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Luminous Emptiness: A Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead [Paperback]

Francesca Fremantle
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 11 2003
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a best-seller for three decades, is one of the most widely read texts of Tibetan Buddhism. Over the years, it has been studied and cherished by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Luminous Emptiness is a detailed guide to this classic work, elucidating its mysterious concepts, terms, and imagery. Fremantle relates the symbolic world of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the experiences of everyday life, presenting the text not as a scripture for the dying, but as a guide for the living.

According to the Buddhist view, nothing is permanent or fixed. The entire world of our experience is constantly appearing and disappearing at every moment. Using vivid and dramatic imagery, the Tibetan Book of the Dead presents the notion that most of us are living in a dream that will continue from lifetime to lifetime until we truly awaken by becoming enlightened. Here, Fremantle, who worked closely with Chögyam Trungpa on the 1975 translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Shambhala), brings the expertise of a lifetime of study to rendering this intriguing classic more accessible and meaningful to the living.

Luminous Emptiness features in-depth explanations of:

   •  The Tibetan Buddhist notions of death and rebirth
   •  The meaning of the five energies and the five elements in Tibetan Buddhism
   •  The mental and physical experience of dying, according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition

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From Amazon

Francesca Fremantle, who many years ago helped produce a translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, has now taken it upon herself to unravel its complexities. Fortunately, she begins with the basic tenets of Buddhism, including karma and reincarnation, then gradually moves out to more complicated notions such as bardo (in-between state), the nonmaterial side of the elements, the ego, and psychological imprisonment. Before we even get to the text itself, we understand that as much as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is about the death experience, it also symbolizes the processes of life. Only while living can we prepare for death. In the final third of Luminous Emptiness, Fremantle begins to follow the step-by-step processes of the after-death experience, explaining difficult notions and adding background information. Anyone serious about using The Tibetan Book of the Dead will find Luminous Emptiness the next best thing to having one's own personal guru. --Brian Bruya --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1975, Shambhala published The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whose actual name is less catchy: The Great Liberation through Hearing during the Immediate State. (This misnomer originated with W.Y. Evans-Wentz's initial English translation in 1927, piggy-backing on The Egyptian Book of the Dead's popularity at that time.) The 1975 version of Padmasambhava's original eighth-century text, translated by Fremantle and Chegyam Trungpa, strengthened a bridge between Tibetan Buddhism and the West, and it stills sells briskly. To pay tribute to her teacher Trungpa, Fremantle offers this commentary to expound upon and clarify the spiritual classic. Her solo work here is a blend of high intellectualism, readability and spiritual gifts that successfully enhance the understanding of the bardos, or stages, between life and death. The commentary's first part examines the text's foundations, illuminating its rich concepts, while the second applies this clarified knowledge to newly translated excerpts. As Trungpa once observed, the text could just as easily be called The Tibetan Book of Birth; it is indeed a manual about death, the "process of dissolution, but also the process of coming into being, and these two processes are continually at work in every moment of life." Fremantle wrote this for "everyone who feels attracted to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whether they are Buddhist or not." Except for the most dedicated students, this is not a book for beginners, but it will provide expert assistance for those who yearn to contemplate Tibetan Buddhism's deeper fathoms. (Dec.)Forecast: Fremantle's association with the 1975 translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and with Chegyam Trungpa, should help this become an enduring backlist title for Shambhala.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With extensive writings on this profound work June 19 2003
Format:Paperback
Luminous Emptiness: Understanding The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Buddhist teacher and practitioner Francesca Fremantle, presents the classic and enduring "Tibetan Book of the Dead" as a sacred scripture for the living to follow in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Extensive writings on the foundations of this profound work combined with a meticulous translation of the work itself, make for an absorbing and strongly recommended addition to Buddhist Studies reading lists and reference collections.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Luminous Emptiness Sept. 2 2004
By Jampa M. Stewart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Having been a practitioner and student of Buddhism myself for over 36 years, I can honestly say that Luminous Emptiness is the most comprehensive and clear presentation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead that I have ever read. Freemantle explains every topic she addresses clearly, simply, lucidly and thoroughly, without the confusing jargon that so often leaves the reader lost and confused in other similar books. One senses behind her written words the presence of a compassionate, knowledgeable and gentle friend who wants to make sure that you understand everything she is presenting. Luminous Emptiness by Francesca Freemantle is a must-read for anyone interested not only in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but in Tibetan Buddhism in general and Dzogchen as well -- beginner and advanced students alike.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Like the moon reflected in water" July 24 2008
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This commentary on "Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead" combines an extended introduction to the fundamentals of Vajra teachings, an advanced form of "dzogchen" Tibetan teachings, with the text itself, interspersed with her explanations. The misleadingly titled TBoD directs the departed soul which finds itself in need of listening to a posthumous recital by a living guide to acheive its "Great Liberation by Hearing in the Bardo-- or Intermediate or Transitional Realm." You can see even from such vocabulary how this book discusses terms beyond the level of absolute beginners to Buddhism. Fremantle, as an English Sanskrit scholar who then came to translate Tibetan and practice at an elevated level its instruction, does enable those with no previous exposure to follow her fascinating insights and elegantly composed discussion. However, I'd suggest that one may wish to begin with Stephen Hodge & Martin Boord's concise translation with an ecumenically accessible brief commentary, published as "The Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead," for an overview. Such preparation would assist the learner; I found Hodge & Boord only after finishing Fremantle, but I'd recommend progressing the other way around!

I faced many conceptual difficulties as I began this work. Like a philosophical treatise, Dr. Fremantle's exegesis builds inexorably, but sentence stacked on sentence. It demands slow, careful, active engagement. This work cannot be skimmed, used as a time-filler, or as light inspirational encouragement. It's of one of the most serious, formidable, and valuable books I've encountered. Fremantle, except for a few paragraphs in her preface, self-effaces herself entirely from the text. She makes her presence transparent, filtering her academic knowledge and her own dharma elucidation into a complimentary study that explores the TBoD as a book for the living, not only the dead-- for the latter group already may be beyond its appeals.

We, however, can learn from it how to recognize the manifestations of what she calls our "buddha-nature," our primordial state that combines the emptiness of constancy beyond time or space with the luminosity of an actively generated matrix of energy. This all sounds arcane, but Fremantle strives to keep her focus accessible, and if you persist with what may be one of the most important books you'll ever find, gradual enlightenment will begin. Trust me, it's a challenge if, like me, you know little about Buddhism. Yet, it's such a bracing intellectual and psychological trek.

You begin slowly to comprehend Buddhism's message from the TBoD: "like the moon reflected in water," (253) visions of the deities as peaceful or wrathful, colors and sounds generated in these bardo journeys, and fractured space and time all represent only our own nature. All's illusory in the sense that nothing's permanent. Our minds, the TBoD implies, are nine times sharper in the afterlife, so Fremantle interprets this to show how much more powerful imagery will be and also how much more capable we may be-- if prepared by meditation and "creation" and "deity yoga" under a guru's supervision-- to recognize all the TBoD tells us reduces to our own "self-display." No gods threaten or cajole outside of our own qualities. These become analogues, to be heard and seen. The TBoD is recited so the dead person's soul can learn to take advantage and overcome fear so nirvana-- "passing beyond suffering" in Tibetan rendering-- can occur and enlightenment can free us by extinguishing our ego, which keeps getting lured in the bardo into another subsquent round of life in "samsara."

TBoD, Fremantle emphasizes, expresses our own imminence. We can begin to see glimpses of this awakened state here, on earth, if we try. Our everyday choices can be linked to the symbols of the TBoD, and here, as with the realm of hungry ghosts and the "four false views," she articulates the mundane equivalents to these overwhelming otherworldly immersions well. Our own qualities, powers, and functions, she stresses, provide the true counterparts for the deities imagined. The visions in the bardo turn "samsara" inside out, the daily phenomena we witness but may not perceive in its transformed quality. It's aimed at "sacred vision," and while we're trapped in language to convey its meaning, ultimately the TBoD pushes us beyond its symbolic forms into inexpressible magic. Again, this may all sound too proverbial or platitudinous until you make your way with awareness and concentration, and it will begin to become clarified if you have the stamina to remain on this arduous but rewarding narrow path to wisdom. A good summation late in the book, pp. 340-44, may serve as a resting place and a point to pause and recoup near the summit.

She warns us against what her guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, castigated as "spiritual materialism," our tendency to hang on to a particular state of our soul's evolution, rather than to accept "hopelessness," to let ourselves with a trust in "crazy wisdom" let go into seeing the TBoD as representing, as if in a funhouse mirror, our own present possibility, unveiled. It's a daunting task, but Fremantle's example, with learning to anchor her counsel, may prove the goad we need to delve further-- in her earlier work with Trungpa, in the versions of the TBoD by Robert Thurman or Hodge & Boord, and the similar elaborations on its meaning as Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living & Dying."

The book has been prepared with great care. It's written beautifully, yet without the author interfering with her teaching. This skill must be credited to her own practice of its teaching, and she avoids what I assume for lesser scholars might be the impulse to assert her own theories. Instead, she tells us about them. While her book does not go into any real detail about how we can do this according to specific meditation practices, this undoubtably can be obtained from other sources. I'd have liked a glossary rather than an index with a few terms in parentheses, and the endnotes are not always as helpful as I'd wished. These remain minor shortcomings in a text that on every page tells of its depth and mindfulness. The sun is always, she urges us, behind the clouds, and the chance to reach our fulfillment waits for us.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive Nov. 25 2007
By JohnA37 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Comprehensive discussion on Bardo the "intermediate-sate" after death; extensive from the Nyingma Buddhist tradition as well as information on the Bardo of dreams and meditation. Teachings on what to expect after death and how to practice transforming body, speech & mind to overcome karmic hinderances. Very in-depth and methodological approach.

Blurb: Francesca Fremantle Ph.D. studied Sankrit and Tibetan (languages) before collaberating with Chgyam Trungpa in 1975 in translating The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Shambala Pocket Classics)Francesca Fremantle presents this text not as solely to be read to the dying but as a guide for living.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With extensive writings on this profound work June 19 2003
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Luminous Emptiness: Understanding The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Buddhist teacher and practitioner Francesca Fremantle, presents the classic and enduring "Tibetan Book of the Dead" as a sacred scripture for the living to follow in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Extensive writings on the foundations of this profound work combined with a meticulous translation of the work itself, make for an absorbing and strongly recommended addition to Buddhist Studies reading lists and reference collections.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Easier Reading than Tibetan Book of the Dead May 7 2013
By D. C. Eaton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am not a Buddhist. I wanted to learn about Tibetan Buddhism, but the Tibetan Book of the Dead was impossible! This is comprehensive, but explained very well - in layman's terms. Exactly what I wanted. I would agree with another reviewer who says there is so much information it can lead to overload, but I am working through it slowly.
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