Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West – a review.

Buddhism is probably the trendiest, most acceptable religion in Western society today. While the three biggies from Jerusalem undergo various public relations disasters, this modest, mystical faith from farther East marches into that space in the public consciousness recently vacated by Christianity. Indeed, the average, baptized Catholic or Protestant is more likely to have a handle on the concept of karma than he is to understand the theological significance of the Resurrection.

The story of Tibetan Buddhism's rise in popularity in the twentieth century is a story of territorial conquest by Chinese communists and subsequent escape to the West. Diaspora led to dissemination of ancient wisdom. In the United States, a country where Christianity had been dying a lingering death, a considerable spiritual appetite greeted these wise men from the East. From there, Tibetan Buddhism has rarely looked back. Jeffery Paine's fast-paced book tells the stories of various individuals from both East and West, and explains why the time is right for the further growth of Buddhism.

In certain respects, Buddhism doesn't fit the definition of a religion. Being an adherent of Buddhist teaching is different to being a Muslim or a Jew in that it does not require membership of a temple or submission to an external authority. A person who reads the occasional book on the subject and meditates once a fortnight has as much right to call himself a Buddhist as one who spends twelve years meditating in a remote cave. Buddhism is simply a path down which some travel much farther than others. Ultimately, it emerges from Paine's book as spirituality for a secular age.

Buddhism stresses self-knowledge gained through meditation, rather than, say, redemption through worship of an omnipotent deity. Instead of viewing human nature as 'fallen', Buddhism regards each person as a latent Buddha, someone capable of enlightenment once the layers of ignorance have been stripped away. There is an emphasis on individual responsibility, how one's mind-set contributes to the inevitable suffering one encounters in life. One of the paradoxes of Buddhism is that happiness can only become possible when one accepts suffering as a constant of our existence. Refreshingly, no Buddhist (even the Dalai Lama) ever lays claim to enlightenment but sees his or herself as merely a seeker on the path. Re-enchantment recounts some marvelous tales of the lengths to which some people have gone to progress on this often arduous journey.

What attracts many of the uninitiated to Buddhism is its reputation for mysticism and as a way to develop special powers and insight, etc. Paine acknowledges this aspect of the religion in his account of the meeting between the American Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton and a Tibetan monk, Chogling Rinpoche, in India in 1968. The latter instructed Merton in a technique called ‘phowa’, the method of shooting consciousness out of the top of the head, or fontanel, at the time of death. It is a technique that no beginner is ever taught. Chogling Rinpoche's reason for so doing was his premonition of Merton's imminent death. A few weeks later in Thailand, Merton had an accident in a bathroom, falling against the floor fan, suffering electrocution. He had previously noted in his journal: 'I'm not sure about all this consciousness and shooting it out the top of the head. I'm not sure this is going to be very useful for us.'


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