issue 20 summer 03
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Secret of the Vajra World

The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet

Reginald A. Ray

Shambhala 2001, £15.99/$18.95 p/b

Reginald Ray is the author of Buddhist Saints in India, a groundbreaking study of Indian Buddhism that challenged the conventional academic view of the Buddhist community as being divided into monks and lay people. It put forward a more dynamic and sophisticated picture, in which Buddhism relies for its spiritual vitality on the interaction between forest renunciates as well as the other groups. In 2000 he followed this with Indestructible Truth, an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism that explored its history, world-view and main philosophical schools. Secret of the Vajra World is a companion volume that examines the tantric aspects of Buddhism in Tibet.

Dr Ray is a senior teacher within the lineage of Chšgyam Trungpa, and his aim in this book is to paint a picture of Tantric Buddhist practice from the viewpoint of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools. Although they have many points of agreement and shared practice, each school of Tibetan Buddhism has its particular approach to Tantra. So practice in the Gelug school, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, and in the Sakya school, is somewhat different from that described here, as is the philosophical view underlying the practices.

The book begins with a theoretical background to Buddhist Tantra, and then we are led through the stages of practice that lead to Enlightenment from the Kagyu and to some extent Nyingma perspective. These begin with a set of reflections common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism that Ray terms the Four Reminders: considering the preciousness of human life, impermanence, actions and their karmic consequences, and the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned existence. There are sections on the Guru, initiation, and pointing out the nature of the mind. The four Foundation Yogas are described, and the practice of tantric visualisation sadhanas. A section on the Six Doctrines of Naropa leads on to chapters on Mahamudra and Dzogchen, which are presented as the pinnacle of Tibetan Buddhist practice.

The portrait of tantra in Secret of the Vajra World is not new or original but it offers a clear exposition of Tibetan Buddhism that is oriented towards practice and easy for westerners to assimilate. Ray enlists quotations from a handful of Tibetan lamas. Of these, the extracts from Chogyam Trungpa strike me as the most variable – sometimes brilliant, sometimes unclear. But the author is always there to tidy up by rounding off arguments and spelling out meanings.

The last part of the book, which concerns various applications of Tibetan Buddhist tantra, is in many ways its most engaging section, as it includes the greatest amount of personal experience. It has chapters on death and dying, and on retreat. One of the most interesting chapters is on tulkus - people considered to be the rebirth of a previous spiritually developed person. This chapter ends with seven reasons why the tulku system has come under threat since the invasion of Tibet. These are threats not just to the tulku system but to the vitality and spiritual depth of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole. It is ironic that books such as this are fuelling western interest in Tibetan Buddhism at a time when the system for producing accomplished Tibetan spiritual teachers is under threat, and the number of Tibetan lamas capable of meeting this new demand is shrinking.

For those who like miraculous tales, there is Mitchell Levy's account, in a personal interview with the author, of the illness and death of the 16th Karmapa. This important lama was treated for cancer and diabetes in a hospital in Illinois. During the last weeks of his life the Karmapa showed an amazing capacity to recover from near-death states, giving a bravura yogic performance that so confounded the western medical staff that at times they were almost in shock.

This book and Indestructible Truth will together fill about eight centimetres of your book shelf, but between them they provide a clear and accessible introduction to Tibetan Buddhism from the viewpoint of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools.

Vessantara is the author of Meeting the Buddhas – a guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Tantric Deities, and The Vajra and Bell