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Reviewed by:
  • A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar
  • Francis V. Tiso
A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar. By Thinley Norbu. Boston: Shambhala, 2006. 312 pp.

It is important to make a number of things clear about the work under review before proceeding to a discussion of the parts of the book that bear directly on Buddhist-Christian relations. In the first place, the reader should know the identity of the author, Thinley Norbu. In order to make absolutely clear who the author is, there are no less than four forewords to the book by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche (head of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism), Kathog Rigdzin Pema Wangchen Rinpoche (a prominent Nyingmapa lama), Alak Zenkar Rinpoche (another prominent Nyingmapa lama), and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche (a well-known Nyingmapa lama who has authored several valuable volumes on Vajrayāna Buddhism). Thinley Norbu is the son of the late head of the Nyingmapa school, H. H. Dudjom Rinpoche; like his father, Thinley Norbu is a very highly regarded lama with a wide following of disciples both in the Tibetan exile community and in the wider world community of Buddhist practitioners. The purpose of this book is to provide a working commentary on the Dudjom Tersar Ngondro, a well-known set of preliminary practices promulgated by Dudjom Lingpa (1835–1904), a “treasure revealer” (terton) in Eastern Tibet. This particular form of what are termed the “extraordinary preliminary practices” in the Vajrayāna has been transmitted to a large number of Nyingmapa school practitioners in recent decades. It has become so widespread that it is not unusual for photocopies of the prayers and practices to be given out to interested individuals without any particular initiation or other formality. I myself have [End Page 191] received the text a number of times, both as a formal practice from highly respected Tibetan teachers and in this very informal way from my personal friends among Nyingmapa monastics. Perhaps in response to the wide diffusion of this particular set of Vajrayāna practices, the author of this commentary wishes to clarify the unique features of the system revealed by the terton Dudjom Lingpa and widely taught by his own revered father, Dudjom Rinpoche (1904–1988). I would have to say that the parts of the book that comment on the practices (there is also a commentary on a related tantric visualization) are very well written and should be of great inspiration to those who have undertaken the arduous path of practice in this tradition.

On the other hand, the author makes the commentary an occasion for discussing other concerns related to the relationship of Buddhism to other religions, to empirical science, and to the modern world. In these portions of the text, he continues in a polemical vein going back to his very troubling book Welcoming Flowers from Across the Cleansed Threshold of Hope: An Answer to the Pope’s Criticism of Buddhism, published in 1997.1 It is quite clear to careful readers of Pope John Paul II’s book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York, 1994) that there was no intention in that book for the Pope to give out a “final word” on any particular subject, much less to make infallible pronouncements on “faith and morals.” Rather, the book is to be taken as the sincere reflections of the Pope on a number of subjects that come up in both the Church and the world. As such, John Paul II’s book is a collection of essays reflecting a series of interviews with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, whose outspoken political and religious views are well known. The chapter on the Buddha caused a great deal of consternation in interreligious circles because the vocabulary employed seemed to imply a very negative assessment of Buddhism as a religion. However, it is also clear from certain comments in that chapter that the Pope is thinking critically about Buddhist teachings on salvation, a topic fundamental to any Christian theological engagement with other world religions.

The fact that the terminology used by the Pope is imprecise unfortunately reflects the state of general knowledge about Buddhism in the secular and Christian world. As a direct consequence of that lack...