Finding the Voice

Patrick Gaffney

In 1994, Patrick Gaffney, one of the main editors of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, gave an account of just how the book was written:

“DEATH CAN OFTEN BE a sticky subject. One afternoon in May three years ago, I arrived at a tiny railway station on the borders of England and Wales. Waiting to meet me was the owner of the cottage where I was to spend the next month attempting to justify the enormous volume of papers and books compressed into my luggage. We drove off down narrow, winding lanes. Suddenly, my new friend asked: “My wife tells me you’re working on a book. Is that right?” “Yes”, I said. “Well, can I give you a word of warning? We’ve got a friend of ours visiting. She loves talking, and minding everybody else’s business. If she finds out that you’re writing a book, we’ll never hear the end of it, neither you nor us.” “Oh?” I ventured, sensing that he was moving towards a helpful conclusion. “Take my advice. If she asks you what you do”, he paused as he caught my eye and a conspiratorial smile slunk across his face, “tell her you do something else … anything at all. Tell her, for instance, that you’re a mortician.” We both giggled at his ingenuity; no-one would ever risk too long a conversation with an undertaker, for obvious reasons. We sped on for another mile or so, quiet and contented. “By the way, what’s your book about, anyway?” “Well, actually …. it’s about death.” Now we drove on in a chilly silence, uneasy and grim-faced. As I sat  there, I was reminded, yet again, of the power in our culture of the fear of death to penetrate and cast its shadow over even the most normal of circumstances, and to rob us, quite simply, of our lives.

No wonder that when he first came to the West, Sogyal Rinpoche was shocked by the attitude to death he saw around him. I can remember him speaking of death and dying from when he first started teaching in London in 1975, and death was to remain one of the key topics on which he taught. “After all”, as he jokes, “it is not about to go out of fashion.” It was in 1983 that Rinpoche met Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Kenneth Ring and other figures in the caring professions and near-death research, and they begged him to develop his work in opening up the Tibetan teachings on death and helping the dying. Many international conferences, weekends and retreats followed all over the world, and there came to be an increasing, and pressing demand from members of the public for Rinpoche to write a book which would communicate the Tibetan attitudes to death and care for the dying. Yet he waited, partly because he was so busy teaching, partly because he felt the time was not right and because he wanted, if he wrote a book, to make it the clearest and most perfect account possible, and partly because he felt his own teaching on death and dying was still evolving towards its fullest expression.

Then, in 1989, we began. In Nepal, early that year, Rinpoche had met Andrew Harvey, and had invited him to help on his book. Rinpoche knew that, if truly ‘translated’, the Tibetan teachings would have the beauty, openness and immediacy to reach an enormous audience. His vision was of a book that could be understood and used by anyone of whatever religion or background. Andrew is a well-known poet and spiritual writer of real genius, and I was to discover his wonderful gift for language and for shaping the flow of thought. What struck me most about him was his curious mixture of discipline and limitless, you could almost say radiant, creativity, which is, I suppose, what makes a true artist.

The many translations of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

First, however, came the work of research and collation, of collecting hundreds of hours of Rinpoche’s teachings on audio cassettes and transcribing them. Some preliminary chapters were written, and shown to publishers early in 1990. Harper San Francisco was finally chosen as a result of divinations made by a number of eminent Tibetan masters. This method was employed for all the major decisions about the book, and proved to be a continuous source of fascination to the publishing world, where such a procedure, oddly enough, is still considered unorthodox. In August 1990 Rinpoche invited his teacher, the great master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, to give what proved to be his last major public teaching in the West, to 1,500 people in the Alps near Grenoble, in France. There, on the corner of the stage, in the closing minutes of the very last day, and with the blessing of one of the legendary spiritual giants of this century, Rinpoche signed the contract.

From then on, work accelerated. More materials were generated and Rinpoche gave new versions of the teachings on death. Then it was decided that I should be dispatched to remote places in order to prepare rough versions of different parts of the book, and to work out a structure. This was how I found myself, in February 1991, alone in the mountains of Andalucia in Spain, and again in May mapping out the bardos in the wilds of Shropshire in England. When the summer came, we had enough materials to begin writing. Andrew Harvey and I moved into a small house in California, selected for the creative process, and close to Rinpoche’s residence. We began to write the first chapters of the book, regularly visiting Rinpoche, who would correct them and provide new ideas. Some of the hardest parts were those concerning helping the dying, and in desperation, on cloudy days, we would sometimes take ourselves, or the whole book down to the ocean. The beginning of Chapter 11 was composed in a sand-dune.

More was done in London, but the most intense period of all began in Paris, at the end of 1991. Afterwards Andrew was to use the words wild and agonising to describe it; I forget the words he used at the time. Throughout that autumn and winter, day after day I remember  leaving my house at 9am to work in Andrew’s roof-top room, and finishing entering the changes on the word processor at home at 3am the next morning. We would visit Rinpoche who would make laser-like corrections and give long, completely new teachings on the theme in hand, always brilliant and fresh, in a seemingly endless, playful symphony, reaching towards perfection. At some point I remembered what George Orwell had said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”

Sogyal Rinpoche with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

We travelled like cybernauts across Paris in the subway system, staring blankly at each other or crying with laughter, and naturally making for the seats reserved for those shell-shocked or injured in the wars. Later, while Rinpoche was leading retreats in Germany and Australia, long faxes would arrive full of corrections, changes and new paragraphs. He was testing the key chapters of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, for example on the Nature of Mind, the practice of meditation, compassion, Guru Yoga and Dzogchen, by teaching them directly, again and again, all over the world in retreats and courses, perfecting them so that they could be used as standard guides for his students in future. According to those who kept count, some parts were corrected and re-written twenty five times.

We quickly found out that however hard we tried to define or hurry the book, it had its own agenda, its own timing and energy, and seemed to transform in one way or another everyone it came in contact with. Eventually the book was given to a number of exacting editors, writers and Buddhists to read and to criticize, and the final changes were composed in July 1992, during the historic three month retreat which Rinpoche conducted at his European retreat centre, Lerab Ling, in France.

Lerab Ling--Rigpa's retreat center in southern France

Probably, a book has never been written in such an unusual way. If it was difficult, it was because it presented so many challenges. One of the greatest was how to find Rinpoche’s voice, that intimate, warm, clear and humorous voice that is so supremely eloquent when communicating live. Rinpoche is a master of the great oral tradition of Tibet, stretching back over centuries, the hallmark of which is the power to transmit directly, from heart to heart, mind to mind, on the medium of words, something which is beyond words.

There were other important issues. We implored Rinpoche to include his own personal experiences and memories from his life, which was an act of great daring for a Tibetan. Rinpoche wove in consciously, too, different layers of meaning which could be understood by people with different degrees of spiritual experience. Again, one of Rinpoche’s greatest concerns was to ensure the authenticity of the teachings, and he fused into the book answers to questions about the teachings concerning death presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and other great masters.

There are so many things I could say about The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, but the strongest feeling I am left with, looking back now, is one of awe. People speak of Sogyal Rinpoche as a visionary. Will they, I wonder, in the future also compare him to a bodhisattva? His vision is of a world where people can find freedom from ignorance, from despair and cynicism and grasping, from lack of meaning and self-esteem, and from the fear of death and life. Perhaps in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, there is no better symbol of his compassion, his single-minded dedication to the truth and his devotion to helping others towards understanding.

All I know is that throughout the amazing process of its writing, we were sustained by an inspiration unlike any other, as well as a mysterious but certain knowledge that we were taking part in something the scale of which we could only barely imagine. This book is, I am sure, nothing other than the voice of the buddhas, with all their wisdom, and their compassion, speaking through one of their greatest living heirs.


4 Responses to “Finding the Voice”
  1. tiffany says:

    this book always find me, a blessing I hope will extend to more and more people ..

  2. Sebastian says:

    So lovely to hear about your work and experiences creating the book.
    If we ever meet I will tell you of my experiences with the book too.
    I travelled with it for ten years or so, still do, what an amazing and inspiring companion!
    Thank you kindly.

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