Friday, January 29, 2010

Who are the "real" Buddhists? Genpo Roshi? The Chinese - installed Panchen Lama?

We see this question in many guises: is Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" shtick a "real" Buddhist practice? Are the heterodoxies of Jewish, Chiristian, 12 Step Buddhism "real" Buddhism?

I have said quite a bit on my blog about spiritual hucksterism, and how many folks will try to market what they do as "enlightened" or what-not or "Buddhist" and such to try to siphon a few bucks off those who are seeking to get the wheel unstuck.

I have also said that what I think should be, from a Buddhist perspective, the criterion for whether something comports with the Dharma or not, and remember, I'm just a blogger blogging, no 虛空藏菩薩 (Kokūzō Bosatsu) has visited me recently "in person" and personally imparted this knowledge.

Having said all that, I also have to say we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are certain things at an American Zen Temple near me that I don't endorse, because I think they start from - and can finish in - a state of unresolved duality, that is, they identify a particular Westernized practice based on a perceived "need" and this need is said to lead to all kinds of bad stuff if the need is not addressed. This reminds me of the paradox of self-help books: they only sell to people who think they're screwed up. And if they actually work, well, then you're not screwed up and you don't need self-help books. Whether or not you're actually screwed up is almost irrelevant to the situation, but as long as you think you're screwed up, and you think there's a way a "self-help book" is going to help you buy your way out of your being screwed up, you're part of the market for self-help books. And so it is with a day or weekend's worth of "training" for the "need."

But these folks are still definitely Buddhist, and they can express great compassion and insight underneath some of what can easily be perceived as the psychobabble, and for that reason I support them.

Likewise, I think at heart Genpo Roshi, The Zennist, and a host of others are real Buddhists. It's just some of them should honestly say, as Mel Gibson's character does in the movie Air America, "I never said I was a good Buddhist!" And, by the way, for the record, I never said I was a good Buddhist.

Which brings me then to Tibet. The Economist notes that China's policy of having state-installed Lamas such as the Panchen Lama has led to relative peace in those areas where the Panchen Lama held sway, and darkly notes that there may soon come a time when there are going to be multiple Dalai Lamas (or is it Dalais Lama?)

In Tashilhunpo, pilgrims flock to pay homage at shrines honouring the Panchen Lamas. One of them contains a golden statue of the tenth Panchen Lama, who died in January 1989. The central government donated more than 60 million yuan and 600kg of gold for its construction. The tenth Panchen Lama stayed in China after the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959. He was imprisoned during the 1960s and 70s, only to emerge in the 1980s as China’s chief spokesman on Tibetan Buddhism (even though he was privately critical of China’s stringent controls). Pilgrims appear unfazed by his ambivalent career, crowding forward to offer small banknotes and add yak butter to the flickering lamps in front of his statue.

This and several other Tashilhunpo shrines display three photographs of Panchen Lamas side by side, with the tenth in the middle, his predecessor to the left and the 11th to the right. The young man who now holds the title embodies China’s attempt at control over Tibetan Buddhism. He was appointed in 1995 at the age of six in a ceremony attended by top Chinese officials. China refused to accept the boy recognised by the Dalai Lama as the new incarnation. This alternative, non-state-sanctioned Panchen Lama has not been seen in public since and is believed to be under close watch somewhere in China. His photograph is displayed in some monasteries far from Lhasa, but certainly not at Tashilhunpo. Bianba Tsering, my guide, said all Tibetans accept the official Panchen Lama as the rightful heir.

China’s success, so far at any rate, in keeping Xigatse relatively calm will make it all the more inclined to try the same tactic when the Dalai Lama dies. Tibetan Buddhism could well end up with two Dalai Lamas—one in Tibet, but another living outside China and able to speak out. For the Communist Party it will be a dangerous game.

The idea here is that somehow the China-installed Panchen Lama is a fake; this is how the situation in the West was presented for years.

But the reality in China is different, and The Economist should be aware of that. In the Lama Temple in Beijing (related to the Panchen Lama's sect) I remember the tour guide discussing this issue with the frankness one would expect in the Western media. It's no big secret that the issue of religion has been politicized in China, and sometimes religion has been exploited by foreign powers. This is no secret. And, guess what? Those elements of religions historically associated with foreign exploitation just don't get a free pass from the locals! Who would have thought that?

The Buddhist monks in monasteries in China do not seem to think at all they're anything other than the real deal, and compared to their counterparts in the West, they seem to compare favorably. At the not-quite-poetically named 臨済風禅寺 ("Lin-Chi Style Zen Temple") in Northeast China the monks practice there like they are at other temples; the Temple, like other temples in Japan and Korea is deliberately designed so that just getting from Point A to Point B requires an exercise in mindfulness.

Which is all to say that you can't but help get some of this Buddhist stuff in your blood if you swim around in it long enough; it will permeate you by osmosis.

Now I can't speak for the teachers there compared to here, and I would insist that wherever one is, one should seek out an uncompromising teacher who himself is ethical and "gets it."

So I won't do the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" and say the present Dalai Lama, whoever the Dalai Lamas are next and who approves them, Genpo Roshi, or you are "true" Buddhists or not. I can offer an opinion about whether what one advocates leads to greater wisdom, generosity and compassion, and whether it helps all beings. But I don't do ad hoc essentialist arguments.


Kyle Lovett said...

Bill Harris and James Ray are the best Buddhists I know! (Should I have put sarcasm tags around that?)

Petteri Sulonen said...

Buddhism was always more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy. By that criterion, a Christian or Jew who practices Zen in an unexciting and traditional manner would be a 'better' Buddhist than someone with impeccable credentials and a nice robe who practices it in an 'innovative' (or whatever you want to call it) way -- even if the Christian or Jew holds some metaphysical beliefs that are pretty far removed from the Abidhamma.

(Not naming any names here, and the usual caveats apply, especially to the terms between apostrophes...)

Mumon said...

Yeah, well at least one of them is going to get a hands-on refresher course in the First Noble Truth pretty soon, so I can't rule out their Buddhistness...