David's Reviews > The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
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's review
Oct 16, 2009

it was amazing

I first read the so-called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, in the acclaimed 1927 Evans-Wentz translation, some twenty years ago and found it pretty heavy going. At the same time, I appreciated that it was packed with the wisdom of the ages and wished that it could have been more accessible, rather than reading like an early twentieth century German academic tract by a von-someone at Heidelberg University. So after stumbling upon Rinpoche’s book recently I was delighted to find that it was written in the clear and informative style I wanted, and was moreover endorsed by such luminaries as John Cleese and Joanna Lumley. In the field of religion it’s sometimes reassuring to know that you’re not reading something completely obscure and loopy. You have to be eased gently into these things; otherwise you’ll find yourself on a tide of introversion that might land you in a psychiatric hospital. Browse the surface for nutritious plankton, but avoid the cold and murky deep, is my approach. Dig out the cockles, by all means, but at the same time keep an eye on the treacherous tides.

Anyway, to get back to the book, the first few chapters especially are a grand meditation on death. Rinpoche very gently and simply points out where we’re going wrong in our Western materialism, and you can’t really argue with what he says. Very occasionally you come across a book that puts into words what nobody else seems to say but what has been blindingly obvious to you for as long as you can remember: ‘Yes! That’s it, exactly!’ you feel like shouting. ‘Where have you been all my life?’ Well, this is one of those books.

As I say, the first few chapters about attitudes to death in the West and where we are going wrong are fascinating, although the later chapters on yoga and meditation did not really take my fancy. I find the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer fascinating reading as well, but when they start saying things such as you have to go to church to be saved and all the rest of it I tend to switch off. You have to devote your life to something like yoga, and there’s not much chance of me finding a ‘master’, so I’m happy, with Samuel Beckett, to be left alone with my books to make of them what I can, without the organisational superstructure. I don’t like groups.

And Buddhism does make a great deal of sense. I can well imagine, for example, that the soul on death becomes surrounded by objectifications of the person’s actions and desires when alive, so that what you do in life comes back at you like a boomerang when you die. I watched a documentary once about an explorer who lived with some remote tribe in the Amazon rain forest, and was allowed to take part in some dangerous ceremony in which he was spiritually ‘purified’ by taking a natural drug as a part of the ceremonies. Later, he described how it felt: all things are connected, and he felt every bad thing he had ever done as the person on the receiving end of it had felt. He planned to find everyone he’d ever harmed in word or deed and apologise to them, to put things right. This is justice that feels right: it is absolutely fair that the good are rewarded and the bad get their comeuppance – and that it is what you yourself have done that recoils on you rather than that you are punished by some higher being. When you think you’re hurting others you’re just hurting yourself. This ties in with the teaching of other religions and with modern psychology: you create your own heaven and your own hell. If God is love, He doesn’t want us to harm ourselves like this. Put your hand in the fire and it’s going to hurt.

As far as I’m concerned, the spiritual experience is like a diamond, and the various religious approaches are its facets. They all talk essentially about the same thing, but the human urge for separation and conflict has roughened the edges of each somewhat so that they don’t fit together as harmoniously as they should, to the point where they often seem more like competing businesses than reflections of the same divine truth.

This book doesn’t tell you that you should become a Buddhist and that this is the only way to attain salvation and avoid hell. The ‘you’re either with us or against us’ point of view is wholly alien to it. It is almost scientific in its impartiality, simply pointing out what the case is. It all makes perfect sense, wherever you’re coming from: we have to get back to incorporating death into our everyday lives, because just not thinking about it is the most unhealthy approach of all.

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