A Few Notes on Norman Dubie's The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake
Norman Dubie's The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake projects Tibetan Buddhist strategies and concepts forward to the year 2277 as setting for the story of a family of spirit warriors whose Vajrayana wisdom allows them to cope with cosmic disasters, spiritual impostors, and syncretistic visions. The long poem can weave its magic whether one understands the world of Tibetan Buddhism and its vocabulary or not. Perhaps the author is interested in the manner the strange vocabulary matches the mysterious happenings in the futuristic scene, and expects that it will all fit together by the conclusion. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the world-view and technical terms of Tibet's Vajrayana might enrich one's reading and open another level of understanding. I will make just a few suggestions regarding the Tibetan Buddhist background, and will name a few books as resources.
Pre-Buddhist Tibet embraced a shamanism focused on divination, exorcism, coercive magic, and guidance for spirits on their death journeys. Indian Tantrism added to this shamanism its own secret texts and initiations that involved complex mandalas or power-circles mapping the universe and empowering the initiate. Indian Tantrism found a home in Tibet's "third vehicle" of Buddhism, the thunderbolt or diamond vehicle called Vajrayana. Vajrayana furnished Tantra's mandalas with cosmic Buddhas, employed mantras or meditation syllables capable of changing the very structure of reality, and taught mudras or hand-gestures that brought siddhi or magical powers to adepts. This Tantric-Buddhist-Shamanistic mix celebrated the power of women called "dakinis" (khadroma), "sky-walkers" whose spiritual guidance was essential for initiates. The sexual union symbolized in the joining of vajra and lotus, and in the mantra, "Om Mani Padma Hum" ("the jewel is in the lotus"), transcended dualism and brought about the unity of compassion and wisdom, emptiness and bliss. Embodied in all these practices was the Buddhist sense expressed in the opening verse of the Buddhist Dhammapada: "We are what we think. . . . With our thoughts we make the world." In Tibetan Buddhism, monsters and gods alike might well be viewed as creatures of the mind or karmic projections. Projections or not, they could be powerful forces to reckon with.
Several books currently in many bookstores will help explain Tantric, Vajrayana concepts and terms met in Dubie's poem. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (Boston: Shambhala, 1991) allows one to turn to definitions of Tantrism, Vajrayana, dakini, the Bardo, and more. Lama Anagarika Govinda's Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Weiser Books, 1969) continues to be available and is useful. Lama Yeshe's Introduction to Tantra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001) is also valuable reading. For a beginner, the section on "The Diamond Thunderbolt" in Huston Smith's The Illustrated World's Religions (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) is easily available. For those interested in research in the deeper mysteries of the role of women in Tantric Buddhism, there is Miranda Shaw's Passionate Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994) The eighteen-page bibliography in Shaw's book should provide even the expert with fascinating directions for further reading.
Cliff Edwards (PhD, Northwestern University) is a professor of philosopy
and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He specializes
in New Testament literature, the Bible as literature, and Japanese religion.
His books include Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest.