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  Books   03 Nov 2017  Exploring the minds of Buddhism’s great masters

Exploring the minds of Buddhism’s great masters

THE ASIAN AGE. | SUNIL MEHRA
Published : Nov 3, 2017, 12:34 am IST
Updated : Nov 3, 2017, 12:34 am IST

These two books are really petit fours that will whet your appetite to know more, explore deeper.

Padmasambhava By Neten Chokling Rimpoche, Wisdom Tree, Rs 695
 Padmasambhava By Neten Chokling Rimpoche, Wisdom Tree, Rs 695

Padmasambhava, written by Neten Chokling Rimpoche, is the first of the two in an ongoing series on legendary Buddhist masters, many of whom are acknowledged today as seminal thinkers of acuity and sweeping intellectual and philosophical bandwidth. This book could not have come at a more opportune moment. At a time when the world is riven with divisions — ever widening schisms that bode ill for the very survival of the human race — it’s perhaps the wisdom of these Great Masters that will illumine our path, show us the way forward through the darkness that threatens to subsume us all.

From Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, there’s archaeological evidence of India’s significant Buddhist past. But, who were the Great Buddhist Masters? Where did they come from? Where did they travel to spread their inspirational message? Significant journeys, these, that helped both the spread and the preservation of Buddhist teachings.Padmasambhava’s story is narrated by Neten Chokling Rimpoche; an ordained monk and teacher, who’s revered as the reincarnation of the 19th century Master, Chokgyur Lingpa — a lineage that traces back to Trisong Detsen, the Tibetan king who first invited Padmasambhava to Tibet. It is this sage with whom some of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites like Samye in Tibet, the Maratika and Asura Caves and the Great Stupa at Boudhanath in Nepal, Swat in Pakistan, are associated

The Rimpoche recounts the multiple myths, parables and allegorical tales surrounding the birth and life of Padmasambhava — hagiographic narratives replete with evil spirits, conspiring witches, diabolical courtiers, that exalt him as paragon of virtue/slayer of demons/embodiment of all that’s good and virtuous, but then that’s the kind of myth-making that attends on most iconic historical/religious figures. What we do know for a fact is that Padmasambhava or the Great Indian Pandit as he was called in Tibet, arrived in the land from India in 810 AD, and left in 864 AD.

In these forty eight years, he radically transformed the warring Tibetan people, converted them to a more compassionate way of life, spread the gospel of Vajrayana Buddhism in this land. This teacher, worshipped as the Lotus-born Master, whose birth (in Swat in modern day Pakistan) and subsequent arrival in Tibet was preordained, established Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet — and one of the most revered pilgrimage sites for Buddhists worldwide today — imparted the teachings of the vital, erstwhile secret, Guhyagarbha Tantra that was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan by his closest disciples Yeshe Shunu and Ma Rinchen Chok as also the Instruction of Pointing the Staff. Pointing the Staff is one of the most profound meditations on the nature and meaning of “Being”.

Through years of strife, war and fiercely-competing ideological battles these precious teachings or “termas” were fiercely-guarded to protect them from the ravages of time and keep them away from alterations. When the 11th century Indian scholar and Master Atisha Dipankara of Vikramshila university arrived in Tibet, he was stunned to discover Vajrayaana texts that had by then disappeared from India, meticulously preserved in Tibet.

In its recounting of the Padmasmbhava’s life and teachings, casting light on the contribution of this Great Indian Pandit to spreading Buddha’s message of love, light and the path to nirvana, this book renders yeoman service.

Series editor Aruna Vasudev deserves rich praise for not only editing these books, but also originating the concept, picking the thinkers needed to be written about as also identifying the authors. Impeccable choices — each one of them.

The second book in the series is Nagarjuna, written by Mohini Kent. Nagarjuna is the Buddhist philosopher/sage who was a scholar monk who headed Nalanda, the great Indian centre for Buddhist studies, in the late second century AD. A great debater, logician and thinker, his philosophy and writings fundamentally influenced Buddhism in the millennia that followed. His most famous work, the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) introduced the concept of shunyata or emptiness. After Gautama Buddha, Nagarjuna remains the single-most important figure in Buddhist thought. In the Mahayana traditions he’s referred to respectfully as the Second Buddha.

His biographical details are hard to come by. Indian, Tibetan and Chinese accounts of his life were written many centuries after his death and much myth-making happened around purported events of his life, and indeed about the man himself.

Together with his disciple Aryadeva, he is credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism.

What is it about the man that he’s acknowledged as a compelling thinker even by contemporary philosophers? One cited by the likes of brilliant nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna as being inspirational because, in one of his writings, he found an account that accords with much of what quantum physics is saying today!

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It would be both reductive and foolhardy to try to summarise and explain his deeply-metaphysical ruminations on the knowledge and realisation of emptiness. One can, at best, offer a degustation menu to the hungry seeker. By the time Nagarjuna matured as a thinker/philosopher, the concept of zero had shaken up all existing metaphysical systems of philosophy. Nagarjuna took the new concept of emptiness and changed Buddhism forever. His argument, in a nutshell, is that all phenomena lack inherently-stable existence, they are “empty” and exist only because of interdependence. And therein lies the hope for transformation, because if each phenomena was fixed in its essence, how would it transmute into anything else? And in this knowledge lies the key to clarity, quietus and salvation. Through consciousness about how we live, what we do, how we interact with each other and with the Earth itself, we can hope to be aware, change and attain wisdom. Like the Buddha himself did. One reforms oneself. And then, the world.

These two books are really petit fours that will whet your appetite to know more, explore deeper. Which is probably the idea behind this very commendable venture which offers lay readers a unique opportunity to learn a little more about the great minds who have shaped the way we view ourselves, the world around us, for millennia.

The writer is a veteran journalist based in Delhi who specialises in the arts

Tags: buddha, nagarjuna, book review, padmasambhava