By Sara Isayama
Chronicling the lives of Khandro Tāre Lhamo, and Namtrul Rinpoche, Inseparable Across Lifetimes tells the story of two remarkable Buddhist masters and their love, and how they came together though the Cultural Revolution to meet and become tantric partners.
Inseparable Across Lifetimes feels like a book that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
With it’s heart-red cover and floral decorations and scripty font, the book clearly seems like it’s marketed towards women. The subtitle referencing love letters makes it seem like we’re about to embark on a romantic story about the lives of these two great Buddhist masters, and how they came together as a tantric couple.
“Love letters!” We think, “Oh how romantic!” And indeed, the source material for this book certainly has the basis of an incredible story. It is something that might even make a good movie, akin to Memoirs of a Geisha or something similar. But Inseperable is not written in a story format.
It’s mainly presented as an academic reference material, more of a catalogue of various material and events, than something one would keep next to one’s bed for romantic or inspirational reading. The primary audience of this book is aimed at seems to be other academics working in the same field as the author.
There were aspects of this story that were genuinely inspiring. Reading about Tāre Lhamo’s life in particular was inspiring, and how she went through the Cultural Revolution and kept such faith in the midst of so many beatings, killings and torture around her. With all of this and general cultural oppression, she not only kept the faith but was genuinely inspiring to those around her.
Her training progressed so well that she had many visions and auspicious signs around her even in the midst of such hardship. This book was genuinely wonderful to read and deeply inspiring at times. The lives of these two people was quite incredible and I often found myself deeply moved by their training as I read about their journey.
There is definitely an incredible story here with these two people, and they clearly did fantastic training in the midst of hardship and love, in good times and bad.
And of course the visions and magical events that surrounded them is a subject that needs far more coverage in the English language. There is definitely much here that can be used for inspiration for Buddhist practice.
The biggest issue with this book, is that in actuality, it is primarily an academic reference material, rather than a readable story. It’s not written in a story format. The author presents the text largely in a blanket of often incomprehensible academese, and obscure jargon. The following passage is a typical example:
“I refer to this as an epistolary courtship since their prophetic mission and personal bond developed primarily through their exchange of letters. The correspondence started in late 1978, and Namtrul Rinpoche ventured to Markhok sometime in mid-1979 to visit her and meet her relatives. Then in the early 1980s, Tāre Lhamo left her homeland to live with him in Nyenlung, the monastery in Serta that they rebuilt together. The act of letter writing is referenced in a number of instances with respect to receiving or requesting news, admiring the designs of ink on paper, taking delight in each other’s speech, and taking delight in the beloved’s words as a source of inspiration and solace. Certain epistolary conventions, such as artful praises, are peppered throughout the correspondence as well as gestures of humility that are culturally dictated for the first-person voice in Tibetan. On occasion, Tāre Lhamo refers to herself as a ‘gullible lady,’ and Namtrul Rinpoche refers to himself as ‘lowly’ and a ‘madman,’ the latter being a reference to tantric antinomianism.”
Given that the primary audience who would be interested in this text are not academics, but rather ordinary Buddhist practitioners…what does “epistolary courtship” mean? Why does the author use “personal bond” rather than “love?” This is particularly confusing when the author was perfectly fine saying “beloved” later on.
Why say, “correspondence” instead of simply “letters,” and why refer to Tāre Lhamo’s “homeland” considering they both are native Tibetan’s, rather than simply saying she left her home? The author makes it sound like they are traveling across continents rather than simply leaving her family home in one part of Tibet to visit her boyfriend in another.
Imagine someone talking about visiting their boyfriend in another part of Oregon, by saying that they left their “homeland” of Eugene, to visit their boyfriend in Portland, with whom they shared a “personal bond.”
This type of writing is present throughout the entire book.
Obtuse technical terms, and repetitive preambles, abstractions and metaconcepts. Perfectly plain English is readily available, and instead of being plainly stated, the reader is left to unravel her meaning with use of gobbledygook.
This is not the first time it has been pointed out that academics are not the the best at presenting information in a way that is widely accessible. However it feels acutely disappointing here, due to the fact that the subject matter is Dharma material, and the purpose of such material is to help liberate beings from their suffering. Thus, by limiting it’s audience, it limits it’s availability to be of use to sentient beings.
And this leads to the primary shortcoming of the work.
Certainly it does seem as though some effort was made to make it more palatable to a wider audience, but this seems like it was more of an afterthought rather than the primary purpose in which it was written. Unfortunately, this is the case with far too many academic translations of Buddhist texts. This creates a problem because deciphering the author’s meaning is not the purpose of such a book.
The purpose of translating something is to translate. That is, to make something that is obscure or in another language, available in a way in which can be easily understood. And if we were to review it on those merits, I would have to say that largely hasn’t been achieved here. If the reader has to google terms like “epistolary” and “antinomianism” in order to understand what the author is saying; the writer hasn’t achieved that aim.
The result of all this is that while the lives of these two people are fascinating, involving a deeply inspiring couple during a very important time, is presented in a way that is often dry, repetitive, and as a result can be downright unpleasant to read. When reviewing it, due to the heavily academic language in which it’s written, I resorted to having to break it up into small sections in order to get through it.
A disciplined approach that most people would not make if they were casually reading it. And that’s a shame, as that will likely limit the audience.
I am nonetheless extremely grateful to the author.
This is an area of Buddhism that deeply interests me. As someone who has many past lives with her own spouse, as well as her own teacher, this is a subject that is of great personal import to me. Just as the Buddha’s wife Yashodhara shared many past lives with him, this is an area of Buddhism that needs more exploring and availability in English. I am certainly grateful for any effort in that regards. However it’s shortcomings limit it due to the fact that it will probably only be a limited number of people who read this, and that is unfortunate.
I can only hope future efforts will expand on this subject and we can learn more about the lives of these two people in perhaps a way that’s better presented. If I had to give it a rating, I’d give it three out of five stars. Three for the great content, and minus two for the unfortunate way in which it was written and presented.
Inseparable Across Lifetimes is available through Snow Lion Press.
Sara Isayama is a Buddhist writer, and practitioner. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their two cats, and numerous geckos.
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