Monday, June 21, 2010

The Dalai Lama on Violence and Dog Whistling

I think the man is out of touch when he starts to opine about what Japanese youth should do in light of Japan's economic stagnation, although more English skills being learned by Japanese can never hurt.

But in today's Guardian there's another article about the Dalai Lama, and a message from him in support of the UK's Armed Forces Day.

I have always admired those who are prepared to act in the defense of others for their courage and determination. In fact, it may surprise you to know that I think that monks and soldiers, sailors and airmen have more in common than at first meets the eye. Strict discipline is important to us all, we all wear a uniform and we rely on the companionship and support of our comrades.

Although the public may think that physical strength is what is most important, I believe that what makes a good soldier, sailor or airman, just as what makes a good monk, is inner strength. And inner strength depends on having a firm positive motivation. The difference lies in whether ultimately you want to ensure others’ well being or whether you want only wish to do them harm.

Naturally, there are some times when we need to take what on the surface appears to be harsh or tough action, but if our motivation is good our action is actually non-violent in nature. On the other hand if we use sweet words and gestures to deceive, exploit and take advantage of others, our conduct may appear agreeable, while we are actually engaged in quite unacceptable violence.  

 Mark Vernon in the Guardian writes:

The Dalai Lama has sent a message of support for Armed Forces Day, which is next Saturday. In it, he writes of his admiration for the military. That is perhaps not so surprising. As he explains, there are many parallels between being a monk and being a soldier – the need for discipline, companionship, and inner strength.
But his support will take some of his western admirers by surprise, not least when it comes to his thoughts on non-violence...

What the present Dalai Lama argues, in his message of support, is that violence and non-violence are not always what they seem. "Sweet words" can be violent, he explains, when they intend harm. Conversely, "harsh and tough action" can be non-violent when it aims at the wellbeing of others. In short, violence – "harsh and tough action" – can be attitudinally non-violent. So what should we make of that?

"What would not be a traditional Buddhist way of talking is to imply that violence is in fact non-violence, given the right motivation", explains Paul Williams, professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy, University of Bristol. "This is certainly an interesting but perhaps extremely dangerous sentiment."...
But before rushing to too fast a conclusion, another factor must be borne in mind. The Dalai Lama quite routinely says different things to different audiences, an approach that is valued in Buddhism and is known as "skilful means". It is not a kind of duplicity. Rather, it aims to have the right word for the right time and context. The difficulty is that when his words ripple out across the internet, as they do, they are also ripped out of their original context. Skilfully interpreting the Dalai Lama then becomes very hard.

For example, when speaking in the west, he has drawn much from Gandhi's broadly Jain understanding of non-violence, "ahimsa". "Man lives freely by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him", Gandhi wrote in All Men Are Brothers – effectively precluding killing. But such an approach would be odd amongst Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama would hardly be likely to advocate it amongst his fellows.

In fact, it is possible to get some sense of this greater sophistication by considering his life story. This is man who has lived with the reality of state violence from his youth, and who receives reports of it almost daily, now that he is old. He has previously argued that violence in Tibet is wrong, not on principled but pragmatic grounds, as it would have no chance of succeeding.

 When Mark Vernon writes about the Dalai Lama that "when speaking in the west, he has drawn much from Gandhi's broadly Jain understanding of non-violence,"  that's something we in America call dog whistling.  He's speaking to a select group of people, telling them what they want to hear.  Yet he's still the guy who, with a change of clothes and a change of culture would be in a mold somewhat like  a significantly less virulent form of Jefferson Davis, with differences of serfdom compared to  slavery, and with Han Chinese as the marginalized ethnic group. And yes, the Chinese Communist Party stands in for the Radical Republicans.   Once again, I have to say sorry folks, I'm an American and I don't like racism in any guise.

It's a recurring point on my blog that Americans who are "fans" of Tibetan Buddhism have heavily idealized beliefs about the Dalai Lama.  (I would not include all practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism as "fans" by any means - I think they're more sophisticated than that.)

Now I agree with the Dalai Lama's sentiments about the military;  but I also have to give a wag of the finger to him as he, himself, is one of the biggest culprits for presenting "teachings" as bromides that are "truisms trite enough to appear on a T-shirt."  But let's face it folks: the guy with the Twitter aphorisms who dog-whistles non-violence to the West is also not willing to take steps that would be real measures for reconciliation with China.   Don't believe me? He acts as  the titular head of a government in exile.   And here's one aspect Chinese positionAnd here's the most recent Chinese position.   Remember, China has for hundreds of years been recognized as the supreme governmental authority in Tibet, and Chinese heads of state have given authorization to various Tibetan Buddhist leaders, with authorizations as intermingled religious and political roles.  While I know many in the West wish to analogize this to India, or Vietnam, the reality is different.

Now truth be known, given where he is, he probably has to deal with the inherent conflicts between his role as Buddhist leader and his role as political leader, but I think he is really not being skillful in his execution of his political role as Buddhist.  And I wish he were.

Let's not place anyone on pedestals, and let's not place on pedestals our attachments to idealizations of people that don't exist and never did exist.


David said...

You really have a bug up your butt about the Dalai Lama. What is it about him that bothers you so? Frankly, you do not seem to understand him or his teachings, and as I suggested before you appear to have swallowed some Chinese propaganda about the situation in Tibet. The Dalai Lama acts as the titular head of a government in exile because he is the head of a government in exile. There is nothing in this Armed Forces message that condones violence. He does not engage in the practice of telling people what they want to hear--to understand the Dalai Lama you really have to attend his teachings (you cannot confine yourself to his public messages) and this last point will be abundantly clear. Yes, he does have followers who are little more than fans, so there are the anti-fans as well, who snipe on a superficial level which is nothing more than just another form of finding fault and criticizing others based on attachment, resentment and pride.

Mumon said...


It seems that some - including the Dalai Lama - are trying to have their cake and eat it too, to borrow the metaphor from the Guardian article.

The Dalai Lama is not the head of a recognized government in exile; no nation on earth recognizes it as such. The Dalai Lama has said he'd like a Tibet as part of China, but the fact of the matter is, as you point out, to others he presents himself as the "head of a government in exile."

This is not "Chinese propaganda," but cold hard reality.

I have said what my issues are here, and they do indeed involve public speech choices by the Dalai Lama. And, as I have said, the idea that soldiers must engage in violence at times (duh!) is something that is morally reconcilable with Buddhism, and if in that sense, the Dalai Lama is not "condoning violence," then that's another issue. But I thought I was actually in agreement with him on that point!

(So I guess you can accuse me of condoning violence.)

Finally, you say, in effect, "Wait! You have to listen to his teachings!"

To me, this reminds me of some conservatives I know that think I have to listen to Glenn Beck more than 15 minutes in order to have formed a response to him.

But in this case you are in effect acknowledging my point: in the Dalai Lama's public messages - addressed to the public, he's saying something different than what's in his teachings!

Well guess what? I have read of his teachings and such, and yes most of what I've read (let's just not talk about the Nechung Oracle, OK?) does comport with general Buddhism.

But: I don't have to buy into the Dalai Lama politics to acknowledge that, and the fact that he gives good Buddhist teachings shouldn't obscure the very real political issues in play here. And nor can it be avoided that it bolsters my point.

David said...

You are misinformed. Since the 1990's the Dalai Lama has been recognized by the US State Department, for one, as a head of state and government. He at that time receive Secret Service protection. I can't say that he still does, but it would seem likely.

You are claiming that he tells people what they want to hear. All I am saying is that if you hear his Buddhist teachings you will see that is not the case. Most of what he talks about is way over the average person head and level of knowledge. He could easily spoon feed his listeners with pithy little new age bits of feel-good wisdom, but he doesn't.

I don't agree with everything he says, or with everything that anyone says, but when I criticize folks I try to be reasonable about it. Comparing the Dalai Lama to Jefferson Davis? Give me a break.

I think you are being overly judgmental and unfair.