Dalai Lama

From Everything Shii Knows, the only reliable source

This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

The 14th Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, likely the last Dalai Lama now that Tibet is occupied, and certainly the most important from my Western perspective.

Some people say that the Dalai Lama is completely inerrant and has never purposefully said something that demonstrates his own lack of understanding. Other people say he isn't really all that great a guy. I don't think either position is correct. But I do think he is a living saint, if that means anything at all.

Note: I do not consider the Dalai Lama a God-king like the Pope so I do not refer to him as "His Holiness," but rather as "Gyatso." But he is the Dalai Lama, the true ruler of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama on homosexuality

I didn't write this yet but I will get around to it someday.

The Dalai Lama is insightful even when he doesn't get credit for it

You probably know the Dalai Lama because he came from Tibet and now gives speeches all around the world about Tibet, Buddhism, and how everyone (Buddhists or no) should treat each other with lovingkindness. His critics claim he is a shill for rich, white Westerners and his words are meaningless. I find it surprising, though, that he can speak to so many people at once, being careful not to offend anyone, and still deliver a strong message of hope for his country and the world, and constructive criticism of modern society that everyone can agree with.

One example of this is his message to Western Buddhists, which is not one of instant acceptance and evangelism. In fact, coming from him it is a rather severe warning!

"What place," I inquire of his Holiness, "do you see for Buddhism in modern America? Where does it fit?"
He stops to think before answering, then smiles at me warmly. "Basically," he says, "I consider America to be a Judeo-Christian country, so it is my feeling, it is better to keep your traditional values, including your traditional Judeo-Christian religion."
I smile and nod. He smiles back, and then I realize he has said no, it doesn't fit at all, and we don't belong. The air goes dashing out of my balloon, and, I expect, out of the balloons of all the earnest Buddhists clogging the front rows of seats. He doesn't want us? We have to go back to church?
Dinty W. Moore, The Accidental Buddhist

Normally, you might say "oh, he made a mistake, or it's a problem of translation." Of course, it is somewhat a problem of translation, because the Dalai Lama probably didn't realize Dinty was thinking about the Western Buddhist community when he posed his question. But the Dalai Lama's answer is actually thoughtful here, and he has to be applauded for saying it in a room full of believers. Kudos is also due to Dinty for reprinting it word-for-word, despite the aura of the Dalai Lama in the Western Buddhist community as someone who accepts everyone.

Western Buddhists are, in fact, going against our cultural grain. America has a perfectly good philosophy called Christianity, with two thousand years of careful development behind it, and when we throw that off we may encounter significantly more resistance from our community, our friends, and our society at large. If we raise our children as Buddhists, they will be thrust into a country where many people take Christianity for granted, and this will cause unneeded suffering.

But, unfortunately, as much as I would like to be a Christian, there is no coherent form of Christianity that admits atheists (I don't consider Unitarianism a coherent message). The Dalai Lama probably realized this too after he gave that answer, so he abruptly amended it:

"But for some people," His Holiness continues after a moment's thought, "maybe the Buddhist approach, they find more acceptable. In such case, if you think this new approach is more effective, then it is your right to adopt this new system as your own religion."

Read this closely. Notice how Gyatso is careful to frame this proposition from a Western perspective: "this new approach," "this new system." Certainly Buddhism is not new to him! He is choosing his words very purposefully, in deference to the billions of Christians whose system has had a firm hold on Western society until very recently.

"Then another thing, you see, in order to justify your decision, there is sometimes the tendency to criticize your previous view. That, I think you must avoid." He nods sharply. I feel pangs of guilt.
"Then of course, study is very important," he goes on. "I often get the impression that small things"--he points to the mala on his wrist, the wooden, rosarylike bracelet that many American Buddhists wear--"becomes [sic] your main practice, but the basic Buddhist teaching, and the understanding of meditation, gets [sic] neglected. No. You must have knowledge, understanding of basic Buddhist teachings."
We have been given a reprieve.

I think Gyatso's answer speaks for itself, but just to flesh it out here is another answer he gave in an interview:

Rachael Kohn: Is [Western Buddhism] a good thing?
Dalai Lama: That's good, certainly, through evolution that will come. But as far as teachings are concerned, they should be very authentic. There are some cases, what are they called New Age or something, that I think we must be very, very careful. If you call something a new religion, then of course, that's all right, but if you call something Buddhism, it must be very authentic.

Consider, again, the amount of Western rationalism the Dalai Lama needs to incorporate into his own worldview to make these sorts of statements. Imagine if you were a Christian bishop travelling in South America many centuries ago, and you saw natives praying to an image of the Virgin Mary. I think you would praise the good work of the missionaries, right? But no, the Dalai Lama criticizes us even when we adopt the superficial things, because he feels that the superficial things are induced only by a desire to self-identify, or a thirst for the esoteric and un-Christian, and they do not help people achieve true happiness but rather obscure the importance of the quest. He feels strongly that flaunting images of the Buddha and wearing a mala on your wrist and so forth do not make one a Buddhist at all. How many Asian Buddhists have a rational position like that? Certainly you can't find clarity like that in Malaysia (where you can buy underpants with neo-Asian images of the Buddha tiled on them). Even in his native Tibet, many people were just going through the motions as recently as a hundred years ago.

You can see in the Dalai Lama, a man born in the Himalayas miles from the nearest English speaker, a one-man revolution who has evaluated all his assumptions and thrown off everything he recognizes to be folly, while at the same time being careful not to betray his goals or the Tibetan culture he represents. I doubt that even philosophy majors can apply their knowledge so precisely to their lives.

The Dalai Lama does make mistakes

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama does hold a grudge against the people of China. Allow me to copy-paste something I wrote on my blog last year.

I bought the book Awakening the Mind, Lightening the Heart to start a little Buddhist library. I thought it would be an obvious choice since it's a translation of a Tibetan text vetted by the Dalai Lama. For the most part, it is a fine translation and got me thinking about many things. On page 75, though, His Holiness interjected a little bit of modern politics.

There have been great political upheavals since the Communists took power. They seem to hate Buddhism as if it were poison. Because of indoctrination, the Chinese react to each other with hostility, suspicion, jealousy, and other negative thoughts. During campaigns to eliminate birds and insects for ideological reasons, even children were recruited. Under such circumstances, their natural instincts to be kind and virtuous are suppressed. On the other hand, in Tibetan families every effort is made to instill virtuous imprints in the minds of the young.

I found this passage curious for a number of reasons. First, current events have no place in a Buddhist text, especially a translation of a rare Tibetan poem, and if he's not talking about specific experiences with Chinese people then there's no need for interjections like this. Second, it contradicts what the Dalai Lama himself says about the people of China; he takes great pains to be compassionate and understanding, even with his greatest enemy, just as the Buddha teaches. Yet in this passage his words are filled with vitriol, and no effort is taken to understand the motives of modern Chinese beliefs. Furthermore, since he's talking about "hostility, suspicion," etc. my immediate reaction was: "Look who's talking!"

Yet, I pressed on. There is a Buddhist saying that you should see your own flaws and fix them before pointing out someone else's flaws, quite similar to Matthew 7:3-5. I read 15 more pages of good teachings, which I assume came from the original 15th century book by Horton Pel which he is translating. Then I came across this, on page 90:

The Communist Chinese are against religion in general and Buddhism in particular. They denounce religion as a poison, claiming that it harms economic growth and is a tool of exploitation. They even say that religion is an empty and meaningless pursuit. Tibetans, on the other hand, believe in the Buddha's teaching and see it as a source of peace and happiness. Broadly speaking, Tibetans are indeed happy, peaceful, and resilient in the face of difficulties. Those who oppose religion tend to be more anxious and narrow-minded. It is also noticeable that Tibetans do well without having to work so hard, while the Chinese struggle much harder to survive.

This is beginning to resemble racism, just a little. While there are some insights in this passage (the idea about having to work harder as your life gets easier is an interesting concept I'd like to see more broadly discussed), for the most part it constructs straw men and makes wild accusations. Surely not all Chinese people are like this silly, imaginary fellow who thinks religion is worthless and distracts from capitalism.

I have a high standard for Buddhist texts. If there is something I know to be wrong, I regard the entire text as tainted. Basically, this means I consider most modern essays a secular commentary which I must evaluate piece by piece. (There are notable, and lovely, exceptions, which are usually written by practicing monks.) You don't see the Buddha talking about his contemporary political enemies. Even Jesus had his Good Samaritan story, which I will update for the Dalai Lama's benefit:

A Tibetan man was going from Lhasa to Qamdo when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A Rinpoche happened to be going down the same road but, when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Lhoba, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Chinese man came where the man was and, when he saw him, he took pity on him. He gave the man first aid, dressing his wounds and stopping the bleeding. As soon as he was able to travel he took him to a nearby hospital. "Look after him," he told, "and when I return I will pay for any extra expense you may have."
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

I would love to see such a thing in Buddhist writing.

When I got to page 90 I simply put down this book out of irritation, so I do not know whether there are any more such disagreeable passages.

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