- Rainbow Body and Resurrection: Spiritual Attainment, The Dissolution Of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo a Chö by Francis V. Tiso
In recent years, the growing popularity of comparative theology as an academic discipline has led to the proliferation of academic studies exploring the points of contact between different religious traditions, bringing into conversation authors and texts that address analogous themes or question, without however postulating any historical or conceptual link between the strands of the tradition in question. For instance, Francis Clooney's Hindu God Christian God (2001), Divine Mother Blessed Mother (2003), or Beyond Compare: St. Francis de Sales and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God (2008) set out an ambitious road map for an intellectual exchange between two vastly different religious traditions. These monographs, however, focus on speculative and conceptual echoes between Hindu and Christian authors from different eras and never claim any instance of reciprocal influence. In a similar way, a work like John Keenan's I Am/No Self: a Christian Commentary on the Heart Sutra (2011) may highlight unexpected echoes between the well-known Mahāyāna text and the Gospel of John, but it certainly does not venture any hypothesis about historical exchanges of ideas. At this stage in the history of interreligious dialogue, to embrace an alternative approach would seem a throwback to the Campbellian world of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), where a sort of perennialism for the masses presents all religions as culturally determined expressions of the same tradition.
Francis Tiso's Rainbow Body and Resurrection is not a neo-perennialist work in the vogue of Campbell or Guenon: Tiso is certainly not interested in erasing the peculiarities of different religious traditions or in turning Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity into masks of the divine. At the same time, Tiso makes a number of daring claims, namely he affirms that there are peak mystical experiences in Buddhism and Christianity that share intriguing similarities, even if no one can actually affirm their identical character. In addition, he affirms that the interpretation of such experiences in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism was actually influenced by certain theological strands of Syriac Christianity that were largely erased from the historical consciousness of Western, and to a great extent Byzantine Christianity, but were able to spread to the East via the Silk Road, until they encountered the [End Page 467] Buddhist world on the Tibetan plateau and in Western China. Tiso is well aware of the fact that most scholars will question his reconstruction of the history of Tibetan thought and that many readers will be startled at his acceptance of the truth of seemingly "paranormal" phenomena. Even this reviewer, while sympathetic to Tiso's enterprise, is ultimately reluctant to accept the full import of his claims. At the same time, whether or not one chooses to follow the author in his search for the ever-elusive historical contact between Buddhism and Christianity, this monograph has the distinctive merit of trying to challenge established academic conventions and reset the terms of the comparative conversation. Perhaps, Tiso appears to suggest, there is more to comparative theology than the mere juxtaposition of texts; it may be high time to go back to fieldwork, let go of our enlightened prejudices, and seek out the extraordinary phenomena that religious traditions—at least in the past!—routinely acknowledged as possible.
In the introduction, Tiso observes that the resurrection of the dead in Christianity is associated with the notion of a transcendent God returning his creation to fullness of being, while such an eschatological perspective is not universally present in Buddhism. At the same time—he claims—this teleological thrust can be found in later strands of the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen, where the emphasis on the interrelatedness of all phenomena coexists with the conviction that human experience can have a direction or purpose. What would this be? According to many Dzogchen authors, then, the purpose of human experience is to break...