Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

For the most part, however, Re-enchantment is a story of exceptional individuals who overcame intimidating odds to pursue the goal of enlightenment. There is the Frenchwoman, Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), who came to India in 1911, fleeing the confines of a conventional married life, and who somehow succeeded in penetrating into the forbidden territory of Tibet. As journeys went at that time, it would have posed nigh-on insuperable obstacles to a fit young man, let alone a woman well into middle age. A harsh climate and an inhospitable landscape might easily have done for her, only for her persistence in mastering the Tibetan practice of ‘tummo’, a meditation which enabled her to raise her body temperature in freezing conditions. Such practices can only be absorbed and mastered over long, solitary retreats. Those who desire a magician's wand are unlikely to stand such a course. Alexandra David-Neel spent fourteen years in Asia and brought Tibetan Buddhism to a European audience through her books such as Magic and Mystery in Tibet. She was the first disseminator of that land's religion.

The real turning point for Tibetan Buddhism, in terms of its status as a world religion, came through an event which might well have destroyed it: the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. The communists were determined to wipe out the religion, while Western powers were more concerned with gaining access to China's vast potential market. It is amazing that the few traumatized lamas who survived this attack, coming as they did from what was in certain ways a 'backward' society, were able to take their learning to technologically advanced nations in the West and there, see it flourish. The most notable in this respect, were Lama Yeshe and Chogyam Trungpa, two fascinating, opposite characters. Re-enchantment succeeds in bringing to life these colourful men, and captures the sense of excitement and discovery at what was for those who came to hear them in the 1960s and '70s, the dawn of a new age.

Paine's study covers a vast amount of ground from Asia in the early twentieth century to present-day Hollywood. While positively disposed towards his subject, he doesn't shy away from covering the less savoury aspects, such as the egotistical behaviour of Alyce Zeoli (subject of Martha Sherrill's The Buddha from Brooklyn). Alyce was recognised as a reincarnation of a Tibetan lama, and became Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lamo. She established a retreat centre in Maryland, where, despite her status as a 'high reincarnation', she was prone to sexual shenanigans and depression. Even Buddhism, it seems, is no hedge against the grosser aspects of our personalities, a lesson that Catholicism has been coming to terms with over the past decade.

Jeffrey Paine has written an engaging, thoroughly readable account of Buddhism's progress into the domain of public consciousness in the West. He concludes that its appeal and strength lie in its adaptability to modern lifestyles. Our often atomized existences leave little space for church-going or the sense of community that went with being part of a body of believers. Buddhism does not require these things, merely an ability to look inside and begin the path towards compassion. Moreover, the off-putting aspects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam – authoritarianism, misogyny, self-righteousness, and total disregard for the animal kingdom – are less and less welcome or acceptable in the present age.

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