issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West
Jeffery Paine
WW Norton £15.99 / $24.95 h/b

Re-enchantment presents a fascinating account of the extraordinarily rapid expansion of Tibetan Buddhism in America. Whether this is a case of Jonah swallowing the whale, or vice versa, there is much left to digest. Jeffery Paine treats the well-documented, if not well-understood phenomenon of enchantment informally through some excellent biographies of 'Buddhist characters'. The story begins, however, with an account of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who started investigating eastern spirituality, but unfortunately died in an accident before the promise of his 'enchantment' - if so it was - could be fulfilled.

We read of characters as diverse as the actor Richard Gere who has meditated regularly for 25 years; of Chogyam Trungpa who, while founding nearly 100 Tibetan Buddhist Centres, smoked, drank heavily and led an unrestrained sex life; of Tenzin Palmo, the serenely determined English-woman who spent 12 years alone in a remote mountain cave; of Alyce Zeoli (aka Jetsunma) an attractive woman of slight education but unusual insight who was recognised as a reincarnation of a female Tibetan lineage-founder; and of Jarvis Masters, a courageous man on death row in San Quentin jail. What an opportunity Tibetan Buddhism affords everyone.

This wonderful diversity of characters, however, leaves us with a number of unanswered questions. What is enchantment and how does it differ, if at all, from spirituality and from faith? And is Buddhism of the Tibetan variety really paradigmatic of it? Is all that glitters truly gold? These questions do not trouble Jeffery Paine, for unless he is being ironic, he believes in a kind of immanence that comes dangerously close to sentimentalism.

He writes: 'Buddhism's good news is that everybody is the Real Thing, that beneath their chaotic upbringing and bad habits all people already possess qualities shining and limitless.' But is this what Buddhism teaches? Would it not be wiser to say that we can at times sense the gold lying within us, but that there may be lifetimes of work before that gold can be extracted from the dross and crafted into a shining ornament? Re-Enchantment is an excellent read - though one will be exercised in distinguishing the voice of the poet and that of the critic, the voice of the enchanter and of the dispeller of enchantment.

Ashvajit has taught Buddhism in the UK, India and Sri Lanka for 30 years