The Garden: A Parable
By Michael Roach
Doubleday, 202 pages

Michael Roach, a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk, is a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan and Russian, a diamond cutter and dealer, an executive for 14 years in an international gem firm, the abbot of a monastery in New York City, a prolific translator of Buddhist canonical literature, and, finally, founder and director of the Asian Classics Input Project, a worldwide effort to salvage woodblock prints of sacred texts by copying them onto computer discs. Now, with the publication of "The Garden: A Parable," Roach adds another hat to his remarkable collection: that of author.

As a Gelugpa lineage holder (the order headed by the Dalai Lama), Roach is dedicated in every of his many public endeavors to spreading, and deepening, the teachings of the Buddha. True to form, Roach captures the entire breadth of Tibetan Buddhist teaching in this spare, plain-spoken parable about a man led to a mystical garden by his young lover, a teenager who possesses more than average wisdom. Like many lovers, the youth disappears, and the man begins what looks to be a two-pronged quest: to reunite with "Her" and to comprehend the agonizing death from cancer of his good-hearted mother.

Over the course of the book, the seeker returns again and again to the garden. Each time he is met by a Tibetan Buddhist saint, each of whom gives him one of the fundamental lessons of Buddhism and guides him on the path to realization.

The first to arrive is Tsong Khapa, the 14th-century sage and founder of the Gelugpa lineage, who shows the narrator that his mother's pain and death were inevitable--they illustrated, that is, the Buddha's First Noble Truth, that all existence involves suffering and comes to illness, old age and death. Then comes Kamala Shila, a great mediation master, who teaches the seeker to clean his sitting area, make offerings, and finally, to settle down to one-pointed concentration. The First Dalai Lama (1391-1475) pounds home the law of karma. Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, appears looking as he does in a Tibetan painting--hunky and youthful, with flowing black hair and a blue loincloth--to teach the Third Noble Truth: that liberation from suffering can be achieved by letting go of ego attachment. "What if you were totally free of that emotion which troubles you creatures so much, the emotion which makes you so unhappy, and unfulfilled," he asks simply. "What if you no longer wanted things?"

Between each visit, the seeker is sent back to his academic life to put the teachings to the test and to practice the visualizations he is taught, and little by little, he begins to understand the nature of his own mind. Ultimately, after a lifetime of meditating, following the Buddhist precepts, and cultivating compassion and equanimity-the Buddha himself arrives to give the teachings on emptiness-he sees that all the masters are emanations of "Her," the exquisite, golden girlfriend, who is revealed as the embodiment of Wisdom itself.

Roach is the first American to have received the geshe degree--a sort of double-whammy Ph.D. of Buddhist philosophy--after 22 years of study at a Tibetan monastery in India. In the Tibetan system, much of that learning takes place in a formalized but raucous outdoor debating court, where students are challenged year after year by teachers and fellow students to examine every last wrinkle of a particular aspect of the Buddha's teachings. Roach mastery of this mode of thinking shows up in "The Garden," as the masters in the garden wheedle the narrator's flabby logic until he reaches a point of insight.

In proving the Buddha's First Noble Truth, for instance, Tsong Khapa shatters the comforting notion of the beauty of a joyful child.

"Whether later this child becomes old, and sees the terror and fury of life, still he has, at this moment, been joyful and beautiful," insists the narrator.

And so it's pleasure, and no pain, to lick a razor blade covered in honey? counters Tsong Khapa.

"If in licking the honey, I licked the edge of the razor and gashed my tongue, it would only be pain," answers the narrator.

"So licking honey, when below there is a razor blade that slashes your tongue to ribbons--is this a pleasure?" Tsong Khapa asks.

"No, we have already said that," barks the seeker.

"So when a pleasure is necessarily and always accompanied by an infinitely greater suffering, then we can say that this is no pleasure?"

"Yes!" I said triumphantly. "Yes!" he said triumphantly, and showed me the face of the child: joyful, beautiful, and nothing but suffering." Game over.

Roach-the-writer echoes Roach-the-teacher: the tale is exuberant, zealous, colloquial and, for anyone not initiated into Tibetan cosmography, a little out-there. And "The Garden" is grounded in the classical Tibetan Buddhist teachings. But for the uninitiated, the specificity, say, of the Tibetan karmic system, can be daunting. "How many thoughts are there in the time it takes me [to snap my fingers]," booms the First Dalai Lama. "Sixty-five! Your mind completes sixty-five discreet acts of thinking in the time it takes to [me to snap my fingers]." Each thought, each intention, he goes on, leaves a lasting imprint on the mind which, like a seed, flowers into other thoughts and actions that in turn shape the world we live in.

Some historical and philosophical context for these teachers and teachings, and explaining the role of guru yoga, parable and debate, among other themes, in Tibetan Buddhism, would go a long way toward making the book accessible to readers with a budding, or general, interest in Buddhism.

Still, launching headlong into the book has its merits. Unfiltered, these Buddhist concepts must settle in on their own and, like the seeker, we are left with a trove of spiritual lessons to test for ourselves.

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