May Book Reviews

This month I read only books with cool titles.

Daley, Brian. Fall of the White Ship Avatar. 1986.

Mildly cheesy pulp sci-fi, with occasional bursts of readable prose. Par for the course for Daley.

Yao Mingle, The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao. 1983.

In 1970, China was surprised to learn that the beloved Marshall Lin Biao, military hero and designated successor to Mao, died in a plane crash in Mongolia while fleeing the aftermath of a failed coup attempt.

This book, published in English in 1983 and allegedly based on top-secret materials smuggled out of China, purports to tell the truth about the Lin Biao Conspiracy. It has many citations, but bibliography comprising "unpublished memoirs," "top-secret reports," and "confessions," is not especially unassailable. But it certainly all rings true, the details appear convincing, and I'm willing to take it as provisional fact.

Lin Biao was modern China's most successful general - so talented that he was able to decline the honor of leading the Korean War, which he considered unwinnable, without ending his career. He was also politically very capable, taking a key role in promoting Mao's cult of personality. Mao eventually designated him as successor, an event which led directly to his downfall.

By annointing Lin Biao, Mao had upset the balance of power among the second rung leadership. When Mao investigated a glowing medical report on Lin Biao and discovered it utterly false, he realized that Lin had little hope of outliving him and thus needed Mao's retirement or death to hold real power. Lin suspected that Mao realized what Lin knew, and so Lin ordered his son start recruiting conspirators.

His son Lin Liguo quickly created a conspiracy of hundreds of military officers, a conspiracy that eventually included the chiefs of the different military branches, equivalent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lin Liguo prepared a massive rocket attach at a rail bridge along Mao's route for a Shanghai trip, but unable to get clearance from Lin Biao, failed to pull the trigger. Lin Liguo traveled to the resort town of Beidaihe to plead with his father, but Lin Biao was unwilling to commit to such an overt action. Lin Biao preferred his own plan, which was to fake a war with the Soviet Union, thus prompted Mao to hole up in a military installation outside Beijing, which Lin would then pump full of poison gas. Lin tried to initiate secret talks with Moscow to lay groundwork for a fake war, but his agents weren't taken seriously. So, he planned to start a real war.

Meanwhile, a second rocket ambush, on the train's return journey, was also staged but not executed.

Although unaware of the train ambushes, Zhou Enlai had infiltrated the conspiracy. In addition to being Mao's right-hand man and chief diplomat, we learn that he was also an accomplished spymaster. He had at least two moles in the conspiracy, including Lin Biao's daughter's fiancee, with whose help he ultimately compromised the daughter, who had been privy to everything. Mao invited Lin to dinner at the same installation where Lin had planned to lure and kill him. The conspiracy went into spasms, but in the end Lin went to the dinner, which was polite and uneventful. As his limo was driving out of the complex, it was destroyed by an anti-tank rocket. The remaining conspirators fled, on a jet and a helicopter, both loaded with cash and munitions. The jet was hit by surface-to-air missiles and ultimately crashed in Mongolia, while the helicopter pilot deliberately flew in circles around Beijing all night until forced to land.

Zhou called in the first general, told him that the others had cracked, and asked for a confession, which he recieved. He repeated the process for the other three. The generals were imprisoned but not executed. So, aside from changing the location of Lin Biao's death and the exact circumstances of the plane crash and contents thereof, and hiding the scope of the conspiracy, the official version was actually reasonably accurate. Moral of the story: don't hestitate when you are about to destroy the Chairman's train with rocket launchers. And, make sure the helicopter pilot is in on the conspiracy.

Gyamtso Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness. 2001.

A summary of the main schools of thought of Tibetan Buddhism, with an emphasis on sufficient detail to meditate upon the truths presented. I'm not in the habit of reading religious texts cover to cover, but this was short and much less risible than any other religious writing I've ever looked at. I assume this reflects the nature of Buddhism as a fundamentally philosophical, rather than faith-based, doctrine. Buddhism, as explained by a shaved-head friend, is like scientists had spent thousands of years exploring the inner mind instead of the external world. It seems to me that the point of departure is Descartes, who asserts, "I think, therefore I am." Western science and philosophy go on from there, whereas Buddhists are only willing to grant, "I think, therefore I think," and start working from that point instead.

The Shravaka Approach: ... the clinging to the idea that one has a single, permanent, independent, truly existing self ... is the root cause of all one's suffering.
Compare with this description of major depression: "Eventually, you are simply absent from yourself. ... you are less than yourself and in the clutches of something alien. ... Rebuilding of the self in and after depression requires love, insight, work, and, most of all, time." (Solomon, Andrew. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. 2001.)
Following the Shravaka pattern of trying to be intimately aware of every moment of consciousness as it arises, at the Cittamatrin stage the meditator realizes that the division of each moment of awareness into an inner perceiving mind and an outer perceived object is a conceptual invention. ... there is no proof that there is any substance other than mind anywhere.

Madhyamikas ... do not consider the ultimate emptiness found by the Cittamatrins to be ultimate emptiness at all. ... The Madhyamaka Rangtong uses reason to establish that consciousnesses and their objects cannot be ultimately real, because in the final analysis each arises only in dependence on the other and neither has a self-nature of its own.

[The two branches of Rangtong are Svatantrika and Prasangika.] ... even though the Svatantrikas themselves think they teach an understanding that goes beyond concepts, from the Prasangika point of view their understanding is still subtly conceptual. ... [Prasangikas] refuse to use any reasoning to establish the true nature of phenomena. ... Their aim is to free the awareness of its conceptualizing habit and to let the ultimate nature of reality reveal itself in a totally non-conceptual way.

... From the Shentong point of view, the fault with both Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka is that they do not distinguish between the three different kinds of existence, the three different kinds of emptiness and the three different kinds of absence of essence ... The Shentong regards the concept of a stream of consciousness consisting of moments having knowing and known aspects as a misunderstanding of reality. ... the luminous self-aware non-conceptual mind that is experienced in meditation, when the mind is completely free of concepts, is absolute reality.