Book Review: A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

A Concise Introduction To Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers, Snow Lion Publications, 2008. $14.95 list ($10.17 Amazon) ISBN-10: 1559392967

Sting claims that ‘tantric sex’ provides him with many wonderful orgasms, but the sexual yogas of Vajrayana were designed to facilitates the spiritual progress of advanced meditators seeking to attain buddhahood for the benefit of other beings and have nothing to do with sexual indulgence” pg. 15.

About the Author
John Powers, Ph. D. is on the Faculty of Asian Studies at The Australian National University. He has written fourteen books on Buddhism and related topics and has published dozens of academic and other articles. He speaks no less than 7 languages, plays ice hockey and enjoys photography.

The author states in the introduction that this book is a condensed version of his earlier, 500 page work, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Hence, the word concise is used in the present title. The publishers convinced him that the attention span of contemporary readers was too short. Perhaps they are right. Tibetan Buddhism can seem complicated and ritualistic to the untrained observer, particularly compared to Zen. Many spend more time reading bits and blurbs online than with paper books. After all, there is no Google search for the printed page. Yet. And if one desires to share or quote the book in hand, its not so easy to do in non-electronic form. Given our new habits, a shorter, more to the point presentation such as this title may be just what Dr. Buddha ordered.

This book, at 165 pages is more than manageable in terms of length. However, it is difficult to understand the complexity of Buddhist thought in words—any words. The real meaning is underneath and comes as the result of practice. But as far as explanations go, this book covers a good chunk of the basic topics in six chapters, true to its title, in brief.

The author begins unapologetically with a pronunciation guide to Sanskrit and Pali. So much for not scaring off the novice. His scholarly background is easy to notice, despite shorter explanations. But one gets the strong sense that he’s reading a seasoned practitioner with many years of both academic and spiritual experience. Still, it’s a bit difficult at times not to feel like a pop quiz could be announced at any moment.

It is always nice when a teacher gets a little critical of the differences between a pop culture understanding and an authentic one. The quote from Sting does just that, as does a bit of a slam on the credibility of one famous actor who was recognized as a tulku or reincarnate Tibetan lama (teacher). More of this kind of humor would have softened the intellectual blow a bit throughout.

Buddha means awakened and is based on the notion that most people spend their lives in ignorance of the true nature of reality, engaging in activities that they believe will result in happiness but that really lead to suffering and continued rebirth.” Buddhism is a “set of principles for cognitive reorientation.” Simple, accurate and clear. Definitions like these are what’s good about this book. The sections on the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path make the mark as well.

But what of more complicated matters, such as the origins and differences between Mahayana and other schools, especially the four main Tibetan traditions? Everything up to this point is a general introduction to Buddhism and not exclusively Tibetan.

Mahayana, we learn, originated in India with the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, somewhere around 1-200 C.E., before moving to Tibet some 500 years later. A major divergence is pointed out that up to the time of the wisdom sutras the Buddha’s teachings were all taken quite literally. After, he was seen as a “cosmic figure whose understanding surpasses that of all humans and gods, and his power allows him to transcend the ordinary laws of time and space.” Other than the occasional, less obvious tidbit such as this, the sections on basic Mahayana and other Buddhist doctrines such as karma and rebirth (present before Buddha’s birth in India but elaborated upon by the Buddha), dependent arising and the six paramitas (perfections) are pretty standard. Reading them does leave one with the question of how candid this professor can get in his graduate lectures. But a ticket to Australia is kind of pricey these days.

In the study of tantra, Powers states that “Practitioners of tantra must have greater compassion and greater intelligence than those who follow the sutra path.” Careful when reading that. It’s dangerous to let the Vajra Ego take root. But this is a general overview and not a teaching by a Tibetan lama (to my knowledge, the author is not), so we’re forgiving of any generalizations that might be better, or more deeply explored in the bigger book, college course or retreat teaching. Later, we’re told that “tantra proposes to incorporate all actions, all thoughts, all emotions on the path.” That should leave the reader curious to find a teacher and explore the meaning further in a real sense. The ensuing discussion of symbols, mandalas, deity rituals and sadhanas (practice texts) is clear and easy to follow, as are the topics of preliminary practices, initiations and the four classes of tantras.

The last chapter focuses on the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. But the author does not discuss Bon, which the Dalai Lama acknowledges as a valid tradition that was present before Buddhism made it to Tibet. Of interest in this section is not a list of who’s who or whose Rinpoche is better but a fine description of the actual practices and courses and methods of study that differentiate these schools. This amounts to a helpful guide for those attempting to navigate their way through the choices of empowerments, teachings or retreats to attend. Some schools don’t make obvious the forest through the dense population of trees, so overviews like this one can be quite helpful.

The 12-Step Buddhist Book Review wholeheartedly recommends this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of Buddhism. It can be read in an evening, but can be used as reference for much longer. True, there are more meatier volumes on the topic. It’s good to read them all. But for a starting point, the Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism is just that, and a bit more.

How many Buddhas do you give this review?