Review: Wearing the Body of Visions

I posted a review of Wearing the Body of Visions at Amazon.com.

[Please consider purchasing via the book link above to support the author’s organization at no cost.]

Text here, for the lazy:

I recently read a humorous review of ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’, in which the reviewer wrote the following: ‘Compare the texture of this text with the writings of truly great Nyingma yogins, such as H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, or H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: notice a difference? Remembering that Ngakpa Chogyam fashions himself as a kind of lineage founder, compare his writings to those who themselves founded minority lineages: the magnificent Dolpopa (see Cyrus Stears’ The Buddha from Dolpo), or the great Shambhalian Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. How does N.C. hold up in this “Pepsi Challenge”?’ This was seemingly intended as a mockery. The author did not go on to explain what difficulties he had with the text — only that he considered it ‘gobbledygook’. I found this interesting, since I performed exactly this ‘Pepsi Challenge’ some 15 years ago.

When I picked up ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ in a bookstore, I didn’t know anything about the author — just saw ‘Ngakpa Chögyam’ on the spine. I had certainly read a lot of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and as I found myself rapidly turning pages, I remember thinking, “Oh, another one of these Chögyams.” I was genuinely surprised to eventually discover that Ngakpa Chögyam was not Tibetan after all. One might wonder how I could have made such a mistake. How could I have imagined a book so clearly written in vivid, colloquial English to be the product of a native Tibetan speaker? It’s quite simple, really: I had been trained to recognize this brand of incisive and authoritative prose as fundamentally independent of cultural source — but had only encountered its like in Tibetan export. When I first encountered Trungpa Rinpoche, I was shocked by how clearly he expressed his evident understanding of the nature of Mind. I gradually also came to appreciate how thoroughly he used the English language as a tool for that expression. Consequently, I was quite prepared to imagine this was the standard mode of expression for Vajrayana. Ironically, I had accepted exquisitely idiomatic English as a Tibetan characteristic — an odd consequence of having recognized that ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ hit the nail on the head.

As my study proceeded, I discovered this over-generalization was far from universally apt. Hence my delight upon discovering ‘another one of these Chögyams’. By this point, I was no longer a stranger to Vajrayana, and it was not difficult to recognize the orthodoxy of the topic. What most impressed me, was the manner in which the author engaged the fundamental questions of Vajrayana. By writing in such direct English, he helped clarify thorny questions about the nature of empowerment and of vajra commitment, in a self-contained way. It is not that his exposition of tantra did not invite deeper exploration, but his presentation managed to create the ground for its own elaboration in a way which was entirely unforced. Just as with Trungpa Rinpoche’s books before, I was compelled by this text because the author’s direct experiential knowledge spoke for itself.

Most importantly, for me, ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ laid out in compact English the importance and nature of the Vajra master’s rôle in Vajrayana. As time passed, and I found myself contemplating the direction my growing commitment to that path seemed likely to take, I found myself increasingly using Ngakpa Chögyam’s sound logic as an internal guide. At some point, it dawned on me that this was a telling circumstance. The very fact that the author’s explanations represented, for me, the clearest distillation of the Lama’s function, perhaps suggested that I should further investigate the possibilities this implied. Up to that point, I had not made the connection. By the time I had read Trungpa Rinpoche, it was too late to follow up on the impulse planted through reading his words. In this case, though, the essentially congruent impulse was still timely. It turned out to be eminently possible to meet and receive teachings from Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. After due contemplation, I became a gétrug (apprentice tantrika); and after a course of study and practice eventually took ordination as a naljorpa.

Returning to the whimsical theme of this review: the reason it made me laugh to contemplate a blinded taste test comparing ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ with other notable works of Vajrayana literature — is that I *did* take just such a test. All valid dharma representing a given yana will have the same essential taste, but especially in the presentation of tantra there is considerable room for the teacher’s personality to shine through. From that perspective, ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ is an extraordinary work — if for no other reason than that it so utterly galvanized this reader. The presentation of tantra and Vajrayana generally was compelling enough to decisively catalyze a process of deeper and more specific investigation eventually leading me to take life-long practice vows. What is most striking about this is that although I encountered the book ‘blind’ to the author’s repute, I was not ignorant of or entirely inexperienced in the field of practice the text discussed. I really *did* evaluate its contents based on careful comparison with other, similar tastes. The literal ‘Pepsi Challenge’ is sometimes criticized for exploiting taster bias for sweetness in a single mouthful — even if those same tasters might actually prefer a sharper flavor for everyday drinking. In the present case, this bias was entirely factored out — and the sample proved robust enough to earn a lifetime brand loyalty.

This has been an unconventional review, but the book in question is an unconventional one. It is rare that a book’s influence can be so specifically and observably linked to the course of a life’s events. I have encountered a handful of such decisive texts, but only this one can be traced as such a direct precursor. That is why I have chosen to offer an entirely subjective review. It is not unreasonable to judge a Vajrayana text by the devotion it inspires. Such a text cannot be viewed in isolation but rather must be considered in light of what and how it communicates to its intended audience. As an unapologetic Westerner drawn to Vajrayana for essential substantive rather than cultural stylistic reasons, I can say with certainty that ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ spoke and speaks my language.

Naljorpa Chhi’mèd Künzang

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