct enlightenment,
Whose nature is universal voidness!
The disciple should press her palms together,
Praise the Mentor, and then entreat him:
'Great teacher, grant me the vision
Of direct enlightenment,
Free from evolution and birth,
Beyond the three luminaries...

Complete with original translations of source texts, commentaries, essays of context and interpretation, and a good source of religious studies (history, philosophy, theology, etc.), this is an excellent introduction to the contemplation, study or even practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

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