In the Shadow of the Buddha is a book about religious freedom, transmitted from a prism that refracts a quartet of incisively written points of view. What's really remarkable about Matteo Pistono's book is that he wears his various narrative hats with equal authority. The end result is one of seemingly incongruous components interlocking to create a multi-textural experience seldom offered to readers.
Pistono, the spy: During the last decade, the author has made numerous trips to Tibet to surreptitiously photograph evidence of Chinese oppression inside Tibet and to smuggle out written documents that have become essential data to international human rights organizations, as well as to the US State Department. His fearless information gathering has contributed greatly to a deeper understanding of Tibet, normally off-limits to Western reporters.
Pistono, the Tibetan historian: By weaving in the biography of the 19th century Tibetan mystic Terton Sogyal, the author brings a deeper understanding of the importance of spiritual lineage in Tibetan culture - both from religious and political standpoints. Terton Sogyal's recorded lineage began with Padmasambhava - the adept who brought Buddhism to Tibet twelve centuries years ago - gained renewed importance during the politically pivotal era of the XIII Dalai Lama, and remains extremely relevant to the XIV Dalai Lama, as well as to Terton Sogyal's present-day incarnation Sogyal Rinpoche, (author of the best-seller Tibetan Book of Living and Dying).
Pistono, the travel writer: Having personally tackled the terrain of Kham, Golok and south-central Tibet, I can attest to the author's keen eye when describing the topographical contours (as well as the visceral experience) of the vast untamed countryside - this, in spite of the ever-greater encroachment of Chinese colonization. In this genre, Pistono can hold his head high with the likes of George Patterson, Robert Barnett, Fosco Maraini and Charles Bell.
Pistono, the spiritual seeker: Over the years, the author has had access to many of today's most highly recognized Buddhist teachers. His Buddhist practice comes with physically and mentally challenging retreats in remote Himalayan caves as well as personal empowerments granted to him by leading lamas. One of the great challenges for the author, an ardent human rights activist, has been the fundamental question many Westerner in search of enlightenment can relate to: How does one reconcile the non-attachment teachings of Buddhism with the anger that often arises within one, when confronted with China's relentless and sometime violent suppression of Tibetan faith?
As Pistono writes toward the end of the book:
As I have heard Sogyal Rinpoche say many times, "the next life or the next breath, which will come first is uncertain." Even our teacher's bodies pass away - the Buddha, Terton Sogyal, the XIII Dalai Lama...
...There was no more sadness, no more spiritual yearning or political agenda. Sitting in the rain among the rock and rubble, there was no anticipation. I was not trying to accomplish anything. I was not encumbered by hope or immersed in fear. I released trying to accomplish, to win, or to overcome. And, the worry of losing, or being defeated, or getting caught by the Chinese, evaporated. In the absence of hope and fear, I felt the blessing of my teachers descend with the falling rain.
In the end, In the Shadow of the Buddha is the story of a man committed to sacred pilgrimages - whether those treks take him to remote caves above the Tibetan Plain, or simply (and far more profoundly) within himself.
(written by Mikel Dunham, author of "Buddha's Warriors")