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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Buddhist Meditation Practice

Peacock in the Poison Grove: Two Buddhist Texts on Training the Mind: The Wheel Weapon and Poison Destroying Peacock attributed to Dharmaraksita translated by Geshe Lhundub Sopa edited by Michael J. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling (Wisdom) Geshe Sopa offers insightful commentary on two of the earliest Tibetan texts that focus on mental training. Peacock in the Poison Grove presents powerful yogic methods of dispelling the selfish delusions of the ego, and maintaining the purity of our motives. Geshe Sopa's lucid explanations teach how we can fight the egocentric enemy within by realizing the truth of emptiness, and by developing a compassionate, loving attitude toward others. The two long poems translated here, attributed to Atisa's guru, Dharmaraksita, are among the oldest and most dramatic of the mind-training texts, woven as they are of startling imagery and a quintessentially Tibetan admixture of sutra and tantra practices, as well as conventional and ultimate perspectives on the world. Peacock in the Poison Grove provides lucid translations of the texts, and a humane and learned commentary revealing why Geshe Sopa has long been regarded as one of the greatest living scholars of Tibetan Buddhism. Sweet and Zwilling's historical and thematic intro­duction is a model of textual detective-work and lucid contextualization, which helps us understand the world in which these poems arose and why they continue to speak to us today. Peacock in the Poison Grove belongs on the shelf-and a readily accessi­ble one at that-of every scholar and every practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Excerpt:

If the ascription of these two works to Atisa's bodhicitta guru and hence an Indian origin proves problematic, the internal evidence of the texts them­selves strongly suggests a Tibetan rather than an Indian provenance. Both works excoriate various kinds of false teachers and gurus, especially those who claim to teach the tantra and the Mahayana, and who pass off their own inventions as the genuine Dharma. We previously pointed out how this was a significant concern in Tibet about the year iooo and provided the impetus for the invitation of Atisa to Tibet in the first place. Moreover, such criticism of non-normative practices was not part of the Indian Buddhist landscape during the time in which these texts would have been composed.

In contrast to its denunciations of those who have strayed too far from the fundamentals of Buddhist belief and practice, the PDP itself contains two surprising verses (54-55) in which monastics are urged to give up their vows and kill the enemies of the Dharma, those who are actually destroy­ing the teaching. Such a call to arms would have had deep resonance for Tibetans, who would have understood it as a reference to the assassination of the apostate King gLang dar ma in 842 by the monk deal rdo rje, a deed celebrated as heroic and praiseworthy. Such fear of the violent destruction of the Dharma would have been out of place in Buddhist circles in north­east India in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the major challenge to Buddhism was a resurgent but nonviolent Hinduism; the Muslim threat was still two centuries away. In addition, the WW (70), like other early lojongs, warns against taking recourse to mo, the indigenous Tibetan form of divination, or to Bon, the heterodox form of Tibetan Buddhism. Both poems also refer to native Tibetan classes of demons, the 'gong po, and the protector deities of the Bon religion under the designation "the dark quarter" In WW3z the poet ascribes the failure of religious rites to backsliding, to the propitiation of the Bon pro­tector deities.

The central simile of both compositions also appears to be indigenously Tibetan. The image is that of the peacock who ingests poisonous plants, particularly "the virulent poison" (btsan dug) of aconite, which he "tames" by transmuting it into an elixir responsible for his beauty, just like the bodhisattva who similarly transmutes the afflictions (nyon mongs) into the means to accomplish the Buddhist path. In fact, the Tibetan proverb "The poison that nourishes the peacock brings ruin to all others,"" closely echoes the opening verses of the WW. The ingestion of poisonous plants by the peacock is a stock image in Tibetan poetry, both religious and secular, and in fact the oldest example of it to come to light so far is found in a work on Mahamudra from the same period in which our own texts were likely written." However, this trope appears to be entirely foreign to the Sanskrit literary tradition, as well as to Indian folk traditions. Both Buddhist and non-Buddhist Indian literary traditions are quite familiar with the pea­cock as an eater of poisonous snakes, a theme that goes all the way back to the beginnings of Indian literature in the Rg Veda  but the Indians, who had firsthand knowledge of peacock behavior, unlike the Tibetans, seem to know nothing of the peacock's ingestion of poisonous plants. The figure of the poison-plant-eating peacock is one that would most certainly have appealed to the Indian imagination and found literary expression; that it is not to be found is strongly suggestive of Tibetan invention. This image resembles those in European medieval bestiaries that present animal behavior that is not based on naturalistic observation but has symbolic significance….

As writers on comparative psychology have noted, the basic paradigm of Buddhist practice as found in standard works such as the Abhidharmakoia and the Visuddhimagga is similar to that of cognitive psychotherapy. That is, the practitioner becomes aware of unhealthy mental factors (such as the three poisons) and consciously substitutes the reciprocally inhibiting healthy opposite factor, for example, forbearance for anger. Both the WW and the PDP, in common with other mind-training methods, partially follow this model, which has been compared to allopathic medicine, that is, the treat­ment of diseases using substances antithetical to the pathogen, such as antibiotics.' Where they differ is in their "homeopathic" or tantric reval­orization of the "negative" emotions, especially of anger, into means for accomplishing spiritual goals, pre-eminently in the eradication of self­-clinging and self-cherishing. Their use of such strong emotions in the serv­ice of spiritual development, rather than simply jettisoning them in the more "Hinayanistic" mode of detachment and apathy (in the Stoic sense of apatheia), recalls the Freudian conception of sublimating primitive libidi­nous and aggressive affect into socially useful and creative expression. This idea of sublimation, which has its roots in the concept of alchemical trans­formation of base metal into gold by the addition of a catalyst, is also the fundamental theme of our texts: through bodhicitta, the "poisonous" emo­tions of anger and lust are transmuted into an elixir producing the highest happiness for the practitioner and for humanity in general.

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