Thang Tong Gyalpo, They called him: Maker of Iron Bridges, King of the Empty Plain, "Excellent Persistence," & Madman of the Empty Valley You might not like your bridge-maker sharing mind & body with a madman, but some of his 15th century bridges are still in use today.
Tag Archives: Tibet
DAILY PHOTO: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok
BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.
Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.
As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.
This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Madman by Keith Dowman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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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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.