Recently Robert Thurman has taken the place of my former committee PhD chair as my favorite old fart academic father like guy. Oh by the way- Thurman- yes that Thurman, in addition to being Uma Thurman's dad, he is also the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Colombia University
In the recorded version of Jewel Tree Thurman takes the listener on a 6 lesson retreat on Tibetan Buddhism. Here's a snippet from a review in Publisher's Weekly:
Thurman successfully spins the text's interpretation so that it becomes more transparent to a Western audience. He describes Buddhist karma, for example, as "Darwinian evolution with an individual twist," and also cautions readers not to adopt some blissed-out, mind-emptying idea of Buddhism just because they imagine that it's Eastern and therefore superior. "When we seek to enter the path of enlightenment, we have to engage with society." On the other hand, he notes, we also need to embrace ascetics like monks and nuns, and invest generously in their work toward liberation. The book has some truly beautiful moments, as when Thurman encourages readers to meditate on the loving-kindness of their mothers (even the bad mothers, he says, made sacrifices to keep their children alive and fed), or when he offers 11 steps to compassion, love and happiness. Although there are a few hiccups - moments when it becomes obvious that the "root text" of Mentor Devotion is a tricky one indeed - this is a fine tool on the road to enlightenment.
Thurman is quirky, deep, a total lefty politically and gets his politics in every chance he gets- most of which I don't agree with, well the end result but would argue the path by which he gets there, but I honor that view- as it is similar to my husband's view and he presents them in a hilarious way. He has these amazing rants that show the breadth of his knowledge, that begin with a pedagogical discourse, a history lesson, a quote from Shakespeare, Socrates, brings it back to Buddhism, pulls you into meditation mode, and soon you've left the planet and sank deep into the unified field- drawing from a deeper well of information I hadn't thought possible from a book on tape.
The heart of the audio retreat is learning the skill of visualizing the "Wish Granting Gem Tree". As I have been meditating on it every night for the past couple months I am just starting to get. It is a symbolic tree of refuge within which sits all the enlightened beings ready to reach out and assist you with any requests you may have. He leads you through the visualization- imagining a tree- seated with Buddha, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Lao Tzu, Krishna, Mary, whomever you choose as your mentor deity. Here's a description of the tree from Thurman's Inside Tibetan Buddhism/Rituals and Symbols Revealed: Rituals and Symbols Revealed (Signs of the Sacred)
You visualize a lush, green meadow in a vast heavenly field in a perfected realm. There is a crystal lake with delicious waters, from which grows a majestic tree. Its powerful trunk has five main branching sections and flowers and wish-granting gems hang on it like fruit. On the central branch at the center of the crown, there is a shining jewel throne with a glowing moon-disc cushion upheld by eight magic lions. On that throne sits your mentor in the form of a perfect Buddha. Above him or here there is a stack of historic mentors, a living, astral chain of mentors reaching back to the historical Buddhas and adepts... Before the tree circulates a vast host of fierce protector deities. All the enlightened beings on and around this wish-fulfilling refuge tree seem vividly alive, fully aware of you and your practice and dedication. They smile at you radiantly, and their delight in you fills you with joy and confidence. Around you in the field are all ordinary beings, including your family, dearest friends, worst enemies, and all animals (for the moment in human form.). All of them look toward you longingly, seeking help in their own quests for safety and happiness. You vow that your going for refuge will help all of them.
Thurman paints a portrait of this cherished Tibetans Buddhist tradition of "wish-fulfilling jewel tree" that is totally accessible to a 30 something Midwestern girl. He brings it down to a level where extremely difficult esoteric ideas are explained in a way I really get. The kernel of which is that what the Buddha taught has the power to generate bliss and enlightenment within all who absorb its teachings, be they Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim. Everyone one can benefit from his project because it is not religion but a way of seeing the world. Thurman argues that happiness, in fact, is the true goal of Tibetan spirituality. Wish-fulfilling jewel tree imagery acts like a mandala or a yoga pose to focus your attention on truths larger than yourself. It allows a space that is completely lacking in the Western imagination, a map you can jump into, look around and find out who you are and why you are here.
For me personally, it has become an incredible vehicle to better understand myself and the world.
It has inspired this whole new series of trees. Each one a "wish granting tree" that brought a new perspective to my practice and my art.