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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BOOK REVIEW: The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and TibetThe Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I gave this book the lowest rating that I’ve ever given a book I reviewed. However, there’s a selection bias at work. I don’t finish (and rarely start, for that matter) books that are so horrible that they’d get a lesser rating. Ergo, any book that I finish and review has some redeeming qualities. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether these redeeming qualities will outweigh the deficiencies of story in this book.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes takes our beloved detective out of London and onto a trip from Bombay to Shangri La by way of Shimla (India) and Lhasa (Tibet.) It’s one of several pieces of Great Hiatus fan fiction out there. (I recently saw an addition that took Holmes to Japan.) Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became tired of the character at one point and killed him off (along with Professor Moriarty) at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was “revived” several years later due to popular demand (and—perhaps—Doyle’s need for funds), leaving fans / authors to speculate what the detective did during his time in hiding (i.e. the so-called Great Hiatus.) This particular work tells us that Holmes spent his time in the Himalayas. It’s as good a setting as any, given that fascination with the esoteric Himalayan world was building in the West during this time. In an interesting feature, Norbu’s book brings in a fictional character from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Hurree Mookherjee, to serve as Holmes’s sidekick. (FYI: Kim was published during the Great Hiatus years.) The story involves shadowy plots against both Holmes and a young 13th Dalai Lama (this was the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) that are incidental to obtaining a powerful mandala.

I’ll begin with the strengths of the work before I tear into what I found objectionable about the book. The author, Jamyang Norbu, clearly did his research, and there are some fascinating tidbits and insights into that era of South Asia history. As a Tibetan, Norbu, paints an intriguing travelogue of the territory that Holmes and Hurree traverse. Also on a positive note, I’d rate the readability of this work to be high. It doesn’t follow the 19th century so closely that it falls into the purple prose and general verbosity of that century’s literature, and I think that’s a good thing. The author manages to create a bit of the feel of 19th century literature without falling off the abyss.

The book’s negative qualities are disproportionately loaded toward the back of the book. (Part of what keeps one reading and engaged is that it seems like the book could turn out well.) Let me begin with one minor character defect of the book which is that not all of the chapters advance the story; a few are descriptive like travelogues. However, most of said chapters are so short that it’s not that problematic.

I should note that one star that might’ve been obtained for originality must be forfeited because there’s no shortage of books following the same general premise.

But the story’s major flaw is that devolves into supernatural speculative fiction done poorly. Let me say, I’m not against the supernatural genre in theory. However, as with stories about Superman, these tales are exceedingly easy to do poorly and extremely difficult to do well. In the real world, tension is easily created because the reader knows many of the limits that characters face, and a good writer forces his characters up against some of those limits. However, when characters seem to be limited by the laws of physics, but then just start pulling magic rabbits out of their hats, the tension drains. We assume our protagonist will prevail and the antagonist will be thwarted. The odds stacked against our hero(es) don’t matter if one expects they’ll pull out a—proverbial or otherwise–magic wand and claim a cheap victory. If one wants to do the supernatural well, one needs to not only make the antagonist stronger (which Mr. Norbu does), but one has to know what everybody’s limits are. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap spectacle. [I should point out that Hurree does engage in a non-magical action that is critically timed during a key moment of the story, and some readers may feel that this absolves the novel of its ham-handed introduction of the supernatural.]

There’s another problem with the degree to which the book hinges on the supernatural, and that is specific to the domain of Holmes. The supernatural is usually something to be debunked in the Holmesian domain. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is a product of the dawning of the age of rationality, and he is a man of science. [Want to know more? See this Tor article entitled “No Ghost Need Apply.”]Doyle’s Holmes may accept the possibility of the supernatural and apparently supernatural elements may make appearances, but Holmes is always looking for an explanation rooted in logic and favoring the possible. While Norbu goes to great lengths to capture the flavor of Holmes in many aspects, he abandons the character altogether in favor a world that looks neither like our own nor the one Arthur Conan Doyle created.

The disappointment of this book is that it looks like it’s on a trajectory to hit its mark, but then sails wildly off target.

If you like supernatural fiction and you don’t mind that magic suddenly pops up to shape the climax of the book out of the blue, by all means pick this book up. Otherwise, I can’t say that I’d recommend it for Holmes’ fans.

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