Recently I read The TibetanBook of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman. More accurately, I read his introduction to Tibetan culture and Buddhism, and only a couple of the actual prayers for the dead. I found the prayers too esoteric to be of any meaning for me.
But I found the introduction well worth reading. A couple of ideas jumped out at me. One was the concept of Tibetan Buddhists as ‘psychonauts.’ Thurman asserts that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is a science rooted in empirical evidence, and the explorers are like astronauts: where the astronaut explores outer space, the psychonaut explores inner space.
The other idea was ‘spiritual productivity.’ Thurman writes that
In contrast to Western ideas, the Tibetan view is that the mental or spiritual cannot always be reduced to material quanta and manipulated as such—the spiritual is itself an active energy in nature, subtle but more powerful than the material. The Tibetan view is that the ‘strong force’ in nature is spiritual, not material. This is what gives the Tibetan character its ‘inwardness.’ Thus while Western and Tibetan personalities share the complex of modernity of consciousness, they are diametrically opposed in outlook, one focused outward on matter and the other inward on mind.
This difference of personality underlies the difference between the two civilizations. While the American national purpose is ever-greater material productivity, the Tibetan national purpose is ever-greater spiritual productivity. Spiritual productivity is measured by how deeply one’s wisdom can be developed, how broadly one’s compassion can exert itself.
What an amazing concept! Imagine measuring our national economy and our personal lives not by the growth in GDP or income but in the growth of our compassion. What if when we meet someone, our defining question is not ‘what do you do?” but ‘what wisdom have you learned? How are you serving others?’
Note: Robert Thurman is a Buddhist, and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. He’s also the father of Uma Thurman.