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How do you make sense of this?


It seems I'm on a Tibetan Buddhist roll at the moment. I'm researching for my new book which is on the Nyingma Icons - a collection of line drawings that have been around for over fifty years but have never had a full explanation added to them - that's where I come in.

However, while working on them I have been thinking about Guru Rinpoche who, tradition has it, was the source of the first spreading of Buddhism in Tibet. It's a great story but I'm not going to tell it here - Google it.

The point is that, in a way, the whole Guru Rinpoche thing is just made up. Textual evidence from the time tells us very little and certainly does not contain the long, elaborate and miraculous account of his life that gradually takes form many centuries after his death. So what's going on here?

I'm going to make the suggestion that taking the stories around the glorious guru at face value, as if they were truly history, is only really possible for many/most Tibetans and just a handful of the most devoted Westerners. We could call this Stage One. Stage Two is what has occurred within our own culture with regard to the Bible and Christianity. Hardly anyone mistakes myth as history anymore. Virgin births, visitation from Angels and being lifted up to Heaven in a pillar of light are more likely to be understood psychologically - true to the persons own experience but no more than that. And this is also true of flying around mountains and all the other Tibetan magic.

However, there is a problem with this. By psychogising myths we take the magic out of them and, although it may feel more intellectually comfortable, there is a loss of living in a world where wonders are occurring and we stand in awe. What Jungian analysts call a 'loss of the numinous'. So this leads me to Stage Three, which by paths I cannot quite chart, I seem to have arrived at.

So, I do not mistake myth for history. And I do understand myth psychologically - it's a creation of the imagination in an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world. However - Stage Three - these imaginary creations, we could call them archetypal images, symbols, have a life and power of their own. Yes, they are just made up by us. But, once created and embraced by large numbers of people over long periods of time, they come alive.

So back to Guru Rinpoche. Most days I do a small meditation practice called a 'Guru Yoga' that I learnt when living in India in the mid-seventies. I've been through stages one and two with it but now I seem to be in stage three. It really means something, I feel I am connected to something real and meaningful. yet at the same time I still remember that Guru Rinpoche is the product of a thousand years of devotion and symbolically represents the union of emptiness and clarity that is our buddha-nature. Intellectually I know it's a bit of a balancing act but it feels OK.


NW.14.8.22 The image is the mantra of Guru Rinpoche painted on a rock in Bhutan.

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