Some books come at the right time on the shelves; it is the case of “In the Shadow of the Buddha” (one Man’s Journey of Spiritual and Political Danger in Tibet) written by author and spiritual seeker Matteo Pistono.
For the past few weeks, Tibetan activists have been in the news trying to bring the horrifying self-immolations of Tibetans monks and nuns to the attention of the world leaders. Hundreds them, shouting, “Tibet is burning”, invited themselves to Cannes on the French Riviera where the G20 Summit was held. That the leaders have remained deaf is another matter, but the Tibetan issue is alive.
In the book’s Foreword, Hollywood actor and practicing, Buddhist Richard Gere explains: “This book is the story of how great spiritual practitioners from Tibet, like the mystic Terton Sogyal, and the thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas, are able to bring the full force of the bodhisattva commitment – the burning of desire to free all being from suffering – into whatever situation they face, including the world of politics.”
The book deals with many aspects of the Tibetan question simultaneously: spirituality, mysticism, history, politics and human rights. The author jumps from the notes of his pilgrimage in the footsteps of Terton Sogyal, the guru of his Buddhist teacher (Sogyal Rinpoche, himself a reincarnation of the Terton), to his discovery of the human plights of the Tibetans.
Terton Sogyal (1856-1926) was a 19th century tantric master who was a bandit in his youth before becoming one of the greatest mediation master of his time; he offered special teachings to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.
Pistono explains that there was “a prevailing belief in Tibet that Terton Sogyal’s mantras and prayers could protect Tibet from foreign Armies”, adding: “Not unlike the Dalai Lama today, Terton Sogyal was a master at integrating his political duties with spiritual practice, while never losing the pure motivation that holds other’s well-being as the priority”.
Though the present Dalai Lama has officially retired, he remains very much at the center stage of the politics of Tibet. Last week, while visiting Japan, he forcefully spoke of the incidents of self-immolation in Tibet: “The leadership in Beijing should look into the ultimate cause of these tragic incidents. These Tibetans have faced tremendous desperate situation.”
It is a fact that Tibet has never believed in ‘secularism’ as it is propagated in India today. During the 17th century, the Fifth Dalai Lama established a form of government, known as the Ganden Podrang which was characterized by a ‘harmonious blend between religion and politics”. Till early this year, the Dalai Lamas were the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet.
What makes Pistono’s story more fascinating and relevant to the present day is that, while on Terton Sogyal’s spiritual trail, he manages to collect proofs of human rights violation in areas which are right now the site of unrest.
The book introduces the reader to some not-too well known aspects of the Tibetan Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava, the great Indian master who visited Tibet during the 8th century, thought the time had not come to reveal his entire teachings; the world was simply not ready. He chose to hide spiritual treatises and objects in rocks and lakes in several places of the Land of Snows; these Hidden Treasures are known as Termas. He prophesied that at an appropriate time, they would be ‘revealed’ or rediscovered by powerful Lamas or yogis known as Terton.
Terton Sogyal was one such ‘revealer’. He had a special expertise in the ‘phurpa’ ritual. The ‘phurba’ is a three-bladed, single pointed dagger symbolizing the skillful means of compassion, which during special pujas (Vajrakilaya) helps to destroy one’s self-cherished ego.
Terton Sogyal was also skilled to ‘protect’ Tibet against external enemies. During a conflict between the British and the Tibetans in 1888, the Lama was called by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to perform a special ritual in Lhasa. Pistono recounts: “The Tibetan forces suffered losses during the six-month battle, though, as Tibetan vajrayana practitioners contend, the British were still unable to penetrate into Tibet because of the protective shield and the Tibetan storehouse of protective merits.”
Skeptics may doubt the efficacy of such rituals. It reminds me of the reaction of Robert Ford, the British radio operator posted in Tibet when the Chinese troops invaded the Roof of the World in October 1950. Ford wrote: “In Chamdo [Eastern Tibet] no one panicked, though the number of prayers was increased. More and more lay people joined the monks and began circumambulating around the monastery, the incense smoke went higher and higher in the sky, the gods had to be propitiated.”
Monks believed: “only the gods could give Tibet victory …They would pray twice as hard, or rather twice as often, and that would be of more use than taking up arms.” The Britisher in Ford commented that it was perhaps good for morale “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed.”
Some Tibetans believed that although, Col Younghusband and a few thousand British troops entered Lhasa in 1904; the fact that he withdrew a month later was due to the Terton’s pujas. Pistono writes: “Some have gone so far as to attribute Younghusband’s late conversion to modern mysticism as a result of the ritual bombardments of phurbas directed at him.”
The problem is that, following a similar logic, one could ask why are Tibetans today living in exile, recognized by none, forced to immolate themselves to inform the world about their plight? Tibetans will probably answer that their ‘storehouse’ of bad karma was too full; it has to be exhausted and the rituals help.
But the skeptic could further question: “why had Tibet accumulated such negative Karma? What about the karma of the British, the Americans, the French… and the Chinese. They are today free nations. Even Palestine has a seat at UNESCO!”
The spiritualist would probably respond: “The results of these pujas take time to fructify and in any case, in the meantime the Tibetan Lamas (thanks to the exile) are able to spread their message of love and compassion the world over”. This is certainly a way to see the last 60 years of exile of the Tibetan Diaspora.
A journalist from USA TODAY, Calum MacLeod recently visited what used to be the encampment of Terton Sogyal, near Serthar, in today’s Sichuan Province. It is here that Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok ,another reincarnation of the Terton, founded the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in 1980.
MacLeod recounted the story of Sheng, a Han Chinese “far from her home — and from the bars where she used to drink and the ex-boyfriends she says cheated on her. She is here with 2,000 other Han Chinese at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, … a traditional gateway to Tibet, where Tibetans have practiced Buddhism for centuries — and where, for decades, China's Communist Party has suppressed Buddhists, sometimes brutally.”
The Institute was razed to the ground in 2001, when Beijing discovered that thousands of Hans were studying Buddhism there. Today, though the Khempo is no more, the Institute has risen again.
For McLeod: “The academy and its rising number of converts from China's dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, reflect a remarkable and quiet recovery for Buddhist teachings [in China].” The phurba is perhaps quite efficient after all.
Apart from the tantric rituals, politics or human rights violations in Tibet, you will learn a number of things about mysticism in Tibet while reading Pistono’s book, even how realized Lamas depart leave in a ‘rainbow body’ at the time of their death. Worth reading about, if not experimenting!