May 8, 2014
Until the very recent past, Tibetan biographies have been strictly hagiographic in tone and content. The readership was confined to accomplished practitioners of tantric Buddhism and the books were penned in a pre-20th century timeframe, in which empirical science played no role. Buddhist manifestations of magic neither contradicted nor compromised Tibetan readers’ experience of the “real” world. Tibetans simply lived in an atmosphere of the marvelous. If someone was said to have super-human origins or skills, no one jumped through hoops to embrace the notion. A biographer’s emphasis was on the subject’s inner journey, not the dates and place-names of his or her outer life, which was regarded as mundane, if not irrelevant.
It is no easy task, then, for a Western writer with a Western readership to bridge that cultural gap, to bring to life the story of a highly realized Buddhist master – to explore the tantric’s spiritual achievement while also folding into the narrative Terton Sogyal’s political significance.
Matteo Pistono has done precisely this.
His biography not only accurately identifies Terton Sogyal as one of the diplomatic lightning rods of his time – replete with Sogyal’s profoundly crucial relationship with the 13th Dalai Lama and his accurately assessed threat of a Chinese takeover– but the infighting of Lhasan aristocrats as well, which, tragically, sped up the eventual demise of Tibetan independence.
As Pistono explains in his “Author’s Note”: I had to position him [Terton Sogyal] against the turbulent sociopolitical backdrop, place him in a linear historical sequence, and show his apparent challenges and frustration.
This book was fifteen years in the making. Pistono’s boots-on-the-ground peregrinations through eastern and central Tibet, his accumulated interviews with (and teachings from) the great lamas of the day, his tireless academic research – all come together and make Terton Sogyal’s story both immediate and contemporary.
Peripheral snapshots of fellow mystics and the fruitions of their hermetic existences, interspersed with popular cults, customs, traditions, Fearless in Tibet is nevertheless also something of an adventure story. We ride along with Terton Sogyal, circumventing brigands waiting in ambush in altitudinous passes – over the vast expanse of Tibet and into the hushed corridors of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, which he came to know so well during his spectacular topographical and spiritual road trips.
In a way, the biography of Terton Sogyal is the biography of many men, who, according to the Tibetan tradition, were incarnations of Dorje Dudjom. Dorje Dudjom was one of the original 25 disciples of Padmasambhava, (the guru from Oddiyana), who established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. Padmasambhava created a system for future “treasure revealers”, or tertons; who would uncover long-hidden spiritual teachings through texts written in dakini script, statues, ritual implements, medicines or sacred relics. The key to this system was that the treasures would be discovered only when the time would be most beneficial to the people of Tibet.
Terton Sogyal’s emergence as a terton couldn’t have occurred at a more politically precarious time in Tibet’s history. China’s Qing Dynasty, British controlled India and Tsarist Russia were all vying for control over the Buddhist nation. Perhaps even more dangerous was the internecine power struggle going on between civil leaders within the boundaries of Tibet. Little wonder that the 13th Dalai Lama – twenty years Terton Sogyal’s junior – came to love and rely on his spiritual achievements:
[Terton Sogyal] was being called to Lhasa to perform tantric rituals capable of turning back the British army that was deploying on Tibet’s southern border. Mantras recited by Terton Sogyal were believed to provide protection from the threat of foreign invasion. The State Oracle had told the young Dalai Lama that Terton Sogyal must serve the nations. This was Terton Sogyal’s effective appointment as chaplain to the Dalai Lama.
One can also value Fearless in Tibet as a partial biography of Sogyal Rinpoche, the current incarnation of Dorje Dudjom and Terton Sogyal. Sogyal Rinpoche has established one of the largest networks of Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers in the West: Rigpa Fellowship. And his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is one of the most widely read dharma books to date, having already been translated into 34 languages.
On whatever level one chooses to read Fearless in Tibet, Western Buddhist practitioners owe Matteo Pistono their gratitude for this major contribution to Tibetan literature.
The official publishing date for Fearless in Tibet is May 27, 2014.
To pre-order your copy now,