BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Madman by Keith Dowman

The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa KunleyThe Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley by Keith Dowman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers stories from the life of Drukpa Kunley, along with some interspersed poetry. Kunley was a “mad sage” (a Nyönpa, as Tibetan Buddhists call such individuals) / tantric yogi of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition who lived during the 15th and 16th centuries in Tibet and Bhutan. Today, his most well-known legacy is the phallic graffiti that is common in Bhutan (encouraging it, not drawing it all himself.) Kunley’s approach was definitely tantric and ran counter to the mainstream. By “tantric” I mean that he did not eschew those activities that mainstream religion seeks to prohibit, but rather saw them as a means to master the mind through mindful practice. So, as the Bhutanese phalluses might suggest, he often comes across as sex-obsessed as well as being a drunkard, but the whole idea of this crazy form of wisdom is to rise above the programming of societal convention, and to be free of all the little niggling value judgements that culture and religion impose on the world in order to see life through a less distorted lens.

I’m not qualified to speak to how well concepts are translated, but the book is readable and thought-provoking, and that’s enough for me. There’s humor throughout, as when Kunley tells the monks of the monastery he’s visiting that he has a friend who is an excellent singer, and then proceeds to bring a goat in to bleat for them. That said, those who are attached to the mainstream religious approach and who place a high value on societal conventions are likely to find much to be offended by in the carefree discussions of sex and the wild statements designed to shock people out of their stupors.

I enjoyed reading this book, found it full of interesting ideas, and would recommend it for anyone interested in the person or philosophy of Drukpa Kunley.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Life of Milarepa ed. by Lobzang Jivaka

The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the TibetanThe Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Superhero stories can be surprisingly hard to make interesting. The hero’s vast powers make it hard to build obstacles that seriously challenge him. Make no mistake; while this book may be the biography of a Tibetan Buddhist yogi who was born in the eleventh century, it’s a superhero story as well. At various points, the titular character can control the weather, fly, read minds, predict the future, and cover a distance that would take a mere mortal months in just days. Milarepa is basically the entire cast of the X-Men rolled into one monk. [Note: the introduction of 1962 Lobzang Jivaka edition features a series of rants against Westerners that put a bad taste in my mouth early in the reading–basically suggesting the reality of these magic powers should be taken as a given even though the deficient Western mind has trouble wrapping its head around difficult concepts. It made me think I’d probably not like the book, but I’d forgotten it by the time I got around to the end of the book.]

“The Life of Milarepa” is essentially a hero’s journey, which begins with his widowed mother, his sister, and he being taken advantage of by a mean Uncle and Aunt. Milarepa takes up Black Magic to influence the weather so that he can exact revenge. Doing so makes him feel great shame, and puts him on the path of a religious ascetic. After his initial training, he is put through a great series of trials by Marpa, the man who will eventually his guru. Were it not for the encouragement and support from Marpa’s wife, Milarepa would never have made it through the training, and at one point—in fact—he goes away to learn from one of Marpa’s most advanced students because it seems Marpa unwilling to teach him.

Eventually, Milarepa ends up returning to his home and, thereafter, meditating on his own. Here he runs into the aunt and uncle (now separated) who made his family’s life hell after his father died. These elders aren’t the only ones who think Milarepa is a ne’er-do-well. However, most people are too scared of his superpowers to create problems for him, at first. He eventually wanders off and becomes the poorest of ascetics—with not so much as covering for his naked body as he live off nettles.

There are oddities in the book. The Buddhist teachers he studies under both use him as weapon (i.e. his hailstorm magic) as a requirement to taking him on as a student, despite the fact that this will pile onto his Karmic debt (and ostensibly theirs), and it leaves him feeling horrible—as well, it seems, these black magic powers make Marpa hostile to the young man and not take him seriously as a student until the guru receives an omen.

So why does this story turn out to be so satisfying? For one thing, for all his powers, Milarepa is constantly confronting challenges that keep the story tight. (I should again emphasize that this is nominally a work of biography. It just doesn’t read like one because of all the magic and the classic story elements. Few people have such a novel-shaped life. A hagiography is a more apt descriptor but instead of only displaying Milarepa’s good side (boring), this book presumably dances around facts to make a more engrossing product.) While Milarepa could concoct all manner of magic, he mostly doesn’t with the exception of some ESP. After Marpa has taught him, Milarepa deals with people with calm and compassion. (His return home is a little like Alex’s from “A Clockwork Orange” in that people have ill feelings about him because of his past, but at first they are afraid of him. When they discover he can’t defend himself, they start to lay into him.) For another, we can see Milarepa’s growth and we come to respect his intense devotion tremendously as he becomes quite virtuous of the course of the book. While he is a superhero, he’s also an ascetic who denies himself with the utmost of discipline in pursuit of liberation.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who like biographies—especially if you like to learn about Buddhism in the process. In the latter half of the book there are some lessons transmitted through the text as Milarepa interacts with students and other people. Eventually, even his loathsome aunt becomes a student.

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5 Awesome Street Foods [You Should Have Already Tried]

5.) Vada Pav (Potato [fritter] on a bun): India

Tip: Try it in Mumbai. While the one’s shown above were fine. The legendary Vada Pav is to be found at a stall across from Flora Fountain in Bombay.

 

4.) Pad Thai (Noodles Thai Style): Thailand

Tip: Vegetarians beware. Fish sauce is a standard ingredient in this dish. So if you order it vegetarian, it’s not just the prawns and / or chicken one needs to be wary about–depending upon how strict one is. Soy sauce is the substitute.

 

3.) Kürtőskalács (Chimney Cake): Hungary

Tip: It can be found at little stands in or near Christmas markets during the winter season. Buy it hot when it’s cold outside, and it will actually steam like smoke rising from a chimney. If  you’re in Hungary during the summer or you want a savory street food, try lángos .

 

2.) Banh Mi: Vietnam

Tip: Try this sandwich on a baguette from Banh Mi 25, a famous cart at 25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Đào, Hoàn Kiếm in Hanoi.

 

1.) Momo (Dumpling): Tibet, Ladakh, and anywhere displaced Tibetans reside.

Tip: Try the spinach and cheese momo of The Wok Tibetan Kitchen on Main Bazaar Road in Leh.

 

Bonus: Masala Dosa: India, particularly in the South

Tip: If you ask for a “Paper Masala Dosa” you’ll probably get something too big to fit on a plate (as shown.) It will be very thin and the potato-based filling will only be in the central part. (So it’s not quite as insane an amount of food as it may appear.)  This one is from Airlines Hotel in Bangalore. Dosa is just the Indian version of a pancake, and it can take many shapes and forms. There are a few varieties, but often it’s a rice & lentil-based rather than wheat-based flour.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying ed. by Francisco J. Varela

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of ConsciousnessSleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a product of the 4th Mind & Life Institute Conference that took place over five days in October of 1992 in Dharamsala, India. It reads as a narrated description / transcription of the event. The Mind & Life Institute was established as a dialogue between science and Tibetan Buddhism, and is actively supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—who is an important figure in the book, both asking questions of the presenters and offering clarification on Tibetan Buddhist thinking on various points. The exact subject of each conference is different, but the mind is a recurring theme. Which makes sense as Tibetan Buddhist practices of the mind are as advanced as any, and it would be of great benefit to understand them better from a scientific perspective.

As the title suggests, this conference (and the book) deal with three topics: sleeping, dreaming, and dying. This may seem like a case of “one of these things doesn’t belong,” but from the Buddhist perspective on consciousness it’s a sensible enough grouping. One can think of it this way, sleeping and dying are points at which consciousness goes bye-bye. [Although, lucid dreamers retain consciousness in REM sleep, and there are unsubstantiated claims of the ability to maintain consciousness in sleep by extremely advanced practitioners.]

There is some front matter (a forward by the Dalai Lama and an editor’s Introduction) and then eight chapters. The first chapter discusses both the Western and Tibetan perspectives on “the self,” what it is, and whether it is [real or illusory.] This topic seems unrelated to the book’s theme, but it’s a way to develop a common understanding for the rest of the discussion. If participants have different views on what a person is, mentally speaking, and what consciousness is, then it’s easy to talk past each other without even realizing it. The second chapter is an overview of what was known about sleep, principally from the perspective of neuroscience (it should be noted that neuroscience was a fairly fledgling term at that time.) The next three chapters (ch. 3, 4, and 5) are about dreaming. The third chapter is a bit unique. The general approach throughout the book is to give the understanding of science and then to compare and contrast that with Buddhist thinking. However, chapter three’s discussion is led by a proponent of psychoanalysis (i.e. the Freudian approach,) which isn’t so scientific, but is a Western philosophical approach. [Chapter one is also heavily philosophical.]

Chapters four and five delve into the subject of lucid dreaming, which is referred to as dream yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For me this was the meat of the subject, and it was the reason that I bought the book. Tibetan practices on lucid dreaming are incomparable, and at this point science’s understanding was beginning to blossoming as well.

The last three chapters are on death, and each offers a different character. The first two emphasize Western views, but in different ways. Chapter six outlines the Christian position on death—a theological rather than scientific understanding. Chapter seven explains the medical community’s view of death. This sounds straight forward, but it’s a much more technical subject than one might imagine. What organ has to stop functioning and for how long before one is actually dead. Besides all the coma patient stories, one may be aware of cases historically in which people were discovered to have been buried alive accidentally due to bad calls by doctors. The last chapter is about near-death experiences. This is an area in which there is a great potential for differing views. While science doesn’t deny that people have all sorts of fascinating experiences such as seeing bright lights at the end of “tunnels” and out-of-body experiences, scientists tend to attribute such events to material causes. [Neuroscientists can now induce out-of-body experiences by zapping a specific part of the brain.]

There are graphics in the form of diagrams and tables in the chapters that are most technical (e.g. chapter two and chapter seven,) but they are used sparingly. There’s an appendix that describes the Mind & Life Institute, as well as a glossary that explains both Tibetan and scientific terms. There are also a few pages of end notes that will help one find related material.

The weakness of this book is clearly its age. The Buddhism probably hasn’t changed much, but the science has changed a lot. Since 1992 there has been a revolution in understanding of the brain due to advances in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other technologies.

However, despite the book’s age, there’s a lot of thought-provoking discussion, which offers plenty of room for both scientists and Buddhists to gain a better understanding of the mind and consciousness. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in dream yoga / lucid dreaming, or—for that matter—death.

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DAILY PHOTO: Namdroling Thangka

Taken in March of 2014 at the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe (south Karnataka)

Taken in March of 2014 at the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe (south Karnataka)

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DAILY PHOTO: Monument to Self-Immolators at the Dalai Lama’s Temple

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Taken at the Dalai Lama's  Temple in McLeodganj on   June 22, 2015

Taken at the Dalai Lama’s Temple (Tsug la Khang) in McLeodganj on June 22, 2015

In the Dalai Lama Temple complex, Tsug la Khang, there’s a monument to Tibetan self-immolators that is located right across from The Tibet Museum (which, incidentally, has its own memorial wall inside.)