Why your James Levine recordings should not be junked

On Facebook composer and conductor Kevin Scott asks will James Levine's recorded legacy become worthless? Will the record companies no longer issue his recordings? It is not a question I can answer; but the following allegory may be relevant. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first revealed by the great Vajrayana practitioner Karma Lingpa as the Bardo Thodol in the 13th century. The ancient mortuary text only achieved its current status as a spiritual classic following Western translation and interpretations in the 20th century, starting with Walter Evans-Wentz's translation in 1927. The best-selling interpretation of the Bardo Thodol is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the French-domiciled Tibetan Dzogchen lama Sogyal Rinpoche, which has sold more than 3 million copies.

My 2002 edition of Sogyal Rinpoche's book*, which has an introduction by the Dalai Lama, is seen below. That copy is very well thumbed, because despite being based on an ancient mortuary text it offers much wisdom about contemporary living. Over the years I have returned again and again to Sogyal Rinpoche's interpretation. But over the same years it also emerged that, like James Levine, Sogyal Rinpoche was not the role model he should have been. In 1994 a civil lawsuit was filed against him alleging he used his position as a spiritual leader to induce a female student to have sex with him. Despite an out of court settlement allegations rumbled on and came to a head in 2017 when a letter from senior figures in the Buddhist Rigpa network founded by Sogyal Rinpoche was published citing more examples of abuse. The Dalai Lama distanced himself from the Dzogchen lama, saying: "Sogyal Rinpoche, my very good friend. Now he is disgraced". Following this condemnation the French Buddhist Union suspended the membership of Rigpa France, and Sogyal retired from his position as Rigpa'a spiritual director.

Given the bad karma accumulating around Sogyal Rinpoche I thought it expedient to shift my allegiance to another version of the Bardo Thodol. All recommendations pointed to Robert Thurmans's 1994 translation. His Tibetan Book of the Dead is more scholarly in execution and in music terms more faithful to the score. But, despite having much to offer, for me it remains is a forensic exposition of a 13th century Tibetan text, whereas Sogyal Rinpoche's vivication speaks directly to our present predicament. Sogyal's interpretation may date from 1988, but its perennial wisdom has a painful relevance in our social media-obsessed age, as this extract illustrates:

Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity, but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our "biography", our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards... It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn't that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?
Robert Thurman's metaphysically-correct and baggage-free** version of the Bardo Thodol sits on a shelf alongside my other valued Tibetan Buddhism books, while the vibrant version by the disgraced Sogyal Rinpoche stays by my side and is frequently consulted. So, based on that admittedly tangential experience, my advice to Kevin Scott and other is that, abhorrent though James Levine's alleged misdemeamours may be, don't junk his recordings.

* Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey. (The unrelated Jonathan Harvey set Andrew Harvey's reimagining of Rumi's verse in How could the soul not take flight [1996] and Ashes dance back [1997]). Retrospective rethinking within Buddhist circles now, possibly conveniently, emphasises the contribution of the two editors at the expense of Sogyal Rinpoche. A useful account by Patrick Gaffney from 2012 of the creative process sheds light on the relative contributions.

** Actually not quite baggage free.

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Graeme said…
I heard an extraordinary account of Brahms 3 with the Munich Phil conducted by Levine at the Concertgebouw in 2001-ish. The power of the music making was extraordinary. And, let's just suppose here, what would remain of Bernstein's rep if Levine is deemed unacceptable?

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