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Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West Paperback – May 1, 1999
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From Kirkus Reviews
In this fine scholarly work, Lopez (Asian Languages and Cultures/Univ. of Michigan) warns his readers away from romanticized visions of Tibet, which ultimately harm that beleaguered nation's prospects for independence. Buddhism, the religion of enlightenment, takes as its task the dispersal of human misconceptions of reality. It is only fitting that, in the wake of heightened popular interest in Tibet, Lopez should write a corrective to both positive and negative misconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism. Among the sources of misinterpretation he notes are: psychological interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead; The Third Eye, by Englishman Cyril Hoskin, a fantastic (and popular) tale of Tibetan spirit possession published in 1956; mistranslations of the famous mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum; exhibitions of Tibetan art in Western museums; the institutionalization of the academic discipline of Tibetology; increasingly airy spiritualizations of Tibetan culture. What all these acts of interpreting Tibetan Buddhism share, says Lopez, is a whole or partial disregard for the concrete, living contexts of Tibetan religion. Elements of Tibetan Buddhism become abstract symbols onto which Western writers project their own spiritual, psychological, or professional needs. For example, the chant Om Mani Padme Hum, mistranslated as ``the jewel is in the lotus,'' is allegorized into an edifying symbol of conjoined opposites when, in fact, it is simply a prayerful invocation of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshvara. The irony is that Tibetans affirm these Western misreadings in hopes of winning more sympathy for their struggle for independence. The danger, according to Lopez, is that the full particularity of Tibet will be lost in ineffectual platitudes. He is angry about many of the more outrageous manglings of Tibetan belief and culture; he can also be quite witty over the more ridiculous applications by New Agers of ostensibly Tibetan beliefs. As an interpreter of interpreters, Lopez functions here twice removed from the actual religion of Tibet; readers should approach with some prior knowledge of Buddhism. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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So --- will you take T. Lobsang Rampa over Thomas Jefferson?
The book, written in the best academese, presents a clear view of the West's distortion, and the history of that distortion-making, vis-à-vis Tibet and Tibet's version of Buddhism.
The book is laid out into seven neat chapters, each bearing a single-word title that feels Borgesian in its cryptic minimalism. Each chapter deals with one of the events and objects that have structured for the West the illusion called Tibet. They are (and refer to):
1. The Name (the term `Lamaism')
2. The Book (The Tibetan Book of the Dead)
3. The Eye (the book, `The Third Eye' by T. Lobsang Rampa)
4. The Spell (the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum)
5. The Art (Thangkas, Mandalas, Wrathful Deities, Skull cups, etc)
6. The Field (of Buddhist Studies and Tibetology in the US)
7. The Prison (the collective illusion regarding "Tibet" and her mysteries)
Yes, the debunking is sobering as well as entertaining, as it is done with solid scholarly information delivered with biting wit and even Wildean sarcasm at times.
But the most interesting things the author mentions are questions and remain still as questions: Namely, the question of Tibetan clergy's willing "collusion" or co-option of the West's tendency to "psychologize" the Buddhist doctrine. For example, there is a marked tendency on the part of the Tibetan Lamas and American academics to veer away from interpreting the Six Realms as anything more than so many "psychological states" in this present incarnation but that is certainly NOT the way most Tibetans have been taught.
Moreover, there is a Dalai Lama approved move to present to the West a user-friendly version of Tibetan Buddhism that is totally devoid of the really weird stuff that "formerly" took up (and still takes up for the average Tibetan) the bulk of what that faith used to be all about "back home": exorcism, magic, animistic rituals, etc., stuff that would be totally unacceptable in the modern West.
The last chapter deals a bit with the so-called Shugden Affair that may have played a part in the murder of an old Lama and his two students who supported the Dalai Lama's new policy (after consulting an oracle) to outlaw Shugden (a protecting deity of the Geluk sect) worship. This was not widely reported in the media but apparently this was/is a big deal among the Tibetans in the dressing room backstage even as they continue to put on a great show on stage.
No doubt, Tibetan Buddhism, even in its Americanized (low fat, low salt, Stuart Smalley) version has something to offer to some people - if not to the West as a whole, then at least to the Tibetans' image. But are we in the West willing, ready, and daring enough to meet the Tibetans on their own religious turf and do what they do and eat what they eat, so to speak? If not, maybe going back to church and listening to a familiar sermon may not be entirely a bad idea for those who must have religion.
Let's not forget, nobody in China has ever heard of, let alone eat, Chop Suey.
The last part of the book deals with the apparent complacency of Tibetan religious authorities with the Western misreading of a "Buddhist modernism" and a "diluting of dharma", in order to enforce anti-Chinese politics in the attempt of finding patrons in exile. Naturally this idea is strictly personal and has to re-evaluated today that somehow the illusion of a Free Tibet seems as far away as ever before.
Another point to make at a distance of ten years is the constant updating of the translations of the original sources of Tibetan knowledge, that have greatly contributed on their own to the demystification of this academic discipline and widespread religion.
The book is easy to read also because the innumerable bibliographical citations are helpfully all at the end and can be consulted at wish (don't miss them for clues to further reading) and represents a milestone for the layman that is interested in this field.
P.S. The apparently incomprehensible and complicated Shugden affair is still going on now!
Anyone interested in the future of central Asia, and that is to say Asia, China and the world itself, should read this book, as should all those currently bewitched by Tibetan Buddhism. The historical reality of Tibet has much more to offer the world, than the fairy tale we have wistfully imposed upon it.
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