Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom by Dudjom Rinpoche


 This is a monumental work of over 350 pages. It is not its length that makes it monumental, however, but rather the depth and scope of its author's knowledge on the subjects contained within it. It is subtitled 'Complete Instructions on the Preliminary Practices,' and is a primer for practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

Its author, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), also known as Jigrel Yeshe Dorje, was considered to be a tulku (reincarnated master) of a previous teacher also called Dudjom Rinpoche. Born in Central Tibet, after fleeing to India in the wake of the communist Chinese invasion, he was made head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism by H.H. the Dalai lama. He wrote copious amounts on Buddhist teachings and travelled widely to share his wisdom, spending his final years establishing a Buddhist centre in France. The book itself was translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group, who have also done a really good job.

The book itself is a commentary on the preliminary practices (ngondro in Tibetan) that Dudjom Rinpoche considered indispensable to the realization of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen: the primordial state of mind that leads to enlightenment). It is divided into two parts, the first of which instructs the reader on how to identify and relate to a teacher, or guru. It states that, "teachers should be individuals who have perfectly tamed their minds by means of the three superior trainings - the training in discipline, the training in concentration, and the training in wisdom. They should have great learning as a result of having extensively studied the three baskets - the Vinaya, Sutra-pitaka, and Abhidharma-pitaka - which expound the essential points of these three trainings. They should have seen the way things truly are unmistakably and be eloquent in conveying their own experience of it to their disciples, combining scriptural authority and reasoning." ('A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom,' p.10)

These are high standards by which to judge a teacher of Dharma, but on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is of paramount importance as the guru will guide the disciple to their own spiritual awakening, and such a teacher should indeed have excellent levels of morality, meditative states, and wisdom. Moreover, Dudjom Rinpoche states that the teacher should be viewed as, "the embodiment of all the Buddhas" (Ibid. p.32) and that they should be shown immense respect, as illustrated in the next extract:

"For this reason, simply stepping into their shadow has negative consequences as serious as demolishing a stupa. Stepping over their belongings - their shoes, seat, clothes, horse, eating bowl, and other everyday articles, their umbrella, canopy, and so forth - is just as bad, so always be careful to avoid such things."
(ibid. p.33)

The second part of the book, which forms the majority of its pages, describes the preliminary stages of the path towards enlightenment, elucidating various Buddhist teachings along the way. It starts by advising the student on how to begin each session of meditative practice with a visualization and recital of a text to support the visualization process. This practice ends with the following verse:

"The strength of my devotion inspires and delights the teacher,
And with a show of unbearable happiness,
he comes above the crown of my head, and as a cloud of bodhicitta,
Confers the empowerment of the enthronement of wisdom:
In the state of simultaneous realization and liberation I am Blessed."

(Ibid. p.53)

The next section of the book reminds the reader how fortunate they are to have had a human birth in an age when the Buddha's teachings are accessible. This serves as an impetus to the practitioner to have heedfulness and diligence in their application of the teachings to their life. A common practice in many schools of Buddhism is reflecting on death and impermanence. Dudjom Rinpoche next introduces such reflections, which not only lead to understanding of the way things are, but also give extra impetus to one's practice, being aware that death is waiting in the wings.

"The whole of the three worlds of existence is impermanent, moving and dissolving like clouds in Autumn that mass together are moment and disperse the next. Beings are born and die under the fickle control control of their good and bad deeds, manifesting in all kinds of ways like the choreographic movements of a skilled dancer. People's lives race by, swift and brief, like a flash of lightning in the sky that vanishes in an instant, or like a stream cascading down a mountainside."
(Ibid. p.74)

In Chapter 7, the book focuses on suffering in relation to cyclic existence and the six classes of beings that suffer. Dudjom Rinpoche refelcts upon the wheel of existence and states that his reader has had countless previous births and lived in every place that there is. He writes that throughout these births all kinds of sufferings have been endured.

The reader is directed to reflect upon those inhabiting the six lower realms, which include four kinds of hellish beings, hungry spirits, and animals. After this, he skillfully leads us through the sufferings in the higher realms, which include those of humans, demigods, and gods. Dudjom Rinpoche next relates the three kinds of suffering, using the classic descriptions found in the Pali Canon. He states:

"So whatever kind of rebirth we take - high or low - in these three worlds of cyclic existence, we suffer as if ill and unceasingly wracked by pain. There is no chance of being happy even for a second. We should therefore feel deeply disillusioned with cyclic existence, thinking, "From now on, I must seek definite freedom, as if I were escaping from a dark dungeon." As the Great Master says,
However much effort you put into worldly activities, they are never finished;
Put your efforts into the Dharma and the job will be quickly done.
Activities concerned with cyclic existence, however good, bring ruin in the end;
The result of practicing the sublime Dharma can never be spoiled."

(Ibid. pp.114/115)

By the Great Master, Dudjom Rinpoche makes reference to Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, and is traditionally credited with taking Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. He is constantly referred to in this present work, being quoted on numerous occasions, as are other great figures from Tibetan Buddhism. This is an essential part of the structure of the book, in which quotations are either used to illustrate Dudjom Rinpoche's remarks, or are commented on by him.

Further chapters in this book comprise of the following topics: cause and effect, taking refuge, arousing the mind to enlightenment, purifying negative actions, gathering the accumulations, and training in guru yoga. All are awarded the same meticulous attention as the earlier chapters decried above, and form a solid base on which to set one's application of the preliminary practices.

In the current review, it must be born in mind that the reviewer is not a Tibetan Buddhist, and has only a basic understanding of that great and lofty spiritual tradition. His Buddhist practice and studies have primarily derived from the Theravada & Zen traditions, and therefore whatever he writes here should be read with that understanding.

So, as to the (illusory?) appearance of the book, it's beautiful. Its durable hardback edition is in cream and amber with a typically stylish dust jacket by Shambhala Publications. There are numerous illustrations throughout, which are no doubt helpful when trying to do the visualizations that Dudjom Rinpoche teaches. The flow of the narrative is nice 'n' smooth, for which the Padmakara Translaion Group much take much credit, as well the author himself, who composed the work in his native Tibetan.

As to the teachings in the book, they too are presented with clarity, and even someone like this reviewer can follow the gist (if not the fine detail) of this work. here is one point to note, however: For those dedicated Tibetan Buddhists interested in the preliminary practices that it focuses on, it is surely an indispensable aid, but for the rest of us, it gives an interesting and inspiring insight into this aspect of the Tibetan tradition, but is apt to be somewhat confusing in places, if not actually superfluous to our needs.

For me, this is a book I will no doubt refer to from time-to-time for said inspiration, but it will not be forming the heart of my Buddhist practice henceforth. This said, there is a special quality to it which may be called 'the scent of enlightenment.' For, although it makes little direct reference to the awakened state, it does have the feel of a document born from the wisdom of an enlightened being.

 The above book by Dudjom Rinpoche is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom

1 comment:

Big Al said...

Dudjom Rinpoche supposed also told his students to look at his photo and then turn to look at the looker.