I’ve finally finished The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. I began reading it many years ago but only made it about halfway. I picked it up again half a year ago when I became interested in mediation and thought it might offer some insights. Needless to say it has taken quite a while to finish due to limited free time.
Overall I enjoyed the book and agree with many of his points. Western society, American society in particular, is a vast spiritual wasteland focused on distraction, money and the exultation of the ego and self. Spiritual development should be ingrained in society as a whole, not just a trip to a church for an hour once a week.
I also like the main points of Buddhism such as a focus on meditation, compassion, the idea that developing oneself spiritually is the most important thing one can do in this life and that this life and death are all in the mind.
These are all wonderful things and I’ve highlighted many quotes. However, I’ve seen things along similar lines before in the Catholic church. It took me a very long time of study, travel and critical thinking to realize the truth. The truth is that these religions are for the most part made up; they are man’s explanations for that which we cannot explain or even comprehend. And so, even though I do like and agree with much in this book I cannot accept many of the things he says and I’d like to document my disagreements and doubts.
Sogyal Rinpoche paints a picture of Tibet being a wonderfully spiritual place where everyone is happy and on the road to enlightenment. He does not mention the reality that there were cast-like hierarchies, slaves, pervasive serfdom, inequality and in my opinion looked like a society stuck in the Middle Ages. He absolutely eviscerates the Chinese a few times in the book and I have no doubt that they were/are terribly cruel and life is better without a foreign entity running over your country. But between the two versions of Tibetan life, one presented by aristocratic monks kicked out of their country and the other by the Chinese communist invaders, it is always wise to know that the truth will lie somewhere in the middle.
But in any event, it does not appear that life was very good for the ordinary Tibetans. The Buddhists say that this realm is called samsara and it is part of a cycle of suffering. I have to ask this if perhaps the ruling monks had spent a little less time focusing on the afterlife/future births and a little more time on being good rulers for the welfare of their people, then perhaps there wouldn’t have to be much suffering. I for one do not subscribe to their idea that this life is all about suffering but can equally be about joy! There is a famous painting called the Vinegar Tasters who represent the founders of China’s three main religions. It is Buddha who wears the sour face as this life is all about pain and suffering. I prefer Laozi, who brought Taoism who has no expression. For him, this realm is neither good nor bad, just another manifestation of the Tao. I agree that this existence can be good or bad, either way, it all resides in the mind. To illustrate, I’ve seen people in the worst conditions with smiles on their faces, and people in the highest positions of wealth and power that are constantly unhappy.
In regards to spiritual authority Sogyal Rinpoche does follow the same script as the Catholic church. One cannot find salvation, aka Enlightenment, except through institutional authority. In the Catholic church this is through Jesus, but to get to Jesus you’ll need baptism, priests and participation in the various sacraments, attending church, going to confession and so on; salvation is not something you can do on your own without their assistance. In Buddhism, I learned that their “savior” is Padmasambhava and all wisdom brought down through the masters begins with him. He stresses that you cannot become enlightened on your own but will need the knowledge passed down from Padmasambhava, through the masters where it currently resides in the heads of today’s monks. Once again, the ultimate goal is kept behind a locked door where only a few oddly dressed people possess the key.
There is also the matter of sexual scandals. Like the Catholic church, these monks also have their sex scandals and I was shocked to learn that Sogyal Rinpoche has one as well; there is even a documentary about it! “In the Name of Enlightenment – Sex Scandal in Religion.” Here I was, enjoying a different take on the afterlife and learning what a serene, contemplative, peaceful and joyful life can look like and then discover he is not much better than his Catholic counterparts in regards to scandal. Make no mistake, if you’re peddling higher truths then you’re held to a higher standard then the rest of us rabble. No need to spell out details but as the story usually goes a father and daughter are spellbound by the Buddhist siren song, daughter enters the “inner circle” and is then used for sex. This is very bad for what is supposed to be a pious monk and although quite awful is not as awful as priests abusing little boys so at least there was some consent in this case.
Further investigation revealed that like most religious institutions dominated by men there is a lot of misconduct by these “pious monks.” Apparently there was a petition to have the Dalai Lama condemn the monks who were involved in scandal which he refused to do. At least the Catholics are trying to clean house a little but it appears the Tibetan Buddhists continue to wallow in it. I think a great way to clean this all up would be to just acknowledge that sex is natural and let religious folk be free to go do it with those who freely consent.
Although this type of conduct does add a lot of stain, I think it rests on the individual monks and not necessarily the actual teachings. There is a lot of wisdom in what they say and I felt compelled to highlight many of them in Sogyal’s Rinpoche’s book.
Quotes from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Could it be more ironic that young people are so highly educated in every subject except the one that holds the key to the entire meaning of life, and perhaps to our very survival?
What more chilling commentary on the modern world could there be than that most people die unprepared for death, as they have lived, unprepared for life?
Realization of the nature of mind, which you could call our innermost essence, that truth we all search for, is the key to understanding life and death. For what happens at the moment of death is that the ordinary mind and its delusions die, and in that gap the boundless sky-like nature of our mind is uncovered. This essential nature of mind is the background to the whole of life and death, like the sky, which folds the whole universe in its embrace.
Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our “biography,” our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards….”
Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with who we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?
We spend our youth being educated. Then we find a job, and meet someone, marry, and have children. We buy a house, try to make a success of our business, aim for dreams like a country house or a second car. We go away on holiday with our friends. We plan for retirement. The biggest dilemmas some of us ever have to face are where to take our next holiday or whom to invite at Christmas. our lives are monotonous, petty, and repetitive, wasted in the pursuit of the trivial, because we seem to know of nothing better.
**Reminds me of the song “Little Boxes” by Pete Seeger which is along similar lines.
the only truly serious goals in life are “learning to love other people and acquiring knowledge.”
And yet all these changes are no more real than a dream. When you look deeply, you realize there is nothing that is permanent and constant, nothing, not even the tiniest hair on your body.
Reflect on this: The realization of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps only our lasting possession.
The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.
Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence become so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the pursuit of enlightenment? If you can answer ‘yes’ to both of these, then you have really understood impermanence.
You see, we are all dying. It is only a matter of time. Some of us just die sooner than others.
We are terrified of letting go, terrified, in fact, of living at all, since learning to live is learning to let go. And this is the tragedy and the irony of our struggle to hold on: not only is it impossible, but it brings us the very pain we are seeking to avoid.
The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else.
The first is the ordinary mind, called by the Tibetans sem. / The masters liken sem to a candle flame in an open doorway, vulnerable to all the winds of circumstance. / Ringpa, a primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant and always awake. / essential nature of mind. Christians and Jews call it “God”; Hindus call it “the Self,” “Shiva,” “Brahman,” and “Vishnu”; Sufi mystics name it “the Hidden Essence”; and Buddhists call it “buddha nature.”
Imagine an empty vase. The space inside is exactly the same as the space outside. Only the fragile walls of the vase separate one from the other. Our buddha mind is enclosed within the walls of our ordinary mind.
In a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify us; we protect ourselves from them with noise and frantic busyness.
The central truth of Buddha’s teaching: that we are already essentially perfect.
*Christianity teaches us that we were born with sin that needs purification. 🙁
The irony is that it is our so-called ordinary world that is extraordinary, a fantastic, elaborate hallucination of the deluded vision of samsara. It is this “extraordinary” vision that blinds us to the “ordinary,” natural, inherent nature of mind.
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment.
“Master, how do you put enlightenment into action? How do you practice it in everyday life?”
“By eating and by sleeping,” replied the master.
“But Master, everybody sleeps and everybody eats.”
“But not everybody eats when they eat, and not everybody sleeps when they sleep.”
From this comes the famous Zen saying, “When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep.”
To eat when you eat and sleep when you sleep means to be completely present in all your actions, with none of the distractions of ego to stop you being there.
There are so many ways of making the approach to meditation as joyful as possible. You can find the music that most exalts you and use it to open your heart and mind. You can collect pieces of poetry, or quotations or lines of teachings that over the years have moved you, and keep them always at hand to elevate your spirit.
**I know somebody who does this already! 😉
If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition; if you want to know your future life, look at your present actions.”
Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy
Anakin Skywalker: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.
Chancellor Palpatine: And the Jedi don’t?
Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi are selfless. They only care about others.
You know, don’t you, that actually all these things around us go away, just go away….
In the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge, spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear.
you will realize that both the noblest and the wisest thing to do is to cherish others instead of cherishing yourself. This will bring healing to your heart, healing to your mind, and healing to your spirit.
there was never any ego at all to begin with. To realize that is called “egolessness.”
the purpose of life on earth is to achieve union with our fundamental, enlightened nature.
Our society is dedicated almost entirely to the celebration of ego, with all its sad fantasies about success and power, and it celebrates those very forces of greed and ignorance that are destroying the planet.
follow with complete sincerity the path that inspires you most. Read the great spiritual books of all the traditions, come to some understanding of what the masters might mean by liberation and enlightenment, and find out which approach to absolute reality really attracts and suits you most.
The most essential thing in life is to establish an unafraid, heartfelt communication with others, and it is never more important than with a dying person.
Don’t try to be too wise; don’t always try to search for something profound to say. You don’t have to do or say anything to make things better. Just be there as fully as you can.
The Buddhist masters speak of the need to die consciously with as lucid, unblurred, and serene a mental mastery as possible. / The masters tell us that we should die peacefully, “without grasping, yearning, and attachment.”
When you rest in the nature of mind and see all things directly as “empty,” illusory, and dream-like, you are resting in the state of what is known as “ultimate” or “absolute” Bodhichitta, the true heart of the enlightened mind.
Liberation arises at that moment in the after-death state when consciousness can realize its experiences to be nothing other than the mind itself. / Once we mistake the appearances as separate from us, as “external visions,” we respond with fear or hope, which leads us into delusion.
Don’t let us half die with our loved ones, then; let us try to live, after they have gone, with greater fervor.
the essential and most important qualities in life are love and knowledge, compassion and wisdom. They are surely beginning to see what the bardo teachings tell us: that life and death are in the mind itself.
Recognize this infinite variety of appearances as a dream,
As nothing but the projections of your mind, illusory and unreal.
Without grasping at anything, rest in the wisdom of your Ringpa,
that transcends all concepts:
This is the heart of the practice for the bardo of this life.
You are bound to die soon, and nothing then will be of any real help.
What you experience in death is only your own conceptual thinking.
Without fabricating any thoughts, let them all die into the vast expanse of your Ringpa’s self-awareness:
This is the heart of the practice for the bardo of dying.
Whatever grasps at appearance or disappearance, as being good or bad, is your mind.
And this mind itself is the self-radiance of the Dharmakaya, just whatever arises.
Not to cling to the risings, make concepts out of them, accept or reject them:
This is the heart of the practice for the bardo of dharmata
Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind,
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind.
To attain control over your own mind;
This is the heart of the practice for the bardo of becoming.
Spiritual training, after all, is the highest and in some ways the most demanding form of education.
As he mentions toward the end of his book, one great way to practice the teachings and stay motivated is to write down quotes and listen to music that inspire you; then you can pull them up whenever needed. With this blog, I’ve been doing that for a long time and will be referring to the quotes in this post as I continue my own journey in trying to understand what it is all about.
Perhaps it really is the hokey pokey.