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by Robert Thurman
Sounds True, 2001
Review by Elizabeth McCardell, Ph.D. on Aug 2nd 2004

The Jewel Tree of Tibet

Several years ago I woke early to a countryside cloaked in fog. As I gazed toward the mountains I became aware of a mulberry tree slowly emerging into sight. Then the sun broke through the clouds and the tree became alive, jewels shining in the glorious colours of brilliant ruby, gold, emerald, sapphire, … The image broke through my thoughts and wonderment enveloped me.

As a meditator of many years, I gladly volunteered to review this six tape collection (comprising nine hours) of Robert Thurman's retreat guide into the unifying principles of Tibetan Buddhism, for meditation requires more than just sitting, understanding is essential.   He is an ideal candidate to provide it.

A scholar and teacher, Robert A. F. Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor  in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Colombia University. He is an author and translator of both scholarly and popular works; a former Tibetan Buddhist monk (the first Westerner to become one), Director of Tibet House in New York City, and a close personal friend of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

These tapes reflect beautifully Thurman's deep scholarship and the insight borne from many years reflection. They are the embodiment of what he believes is required of meditators: knowledge and understanding of Buddhist principles and ethics. Indeed, at the heart of the meditator is the jewel tree of Tibet: teachings on the interconnectedness of all beings, a knowledge that gives birth to non-attachment of self and outpouring compassion for others.

In this retreat we are called to an understanding of life as not a void, but a pleroma of relationality with the "mothers" of existence. The "mothers" is a uniquely Tibetan concept, because Tibetans have never been attached to concrete ancestor worship (unlike the Chinese), but saw death as not "the end", rather death is viewed as liberating, of bringing a sense of interconnectedness, of relationality. The mothers of existence are those who've given us life, clothed us, taught us, sustained us; that is, all beings that share in our existence: our own genetic mothers and fathers, the parents and teachers and friends of previous lives; the tailors, carpenters, farmers, road builders, pottery makers, chefs, etc who've contributed to our life and livelihood. In as much as these people have contributed to the making of us, so our lives are made sensible by our contribution to their lives.

The tree of gems is interconnected, all teaching and all traditions (Buddhist, Christian, Hebraic, Muslem, Hindu, etc) are interconnected here, for this a tree with many branches as well as many jewels.  This tape collection too is a treasure trove for students of Tibetan Buddhism and meditators alike. Highly recommended.


© 2004 Elizabeth McCardell


Elizabeth McCardell, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia