THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD: A BIOGRAPHY (LIVES OF GREAT RELIGIOUS BOOKS) BY DONALD LOPEZ (2011, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS)
In The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, Donald S. Lopez Jr. immediately hits the The Tibetan Book of the Dead out of the gate as not properly speaking a book, not really Tibetan, and not really about death. Now, it must be clear, that the several different collections of terma texts that up the various editions of the Nyingma text, the Bardo Todol, are Tibetan, but it isn’t one text and there isn’t even a set collection. Instead, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is largely a creation of theosophist and semi-professional orientalist, Walter Evans-Wentz.
Lopez starts us with a history of American crypto-archeology around religious texts starting with Joseph Smith in New York’s “burnt over” district and the revelation of reformed Egyptian and lost golden plates. This history comprises the first chapter, and the next chapters gives us context for Buddhism, and then compares implicitly compares the history of Mahayana textual “findings” and the specific Vajrayana traditions that involve finding “hidden” texts for later revelation and, again, the even more specific Nyingma traditions around terma, which were hidden scriptures that are found through reincarnations and access to Dakinis.
In a way, this contrast is both a condemnation and apologia for Evans-Wentz’s theosophical creation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead based off some obscure manuscripts in Tibetan found in the British protectorate of Sikkim at the end of the Victorian period that played against the Victorian schemas placing Theravada as a purer form of Buddhism and making the original Buddha a rationalist. This myth, one that still uses up today in popular Buddhist writings, is in some ways just as misleading as Evans-Wentz/Blavatsky theosophical story about Hindu hidden masters in Tibet.
Lopez then goes through the origins of the various introductions–Western converts without proper ordination claiming to be Lamas, Jung’s psychologizing and mythologizing of the text, the 70s re-translations and introduction of depth psychology even by Tibetan exiles to make an otherwise hyper-obscure text more appealing. The turning of the text into a self-help manual, and lastly, the more complete recent translation with a proper contextualization by the current Dalai Lama.
Now this is NOT a history of the Bardo Todol in Tibetan or its various manuscripts. That is handled by Bryan J. Cuevas’ The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. However, it is important to note that Cuevas and Lopez cite each other and are clearly in dialogue. Like so many of Lopez’s books, this is an excellent demystification if it can be dry in the minutiae it must go into to make its point.
Lopez’s second contribution is dedicated to the Lotus Sutra, unlike he did a treatment on the “Tibetan Book of the Dead and its text, the Lotus Sutra is important to Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism as well as the Japanese schools of Buddhism such as Tendei, Shin, Shingon, and, most dramatically, Nichiren Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra, among the other English named Mahayana sutras such as The Heart Sutra, which isn’t truly a sutra, and The Diamond Sutra, a key text for Chan/Seon/Zen Buddhism, is long and full of allegory and parable.
Lopez starts with the texts seem origins in the Sanskrit literature of the Indo-Greek world of Bactria. There is some speculations on the exact nature of the shift here. The secret doctrine elements of the text set it apart from the other two famous Mahayana sutras readily found in English. Lopez then talks us through the reception in China, the development of Chinese esoteric Buddhism, where The Lotus Sutra is put in a schema as revelation of doctrine it did not have in its Indo-Bactrian form. Then Lopez shifts focus to Japan, Japanese devotional and esoteric Buddhism(s), particularly in development of Tendai Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism in particular, where it even plays a rule in quasi-religious wars before the Edo period. Then Lopez moves the reception of the Lotus Sutra in French and American scholarship and its role in early Orientalist scholarship. Lastly he Development of the modern Nichiren sects, their consolidation in the Meiji restoration at the same time as French-English scholarship on the Lotus sutra begins, Nichiren nationalist role in the war, and then the post-war development of Nichiren outside of Japan with Soka Gakkai being a highly evangelical form of Buddhism outside of Japan.
Lopez’s treatment here is fascinating and brings up many of the problems of the history of Buddhism and the Mahayana developments outside of India and outside of their original Sanskrit context. In many ways, the contrast between the two texts Lopez focuses on are telling: the Lotus Sutra an early, but found, Mahayana text from the classical period of Buddhist development when both the Pali and sanskrit (so-called ”Hinayana” nikyana schools such as defunct Sarvāstivāda and Sthaviras/Theravadans) cannons. However, these texts resembled gnostic texts in Christianity, a comparison Lopez notes, in that they are esoteric revelations that do doctrinally abnegate large portions of prior Buddhist doctrine. The Bardo Todol is a similarly esoteric text, but with a very late lineage and not theologically/doctrinally nearly as important. Indeed, while many of the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas from the Lotus Sutra are actually key in the Bardo Todol, the Dharma protectors and largely quasi-demonic figures of the Bardo Todol are more relevant to the transitions to the rebirth and are largely rooted in local traditions in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Furthermore, Lopez’s almost philological precision on their reception and commentary indicates that uses of both texts in the West are somewhat anachronistic and decontextualized from their original and their contemporary Asian use. The role of British and French colonialism and American obsession with Asian texts just after the US civil war to just before World War 1 play a huge role in the English-language reception and development of both texts. Both treatments are easily readable despite the obscurity of a lot of the topics involved, and offers a good history of Mahayana developments in America in particular through the lens of the textual reception. Highly recommended.
first published at former people
The test, predictably, failed, and this is probably why China was not as worried as they could be. Getting rid of Kim Jong Un is not a particularly high priority as a rabid buffer state is still a buffer state unless those claws get too sharp. A friend of mine sees this as another sign of US decline, but while the US power projection is declining, it also remains true that a rival hegemonic power doesn't emerge because the candidates aren't there. China is powerful, but has a severely slowed economy (although still faster than the developed ones, but people who know anything about growth patterns in economics shouldn't be surprised by that), Russia has a GDP of Italy and while it does have some serious ordinance, its ambitions seem to be purely regional to Eastern Europe despite a lot of the bluster. It hits harder militarily than its economy lets on, make no mistake, but Putin's concerns are limited to limiting NATO and keeping a Sunni block developing towards his Southern border. Europe leaders is a major power but still sees its bread buttered mostly in sync with the US even if individual countries oppose specific military action. BRICS never could correlate around united interests because honestly they don't clearly have united interests.
Always, but particularly now, the basics of political life and geo-political life are practical.
So, like the Roman Empire after the 3rd century, that decline may go awhile without anything really emerging to rival it. Furthermore, my normal response applies: capitalism does loom.
So South Koreans aren't freak out just like I learned not to while I was there, but there are concerns. The likelihood of cyberwar being the reason for failure is really low. In event of a war, Russian and DPRK both use those older methods because they are less hackable. They would, however, still almost instantly lose in such a missal war but only after doing massive damage Japan or Hawai. This is a bargaining table and there is very little the US can do unless it wants to use an ICBM itself. This puts South Korea and Japan in a shit situation, but Japan wants to re-militarize and has the technology now.
A lot of the future of the ROK depends on the the upcoming election, now that daughter of the former dictator and really weirdly scandal ridden Park administration is over, it's time for a change. A change that is willing to do some complicated negotiations between China, Japan, and the US. Moon Jae-in make be able to return Korea's Democratic party to same status after the Roh Moo-hyun's suicide and the collapse of the Sunshine policy. Conservatives in Korea have been split between Protestants, represented by Lee Myung-bak and the Grand National Party and Buddhists represented by Park Geun-hye and Liberty Korea (which split from Lee's Grand National Party), although it's important to know that Park was completely secular with cultural ties to Buddhists and Catholics (like Roh Moo-hyun actually). Lee was seen as Korea's slightly more moderate George Bush whereas there is little US analogue to Park (although maybe Trump in time).
Given that Japan is scrambling jets now to deal with China, not the DPRK, things are about to get complicated.
- At first, I chalked it up to nostalgia and simplicity--there is a necessarily minimalist aesthetic to this kind of blogging. I started using this in 2001, although my best-friend got me reading it as early 1999. She kept her blog running until just before I left for the Republic of Korea. I remember remarking to her about "the weird narcissism of keeping a public journal" as I started training in anthropology and journalism in Uni. We all have our small hypocrisies, but I was also wrong about that. As a form of social media, LJ style blogging was, in some ways, the least shallowly narcissistic form of social media, in that requires sustained engagement with others and some patience with the longer-form thoughts of others.
- The facebook algorithm has been much maligned as "social media creating echo chambers" which it does. However, this has been built into the media since about 2011. When Facebook encourages large friends lists so you can see pictures, market yourself, etc., but it means no one can management them all. There the likes and sharing became a proxy for what would be prioritized in your feed. Not just who says it, but what they say. You can get around this, but it is difficult. Furthermore, to encourage selling access, the promotion of personal blogs and the notes function have been deliberately made less efficient. So you get what facebook thinks you already want, you get lots of it, and you get lots of centralized functionality like the days of AOL or Compuserve for those of us who remember those services. My facebook feed resembles my most recent rant, not even a good sub-section of everyone I know; the results of this leveling has been increased envy though, and more and more of my Facebook friends, particularly the political active ones, have to regularly nuke their profiles and use only messenger, which remains the best way to contact non-local friends. IN fact, multiple studies show that more facebook usage correlates STRONGLY to depression. This kind of status anxiety didn't seem to emerge as much as journaling because people tended to be more intimate and even banal about what they say in writing versus what they show.
- There is little way to make this kind of blogging "profitable" so the need to turn everything into clickbait just isn't there. It's hard to fight though in more public blogging where you can make a social media personality turn into a larger media figure. As a podcaster and writer, making hyperbolic attacks on the sloppiness of Neil Degrasse-Tyson or commenting on people misunderstanding Trump developments with highly charged titles got my blog hits, but also shallowed out a lot of what I was writing. Getting people to think critically about the difference between Al-jazeera in English (which is highly "left-liberal") and Al-jazeera in Arabic, which more clearly reflects the concerns of the Qatari state and its relationship to conservative Islamic elements, and why that might be case, didn't get nearly as much hits as making fun of a meme or using obscene amounts of hyperbole.
The porting is finished. 'Tis done.
Four Poems by myself at Unlikely Stories
A Poem Published at Panoply Magazine
My review of Michael Palmer's Laughter of the Sphinx and interview with Rachel Price on Planet/Cuba at Hong Kong Review of Books.
My interviews with Danny Anderson about his Sectarian Review Podcast and Michial Farmer on John Updike, three book reviews, and some re-printing of poems I published at the beginning of the decade are available right now at Former People.
Here are some podcasts and youtube things I have been on despite VERY questionable internet quality in Egypt:
Former People Youtube Page on Joan Didion
I talk on the Zero Squared podcast all the time on the members section, but my recent open contribution was an Anti-fascism and Gilles Dauve
Zero Books is also releasing my relaunched personal philosophy podcast, Symptomatic Redness. The archives of the old show are free on Mixcloud.
Or it may mean that 2010 is when this form of blogging largely died.
Just an observation.