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The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism
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The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism

by Robert Thurman

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Few teachers in the West possess both the spiritual training and the scholarship to lead us along the path to enlightenment. Robert Thurman is one such teacher. Now, in his first experiential course on the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism, adapted and expanded from a popular retreat he led, Thurman — the first Westerner ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Few teachers in the West possess both the spiritual training and the scholarship to lead us along the path to enlightenment. Robert Thurman is one such teacher. Now, in his first experiential course on the essentials of Tibetan Buddhism, adapted and expanded from a popular retreat he led, Thurman — the first Westerner ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself — shares the centuries-old wisdom of a highly valued method of insight used by the great Tibetan masters.

Tibetans think of their cherished tradition of Buddhism as a "wish-fulfilling jewel tree" for its power to generate bliss and enlightenment within all who absorb its teachings. Happiness, in fact, is the true goal of Tibetan spirituality, and the wish-fulfilling jewel tree will enable you to reach that goal. Using a revered, once-secret text of a seventeenth-century Tibetan master, with thorough explanations for contemporary Westerners, The Jewel Tree of Tibet immerses you fully in the mysteries of Tibetan spiritual wisdom. A retreat in book form as well as a spiritual and philosophical teaching, The Jewel Tree of Tibet offers a practical system of understanding yourself and the world, of developing your learning and thought processes, and of gaining deep, transforming insight.

One of the most explicit teachings of the steps on the path of enlightenment available, explained by a skilled Western teacher, The Jewel Tree of Tibet will enable you to honor the full subtlety and hidden depths of the Tibetan Buddhist path and realize at last its deeper rewards — for yourself and others.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the path of peace, loving spirit, and enlightenment." — Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within

"The Jewel Tree of Tibet is an extraordinary spiritual text that takes the finest wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and offers it to readers in a way that is not only very accessible, but deeply enthralling and inspiring." — Caroline Myss, author of Invisible Acts of Power, Sacred Contracts, and Anatomy of the Spirit

Publishers Weekly
Based on Thurman's six-lesson retreat on Tibetan Buddhism, this accessible book guides readers through the process of enlightenment. Throughout, Thurman (Inner Revolutions) draws from the Fourth Panchen Lama's text Mentor Devotion to ground his teachings, a surprising choice given that it's an advanced dharma that he concedes is "semiesoteric." Thurman successfully spins the text's interpretation so that it becomes more transparent to a Western audience. He describes Buddhist karma, for example, as "Darwinian evolution with an individual twist," and also cautions readers not to adopt some blissed-out, mind-emptying idea of Buddhism just because they imagine that it's Eastern and therefore superior. "When we seek to enter the path of enlightenment, we have to engage with society." On the other hand, he notes, we also need to embrace ascetics like monks and nuns, and invest generously in their work toward liberation. The book has some truly beautiful moments, as when Thurman encourages readers to meditate on the loving-kindness of their mothers (even the bad mothers, he says, made sacrifices to keep their children alive and fed), or when he offers 11 steps to compassion, love and happiness. Although there are a few hiccups-moments when it becomes obvious that the "root text" of Mentor Devotion is a tricky one indeed-this is a fine tool on the road to enlightenment. (Feb. 10) Forecast: A nine-city author tour will help promote this title, which is a One Spirit Book Club alternate selection. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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This book began as an intensive retreat with a small group of students. It is a teaching on the steps on the path of enlightenment that is common to all the forms of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetans have taken teachings from all kinds of Buddhism, especially those preserved and developed in India over fifteen hundred years before they traveled to Tibet. But there in Tibet, Buddhism was made into a systematic method for people to practice and perform in order to become perfectly enlightened in this life, or in a short number of lives, starting from wherever they started.

This is what we'll aim to practice on this retreat, on this quest for enlightenment in book form. You'll start wherever you are in your life, today. We'll retreat into one of the greatest sacred wisdom texts of Tibetan knowledge of the soul, called The Devotion to the Mentor, in which a glorious wish-fulfilling gem tree is used to focus our minds. We're on a quest to contemplate this great text line by line, so that we come to understand its full, rich meaning, the brilliant reflections of its many facets guiding us, lighting up our awareness. And we'll take this awareness with us, out into the world, into our lives. It is a powerful text, just the reading of which has the capacity to lift you out of your individual self and into a perspective of unity, refreshing your individuality immeasurably. It will help you cultivate the sensitivity and appreciation to love more fully, feel compassion more intensely, and become a fountain of cheerfulness for all you meet and know.

The steps on the path of enlightenment in this text are a distillation of the vast profusion of healing techniques dispensed by the Shakyamuni Buddha — the historical Buddha — to his many thousands of disciples, two thousand five hundred years ago. I first encountered The Devotion to the Mentor and the jewel tree, in this life, forty-two years ago, when I met the Very Venerable Geshe Wangyal at his monastery in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, which was in a little pink tract house on East Third Street in Freewood Acres. He read to me a version of this same enlightenment path, the way to a higher quality of being, that had been written by the great south Indian philosopher sage Nagarjuna in the second century c.e. Nagarjuna had written it as Letter from a Spiritual Friend to his friend and disciple the south Indian King Udayibhadra, whose name means "King Happily Good."

My teacher read this text aloud in a Tibetan translation, accompanying it with a commentary written by a great fourteenth-century Tibetan lama, and as he read he would translate and explain in English to me and my friend Chris. The three of us would sit together in the chapel room or out in the yard of the little pink house that served as a monastery in New Jersey, under the spell of the great wish-fulfilling jewel tree of Tibet. Then, in the evening and late into the night, I would memorize the Tibetan, learn the text's meaning, and meditate on the steps and themes — incorporating it all into my mind and psyche and spirit.

The fresh and reasonable vision of life, the deep meaning of existence, the imminence of freedom, the vast horizon of my human potential — all this leapt out at me from these words in the lovely Tibetan script, block-printed on beautiful, long, fibrous pages. I loved Nagarjuna and his friend the king. I loved the Tibetan alphabet, so logical and elegant. I felt totally at home in it.

At that time, I was in the middle of a long pilgrimage that had led me to drop out of college and had taken me across Europe on a motorcycle and across Asia on foot, all the way to India. There, I had met the Tibetans and begun to learn from them and work with them when the death of my father brought me back to New York City for a month of family sadness and mourning, as well as a reimmersion into the hypocrisy and anxiety of the world that I was eager to transcend. Yet there I also met my teacher and went to work with him in the Jersey Pine Barrens, in a Russian Mongolian refugee community. Through him, I met the path of enlightenment. I met a true mentor. I had come home — to myself and my soul — through this great teacher and the jewel tree text he revealed to me.

And it was not just the text and the teachings that affected me so deeply. It was the special context in which Tibetans meditate and use their teachings. I learned to look up with my inner eye, the third eye of imagination, which lies in the middle of our foreheads and opens a channel of vision into a subtle realm of reality. In this inner sky revealed by my third eye, I discovered mystical beings, buddhas, bodhisattvas (persons who strive for enlightenment in order to help others on their quest for their highest development), historical lama mentors, angels, deities mild and fierce, and all the saints and teachers and philosophers from all the world's spiritual traditions. I beheld the shining tree of jewels, decked with living jewel beings.

I recognized the jewel tree as the world tree, Yggdrasil, the great ash tree extending over the entire earth, growing from the well of wisdom, where Odin, the highest god, had to cast one eye as sacrifice in order to receive the eye of wisdom from the goddess of the tree. The jewel tree is the tree of life, the tree of wisdom, and it is also the giant fig tree under which the Buddha attained perfect enlightenment, the bodhi tree. It grows from earth to heaven and is filled with the wish-granting jewels that make up the family of living mentors who have reached immortal life and can share their bliss with you, protect you, bless you, and help you open up your own inner doorway to peace and fulfillment. The jewel tree opens its loving embrace to everyone and promotes happiness — which is our natural state and birthright.

Since that time when I began to enjoy the luminous shelter of the jewel tree of Tibet, I have studied and meditated year after year. I went on to become a monk; I learned more and more advanced teachings, tried to put them into practice, and seemed to succeed with insight after insight. But then I began to realize that last week's insight was superseded by the next one. For a while, all I wanted was to stay in my Buddhist community of seekers of enlightenment, to be embraced as a monk. My inner life was rich, full of insights and delightful visions, with a sense of luck and privilege at having access to such great teachers and teachings and the time to study and try to realize them. Eventually, I realized that there was more I needed to learn from the world, from engagement with others, from developing compassion in my interactions rather than the solitary quest of wisdom. So I resigned as a monk and reentered the university, determined to find a way to continue to study while engaging more actively with others.

As I have grown older and become less sure about everything — and even confused and discouraged when my inherited negative personality traits reemerge in the heat of relationships — I have repeatedly turned back to the beginning of my studies of the jewel tree. I regularly rest under the jewel tree and reflect on the steps it provides us to enlightenment, freedom, and happiness. A golden ladder from earth to heaven, the great jewel tree is an inner space for a retreat, a spiritual vacation, a refreshment and recharging that comes from stepping back from our emotions and habitual perspectives — even for a few moments. You can spend minutes under the jewel tree or you can spend entire days or weeks, depending on the time you can afford to take. Sometimes it helps to meditate with others on the jewel tree, since your thoughts will become amplified and intensified by the resonance of one living mind with another.

Whenever I conduct a retreat, I try to remember that the main person who needs the retreat is myself. The person who most needs to learn what I say, even though I may be saying it, is me. So, therefore, I'm very thankful that you're joining me in your reading of this text and on this quest. I don't pretend to be a great teacher, but I do claim that this, the wish-granting jewel tree of Tibet, is a great teaching.

We love and admire Tibet because Tibet is the guardian, custodian, preserver, developer, and utilizer of these great enlightenment teachings. Originally, all the teachings came from what the Tibetans call the Noble Country, Aryavarta, the country of the noble beings. These beings followed the Buddhist tradition and achieved nobility in the spiritual sense, they were selfless beings — beings who did not live enclosed within their own personal, egocentric perspective but lived within a multiperspectival world. The perspectives of the others were to them as important as, or more important than, the perspective of the self. The noble beings realized the meaning and the reality of selflessness. A noble person is defined by the Buddha not in terms of social class or race or nationality or sex or religion but by whether you perceive things only from your own perspective or whether you perceive them simultaneously from all others' perspectives.

So, what we're going to try to do on this quest together is to go from the beginning of the Tibetan path of enlightenment to its end. And we're going to rehearse various short meditations that will help us get deeper along the path. And we're going to learn about what that path is so that we understand it, so that you can do this retreat yourself again and again, and I can do this retreat myself again and again, each time learning something new. We're aiming to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a greater subtlety of consciousness. You don't want to get all fascinated or obsessed or entranced with one particular thing that you experience as you go along, but keep moving and learning, seeing things freshly again and again.

Even if you are not a Tibetan Buddhist or any kind of Buddhist, I hope you will be able to follow along with this teaching and gain something from it. I follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He's my main teacher, my mentor. I follow his view that, in the world today, we don't want millions and millions and millions of new Buddhists. We're not competing with the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus. We're not competing for market share, for a population explosion. But we are looking to the quality of people's lives, hoping that people will become more enlightened, whatever their religious affiliation or secular humanist beliefs. Conversion is not the goal here. Therefore, in teaching a teaching like this, which we hope the public will use widely, we want to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

However, if we teach a spiritual practice in a completely bland, watered down way, then no one will really have much inspiration to use it. I love the Buddha, and I love the Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha, and I love the Tibetan versions of it. And I particularly love the version that was perfected by Tsong Khapa, who lived in the fifteenth century. It is the core teaching that the Dalai Lamas have practiced since then, including the current Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso. So, I want to share my love for their vision and wisdom with you through the ancient text that inspires this retreat in book form.

In this book, I will draw from those teachings and focus on the particularly vivid teaching about the wish-fulfilling jewel tree by the Fourth Panchen Lama, called the Guru Puja, or the Devotion to the Mentor. A mentor is not considered merely a teacher but is seen rather as an exemplar of the teaching, a model to follow. So, in each lesson or subject or verse, I will veer away from my own narrow understanding and Tibetan images, and I will encourage you to meditate, whether you are Sufi, Christian, or another kind of Buddhist, and to draw in your own images and ideas to enhance your own understanding. This retreat is divided into six chapters that can serve as retreats in themselves, with different meditations and a regular review of the principles that form the steps on the path to enlightenment. I want you to figure out how to enter a kind of jewel space of awareness, to populate and retreat to that jewel space in your own way. There you will be energized to discover your own feeling of insight into your own soul — and into the soul of the entire universe. The wish-fulfilling jewel tree will restore you to yourself and illuminate your path through life...and illuminate your spirit into the next life.

Copyright © 2005 by Bob Thurman, Inc.

Meet the Author

Robert Thurman is the author of the critically acclaimed, popular original books Inner Revolution and Infinite Life and a translator of sacred Tibetan texts, including The Essence of True Eloquence and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He teaches at Columbia University and holds the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in America. Cofounder of Tibet House US and Menla Mountain Retreat Center, he lives in New York City and Woodstock, New York.

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