A Critique of ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’ by Robert Thurman
A Critique of ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’ by Robert Thurman – Part One of Four – from the Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden Blog
Robert Thurman is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Buddhism at Columbia University, New York. He is also a close friend of the Dalai Lama and his chief advocate in the West.
This year (2008) he has written a book: ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’. Its purpose seems to be to praise the Dalai Lama and to propose how the People’s Republic of China could benefit by making friends with the Dalai Lama and establishing an autonomous Tibet to which the Dalai Lama could return. Thurman suggests that the Tibetan plateau could be designated as a ‘Zone of Peace’, a giant environmental preserve.
The rather sycophantic book is clearly intended to improve the popularity of the Dalai Lama and support him in his stated political goal of gaining autonomy for Tibet.
The purpose of this critique is to exhibit how the Dalai Lama is quite a different man to the one depicted by Thurman, by examining the Dalai Lama’s actions of the past thirty years in relation to both the Karmapa and the Dorje Shugden issues. It will hopefully raise questions as to whether the Dalai Lama is as trustworthy as Robert Thurman would have it appear; and also show that Thurman’s depiction is so out of touch with reality that his views are not to be trusted either.
The reason for this critique is to call Thurman and the Dalai Lama into question so as to reduce the power of their speech. Why? Because both men are adept at poisoning Dharma with politics and have sadly used their considerable reputations to cause harm to pure spiritual practitioners and the Buddhadharma over the past thirty years. This has to be stopped — already their sectarianism and politicking has caused much damage in the Buddhist community.
This critique is not motivated by Chinese or Tibetan politics, nor concerned with Thurman’s proposal for an autonomous Tibet. We wish only to show the discrepancy between the characters of the two men (as presented in the book) and their actions. We do not intend to harm anyone by doing this. Our motivation is to disclose various facts and inconsistencies so that people can see themselves if they are being deceived by Thurman or the Dalai Lama. The worst deception is one that is given in the guise of spiritual teaching that causes others to go in the wrong spiritual direction. This is something that both these men are guilty of.
For the purposes of this critique, only the first three chapters that comprise Part 1: Who is the Dalai Lama and why is he key? will be examined. The rest of the book is Thurman’s political solution and of no interest from a religious point of view.
Introduction of the book
The book starts with a sweeping generalization:
Everyone tends to like the Dalai Lama, even when they don’t think they will.
Not everyone tends to like the Dalai Lama. This sentence alone reveals how out of touch this book is. Even Buddha had to deal with people who didn’t like him. Does Thurman think that the Chinese leadership likes the Dalai Lama? If they liked or even trusted him, he would be back in Tibet by now. In some ways, the Chinese have been quite shrewd judges of character when it comes to not trusting the Dalai Lama because, as will be shown, he is a consummate wily politician — adept at saying one thing and doing another.
From the Mongoose-Canine letter, this is what at least one Tibetan thinks of the Dalai Lama:
In your words you always say that you want to be Gandhi but in your action you are like a religious fundamentalist who uses religious faith for political purposes. Your image is the Dalai Lama, your mouth is Mahatma Gandhi and your heart is like that of a religious dictator. You are a deceiver and it is very sad that on top of the suffering that they already have the Tibetan people have a leader like you.
Not everyone tends to like the Dalai Lama, even when they think they will or they should – interviews of the audience after his public teachings have shown that people of course have differing opinions of him, and that some of these are surprisingly unfavourable (one of the most common being “he doesn’t seem sincere”). Although in general the Dalai Lama is a media darling, he has also received criticism from journalists and writers over the years because of seemingly commercially motivated actions, such as advertising Apple Computers, guest editing Vogue Magazine, wearing Gucci shoes or staying in very expensive hotels, that are not in keeping with the spiritual leader image that people expect. Whether these opinions of him are valid or not, it is a fact that he is not universally admired or liked. No one is.
Thurman also writes (pages x -xi):
The Dalai Lama’s wish and vision for humanity are absolutely right and reliable, realistic and not far-fetched, helpful and not harmful. And he has been living his act of truth for the last sixty years, as you’ll see throughout this book. I present to you his exemplary act of truth and the implications of his wise words as the key to solving the problems of China and Tibet and, indeed, flowing away from the planetary crisis into which we are plunging headlong.
The Dalai Lama’s vision for humanity as expressed in his public teachings is indeed right and reliable because it comes from the holy masters of the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and ultimately from Buddha himself. However, the Dalai Lama does not ‘walk the talk’. He has been using the Buddhist teachings of his root Guru Trijang Rinpoche to bolster his own reputation worldwide. Through these teachings he has managed to gather a circle of followers and maintain power and status as a political and spiritual leader. Given that the teachings themselves are so effective, anyone in his powerful position, with a little charisma, could have become as popular.
Thurman claims “he has been living his act of truth for the last sixty years…..I present to you his exemplary act of truth”; and the subtitle of the book is ‘His act of truth as the solution for China, Tibet and the world’. According to one plausible sequence of events, the Dalai Lama’s ‘career’ began with deceit, not with truth, although this deceit was not his own fault. The Reting Rinpoche, regent of Tibet, caused a false boy to be chosen as Dalai Lama over the true candidate, who was the son of a rival. Tibetan history has always been full of such intrigues and misuse of the Tulku (reincarnate Lama) system.
What is this ‘act of truth’ that is so important to Thurman? He says:
The act of truth is an ancient Indian concept refering to an action of a person of great integrity who confronts seemingly overwhelming power and yet, without violence, stands on the truth and justice of her or his intention and real situation; the impossible becomes possible….Inspired by these ancient and modern sources, the Dalai Lama has always said that against the great might of China, Tibet’s only weapon is the truth.
The problem is that the Dalai Lama is not a person of great integrity as Thurman claims. One of the Western Shugden Society’s slogans at demonstrations against the Dalai Lama’s ban of Dorje Shugden practice is “Dalai Lama, stop lying!” This can seem surprising to some when they first hear it, but becomes clearer when you tot up the number of things the Dalai Lama has lied about in relation to this controversy. For example, he says:
- There is no ban on Dorje Shugden practice (when speeches prove that he himself introduced it)
- Dorje Shugden is a harmful spirit.
- His Teachers were ‘wrong’ to worship Dorje Shugden
- Dorje Shugden harms his health and the cause of Tibetan independence
- Shugden practitioners are murderers, terrorists and arsonists
- Shugden practitioners are Chinese agents
- The oracle for the Deity Nechung was responsible for his safe escape from Tibet (when in fact it was the oracle of the Deity Dorje Shugden, whose practice he has banned)
Proof that these are lies will be given later. Suffice it to say that the Dalai Lama is not a person of integrity but has been shown to act out of political expediency in order to maintain his own power and influence over Tibet and the Tibetan people. Although he claims to want to introduce democracy in ruling the Tibetan people, he has made little effort to do so and still behaves like an autocrat.
The Tibetan Government in Exile is still a theocracy controlled by him. From the news report by Al Jeezera:
The decision to ban the worship of Shugden was taken here in Dharamsala. Since 1960 there are 46 MPs working here to decide the affairs of Tibet and the refugees living here. This is the heart of Tibetan democracy.
Reporter: “Did you debate about Shugden in parliament?”
(Tsultrim Tenzin, parliament member): “There was no argument. There was no argument. If there is some opposition then there will be argument. But there is no opposition. We do not have any doubt about Dalai Lama’s decisions. We do not think he is a human being. He’s a supreme human being and he is god. He’s Avalokiteshvara. He has no interest of himself. He always thinks of others. Everybody is happy. In our system everybody is happy because there is full democracy. Everybody can express whatever he likes.”
There is no argument because everyone does what the Dalai Lama says.
Since the Dalai Lama lacks integrity, what ‘act of truth’ is he performing? This is another romantic fiction of Thurman’s. Can Thurman really not see the political machinations of the Dalai Lama and his ‘government’? These are clear to see, even for those with limited experience of the Dalai Lama, but Thurman claims to have known him for forty years! He is liberal with his praise:
He is a Prince of Peace and Philosopher King of Tibet, by which I mean that he walks successfully in the path of loving meekness so powerfully pointed out and exemplified by Jesus, while also fulfilling the ideals of Plato in action. He is the champion of the Buddha’s wisdom, deep, vast and exquisite for his carry one Shakyamuni’s scientific teaching of the ultimate freedom of voidness, his religious teaching of the vast art of compassionate action, and his psychological teaching of the power of beauty to liberate. The Dalai Lama calls himself a simple Shakya monk but he is also Shakyamuni’s devoted heir. He reaches out to all humans, nonreligious as well as followers of every kind of religion, as upholder of the common human religion of kindness, embracing all, regardless of belief system, in the church of life in the rite of human kindness….. (pages xiii-xiv)
And so it goes for several more paragraphs. If such statements were made about other Teachers, they would cause raised eyebrows. If the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) students ever said anything remotely like this about Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, they would be accused of being brainwashed and cultish – they already have been accused of this by the Dalai Lama’s followers for far, far less. It is clear that Thurman is going completely over the top in his rose-tinted view of the Dalai Lama’s qualities.
What Thurman writes is not only the worse kind of purple prose, like a bad English school essay, but it is not true. Let’s examine some of these extravagant claims and provide evidence to the contrary:
He is a Prince of Peace….
The Dalai Lama’s divisive ban of Dorje Shugden has not brought peace to the Buddhist community but fractured it beyond repair. Look at the segregation wall at Ganden monastery as an example.
Quote from a transcript of a news report by Al Jeezera on the Dorje Shugden issue:
On the streets of the Tibetan refugee camp of Bylakuppe in southern India, Delek
Tong, a Shugden worshipping Buddhist monk, is no longer welcome.
(Delek Tong) “Look at this, it says: ‘No Shugden worshippers allowed.'”
(Delek Tong) “Hi, I worship Shugden, can I come in?”
(Shopkeeper) “No, I am sorry, I don’t want you or any Shugdens in my shop.”
Another point: Why was the ‘Prince of Peace’ on the CIA’s payroll in the 1960s, receiving $180,000 per year?
Philosopher King of Tibet….He is the champion of the Buddha’s wisdom
If the Dalai Lama is such a great philosopher, why can he not use logic and reasoning to justify and debate the ban of Dorje Shugden? Rather, he claims irrationally that Dorje Shugden harms his health and the cause of Tibetan independence, based on no logic whatsoever.
he walks successfully in the path of loving meekness so powerfully pointed out and exemplified by Jesus…
Hmmm. ‘Meekness’ is a curiously Biblical word – will Thurman be claiming that the Dalai Lama is the Son of God next? Perhaps Thurman is another John the Baptist, proclaiming the arrival of the saviour of the world? Meekness is defined as ‘the feeling of patient, submissive humbleness’. Is the Dalai Lama humble? Is the Dalai Lama patient? Read some of his spiritual demands and decide for yourself:
‘You might feel that by publishing letters, pamphlets, etc. against this ban, the Dalai Lama will revoke the ban. This will never be the case. If you take a hard stand, I will tighten this ban still further.’ – on the Dorje Shugden ban, 1996
‘There will be no change in my stand. I will never revoke the ban. You are right. It will be like the Cultural Revolution. If they (those who do not accept the ban) do not listen to my words, the situation will grow worse for them. You sit and watch. It will grow only worse for them.’ – on the Dorje Shugden ban, 1999
From Time magazine’s article this year, ‘The Dalai Lama’s Buddhist Foes’:
In transcripts that Shugdenpas allege record the Dalai Lama’s comments, he sounds atypically (to the Western ear) authoritarian. “Shugden devotees are growing in your monastery,” he is quoted as snapping at one abbot. “If you are this inept, you had better resign.”
He reaches out to all humans, nonreligious as well as followers of every kind of religion, as upholder of the common human religion of kindness, embracing all, regardless of belief system, in the church of life in the rite of human kindness…..
The Dalai Lama does not reach out to everyone. Why has he banned Dorje Shugden practitioners from attending his teachings? Non-Buddhists are welcome but Buddhists are not! If the Dalai Lama is kind, why has his government, under his control, legislated against Dorje Shugden practitioners so that they cannot enter shops, go to hospitals, receive travel visas or live safely in their communities? The Dalai Lama has made Tibetans promise not to have anything to do with Shugden practitioners. They are cast out and ostracized by their own communities. From the news report by Al Jeezera:
(Shopkeeper) “I have taken an oath and I won’t have anything to do with the Shugden people who are doing bad things for the Tibetan cause. I won’t do anything he says. But he is telling the truth. I’m not a person who just blindly believes someone. I believe someone who is telling the truth. Here Dalai Lama always tells the truth.”
Shugden practitioners are not doing anything bad for the Tibetan cause, it’s just that the Dalai Lama has told his people that they have. He has lied and destroyed their reputation, whipping up resentment for his political purposes. Is this the ‘common religion of human kindness’ that Thurman thinks the Dalai Lama exemplifies?
As for (Buddha’s) psychological teaching of the power of beauty to liberate – what does this mean? Wisdom liberates, not beauty. Does Thurman even understand basic Buddhist teachings? He’s not making any sense!
These few examples serve to show the discrepancy between who the Dalai Lama is, what he is doing in terms of causing suffering and problems to Buddhists worldwide, and Thurman’s view of him.
Thurman’s blindness to the Dalai Lama’s faults and his exaggeration of the imagined good qualities he does not possess makes this present book a work of fiction and thus irrelevant. When the purple prose is analysed for facts, there are not many of them, and Thurman appears naïve and gullible.