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Buddhadharma : Summer 2010
71 summer 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Dzogchen largely stripped of this context. While these two approaches to Dzogchen are not the only ones taught in the West, they do represent the predominant viewpoints and reflect a broader discussion of the forms Buddhism will take as it becomes increasingly established the West. Dzogchen came to the West in the seventies as a key aspect of the teachings of many Tibetan masters of the Nyingma and Kagyu schools, but it was not until the eighties that it began to be widely known. This was largely through the teaching activities and writings of Namkhai Norbu, a Tibetan lama who had been invited to Italy in the sixties. Working at first as a professor at Naples University, in the seventies Namkhai Norbu gradually began teaching dharma students, focusing on the presentation of Dzogchen. Then, in 1986, came the publication of Namkhai Norbu’s The Crystal and the Way of Light, which brought the teachings of Dzogchen to a far wider audience in the English-speaking world. The book was an engaging mix of autobiography, anec- dote, and Dzogchen teachings. It was the first place I encoun- tered Dzogchen, and I was fascinated. But I and perhaps many other readers at the time were unaware that The Crystal pre- sented Dzogchen in a rather idiosyncratic way, almost inde- pendent of Buddhism. Namkhai Norbu was himself quite clear that this was an unusual approach, a response to the problem of communicating Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Keith Dowman’s Natural Perfection (which, incidentally, has a foreword by Namkhai Norbu) is a translation of a key work by Longchenpa, the most important exponent of Dzogchen. In his introduction, Dowman presents the reader with a Dzogchen that is accessible without context and beyond anything that we might think of as religion. For Dowman, Dzogchen is best for the West because it “addresses the mood of our Western cultural moment.” Yet, he warns, we must be careful to separate the essence of Dzogchen from its Tibetan cultural context, where it is “embedded in the Vajrayana Nyingma tradition.” Like Namkhai Norbu, Dowman offers the reader the essence of Dzogchen stripped of any cultural trappings, which he calls radical Dzogchen: In Western society the message of Dzogchen may come as a relief, particularly to those who feel that much of Vajrayana Buddhism is culturally alien, or that the cultishness of “Lama- ism” is akin to [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm, or that the great gains of the Protestant Reformation and the move toward nondogmatic humanism seem to have been thrown away in a fascination for oriental ritualism and dogma... Dowman’s words resonate with a tendency in Western Buddhism to isolate and adopt those parts of the tradition that seem to accord with our Protestant sensibility and lack Asian cultural baggage. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, this was reflected in the bias toward the “original” teachings of the Buddha, which were believed to be essentially rational but corrupted with ritualism. Later, Zen Buddhism became an ideal vehicle for the antira- tional, anti-organized-religion counterculture (still very much Protestant in its sensibilities). One of the great popularizers of Zen, Alan Watts, played a major part in this Western adapta- tion of Zen. In Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen he wrote that “the underlying Protestant lawlessness of Beat Zen disturbs the Square Zennists very seriously. For Square Zen is the Zen of established tradition in Japan, with its clearly defined hierar- chy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori.” Though he was no Beat, it’s clear where Watts’ sympathies lay. Similarly, in the first flush of the reception of Dzogchen in the West, it has often been presented as if its association with Tibetan Buddhism was merely accidental. Dowman’s radical, or Protestant, Dzogchen is—like Alan Watts’ Zen—distin- guished by its transcendence of the other aspects of Buddhist practice. In this, Dowman finds ample support in the work of Longchenpa, whose text, The Treasury of the Way of Abiding, along with an autocommentary and a further commentary by Dowman, make up the remainder of this book. This inspired, poetic meditation on the nature of awareness states again and again that in awareness’ true nature there is no virtue or sin, no vows to uphold, no practices to maintain. Yet even here there is context. Longchenpa contextualizes his own inspired poetry with an explanation of the master– disciple relationship, the need for the students to maintain the samaya vows of the tantric path, and the importance of keeping the Dzogchen teachings secret from those who might misinterpret them. Dowman ignores this section in his own commentary, suggesting that it may be a later addition. Now, since a translation of The Treasury has been pub- lished by Richard Barron as part of his ongoing project to translate all of Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries, readers may wonder what advantage Dowman offers over Barron. I sus- pect it will be a matter of taste. For instance, compare Bar- ron’s translation, “In unobstructed awareness, without limit or center” with Dowman’s translation of the same line, “In the holistic transparence of zero-dimensional rigpa.” Though Dowman aims to avoid the “strings of turgid jar- gon” that he feels characterize most translations of Dzogchen texts, it seems fair to say that here one style of jargon has replaced another. And while Dowman’s radical Dzogchen translations are meant to be readable without contextual explanation, this is difficult to accomplish for any translation of a Buddhist text, and especially for Dzogchen, steeped as it Reviews