A Critique of ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’ by Robert Thurman, Part 4
Continued from Chapter 2: What has the Dalai Lama Accomplished?
The next section is ‘accomplishments and impacts’. Here, Thurman waxes lyrical on the Dalai Lama’s achievements in various spheres but, as before, is somewhat prone to exaggeration. For example:
If you understand Buddhism not merely as a world religion, religion as primarily a system of belief and the Dalai Lama as being a great philosopher in the tradition he claims as his own, that of the Seventeen Great Professors (Pandits) of Nalanda University (the great Monastic University of classical India), then he emerges not as a religious preacher but as a world teacher. The Dalai Lama can be classified as someone like Albert Einstein, Arnold Toynbee, Bertrand Russell or Stephen Hawking who advances human knowledge from a philosophical and scientific point of view. If Buddhism is one third ethics, one third psychology and religion as therapy, and one third scientific wisdom, then the Dalai Lama brings new aspects of those three values to the world. (page 39)
These days the Dalai Lama talks about ‘the Nalanda Tradition’. He mentioned it again in an interview in Nottingham in May 2008:
So some people criticize me, I banned that sort of spirit worship; that is not true. I just simply make clear what is the reality, whether as we are follower of Nalanda tradition, we are not spirit worshipper. So there is a sort of danger, I feel in my eye, the degenerating, the pure Nalanda tradition eventually become like spirit worship. That is not good.
Thurman says that the Dalai Lama claims this tradition as his own. These days, the Dalai Lama does not talk about the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism so much as the Nalanda tradition. This term is his own invention. The Dalai Lama was not educated in the ‘Nalanda tradition’ but in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition he seems to have disowned and for which he shows increasing disrespect.
The Dalai Lama’s Junior Tutor and Guru is Trijang Rinpoche, the Spiritual Guide of a whole generation of Gelugpa teachers from the highest Lamas to the most humble novices. The Dalai Lama has ordered Trijang Rinpoche’s thrones to be removed from Ganden Lachi and Shartse monasteries. The thrones represent the continuing presence of this great Master, so what is the Dalai Lama saying by ordering their removal? Even though Trijang Rinpoche treated the Dalai Lama as his own son and cared for him in every way, how does the Dalai Lama repay that kindness? By branding him as a ‘spirit worshipper’, telling everyone he was ‘wrong, yes wrong’ and having his thrones removed from two monasteries where he was revered.
The Dalai Lama is clearly trying to destroy Trijang Rinpoche’s reputation. In Buddhism, respect for one’s own Teacher is vital. It is said to be the root of the path. The Dalai Lama has cut his root. Even so, he continues to travel around the world, giving the teachings from the very lineage he has turned his back on.
Where does the Dalai Lama’s knowledge come from? It comes only from Buddha through the Dalai Lama’s teachers, whom he has thoroughly disrespected by calling them ‘spirit worshippers’ and enabling the persecution of their followers. The Dalai Lama is not the source of these teachings. Whereas the theory of relativity as formulated by Einstein was a unique achievement that came from his own thought experiments, if the Dalai Lama is teaching Buddhism correctly, he has nothing doctrinally “new” to offer. Buddha’s insights were uniquely established two and a half thousand years ago and the content is non-negotiable. Buddha is the true genius and advancer of human knowledge, but he’s not given the credit – the Dalai Lama takes the credit in Thurman’s mind.
Recently, at an FPMT Center in Deerfield Beach, Florida, they proudly advertized that the teachings they gave were in the “lineage of the Dalai Lama”. But what is this lineage exactly? Does it begin and end with the Dalai Lama?
Buddhism is so much more than philosophy, science or ‘religion as therapy’ (a curious choice of words!). Boiling it down to mundane subjects of study seems to do Buddhism a grave disservice. Maybe it is the academic in him, but Thurman here misses the magic of Buddhism. No amount of philosophy, science or therapy can lead to permanent liberation from suffering and the full enlightenment of Buddhahood.
Later, Thurman gives us some insight as to why he wrote his book:
The main accusation against the Dalai Lama that surfaces from time to time around the world is that of being ineffective. People have said, “What has the Dalai Lama ever accomplished, for all his running around the world meeting celebrities?” In fact, answering that question is one of the main drives of this book. (page 45)
It is clear what the Dalai Lama has accomplished by doing this – celebrity and power. And Thurman seems to be justifying this lifestyle (or defending it, not sure which). While it is true that the Dalai Lama has been so far ineffective in his political work for Tibet, no doubt he will also receive more accusations against him in the future as a result of his illegal and unconstitutional actions. It could be argued that the main accusation against the Dalai Lama already is, ‘Why is he lying?’ or ‘Why is he using Buddhism to maintain his own power and position at the cost of harmony in the Buddhist community?’ Not surprisingly, Thurman does not address these questions.
He has been working on and gradually introducing a democratic constitution in the exile community as a way to live in exile and a model of self-rule whenever it is recovered in Tibet. It is a secularist constitution based on the separation of church and state, in which all religions are equal under the law (p 51)
Since 1959 the Dalai Lama has had ample opportunity to introduce a democratic system of government into the Tibetan community in exile. Why hasn’t it happened? Could it be because he wants to continue the union of politics and religion for his own ends?
More and more Tibetans see the faults with this system. For example, in an article called “He Has Got It Wrong” (on pro-Tibetan Phayul, taken from the Times of India), Eliot Sperling says of the recent meeting (November 2008) about Tibet’s future in Dharamsala:
And while the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that the Tibet issue is not about him but about all Tibetans, the end result of the special meeting bears out China’s stance: in spite of his democratic rhetoric, the Dalai Lama has never empowered Tibetans to feel comfortable taking stands at variance with him. Accusations of disloyalty to the Dalai Lama remain a weapon in political and personal feuds in Dharamsala.
In her article commenting on this newspaper opinion piece, a Tibetan woman calling herself Mountain Phoenix says:
So when we look at the outcome of this “special meeting”, there was nothing special about it, let alone “historic”. The ultimate decision was again not to decide but to leave the decision to the Dalai Lama.
In the article ‘Tibetan Religion and Politics’, posted on Phayul, Samten G Karmay makes a powerful case for separation of church and state based upon the incompatibility of the role of head of democratic government with being a spiritual master:
In this theocratic system the head of the state was not only the political leader of the people, but also their spiritual master. In other words, the whole population was subjected and put in the position of spiritual disciple to the master. Within the context of this essentially religious bond no devotee would ever dream of opposing the view of the master, because that would be tantamount to breaking the sacred relationship between the master and the disciple. How does this fit with the discussion of democracy among the Tibetans in exile for whom HH the Dalai Lama is the political leader, but who nonetheless bestows on them the Kalachakra initiation?
This ties in with the Mongoose-Canine letter, in which the writer says:
Moreover, to challenge Lamas you have used religion for your aim. To that purpose you had to develop the Tibetan people’s blind faith. In the end you adopted the same activity that you yourself had pointed out was mistaken in other Lamas. For instance, you started the politics of public Kalachakra initiations. Normally the Kalachakra initiation is not given in public. Then you started to use it continuously in a big way for your politics. The result is that now the Tibetan people have returned to exactly the same muddy and dirty mixing of politics and religion of Lamas which you yourself had so precisely criticised in earlier times.
The implication is that the Dalai Lama has used his position as a Spiritual Leader through Kalachakra initiations to keep the Tibetan people docile because they would never challenge their Teacher with whom they have ‘samaya’ (sacred bond) through initiation. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso of the New Kadampa Tradition has been branded ‘a samaya breaker’ for the very reason that it is claimed that he received this initiation from the Dalai Lama in 1954 and has subsequently spoken out against him (N.B. he never received this initiation).
The point of the Dalai Lama using Kalachakra for political purposes is mentioned again later in the Mongoose-Canine letter:
Nowadays you have given the Kalachakra initiation so many times you have made the Tibetan people into donkeys. You can force them to go here and there as you like. 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.
Samten G Karmay’s article was well read and received many supporting comments from Tibetans. Some examples:
religion and politics should be separated in order to have a true democratic system.people will more freely speak out when its a religious person most people don’t want to speak freely.the present tibetan govt needs to listen to people and stop calling people who give their opinion as chinese spy etc.this is not democracy
As you know, Tibetan government in exile, in realty there is no democracy. It’s like still old Tibet style empire rules, Lama Rules or one of the linage rule. One man leader for ever and at the same time they call it real democracy. In fact no Democracy and it’s like banana democracy. Young educated Tibetans have no chances to become a Top leader of Tibet as a ‘President”.
You are right — majority Tibetans has no power to tell or comment to the head of the exile. Because our head leader is Religious one. One of the four linage of mahayana Tibetan Buddhism. If you do so there is Dhamtsik Samaya breaking between a guru and the deciple.
Since the Dalai Lama alone has the power to determine whether democracy is introduced or not, and there is no democracy, the facts speak for themselves. Thurman should not whitewash this situation by pretending that the Dalai Lama is pro-democracy when his clear lack of action in this area shows that he is not. Either the Dalai Lama is fooling Thurman, or Thurman is fooling us.
Thurman talks about the Dalai Lama’s enthusiasm for inter-religious dialogue. Why then doesn’t the Dalai Lama want to talk to Dorje Shugden practitioners to resolve the big schism in his own community? Their pleas for understanding are ignored. The Religion section in the recent Memorandum has fine words for the Chinese, but surely the Dalai Lama and his government should get their own house in order first?
Thurman also mentions that the Dalai Lama defends the Muslim religion. In these times, when Muslims tend to be demonized as terrorists due to the actions of a relative minority of fanatics, this is a laudable thing to do. But surely it would have been worth mentioning here that the Dalai Lama has a natural sympathy with Muslims because he is from a Muslim family and was born in a Muslim village? It is a curious omission.
Thurman talks about ‘what we might call the magic of the Dalai Lama’s special presence’ (page 62). He reports that ‘the effect of his presence is galvanizing; people often burst into tears, forget what they were planning to say, commonly change their preconceived ideas completely’. Is it a good idea to mention this? Thurman’s intention is probably good, and what he wants to show is how his Guru’s presence has a powerful effect on others’ minds. However, there have been many charismatic leaders throughout history who have had powerful speech and been able to get people to do what they want, and this has not always worked out to their advantage. Does Thurman really want us to think that the Dalai Lama has some power to influence others, and maybe even to be able to control their minds?
It’s a curious thing to talk about and, more than anything else, it indicates a somewhat unexamined faith. Thurman doesn’t see how it could be misunderstood, which is a little naïve of him. If people said such fanatical things about Geshe Kelsang, no doubt his critics would jump on the bandwagon with their accusations of ‘mind control cult’; so why do no alarm bells sound when people talk so glowingly of the control the Dalai Lama exerts over others?
Thurman talks extensively about Tibetan, Tibetans and the Tibetan cause, which is also the other main motivation for his writing this book. He’s obviously trying to coax Chinese sympathizers to see a different view of the Dalai Lama with one aim in mind – the fulfilment of the Dalai Lama’s wishes for autonomy for Tibet within China. This is where the book is quite political and a little obvious in its intentions. Thurman is saying “look, the Dalai Lama is really a very special guy and you can trust him, so give us back Tibet!”
Whilst not wanting to get too political, I have to mention an obvious lie about the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan resistance, and the CIA because it has implications for Thurman’s trustworthiness and honesty. Thurman says:
Tibetan warriors did fight for over a decade as guerrillas (with a low level of support from CIA until betrayed by Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon), against the Dalai Lama’s instructions, but admittedly with his admiration for their bravery.
Does Thurman really believe this version of events? There is evidence that the Dalai Lama himself was on the CIA payroll in the 1960’s, to a tune of $186,000 per annum. From the Wikipedia article on the 14th Dalai Lama:
In October 1998, The Dalai Lama’s administration acknowledged that it received $1.7 million a year in the 1960s from the U.S. Government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and also trained a resistance movement in Colorado (USA).
According to a report in a Vancouver newspaper:
Funds to pay this army were funnelled through the Dalai Lama and his organization, which received US$1.7 million a year, later reduced to $1.2 million. (Of this, the Dalai Lama himself was paid $186,000 a year. But no one has ever suggested that he pocketed it. The money was used to operate his exiled government’s offices in Geneva and New York.) The last year in which the stipend was paid out was 1974. By then, of course, U.S. policy had changed to one of embracing China, not antagonizing it.
According to Thurman, the guerrillas fought ‘against the Dalai Lama’s instructions’; yet the Dalai Lama’s administration received the funds to pay for the army from the CIA, with the Dalai Lama himself being paid. No one can claim that the Dalai Lama didn’t know what was going on, or that it was against his instructions.
From an interview with the Dalai Lama with the New York Times in 1993:
Q: In Tibet, from the late 1950’s until the early 1970’s, one of your brothers was involved in leading a guerrilla movement against the Chinese. In fact, the guerrillas were supported by the C.I.A. How did you feel about that?
A: I’m always against violence. But the Tibetan guerrillas were very dedicated people. They were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the Tibetan nation. And they found a way to receive help from the C.I.A. Now, the C.I.A.’s motivation for helping was entirely political. They did not help out of genuine sympathy, not out of support for a just cause. That was not very healthy.
The Dalai Lama says “they found a way to receive help from the CIA” as if the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Administration knew nothing about it; but they were on the payroll! The Dalai Lama is being disingenuous, as is Thurman in misrepresenting events. The aim is to maintain the Dalai Lama’s public image as someone who does not agree with armed struggle, which is obviously wrong.
Things become even more nefarious when the Mongoose Canine letter states:
The problem of your government splitting the Tibetan guerilla fighters in Mustang. In fact, they were originally organised by your government with the help of the CIA. In 1969, as a consequence of Nixon’s policy with China, you provoked a fight among the Tibetan guerillas over their weapons. This fight finally destroyed them.
What then are we to make of Thurman’s statement:
But overall, in spite of massive oppression, Tibetans have maintained the non-violence the Dalai Lama has asked of them. The greatness of this achievement cannot be overstated (page 74)
Thurman seems attached to Tibet and what it represents in his mind, as he is attached to the Dalai Lama and what he represents. Such attachment is obviously going to influence his views. Either Thurman is deliberately misrepresenting events, or he is genuinely in the thrall of the Dalai Lama and Tibet and ignoring obvious truths. This is also evident when he says:
Nowadays the world is spinning out of control in a “war on terror” which is endless in principle because violence simply breeds more counter-violence. Then, to our amazement, we encounter a people who eschew terrorism and violence from the beginning. (page 74)
Michael Parenti is an American political scientist, historian and media critic whose article Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth explains the excesses of Tibet as a feudal society. The view that Tibet was some kind of Shangri-la filled with happy, non-violent practising Buddhists is a complete myth.
As for ‘eschewing violence from the beginning’, there was almost a riot in New York in July 2008 when a large group of Tibetans who had just been to a teaching by the Dalai Lama surrounded a much smaller group of Western Shugden Society protestors to spit, jeer and throw things. The protestors had to be evacuated by New York Police for their own safety. There have also been many other instances of violence against Dorje Shugden practitioners, some of which are itemized on the Dorje Shugden Controversy article in Wikipedia.
Again, there are many more points in this chapter that merit comment, but we will finish on something positive — the Dalai Lama’s concluding statement from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
I pray for all of us, oppressor and friend, that together we succeed in building a better world through human understanding and love, and that in doing so we may reduce the pain and suffering of all sentient beings. Thank you. (page 95)
We pray that the Dalai Lama will live by these words and stop all the problems he has created in the Buddhist community through his divisive actions. Dalai Lama, please give religious freedom to Dorje Shugden practitioners.