Throughout history, an untold number of once-thriving religions have ceased to exist. Some of them disappeared passively, as their popularity faded and their adherents gradually died out with no younger generation to carry on the flame. Other religions were violently conquered or assimilated into competing, more materially powerful faiths.
By all odds, Tibetan Buddhism should today be numbered among the latter type of casualty, after its bloody attempted extermination by Communist China in the mid-twentieth century. The unlikely sequence of events that has allowed the religion not only to survive but also to grow and thrive today across various continents is the story that Jeffery Paine undertakes to tell in Re-enchantment.
Though the book's somewhat staid subtitle, Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West, hints at a measured, academic-style account of the people and cultural forces involved, Paine's book is anything but that—his narrative is fast-paced, funny, and thoroughly modern in tone and approach, seemingly crafted to appeal to Western readers with zero vested interest in the subject of Buddhist teachers or their teachings (a premise not without its drawbacks, as will be discussed). Fortunately, the author also weaves in a substantial enough primer on the basics of Buddhist thought to give readers who come to this volume out of simple curiosity a good idea of the reasons for Buddhism's wide-ranging appeal.
The Tibetans who managed to escape into exile during the Chinese purges of the 1950's were, by most standards, woefully unprepared for life in the larger world. Their home country, with a land area roughly equal to the state of Texas but with icy mountain peaks, was for thousands of years both geographically remote and culturally insular. Tibetans were taught that Americans, although skilled at technology, were so morally and intellectually adrift as to border on insanity. Likewise, the Chinese government portrayed Tibetan Buddhism to the rest of the world as a childishly outdated amalgam of magic and superstition.
The first person successfully to break through that mutual wall of fear and suspicion was Madame Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), a rich and adventurous Frenchwoman so obsessed by the little she knew of otherworldly Tibetan culture that she taught herself the language and, in 1923, adopted a series of disguises in order to cross undetected into the holy city of Llasa, which was off-limits to foreigners. To say that the odds were against her is an understatement, as Paine relates here:
An endangered culture may, at the last moment, attract an alien witness who records its unique way of life before it perishes…. But to preserve Tibet's story, Alexandra David-Neel was, obviously, the wrong person entirely. First of all, she was exactly that, she, a woman, who undertook excursions and perils in which men perished like swatted flies. A trained athlete in prime condition could hardly have endured the ordeals she encountered, yet when she began her mad march to Llasa she was fifty-five, then considered the threshold of old age. Well-provisioned expeditions had perished on those treacherous wintry routes, but Alexandra embarked on them with a single companion and with no provisions at all. Her subsequent account, My Journey to Llasa, describes a Parisienne on an insouciant lark, but her jaunty attitude played down the actual facts—starvation; threats from brigands; danger from wild beasts; uncharted icy wastes—that made every day a game of Russian roulette. Later journalists and feature writers, puzzled how she survived at all, invariably resorted to some variation of (to quote one account) “It was the most remarkable journey a white woman has ever made.”
Once David-Neel settled in, her written accounts were far from the breathless, touristy gossip one might expect. Instead she became, to the extent she was able, a Tibetan—befriending the thirteenth Dalai Lama, going on months-long solitary spiritual retreats, and eventually living what she described as a fairy-tale existence in the palace of the prince of Sikkim (a dashing figure more than twenty years her junior), wearing gold brocade robes, and helping the prince administer his kingdom's monasteries. Though she had no background in anthropology, she nonetheless wrote about Tibet and Buddhism with a degree of scientific rigor that would, by the time of her death at the age of one hundred, help dispel many of the world's misconceptions about the storied land.
The next prominent Westerner to have his life's course changed by Tibet was a monk named Thomas Merton (1915-1968), America's premier Catholic intellectual and author of such classic spiritual...
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