Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some American Buddhists don't like my views on the Dalai Lama...

Sort of predictably, Barbara at the About.com Buddhism blog didn't really like my comments on the Dalai Lama. (And I guess I've been banned from expanding my comments there.)  I'm not surprised, because I've encountered this situation from a number of American Buddhists, both in the blogosphere and out of the blogosphere.  Odd that so few of these folks ever have a talk with Chinese folks living in this country, it seems.   But, for me, "Let's talk about everything."  Barbara at the Buddhism blog says:

Chinese people think the Dalai Lama is a trouble maker because that’s what they’ve been told all their lives. That’s not a sign of intelligence but of misinformation. And if things are so hunky-dory with Tibetan Buddhism in China, how come a majority of the monks of Lhasa were detained for “re-education” in the summer of 2009? How come several monasteries have been raided by authorities, and monks arrested, in the past several months?

The fact remains that the government of China is absolutely insane where the Dalai Lama is concerned. For example, they’re behind the oppression of Thich Nhat Hanh followers in Vietnam, for the simple reason that Thich Nhat Hanh told an Italian interviewer that he thought His Holiness ought to be allowed to return to Tibet. And where is the Panchen Lama, btw? You said the Panchen Lama was discussed “frankly.” Were they so frank they could produce the young man to show he and his family weren’t executed years ago?

 Here's several responses to this:

1. RE: the Panchen Lama, no reputable news services has ever reported that the Dalai-Lama chosen one was "executed."

2. They're "behind" the oppression of Thich Nhat Hanh's followers in Vietnam sounds absurd on its face, simply because the Chinese and Vietnamese are historically mortal enemies and the trappings of a Communist government has done exactly nothing to change that historic relationship. If Thich Nhat Hanh said this alone it is more likely that the government of Vietnam would have sent him a birthday cake.

3. The Chinese government does not condone organizing to call into question the premise and legitimacy of its government, but this is simply how all Chinese governments have historically operated.  It is also, fundamentally, how the United States operates in regards to groups such as the FALN, the Black Liberation Army and other groups.

4. The United States still seeks the extradition of revolutionaries/criminals such as Assata Shakur. Leonard Peltier, a more tenuous case, remains in prison after decades.  What the Dalai Lama represents to the Chinese government is more serious than these people, and calling it, as Barbara does,  "old, old, old news, very widely known, hardly secret" is an attempt to minimize what in any other context (like putting the US in the position of China) would be obviously what the Chinese would do.

5. I was having dinner the other night with a Chinese colleague, who pointed out that the Chinese would never give up Tibet because of its strategic importance as a supply line from the west, as it was in World War II.  This, besides the abundant mineral wealth of Tibet is never discussed either by the Dalai Lama nor his supporters.  I'm amazed that folks like Barbara can bandy about terms like "misinformed" and "ignorant" when they are either guilty of those terms or deliberately downplaying the geopolitics here.  But I've seen that before.  Anyone looking at a map and with a rudimentary understanding in geography and geology and current events gets the geopolitics; it stares one in the face.  It's funny that people can be enchanted away from what ought to be plain as the nose on their face.


Nathan said...

As an American practitioner, I think you make some good points here. I haven't a clue where Barbara got the idea that the Chinese are behind Thay's sanghas being oppressed in Vietnam. It's just a strange comment.

What I think people might be reacting to, in part, is that you often appear to be supporting the Chinese government position. I personally don't think this is true, but I can see where practitioners who have an emotional attachment to the Dalai Lama, and a desire to see Tibet free, would quickly leap to such conclusions. In fact, I think I have made a few reactionary statements towards your comments in the past, but now see that I was just being reactionary.

The way I see it, every situation is complex. However, some situations have clear power imbalances that must be called out. I cannot support China's control of Tibet, plain and simple. And I feel that the Dalai Lama has been a great spiritual leader for many people, and I recognize him as such.

Are there political issues behind the Dalai Lama's work that need to be examined? Probably. Are the Chinese all in the wrong? I doubt it.

I think a lot of this comes down to presentation though. People like Barbara lean so heavily on the side of the Tibetans that they don't bother to learn about Chinese views. And when I've read your writing, I often see a rattling off of points that counter what someone else has said, but it rarely seems to be in a context of how you view the situation as a whole. So, I really don't know how to respond.

Mumon said...


Thanks. You're right; I support neither of their positions, and I support what I think is the official American position on these matters: this is for the Chinese and the Dalai Lama to work out themselves. Furthermore, I think as an observer that we should take all the facts of the matter into account; I don't really have a grand narrative or weaving together of these facts, other than to say that I would find it difficult to be in the position of the Dalai Lama as political and religious leader, as I think there is an inherent conflict of interest here. And you can see echoes of that conflict of interest anytime religions get involved in legal or political muck, e.g., the Catholic Church's troubles. And finally, I think it's a bit atavistic to pick religious leaders from the set of toddlers when they're toddlers.

Finally, as a guy of European descent married to a Chinese woman, who has quite a few Chinese colleagues, I'm sure I see this differently than the average American Buddhist of European descent. I do wish though that these issues could be examined more soberly by all.

Nathan said...

I agree. If people had a more grounded picture of all this, it might even be possible for a solution to arise.

This current Dalai Lama seems to understand that conflict with being both a religious leader and spiritual leader. He's made a fair amount of effort to get the two positions split apart. Hopefully, they are able to make that split complete because maybe that will shift the stalled dynamic present.

David said...

If you got yourself banned from making comments on Barbara's blog then I'd like to shake your hand.

I have many Chinese friends, almost all of whom are Buddhist, and they love the Dalai Lama and they do not love the Chinese government. So when we talk about Chinese folks living in this country, it's important to remember that there are two side to the coin.

Now when you talk about Chan Buddhists in China, I have to say that its my understanding that they are few and far between. It would be interesting to know just how many there are, and I wonder, if they have much objectivity when it comes to this issue.

Mumon said...


Thanks again; I do hope for some sort of reconciliation, but I think the Dalai Lama frankly is in a weak position here, and his recent remarks about the Chinese "destroying" Buddhism in China haven't helped.


There's Chinese and there's Chinese, that's for sure. There's a subset of Chinese - a substantial one - that has decided to become Christian (and among those, at least a few do it to "fit in.") There's others that don't like the government no way no how in China, and there's a lot of others that have connections, and a host of others "in between."

Re: Chan in China: there's more temples there than I'd thought, and the Chinese government is officially seeking to build more of them (as well as Pure Land temples, etc.) I have visited Chan temples near Dandong, Ningbo (Dogen's ancestral Chinese temple), Tianjin, and know of other Chan temples in Fujian province, Zhejiang, Guandong province (including a new one near Shenzhen), and X'ian. Oh, and there's at least one Zen (yep, called "Zen") sitting group in Beijing. Not to mention Shaolin and its relatives. Although Pureland's a larger sect there, Chan is not a tiny sect. And I'm sorry if you're working on a koan, or sitting shikan taza eventually you'll get to a point where political situations don't matter, if you're practicing ardently. When I was there I made it a point to question the monks and their practice; the older ones had practiced for decades, though it's not clear to me how much of Hakuin-style Rinzai Zen is reflected in what they're doing (though they have had no contact to speak of in the Rinzai world).

Mumon said...

But, I was struck with - especially in Dandong - how much they had emulated the right conditions to produce mindful activity at their temple.

They're headed in the right direction, as far as Buddhist practice is concerned, and perhaps it's my first hand experience there that leads me to say, "No, the Dalai Lama is wrong; there are practicing Buddhists in the PRC."