Blessings from the Land of Snows
(Orange Palm and Magnificent Magus Publications)
Emaho Tibet is subtitled A Photogrqphic Pilgrimage of Ongoing Spirituality and is a weighty tome with over 250 color photographs apparently all taken at a unidentified monastery somewhere in Tibet.
In the acknowledgements, thanks is given to L. Létourneau and to Light-Bulb Luce --- Light-Bulb Luce! --- for their help with design and "special photographic detail." That's it for information about the where, how, why or when of the whole kaboodle. In the Forward, Klaire D. Roy, "spouse and disciple of B. Simhananda," gives her thanks and so, we gather, Simhananda is probably responsible for the very spare notes that accompany the pictures.
She suggests that he even took the photographs himself. We suspect that the master is not a professional, what with the shadowing and often too-bright lighting, which gives many of the pictures an amateurish feel.
Which is fine by me. There are no notes whatsoever to identify the many statues and people, monks, children, masks and so on, stuff we would forget immediately after we turned the page. In fact, it is all rather bleak out there in Tibet if this is indeed Tibet and not a stony valley just outside Burbank, California.
The Buddhist temple is built on a bare, bleak, stone-littered mountainside, with a lackluster lake with no vegetation whatsoever, some drab heavily-brambled bushes, a few rough bas-reliefs carved into rocky walls. Interior shots show occasional monks in traditional robes, as well as old women, babies, old men, beggars, ordinary common folk kneeling before barely visible dark interiors, along with children sitting cross-legged in front of ragged cardboard boxes marked PRAYER OIL VEGETABLE GHEE from the Sichuan Guanghan Oils Food Co. Ltd, Guanghan, China, ((0838) 5223634.
If we wanted to be the Continental Op, we could probably ring this number there in Guanghan and get the names of all Tibetan Temples where they send their old ghee, but the message is quite clear: The names and locations and the Buddhist monks and home folk and the scraggly mountains are not all that important. The names of the various statues, the pictures that take up at least a hundred pages here are not all that important, either, although the figures are quite bold and colorful: glorious golden-robed gold-faced gold-eyed divines with (in a few cases) their wonderful curly blue moustaches, sitting alongside black-faced snarling bloody devils with flaming red fiery hair and what appears to be blood on their slavering chops.
Yes there are devils in Buddhism, although they are not as purblind evil as in Christian mythology ... for the Buddhists have long and wisely suspected that evil doesn't pop up from down there but from here inside [pointing at the heart or the head].
Their devils however do believe in eating noisily and disgustingly, not only the kumbhandas that feast on the human spirit, but also the yakshas that eat people for breakfast although we are taught by the masters that they only lunch off of evildoers, never consuming the flesh of good people like you and me.These colorful photographs bring this mountain and its people and its temple and the monks and humble folk to life, give one the sense of what it must be like to live in a chilly, humble, Tibetan village. No iPhones or internet cafés here. The words under the pictures tell us nothing about what we are looking at, only what we can learn from Buddhism, such as "Beingness comes from Naught." And,
All things tend towards an ecstatic star, the Original Face.
The mind must be mounted and Mastered as if it were of no-mind ... which, of course, it is.
You cannot throw light upon the Truth: the Truth is Light,
and --- oddly ---
The Guru is 40% godly gruff and 60% cream-puff.
The writer uses consonant-repetitive rhythms to make his point, with strange interlardings of Christian imagery:
It is an accepted sine qua non that for the experienced and tried disciple, there is not such thing as spiritual failure, and this remains dauntlessly so, even if he dies discouragingly and completely destitute upon the fiery cross of Circumstance ... once upon a lifetime.
There are some phrases that dip so heavily into alliteration that they sound alarmingly like Beowulf and other poems from Early English:
The Master's Divine mortality is the disciple's life-shield against the discouragement, despair, and delusion of Death's deliberate onslaught.
At times these musings drift into what might be parody, leading one in through the backdoor to the oft-repeated Zen truth; that words are ultimately useless, might even be fabricated wholecloth:
Individual unhappiness is the cinereous cirrhosis of an existence soiled, sphacelated and despoiled by the small self's scurrile swindling of the subleasing of Life to the pretextual principle of desire.
At times, these go even further into the realm of self-parody:
Ponder perfectly upon Padmakara and you shall peregrinate from point to point on the planet with masterful skill ... Proffer a perpetual prayer to Padmapani and you shall perdure mightily upon your Path ... impregnated with a powerful Spirit.
Indeed, towards the end, Simhananda veers so dangerously in this direction that we begin to wonder if the master is pulling our leg:
O Buddha, blast my brain with a burst of Thy Bright.
Blitz my mind blind of all hinder and bind.
Blackout all blab and blat, bickering and brawl.
Bridle my bilge and bigotry, and bong bewitchingly Thy Bell.
And finally, he gives us a mathematical formula which we would be hard-pressed to find in any contemporary occidental religious screed:
The probationer is 40% (laid-back) sadhana and 60% aspiration.
The disciple is 40% spiritual service and 60% self-deception,
The initiate is 40% clear wisdom and 60% divine bullshit.Emaho Tibet! confirms again that one of the charms of Buddhism is its startling freedom from --- if we may quote Simhananda --- bullshit. Life is weird and strange and puzzling and I suspect our wrinkled old Western brains really can't make much sense of it, no matter what Kant and Hegel and Kirkegaard and the Simpsons may be trying to tell us.
For any who have a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, the key to it and our lives has to be that there is no key at all. Buddhism and this thing we call living is nothing but pure paradox, if not pure pickle ... if not even a polymorphously paradoxical preposterous Pandora's box --- without a key.
Who can make sense of the koans, the mysterious riddles that students of Zen are told to ponder for years? Some koans are questions, others, shrewd observations of the masters, others pure nonsense:
Q: What's the most valuable thing in the world?
A: The head of a dead cat.
A Zen master commanded his students, "Forget everything I've said."
A monk asked Master Fojian, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?" Master Fojian replied, "If you taste vinegar then you know sour. If you taste salt then you know saltiness."
And, now, showing the ancient koan can shuffle right into the present day:
Q: How many Zen monks does it take to fix a broken light?
A: Two. One to screw in the light bulb and one not to screw in the light bulb.
Simhananda has given us here a fat, beautiful (and divinely silly) volume which does everything that it can do to convince you that whatever you believe is not belief at all but is, more probably, nonsense.
As he writes in one of the last pages, with a photograph of a decidedly unspectacular craggy, burnt-out rockland overlooking a bleak mountain crest with acres of spindly scratchy scrofulous thorn-ridden bushes blasted between them, Immaculate intention invokes integrity and imposes imperturbability, and --- in yet another throwback straight from Beowulf country --- When the glad gaze of the Buddha grazes your smiling forehead, you gracefully give unto Him your grateful ghost ...
All of which ends with an excellent koan of koans, one that should be engraved in every Buddhist's guru's last great horn-book:
IF YOU TRULY REMEMBER THE BUDDHA AT ALL TIMES,
YOU WON'T EVER HAVE TO TELL THE TRUTH.