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A Buddhist Spectrum, by Marco Pallis
Reviewed by Seyyed Hosse Nasr

This exceptional book reflects a wisdom which is the fruit of over a half century of both the study and the actual experience of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the deeply sympathetic study of other religions. Marco Pallis first became known to the scholarly public through his epochal work Peaks and Lamas which for the first time introduced the integral tradition of Tibet to the Western world from the traditional point of view. As a staunch defender of the traditional perspective, he was also instrumental in translating some of the seminal works of F. Gu’enon and later F. Schuon into English, aided in this effort by his lifelong companion and collaborator in matters both scholarly and musical, Richard Nicholson. Furthermore, Pallis has written over the years a large number of essays touching upon various subjects of his interest ranging from Buddhism to polyphonic music. Some of these essays appeared in an earlier collection entitled The Way and the Mountain, now followed by this new collection which complements the earlier one and in a sense presents the most mature and most profound thoughts of Pallis concerning various aspects of traditional teachings in general and Buddhism in particular.

Pallis is at once an incomparable authority on Buddhism, especially in its Tibetan form, a defender and protector of the Tibetan tradition in the west since the tragedies of 1951, a lover of nature and a mountain climber who first encountered Tibetan Buddhism while climbing Himalayan peaks half a century ago, a profound student of other religions, especially Christianity, and a very accomplished musician who has done a great deal to revive the rich musical tradition of Renaissance England, which still possesses a great deal of spiritual substance despite the modernizing tendencies of the age. All of these concerns of Pallis are reflected in A Buddhist Spectrum, whose themes are woven together by the principles of tradition and, more particularly, by Buddhism.

This book is a Buddhist spectrum, as the title indicates, dealing with some of the most basic and wide ranging aspects of the Buddhist tradition. But it is also a book on comparative religion based especially on the encounter of Buddhism and Christianity and dealing with Buddhist themes of ten with full consideration of current debates in Christian circles today concerning those very themes. Pallis, however, also refers often to Hinduism and Islam, concerning both of which he possesses a profound knowledge. The book is, therefore, a Buddhist work on both religion as such and religions in their multiplicity presented in a contemporary but traditional language.

A major characteristic of A Buddhist Spectrum is that it is concerned with the reality of Buddhism and not just a theoretical analysis of its ideas. Throughout the book the Buddhist refrain that human life, whose end is transcendence, is difficult to obtain is repeated in a manner which reminds the reader that religion is to be practiced and not just studied theoretically. He presents the "existential" significance of religion in a characteristically Buddhist manner, showing how the incessant analysis of this or that theme of Buddhist thought or symbol without the actual practice of the religion is against the teachings of Buddhism and a fretting away of that precious life which is so difficult to obtain. The goal of Pallis is therefore to present Buddhism as an upaaya that saves, to provide a key for the understanding of traditional teachings whose very comprehension in depth excludes the possibility of being satisfied with only a mental participation in its world to the exclusion of the rest of man's being. A Buddhist Spectrum, while being scholarly is, therefore, not just a scholarly work in the usual sense of the term. Rather, it deals with wisdom and septennial spirituality whose urgent message becomes immediately understood provided one becomes aware of the real significance of the Buddhist doctrine of mindfulness, that virtue of which one can never possess too much, and the preciousness of being born in the human state and therefore in that central point which alone can lead to the state beyond all becoming.

Another general characteristic of this book is that it presents Buddhism in such a manner that, far from being seen as an exception to all other religions, opposed to all permanence, grace, and what Western man identifies with godliness, it becomes another affirmation of that perennial Truth which has always been and will always be, while it possesses its own particular genius and characteristics. If one travels among the Buddhists of Asia, one detects among those who still practice their tradition a sense of the sacred, of transcendence, and of the world of the Spirit, while many a Western student of Buddhism, even if personally attracted to it, presents Buddhism as if it were simply an Oriental version of the anti-Christian humanism and even nihilism which has caused many Westerners to leave their own tradition in quest of another universe of discourse and meaning. Pallis, although himself coming from a Christian background to Buddhism, points out the errors inherent in this crypto rationalistic and humanistic presentation of Buddhism. His work stands in fact at the antipode of that kind of exposition and serves as an antidote to the misunderstanding resulting from that secularized version of Buddhism so prevalent in the Western world today. In Pallis's presentation of the message of the Buddha one recognizes a great religion as lived and practiced by the people of the Orient with its strict morality and a sacred art of transcendent beauty, a religion which confirms on the deepest level the truths of the Christian tradition rather than being seen as an ally of that rationalism and humanism which have been eating away at the sinews and bones of the Christian West since the Renaissance.

In the first essay of the book, "Living One's Karma," Pallis turns to one of the best known and at the same time most misunderstood notions to be found in all the religions born in India. While criticizing severely the popular notions of karman in the West, which would oppose it to the perspective of theistic religions, the author delves into the six sectors of sa.msaaric existence which comprise the Round of Existence in Buddhism and in which the principle of concordant action and reaction or karman prevail. The six sectors of the world of humans, animals, gods or devas, titans or asuras, tantalized ghosts or pretas, and hells, comprise the Buddhist cosmos in which the laws of karman prevail, the cosmos whose "transcendence" through enlightenment is the goal of Buddhism.

In addition to a description of this six-fold Round of Existence, which comprises the foundations of various types of traditional Buddhist cosmology, Pallis deals with karman in its practical aspect of aiding man in his quest of going beyond the Round of Existence, even in its angelic aspects. He reminds the reader that in order to utilize karman "to serve the greater purpose," there must be first of all a conscious self-identification with one's own karman; secondly, a recognition as to what is really "good karman"; and finally, the realization that our karman must be determined by our vocation or dharma. With practical tenure which characterizes this book in view, Pallis concludes by emphasizing that man is essentially his karman, but whatever be that karman, there is always a possibility of following the path trodden by the Buddhas. He adds that, "What even the Buddhas do not do, however, is to travel in our place. Each must approach the center in his own peculiar way, for the experience of each being is unrepeatable; every possibility in the universe is unique" (P.19).

In the second chapter, on the marriage of wisdom and method, Pallis, while delving into a profound inter-religious discussion of the subject especially as it concerns Buddhism and Christianity, emphasizes the indissoluble link between wisdom and method in all traditional doctrines, comparing wisdom to the eye and method to the legs, both of which are necessary for carrying out the only journey really worth undertaking. He points out that in the traditional West before wisdom became divorced from method and was itself reduced to rationalistic abstractions or mental play, it was also theoria, or vision. Strangely enough, it was the loss of the legs which reduced theoria to theory.

In emphasizing the complementarity of wisdom and method, Pallis turns specifically to Tibetan Buddhism and interprets the symbolism of the union of the female partner or wisdom (the bell) on the one hand, and the male partner or method (the vajra or dorje), on the other. The erotic symbolism of such Tibetan images and statues as a whole thus refers to supreme enlightenment or union, of which sexual union is a most profound earthly symbol, even its ecstasy being a reflection of the ecstasy of the attainment of Divine Knowledge, which is possible only through the wedding of wisdom and method. The treatment by Pallis reveals on a fundamental level the reason why there is no such thing as Oriental philosophy if philosophy is understood only in its modern Western sense, and why the traditional philosopher in the Orient has always been seen as a man of spiritual virtue, without which the attainment of sophia would be impossible save in exceptions which only prove the rule.

In "Is There a Problem of Evil?" Pallis does not deal so much with the existence of evil and sin, which, despite Rousseau and other believers in the innate goodness of man, are too prevalent to need to be proven to exist. Rather, he asks whether the existence of evil is a problem in the sense of not having as yet received a solution. He criticizes the shallow rationalistic criticism of traditional Christian theology by secular philosophers who would dethrone God because of their inability to solve the question of theodicy. Furthermore, Pallis criticizes Darwinian evolution not only in itself but because of its supposition of "the acceptance of a kind of universal trend toward the better, which here is represented as an inherent property of becoming" (P.35).

To provide the traditional answer to the reason for the existence of evil in a world created by God who is the Supreme Good, Pallis turns to the Biblical symbols of the Trees of Life and the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He provides one of the most clear and at the same time profound explanation of the symbolic significance of these two trees in their relation with the question of evil. The existence of evil becomes a problem when, as a result of ignorance, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is perceived as other than the Tree of Life, with the ensuing segmentation, alienation, and dispersion which results in a world separated from the Supreme Good, which alone is Good in the absolute sense. Regarded from the point of view of ignorance, "the Tree of Life becomes the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; regarded from the point of view of true knowledge, the Tree of Becoming (as it might just as well be called) is the Tree of Life" (p. 38).

Pallis then turns to the Buddhist teachings concerning the same subject and comes to the conclusion that "A world is a whirlpool of contrasts (the Indian word sa.msaara expresses this), it is not a unity in its own right. It is no limitation on the almighty that He cannot produce another Himself, a second Absolute. The world is there to prove it" (p. 43). He also refers to the works of F. Schuon, who in several works, especially Logic and Transcendence and the recent From the Divine to the Hunzan, deals more fully than any other author with the traditional metaphysical doctrine of the Divine Infinity and the Divine Maayaa, which necessitate the irradiation of manifestation of the world, hence separation from the source of all goodness and therefore evil, which has a reality on the level of relativity but not on that of the Absolute.

In the chapter "Is There Room for 'Grace' in Buddhism?" Pallis turns to a subject which might appear as strange to those who identify Buddhism with a kind of rationalistic philosophy and take refuge in it from not only Christian theism, which they no longer understand, but the very notion of grace, which they identify with religious sentimentality and which they seek to avoid at all cost. Pallis demonstrates, however, the centrality of grace in Buddhism despite its non-personalist and non-theist perspective. He relates grace to enlightenment and shows how the attractive influence of enlightenment strikes the consciousness of human beings who stand on the axis of Buddha-hood as at once invitation to enlightenment, companionship of enlightenment, and reminders of enlightenment. In connection with the latter, he discusses the incredible spiritual presence of the sacred image of the Buddha and the role of traditional Buddhist art, especially in its iconic form, in transmitting a sacred presence which cannot be called anything but grace.

Pallis also deals in this particularly rich chapter, from the point of view of both theology and comparative religion, with the contrast between tariki and jiriki, identified in Japan with the Pure Land and Zen schools, respectively. He demonstrates how far from being totally exclusive of each other, each perspective contains something of the other like the yin-yang symbol of the Chinese tradition. Herein (from p. 67) is also to be found one of the most spiritually appealing descriptions of the Joodoo or Pure Land school, which until quite recently has received much less attention in the West than Zen.

Chapter five turns to the complex subject of Tantrism, which, despite the pioneering work of Arthur Avalon and much valuable later research, has led in the West to numerous psychological, occultist, and erotic misinterpretations and even deformations, which make the understanding of its veritable message difficult. In correcting his earlier views in Peaks and Lamas, which interpreted Tibetan Tantrism only in a Hindu light, Pallis now distinguishes clearly between Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, which, despite their common usage of sexual symbolism, possess basic differences. As he says, "In Hindu Tantrism, Shiva (or any other male divinity) represents the static aspect while the corresponding female form represents the dynamic or creative aspect,.... In Buddhism, on the other hand, the symbolical pairing takes on an impersonal form (which agrees with the Buddhist spiritual economy in general) and it also works the other way round in as much as here it is praj~na, the female partner, who seems to indicate the more static aspect of the symbolism 'wisdom' is essentially a state or quality of being while the male element in the syzygy is referred to as 'method' (upaaya), which, on the face of it carries dynamic implications. . . ." (p. 76) Pallis also compares the world view of Tantrism with alchemy understood in its symbolic and spiritual sense.

The chapter "Nembutsu as Remembrance" deals with the universal practice of quintessential prayer, which the author discusses in its Buddhist form both as Nembutsu in Japan and the Mani prayer in Tibet, while making illuminating comparisons with the dhikr in the Islamic tradition and the prayer of the heart among the Hesychasts in Greece, Pallis' own land of origin. If the earlier chapters of the book were concerned primarily with matters of a metaphysical and theological nature seen in the light of their practical import, this chapter is based directly on the practical aspect of spirituality. Pallis writes of prayer and especially the quintessential prayer as one who has not simply read about it in books or heard about it from others.

Writing of the effect of the Mani prayer, which permeated the whole of Tibetan life before one of the last completely intact traditional civilizations in the world was brutally destroyed while the world looked the other way, Pallis gives one of the most beautiful personal reminiscences to be found in any of his writings.

"Certainly in the Tibet we visited," he writes, "while the traditional order there was still intact, the whole landscape was as if suffused by the message of the Buddha's Dharma; it came to one with the air one breathed, birds seemed to sing of it, mountain streams hummed its refrain as they bubbled across the stones, a dharmic perfume seemed to rise from every flower, at once a reminder and a pointer of what still needed doing." (p. 91)

Perhaps the weightiest and metaphysically most significant essay in this collection is the one entitled "Dharma and the Dharmas," dedicated to A. K. Coomaraswamy. In a masterly fashion Pallis analyzes the root meaning of this untranslatable term, which in fact is related to the sacred oak of the Druids as well as to their own name, and then attempts to render it into English as both suchness and flow through existence or sa^msaara. He discusses the relation of dharma to society and the family, to the person (svadharma), and even to the study of religions, the unveiling of whose unity has been the dharma of men like Schuon and Coomaraswamy, or, to quote Pallis, "His [Coomaraswamy's] dharma was to serve, together with some others, as its [dharma's] faithful spokesman. Our dharma it is to listen to that message, and better still, to live it" (p. 120). This chapter, which contains some of the profoundest pages written by Pallis, teaches the reader who can comprehend the full import of its message, more about Buddhism, and in fact religion as such, than most voluminous books on the subject.

Pallis is an outstanding musician in addition to being an authority on Tibetan Buddhism. Chapter eight of this collection, titled "The Metaphysics of Musical Polyphony," reflects his deep knowledge of polyphonic music, which he himself has done so much to revive in England. Although this essay may seem to be out of place in a collection devoted to Buddhism, it fits well into the pattern of the book inasmuch as the essay is concerned with the specifically Christian quality of polyphonic music while the book is nearly as much a study across Buddhist - Christian frontiers as a work devoted to Buddhism.

Any Oriental sensitive to spirituality who becomes familiar with post-medieval Western art and culture is surprised by the difference of quality of Western music, especially up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and the plastic arts or other aspects of the culture. The worldly palaces in which a Machiavelli strode differ very much from the music he might have heard. And even the music performed at Versailles for Louis XIV was not of the same profane and worldly nature as the architecture that surrounded him, not to speak of the incredible contrast between, let us say, the B minor Mass of Each and the philosophy which was being produced at the time of its composition in Europe. It seems that the deepest spiritual and theological urges and impulses of Western man sought refuge in music when other modes of art and thought had become nearly totally profaned.

Pallis reveals the secret of this phenomenon as it relates to polyphonic music. In a manner which only an experienced musician with metaphysical knowledge could accomplish, he analyzes the metaphysical foundations of polyphony, pointing to the key note which symbolizes unity, then the ensuing contrast and complementarity and, finally, return to the principal unity. Pallis also discusses the significance of the contemporary movement not only to preserve, but to return to the most authentic musical forms performed on authentic instruments relating to polyphonic music. This urge is seen by Pallis as a result of a nostalgia to return to the Christian tradition, which alone has produced the polyphonic form of music. The one surprising point in this brilliant essay is Pallis' positive appreciation of Wagner, whose musical philosophy lay at the antipode of the composers of the English Renaissance whose works Pallis has performed and helped to revive for over half a century.

In the ninth chapter, titled simply "Anattaa," Pallis turns once again to a specifically Buddhist subject, this time one of the most controversial and debated of themes, What does the doctrine of "selflessness" or anattaa (the Pall form of the term used deliberately by Pallis) mean? The author, who is himself one of the eminent representatives of the traditional school, rejects the views of both Gu‘enon and Coomaraswamy concerning this particular subject and refuses to identify anattaa with either simply selflessness or the rejection of the self in favor of the Self. For Pallis this whole doctrine is a koan which is to be distinguished from a riddle. As a koan, it is to be meditated upon until, through enlightenment, its meaning becomes clear. For the general reader, however, even without meditation, the text of the chapter removes at the very least some of the prevalent errors concerning this central Buddhist doctrine.

Finally, in the tenth and last chapter, Pallis turns to still another surprising topic from the Buddhist point of view, the subject of archetypes, which one might think has no place in a religion which sees sa.msaaric flow throughout the Round of Existence. Pallis identifies the return to one's archetype with the urge "to go home." He opposes vigorously the psychological interpretation of archetypes which has become prevalent in many quarters as a result of the spread of Jungian psychology, whose teachings must not under any condition be confused with the traditional doctrine of archetypes. Pallis relates the archetypes to the nirvaa.nic state and discusses their relation to the act of satori. He discusses the rapport of the archetypes to subjects as far apart as the question of determinism and free will and ma.n.dalas.

A Buddhist Spectrum is a wise book while being thoroughly reliable from a scholarly point of view. The aim of the author is not to present historical facts about Buddhism or analyze what is currently called Buddhist philosophy Rather, it is to present the wisdom of Buddhism from the traditional point of view, which, while accepting all the formal diversity of religions willed by Heaven, sees also the unifying Truth that shines beyond these forms. Pallis is concerned in a typically Buddhist fashion with the concrete and practical import of what he writes. The book is in a sense one long admonition to remember the preciousness of human life dfacult to obtain. The discussion of mindfulness or metanoia is repeated throughout the book like the main theme of a symphonic poem. Pallis is interested not only in making Buddhism better known but also in enabling Westerners, most of whose positive religious heritage derives from Christianity, to benefit from the Buddhist tradition in seeking to revive their own tradition. As already mentioned, Pallis stands diametrically opposed to those who use Buddhism as an instrument with which to combat the theistic religions which have dominated the life of Western man for nearly two millenia.

The English style of Pallis is elegant, reflecting a mastery of the language which is becoming rarer among scholars of religions. Moreover, he seeks to convert the adversary through gentle persuasion and to subdue the enemy while maintaining his role as a gentleman of the old English school. His charity and positive sentiments towards others--even those in error from the traditional point of view--are to be seen on every page. But, as Tibetan ma.n.dalas and sacred precincts reveal so clearly, the sacred is always protected not only by angelic but also by fearsome beings who guard the entrance against the demons of darkness. In a world in which error is so prevalent as to cast into doubt the very existence of Truth, those who seek to defend the Truth as traditionally understood have no choice but to use at times the "sword of gnosis" to destroy that which would endanger the terrestrial manifestation of the Truth. If there is one criticism to be made of this book from the point of view chosen by the author himself. that is, of tradition, it is that he is not severe enough in his condemnation of certain errors without whose destruction the truth of the matter cannot be asserted in such a way as to become convincing and acceptable by those not already persuaded.

This criticism does not, however, in any way destroy the great value of this book. A Buddhist Spectrum is at once one of the most readable works on Buddhism and a major work on comparative religion and living spirituality. It is the fruit of the thoughts and meditations of a man whose authoritative exposition during several decades of religious questions in general and Buddhism in particular, especially in its Tibetan form, have had a profound influence upon many scholars and practitioners of religion in both East and West.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Thich Nu Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-3-2001

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