In the introduction, I mentioned that you do not need to be a Buddhist or have extensive knowledge of Buddhist doctrine to be able to read and study this text. My point is that you can read and study this text, irrespective of your social and religious background; whether you are religious or an atheist, an intellectual or not, it does not matter, as Zhabkar himself says.
This introduction consists of two parts. In the first section I will highlight my views by taking you on a tour of several topics connected to my idea. These topics may initially seem irrelevant, but I hope to make clear that there is a strong connection. In the second section I will explain some of the context of the Garuda. This will facilitate your understanding when reading and experiencing its content, and it will also help in understanding some of the Buddhist terminology.
The songs are an adaptation  from the original Tibetan of Flight of the Garuda (mkha’ lding gshog rlabs), by the itinerant Tibetan monk Zhabkar. This text belongs to the mystical branch of Buddhism, called Dzogchen.
Dzogchen texts have long been stonewalled and shrouded in secrecy as it was claimed that the training was too intense and a risk for mental health, without the guidance of a competent Buddhist teacher. Nowadays, many Dzogchen texts are published with extensive commentaries, but these are always aimed at Buddhist adepts. My claim, however, is that it is possible, and highly advantageous for non-Buddhists in the West, to study a text like this in a non-Buddhist framework.
Training of the mind
Training of the mind means that you learn to understand how your mind operates. This was Zhabkar’s starting point for writing the Garuda. Western science can contribute to a better understanding of the working of the mind, which can in turn enhance the understanding of what Zhabkar says.
Humans have a divided brain, the left and right hemisphere. Right is associated with fantasy, imagination, and the capacity to make meaning. Left is associated with structuring this, standing back, specifying the outcomes, and making it all work.
The English scientist and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist shows in ‘The Master and his Emissary’ how the right brain is the master, while the left brain is the emissary, the translator, and the spokesman.
In our Western world, he argues, these roles have become reversed, and the left brain has become the master. This master has a very narrow understanding of the reality of the right brain. The left brain lives in a virtual world of its own. A metaphor is that when the right brain oversees the complete terrain, the left brain starts travelling with a very condensed map on which only the most necessary points are painted. Left is able to manipulate reality, right has the capacity to understand reality as a whole. Right and left experience different realities and these have to be seamed together. This leaves room for an area of tension that sometimes looks like a battlefield.
This means that while the right brain is creative ad nauseam, the outcome of its creativity has to be structured in order to be of any practical value. This structuring is limiting, and as will be shown, structure becomes power. Once it has become the master, the left brain acts as a dictatorial manager and bureaucrat. Power is of two kinds, subservient and self-servient. In the former, it can be of service to the creativity of the right brain in general. In the latter, imagination will be suppressed and marginalised. This is what happens in our society, but also in our brains if we are not attentive to this process. Modern education with its tendency to emphasise cognition, while fantasy and creativity are marginalised, is a perfect example.
The collaboration of the two brain hemispheres is an iterative process, in which both halves are constantly involved, and where the risk exists that the left brain, the emissary, becomes the master. McGilchrist argues that in our Western society this has already been the case since the Enlightenment period. Of course, counter movements spring into life. The Reformation as well as socialism and romanticism are examples that also show that these counter movements are easily prone to also becoming cocooned by the left brain.
Religion is an expression of the inexhaustible capacity of the right brain for creativity and giving meaning to something that cannot be easily expressed in words, and it is that which we call the noumenon. The left brain is put to work to give direction to the unstoppable fantasy of the right brain and make it into practical reality. Ultimately, it is the left brain that summarises the matter and gives words to the outcome. Because power necessarily takes its role in this process of favouring, the left brain is empowered, and so the development of creativity can come to a slowdown, and with self-servient power in the driver’s seat petrifaction is likely. This can be found in many religions where a founder started a movement on the basis of his newfound insights (right), but were later corrupted by self-servient leaders, or through the power of institutions (left).
Following on from these thoughts, Dutch anthropologist André Droogers argues that the phenomenon of play can counter this trend. Play is reality in the mode ‘what if’ instead of in the mode ‘what is’, in which normal reality seems to exist.
Play is a temporary endeavour, but quite serious for the player of the game. Children learn through play, and a child who has difficulty with losing is taught that ‘it’ is only play. For me this boils down to the conclusion that there is not really much difference between play and reality, when you can look at reality from some distance. Although we know that play is play, and although play is a serious endeavour, we seem to have forgotten to look at the different roles we play in reality, and at the phenomena themselves in this way. This has resulted in the loss of the notion that realities and truths can exist alongside each other.
McGilchrist argues that a paradoxical situation has come about, that as a result of the domination of the left brain our view of reality has become limited, and that this experience of reality has become a power structure of its own. The consequence of this dominance of the left brain has resulted in everything being bordered and packed into the limited reality of the left brain. The result is that the left brain has become the master. We can see this reflected in a materialistic worldview, materialistic science, and a heartless bureaucracy.
Regarding religions Droogers explains that they all started with the imagination and often a pivotal experience of their founders, and that these bordering power structures became dominant right from the start. The initial creativity was curtailed by power structures of all kinds. These can have the form of religious institutions and self-serving power structures of self-appointed priests. But it can also have a so-called intellectual form, such as theology and scholasticism. Droogers proposes looking with admiration at religion as play, as an expression of the unending imagination of the human mind. This is to say, not only looking at the play of others, and admiring these, but also looking at the religious play of ourselves, and by so doing, seeing it in a more relative way.
McGilchrist proposes restoring imagination to its proper place, and Droogers advocates returning the factor of play to religion in areas where power structures and the bordering process have gained priority. As will be shown shortly, this is exactly what Zhabkar means by training the mind.
Mystical movements are those in which people train to experience oneness with the divine. People who have had a life-changing transformation and no longer see reality in the way that we normal people do, but who have identified with the divine – whatever this may be – are called mystics.
Mysticism obviously belongs to the right brain, and because it cannot be categorised – each mystic tells his own story – it has the feel of incomprehensibility and unattainability. In the West, mysticism is also associated with irrationality, which for science – mainly a left brain activity – creates a barrier for investigation.
In Eastern religions this supposition is less or not existent. The mysticism of Dzogchen is not different from Western mysticism, but in Buddhism mysticism is handled in a more rational way. This is fine, but should not lead to the situation, metaphorically speaking, where the map becomes the terrain.
Mysticism is not easily categorised, and therefore power structures, such as the Roman-Catholic Church in the West have always look at mystics with suspicion. In Buddhism the solution to handle mysticism was developed to cocoon it as the highest possible, only for the very few, and an enormous amount of literature of high scholastic content was written. Thus in the West, mysticism was marginalised by suppression and persecution, and in Buddhism mysticism was marginalised by the religious orders of monks by isolating it as the highest possible to attain, and thereby shrouding it in secrecy.
As I see it, this factual situation has heavily influenced the Western perception of Dzogchen. Where Buddhist monks devote their lives to the training of mysticism, in the West the idea has taken root that westerners, who are eclectic and cannot go on retreats for months, cannot understand what is said. This idea seems to have firmly taken root among westerners themselves. But profundity is different than complexity. For the latter, it takes years of study to be able to make the distinctions of distinctions that are paramount in scholastic Buddhism. Like Christianity, Buddhism excels in scholasticism.
Zhabkar, however, states that the true core is profound and simple. In Song 2 he explains what has to be achieved and then says:
2.27 This is the core: when this is internalised through practice,
They all are liberated, whatever their capacities,
Clever or stupid, it does not matter and
Even a herdsman is liberated when he has practised this.
The clear rationality, the plain explanation, the common but evocative poetic language, and the powerful images that Zhabkar uses, explain the popularity that the Garuda has always had among Tibetans. Moreover, the original Tibetan version is written in relatively simple language, for the common man.
My conclusion is that mysticism is not an obstacle in approaching this text with a rational frame of mind in the same way Zhabkar himself does.
What is the aim?
In order to explain what has to be achieved an image from the Christian tradition might be helpful.
Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us and around us, but that we fail to see it. The Kingdom of Heaven is the actualised view that reality, which now often may seem deterrent, is not so, but that reality exits in an everlasting equilibrium. This may be unimaginable now and seems unattainable. However, this is not the case as Zhabkar will prove, and later on in this introduction I will elaborate further on this point. Jesus does not say how we can master this view.
Dzogchen promises exactly the same, but a course of action is also provided, which is the training of the mind. The Garuda speaks only of the training of the mind in order to see that Nirvana, for now roughly the equivalent of heaven on earth, already exists here and now. This training only holds the premise that everyone has the seed of Buddhahood inside them. This should not be taken literally. It is sufficient to accept the notion that you are capable of doing this training, and that you realise this. The training of the mind itself is not religious or mystical at all. Nobody will insist that forms of psychotherapy or education, which are all training of the mind, are of a religious or mystical nature. Because Buddhism is a non-theist religion and does not have a creator God, a training of the mind is an easier take on this matter than the theist proposition of Christianity.
You can read the Garuda as a Buddhist text, but as I have already explained, this is not compulsory. When you understand what Zhabkar is saying – and anybody can – the Buddhist baggage is not necessary. If you embark on this path the strong will to reach enlightenment, taken in the religious Buddhist sense, might even be an obstacle. The promise is that when you really do your homework reality will start to look different, less disquieting, and this will be felt as an enormous step. The possibility that there is more in the offing for those who persevere is a nice perspective, but should not deter anyone from starting the training.
The why of the Garuda
The Flight of the Garuda, in my view, has the unique quality that it mediates perfectly between what was previously called the left and right brain. Moreover, it has the element of play as well.
It is my belief that all religions and wisdom teachings have the aim of attaining freedom in their origin. Nirvana, liberation, enlightenment, and the kingdom of heaven are the religious expressions of this freedom. It is depicted in exalted words in the writings of many mystics in the Middle Ages. My focus is not on these expressions, but on freedom itself, which will be shown not to be an individualistic romantic sort of freedom, but one that is very practical and contains responsibilities.
What this freedom might look like I, will try to explain using the ideas of Yuval Noah Harari.
He argues that human civilisation exists in imagined orders. An imagined order is an idea that has been made into reality by the trust that is invested in it by the people who endorse this idea. Our society is such an imagined order. It could have ended up being very different, and mankind has certainly been busy experimenting with it over the centuries. These experiments have included the democratic, royal, communist, totalitarian and many more.. The human mind, i.e. the right brain, has an almost insane creativity to imagine the possible and impossible, and therefore many creative ideas, that may eventually turn out not to be viable, have been tried out. All these imagined orders could have been different, and how they became what they are is contingent.
Among the most creative products of the human mind are: the different structures of society itself, money, economy, and important for my argument, gods and religions. Often a leader or a prophet is needed, who, given that he has enough adherents for the original ideas of the founder, can start his own imagined order. Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Saint Paul, Mohammed, Marx, many great politicians of the past, but also some Nobel Prize for Economy winners, belong to this class of people. Realising this insight can as such be liberating.
Money and the gods belong to the same epistemological level, and both exist by the grace of the trust of the people, the citizens in society, and the believers of a religion. As soon as a breach of trust in imagined orders occurs – the recent financial crisis shows this abundantly – the stock exchanges plummet, and in the case of religion the churches empty.
It is true that we imagine our world into being, as indigenous elders say. We collectively imagine our world into being, and Harari extensively elaborates on this. Alongside the collective imagined orders we live in, there is the individual imagined order that each of us has. Each human being has also installed in himself his own personal imagined order, his vision of what the world should look like and how it should respond. This is often a fantasy world like Disney, and never being able to live up to the expectations creates great dissonances.
There are all kinds of imagined orders, including smaller, individual, and collective ones – just think of the internal rules of a sports club or of a student fraternity – to bigger ones like the global models for economy such as capitalism or communism. In the field of religion this is exactly the same, there are small sects and mainstream religions. But always and everywhere the personal imagined order is the most important of all. What they all have in common is that they are imagined orders, existing by the grace of the permanence of the trust of their adherents, which is ultimately the individual belief that it is the morally right thing to do.
Fact is that all imagined orders promise the advancement of the human condition and/or to bring heaven on earth, or a paradisiacal hereafter.
Imagined orders promise better collaboration and therefore by default the advancement of our situation in life, more and better food, more safety, more stability, a better life, in short, paradise on earth. The short-term gratification of these is far more attractive than any long-term fulfilment. On religion, Harari uses the hilarious example that no ape can be persuaded to turn over the banana in his hand in exchange for the promise of endless bananas in the ape-heaven, but humans ….!
Religious imagined orders and their main problem
One of the problems of the imagined orders is that they seem to constitute reality, and therefore tend to be taken as absolute by their adherents. This is visible in economic science, where proponents and opponents of a certain idea, for instance the free markets, dispute in rather dogmatic argumentations. The realisation that imagined orders are only imagined seems very difficult. In the field of religion this cries out. Here imagined orders are made into absolute Truth, and text becomes Scripture, and then is ‘The Word of God’ or the like, and is deemed true beyond all doubt. Harari points out that this trait seems responsible for the many millions slaughtered in religious wars and religious persecution.
This way of making absolute is a fallacy that is called begging the question (principio principii). It may be obvious that this is a left brain process, linked to power structures. One of the best sentences I found in McGilchrist’s book reads as follows: ‘Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right, are centainly wrong.’
Wrapping up on brain halves, play and imagined orders
The foregoing suggests that any problem with fundamentalist religious thinking – and for that matter with fundamentalism of any kind – is not rooted in religion, but in the left brain half.[19a]
Religion, in my view, is the attempt to put into words that which is not easily expressed, and what we call the noumenon, something that we feel that exists, but that cannot be proven in any other way than by our feelings. This makes religion, as history proves, a prone for manipulation and abuse of power.
These three ways of approaching the question at hand, namely how to read a high Buddhist text, show that religions are of the same category as all social phenomena. Religion cannot claim a privileged position in any debate, but neither can any secular philosophy.
Consequences for my thesis are that you can read a so called religious text like The Garuda in the same way you read poetry. Secondly, any claim on exclusivity of meaning or interpretation of a religious authority is unfounded. Consequences for my thesis are that you can read a so-called religious text like the Garuda in the same way you read poetry, or an instruction manual. Secondly, any claim on exclusivity of meaning or interpretation by any religious authority is unfounded.
This all is not meant to be religion bashing. It is my view that all reIigions are a product of our unending imagination, but this by all means does not mean that religion is worthless. Religion exists, and has beautiful qualities. I want to show that religion should not seat itself high on a horse, but this also extends to other systems of thought that would happily absolutise their contents. I also would like to underline that looking at religion in this way, either as a product of the creative right brain, as play or as imagined orders, does not diminish its value as meaning giving instrument for the believer. The noumenon, not expressible in words, exists nevertheless.
From the standpoint of the believer it may have an augmented value, but this notion exists only in his mind, and he should be aware of this. This notion does not diminish the value of religion in any way. This value is in fact equivalent to the value that democracy in the West has for the common citizen. What has to be avoided is the fallacy – a left brain activity – to see a religion, a political system, or an economic model as absolute truth. History shows that those who possess Truth have no marbles left to play with. But just as in science change of paradigm against heavy resistance is possible, this is also the case in religion. Hard labour is often to be exerted. Hard labour is often to be exerted.
It is a pity, but this freedom cannot be achieved by intellectual understanding alone. The etchings that you yourself have drawn in your mind through education and the environment are too deep to be removed with thinking alone. Intellectual understanding is not sufficient. The left brain cannot solve the problems that it generated with its own methods. The solution can be found in the right brain half. However, although the right brain has become the emissary instead of the master, this will not help. The solution then lies in the middle. Droogers proposal for admitting play only works for those who still are able to play, those who can see that different realities may exist at the same time. Zhabkar mentions ‘play’ many times to show the relativity of what we call reality.
Zhabkar’s proposition thus necessarily goes beyond intellectual understanding. It is important, along with reading the text, to also use it for training in any way that suits you. In the Introduction I gave some suggestions on how to do this. The notes and the List of Terms also give suggestions on how to train. It is important to train along the rules of the Buddhist imagined order at the start. The text has to be taken seriously. This seems contradictory to what I have said before, and even more contradictory to our Western way of gaining knowledge, but the path cannot be walked by observing, but only by experiencing. It is my firm belief, proven over the years and by many teachings, that this sort of knowledge can only be internalised by experience.
Zhabkar promises freedom if you walk to the end, and knowing beforehand that this will be the experienced insight of the illusion of the imagined orders is not a problem, unless you prematurely think you have reached this goal. Zhabkar warns about this, and self-assessment and some humbleness are indispensable. How this kind of liberation will unfold for you cannot be divined beforehand. But to see this freedom as ‘happily ever after’ is not realistic; to see liberation as super human, not for normal human beings, and making something extraordinary of it in an imagined order is also silly. Freedom is, in my experience, about how I, and for that matter any human being, can live in peace, can stand upright when all seems to be going wrong, and can act compassionately to help other people in a unselfish way. Liberation is not something extreme. I call upon Zhabkar who states several times that it is the common consciousness that has it all.
The Garuda is a text with little doctrinal content, and much explanation and instruction. It is my view that the training of Dzogchen as described by Zhabkar is a way to get beyond the imagined orders, even the Buddhist imagined order. The Garuda focuses on seeing ‘beyond’, beyond what we call reality. He who perseveres will experience this freedom. Of course the Buddhist imagined order proscribes that this can be achieved only within its religious concepts, but I do not believe this to be necessary.
Going beyond imagined orders will lead you to leave behind the ‘have-tos’ (the must-dos), according to Zhabkar. Having-tos are the fictitious necessities with which all imagined orders are filled, and of which the personal imagined order is the most persistent one. He who travels this path will give up these have-tos. This will ensure a better balance between the left and right brain according to McGilchirst, and will also make it possible to look at religion as play, as proposed by Droogers. Then, if you have trained properly, there will be compassion and love for your neighbour, beautifully expressed by Martin Buber, the relationship of I-You, in which I and You are parallel lines that cross in infinity, which for Buber means God.
This is the same as the Buddhist non-dual state, in which I and the other are not two. Jesus said such when expressing that he and the Father are one. In Buddhism the development of compassion is of the utmost importance, and the first commandment to train. It boils down to the validity of the Golden Rule that is supra- and transcultural.
In Buddhism the development of compassion is of the utmost importance, and the first commandment to train. It boils down to the validity of the Golden Rule that is supra- and transcultural.
A foreseeable objection is that there will always be some having-to. This is true, but the Garuda points to the expectation that you then will experience this differently.
Going beyond imagined orders may seem to be an imagined order of its own. As will be shown, this is not the case. Going beyond imagined orders will be shown to be the equivalent of the words of Jesus when he speaks of being in the world, but not being of the world. It will be shown to include responsibilities necessary to live in a way that shows compassion for your neighbour.
The human condition seems to have moved towards more cognition,
meaning the dominance of the left brain in the form of imagined orders with ever more fictitious necessities. This results in less awareness for the human activities being a form of play. Globalisation and scaling up accelerate this situation. The inherent creative capacity of the right brain becomes curtailed, marginalised and incriminated. This can only be countered by seeing reality in a different way, and by giving room to the creativity and perception of reality of the right brain. This tension has always existed, but seems to have moved up in favour of the left brain.
I believe that religions have always aimed to counterweight this tension by giving meaning and furthering freedom. Religious words such as enlightenment and liberation are used to achieve this. But religions are also curtailed and corrupted right from the start, and so they lose their original character, making them no different from any non-religious imagined order.
I assert that a text like the Garuda can open the cocoon of the supremacy of the left brain. For this purpose, it is not necessary to have in-depth knowledge of Buddhism and Buddhist doctrine. But some knowledge of the context of Zhabkar’s thinking may be helpful.
(From this point on the Clarification elaborates on the context of the book and on some Buddhist doctrine.)