Sunday, December 09, 2007

Western Atavism and Tibetan Buddhism

Quick... a freshly-flayed, elephant-hide cape symbolizes what?

If you were born in the West, does the symbolism of ancient India---filtered through medieval Indo-Tibetan cultural norms--- mean anything to you at all on a visceral level?

We had this discussion recently, in the context of the absolute horror that is "Western Buddhism." We wondered aloud if it wouldn't be useful to start cataloging the visceral triggers that do evoke response, and compare them to the visceral triggers used in Tibetan Buddhism. I mean, in the initial stages, it all seems so quaint to have somebody foreign playing or struggling with English, finding all sorts of poetry that native speakers don't immediately find. It is, after all, imported... and that is what we seem to crave so much: a strangeness thoroughly unlike the Catholicism or Judaism or snake-handling of our forefathers. But, as we move right along, does mumbling about somebody else's subconscious images really do any good?

When the Tibetans started slavishly imitating the Indians they invited in for a dose of civilization, they weren't exactly erudite. They didn't have a written language, per se (actually, they did, but that's another story), so they had to invent one which would allow them to accurately translate the languages of their masters, as distinct from expressing their own imagery. Somewhere along the way, they started dividing mantra from prayer. The mantra belonged to India while the prayer belonged to Tibet, the latter originating in the spoken language, by which means it felt natural to express deeply held concepts. This, in turn, led to the rich minefield of commentary, for which latter-day Tibetan scholars are justly famous. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have commentaries on commentaries on commentaries, and then we have commentaries on those commentaries. All of these commentaries are one guy saying what he thinks another guy said, and it seems there is no end in sight.

This is just one more reason why the terma tradition is so valuable: it is quite simply original. If there is a language involved, it is dakini language, but the decoding of this language does not involve interpretation --- it is quite simply the terton's authentic experience.

You can learn all the symbolism quite perfectly, you know? Then I suppose you can be a symbolic Buddhist. On the other hand, you can get past all that to the meaning... to the heart of the matter, as it were... and actually improve your view.

Maybe you can write your own prayers.

I see this from time to time, and it is outrageous how theistic they become: "Oh, Lordy, Lordy... be my Buddha, save my bacon." I suppose this is an understandable by-product of our heritage, but it underscores how deeply infected we are with theistic normatives. That being the case---and here is the tricky point---how valid is it, then, to rely on Western symbols versus Indo-Tibetan symbols? Our little visceral triggers apparently do not come without monotheistic baggage.

Maybe the best solution is to operate from direct experience, and let the prayers write themselves.

I mean... who you gonna' call?

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