Are Western Buddhists ‘Living In The Middle Ages’?

Image:archivenet

Back in the day the good folks of Europe believed in Papal infallibility, the peasantry lined up for a rare blessing from a King, convinced of  healing bestowed by the supposedly sacred touch of the monarch’s hand. Louis XIV of France touched 1600 people. The philosophic and scientific insights and lessons realized by the ancient genius of Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Greece, that later flourished under Islam, were virtually unknown to European thinking during the Middle Ages. It was an age of Christian orthodoxy, that was to give birth to the horrors of the Inquisition, and a violent intolerance of any dissent from the strictures of biblical teachings. Insanity ruled as the fusion of politics and religion dominated the lives of millions, it was truly, in terms of knowledge and intellectual inquiry very much a time of darkness.

Thankfully, in secret counsel, individual genius was asking questions, re-discovering the lost knowledge of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, the academic wonders of Greece were being learned, the Renaissance emerged to introduce light to the grim shadows. Leading eventually to the Enlightenment and empirical reasoning and scientific thinking, which we recognize today. It took many centuries for Europe to break free from the shackles of religious dogma and superstition, in which religious and secular leaders were invested with a range of divine and other occult powers. Reason has thankfully stormed the walls of such medieval thinking and no one of any normal or intelligent thinking would regard a head of state as being invested with supernatural talents. Right?

Image:archivenet

Well yes, but then again it seems there exists still, among some, a deep rooted desire for divine kingship, a hope that some magick remains.Where, you may be reasonably asking at this point is evidence for such retrogression? It survives as a considerable minority, within the support movement for Tibet, most notably among those who display, what are termed ‘spiritual’ or Buddhist leanings, and is projected upon no less a figure than the Dalai Lama. At this point it’s important to clarify two important points. Firstly we are not talking about the relationship between Tibet’s people and their leader, nor indeed the profound respect and religious and cultural values, in which the Dalai Lama has been venerated for centuries. Neither is this post attributing any responsibility upon Tibet’s spiritual leader, nor Tibetan culture, its focus are some western adherents, whose devotion towards the Dalai Lama, seems to cloud rational thinking and is devoid (indeed intolerant) of the critical analysis which enabled society to progress from the stifling orthodoxy of spiritual infallibility.

Image:dalailama,com

While the majority of Buddhist practitioners, like those above, are well balanced and objective folk, it seems that some individuals are happy and willing to abandon their intellectual and critical faculties when it comes matters relating to the Dalai Lama. Of course that’s an individual’s freedom to choose such a path. Many people around the world, and without any shred of doubt Tibetans most profoundly do,  consider the Tibetan leader as perfection incarnated, a being of infinite wisdom and compassion, a manifestation of Buddha nature. We are in the realm of culture, philosophy and religion, where such values and beliefs are entirely credible and reasonable, within the context of that particular tradition. The concern though lies with the challenges and difficulties such thinking has when it  travels beyond the temple doors and enters the arena of Tibet’s cause for national freedom. This produces an unhelpful and distracting conflation.

Here’s how it usually impacts, based entirely upon the previously mentioned individual beliefs and devotion.  As is well known the Dalai Lama has in recent years been promoting a solution for the issue of Tibet, called the Middle Way, in essence this surrenders Tibetan nationhood in favor of an autonomy, under China’s national and regional laws. In effect Tibetans would become another Chinese minority people, but with hoped for protections for their culture, the key question is: would such a condition really be attainable under a tyranny such as China, and more importantly do the people of Tibet seek such an outcome?

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Here is the moment in which is witnessed most graphically how reasoned examination and critical understanding is replaced by an automaton thinking that asks us to conform to the belief, that simply by virtue of being the Dalai Lama, this proposed solution for Tibet is the correct and wise choice. Again let’s emphasize that such a conviction is both usual and comprehensible when articulated by Tibetans, whose culture is, almost at a DNA level, inexorably interwoven with the profoundest of respect for and belief in the Dalai Lama. It though does not sound as profound when being advocated by  non-Tibetans, that’s not to suggest such individuals do not have genuine motivation or sincerity of belief, rather that it seems out-of-place, within the context of lacking critical evaluation.

What’s disconcerting is the willingness to step backwards  through time, to project upon a leader a perfection of thinking, knowledge and wisdom. It’s as if the enlightenment and age of reason had never happened and we are being asked to agree, not on the basis of evidenced result or critical inquiry, but upon faith. Such considerations do not appear to bother those who see Tibet, not as an issue about the national freedom of a people, but as the Shangri-la world home of Buddhism, at the center of which sits the Dalai Lama. The political aspirations, even the human rights of Tibetans can be, to some more extreme examples of such thinking, irrelevant in comparison to the Dharma (Buddhist Teaching). Our friends who run the Tibettruth Facebook page recently had an exchange with one individual, a self-proclaimed Buddhist scholar who stated, in regard to  the plight of Tibet’s people and self-immolations: “I don’t care what conditions they live in. As long as they are alive and endure then dharma has a chance to flourish in any form”.

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Thankfully such views are isolated, the willingness however to advocate the proposals made by the Dalai Lama without question, critique or evaluation is considerably more common, indeed a number or groups that have the appearance of supporting Tibet, in all truth should more correctly be termed as acolytes of Tibet’s spiritual leader. Yet their selective advocacy of the Middle Way, runs counter to the sacrifices, rights and political aspirations of Tibetans inside occupied Tibet. Not that such an inconvenience deflects their devotion, after all they say ‘His Holiness knows what he is doing and can see a long way into the future’, what though of the present, the reality that Tibetans themselves faced with China’s tyranny are demanding, not ’autonomy’ but their nation’s independence? Is not Tibet’s future status their collective right? Why should Tibet’s rightful claim to independence be surrendered by a few, when the majority of Tibetans across Tibet desire an independent land, a fact acknowledged on many occasions by the Dalai Lama. Such questions are of course evaded or ignored by those who choose not to apply critical questioning to the proposals made by the Dalai Lama, he simply cannot be wrong, can he?

4 thoughts on “Are Western Buddhists ‘Living In The Middle Ages’?

  1. Thanks for that interesting and well-written article. I agree with what you say about a tendency (albeit a minority) of western Buddhists who a) do not understand or practice Dharma very well with excessive devout faith (without logical/rational reasons) in Tibetan spiritual teachers (such as the current Kalu Rinpoche, whose behaviour and conduct is highly dubious. I say this as someone who is a Tibetan Buddhist with some study of the two truths and the vajrayana view of reality. I have even met some western Buddhists and a very small minority of Tibetan teachers who appear to be even advocating that ‘politics’ and ‘Dharma’ are separate activities too and should not be mixed. This is also wrong and contradicts not only the Dalai Lama’s activities but also many other great spiritual leaders political activities. However, I think there are many Tibetans and western Buddhists who accept the Middle Way for reasons other than irrational faith. They have seen it as a practical, Buddhist non-violent compromise (and it is a massive compromise) in the face of brute, Chinese power and aggression. However, the fact is that even the Dalai Lama has now stated this compassionate compromise has failed to produce a result.Which is a real shame and just goes to show how hardline and brute the Chinese authorities are. Hence a reason to seriously re-think the political strategy, which the Dalai Lama has done by removing himself from the political arena and allowing an elected government and Kalon Tripa (layperson). it is now up to them to decide what the Tibetan people want. Let us not forget the amazing achievements of the Dalai Lama though for Tibetans living in exile either. When I was living in India, I was amazed at the Tibetan monasteries and schools that had been set up, the sense of community and charity. although not ideal or perfect by any means, they far excelled anything the native Indian children had in general.

  2. thug4lyfe says:

    Sigh… another “Pro-Tibet” Buddhist who chooses to practice the ways of a “communist revolutionary” rather than practicing to be a Buddhist.

    Stop looking at China as being the “Communist”, start looking at how your mind is becoming a deeply attached “communist” continues for seek for external enemies, thus allowing your internal defilements to grow deeper thus creating more obstructions for your intrinsic nature to be revealed!

    So your another person who only studies Buddhist knowledge without practicing, thus only using it to increase your ego and more ways to debate with others thus covering your own faults.

    • Your rather personalized comments have been featured to exemplify just how much truth there is to the expression ‘hell hath no fury like a Dharma student scorned’😉 Our focus is the rightful cause of Tibet’s independence, not obtuse discussions on the rarefied truths of Buddhism. We wish you well on your road to self-enlightenment, do give our regards to Xinhua🙂

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