Thursday, June 10, 2010

Politics, Buddhism, American Buddhism, and China - Tibet Policy: Barbara's Buddhism Blog Shows What Not to Do

Barbara of the Buddhism Blog posted another anti-China screed yesterday.  There's really nothing else to accurately call it, in my view.  Now as I said on a previous post, it's not too surprising that there are Buddhists whose international and politics differ.  What we should try to avoid though is conflating political issues with Buddhist issues, that is, assuming a particular political question, viewed a certain way is a Buddhist question, and I think Barbara has crossed the line.  Before I  go to the tape, let me point out a few things that should be axiomatically obvious to any non-Tibetan lineage Buddhist:
  • The Dalai Lama, as a manifestation of the Boddhisattva of compassion, is specifically a Tibetan Buddhist school designation and in no way encumbers anyone else to recognize that beyond that which is such in anyone else.  
  • Mutatis mutandis for the Panchen Lama and Amitabha.
  • The offices of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are political offices if they are considered as operating within the realm of Chinese/Tibetan domestic and international politics.  Strictly speaking those offices as political offices per se do not encumber any Buddhist to recognize anything.
I've been very critical of the Dalai Lama, and the conflation of attempts at international support of a political position with Buddhism  for a variety of reasons, not the least because many people speaking on this issue are utterly ignorant or dismissive of the history, geography, and geopolitics  involved.  China has asserted political control over Tibet for hundreds of years; Tibet is seen as crucial strategically to China's stability and ability to defend itself, and it's simply not useful if one is truly interested in peace to be dismissive or vituperative in response to these issues.

The Panchen Lama is the second highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The faux Panchen Lama is Gyaltsen Norbu, son of a Tibetan Communist Party official, who was appointed to the position by Beijing in 1995 a few weeks after the legitimate tulku, Gendu Choekyi Nyima, and his family disappeared. Both boys were six years old at the time.

As I mentioned here, can't we at least recognize that the "find the kid who's the incarnation of the dead lama" game is one of those practices we can do without?  But this paragraph illustrates my point: a) we Zen Buddhists are in no position to judge who is a legitimate tulku and who is not; only those who choose to become adherents to said tulku do, and b) the office of the Panchen Lama is also a political position, and it is not accurate in the least to say that since China appointed that official (albeit in an atavistic way that is similar to what's been done before)  that he is somehow "false."

Gyaltsen Norbu lives in Beijing, and his visit to Tibet is a rare event. Xinhua tells us the pretender led a prayer service in Jokhang Temple in Lhasa  and was greeted by lamas bearing incense and silk scarves.

Beijing can be reasonably certain that no monk of Jokhang would disrupt the ceremonies, since most of the monks were removed for "re-education" during the summer of 2008. Once the Beijing Olympics were over, monks who did not have families in Lhasa were not allowed to return but were sent to their home provinces. The few hundred monks remaining in Lhasa's monasteries -- which are vast complexes that housed thousands of monks in the past -- are approved by government.

 Not just Xinhau's reported on the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama's activities, but also the BBC (scroll to bottom of post), and The Economist (see my blog entry here; the link is behind a subscription wall, and yes, I do subscribe).  Both posts contradict Barbara's "See? Everyone hates that nasty faux Panchen Lama!" narrative. Big time.

Towards the end of the post Barbara quotes an article from The Asia Sentinel;  this article too conflates the religious and political.  Most other news sources, recognize there is a political aspect to this, even if they do conflate them.   Barbara ends her post with a quote from that article comparing the fate of the Dalai Lama-chosen Panchen Lama to Pu Yi:

"Presumably much as the famed last Emperor Pu Yi ended up working as a gardener in the Beijing Botanical Gardens," the Asia Sentinel says. However, the government remains extremely vague about Gendu Choekyi Nyima, and I still think it is unlikely the boy and his family are still alive.

The Pu Yi reference sort of gives away all the points here.  As anyone who's seen The Last Emperor knows, Pu Yi was not quite a person  one should have shed many tears over; his life was tragic, he was not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, but his life of pampering in no way prepared him for what lay ahead, and he ultimately wound up serving China best as a gardner in the Beijing Botanical Gardens.  Barbara offers no other reason for her belief  about Gendu Choekyi Nyima's demise; that is a statement of prejudice, but then by this point, we are well beyond discussing Buddhist issues, but rather geopolitical issues.

On edit: It is certainly true that there's been horrific violence done in the past few decades; in China  but that does not justify a belief that the Chinese government is currently disappearing innocent people.    Of course examining that belief, questioning it, wasn't the point of that post, and that's why I considered the stated "belief"  of the killing of these people to be prejudicial, in a similar vein as it would be to suppose that the average Mormon wants to install a Mormon theocracy in the United States, and violently defend it, based on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Conflating the China of the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square with the China of today is not accurate either, and  Western and Chinese news outlets are reporting events in China, such as going on at Foxconn and Honda that were unthinkable just five years ago.


David said...

Not knowing what exactly is behind your feelings on this subject, I can only guess that perhaps you view the widespread admiration and enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama as some sort of pressure to recognize the Dalai Lama as this or that, which I can understand. My sense from having attended a number of his teachings and from speaking with folks who are much closer to him than I, is that the Dalai lama himself would be the last person who would try to make you feel encumbered to recognize him as anything.

I am always irritated with talk of tulkus and reincarnated lamas because it’s such nonsense. Reincarnation is not really a Buddhist concept. Yet, I feel I need to be tolerant about it since, as far as Tibet goes, they feel very serious about it and who am I to encumber Tibetans to recognize what I believe?

Mumon said...


My feelings on the subject is related to the disconnect between what American Buddhists think of as China and Tibet and Buddhism and what the Chinese do, as well as my own practice, as well as the desire, consistent with the American position, that there be a resolution to this issue.

I don't disagree with your characterization of the Dalai Lama, btw; I'm sure he has to deal with a situation similar to that encountered by Brian of Nazareth. He just has many more constituencies following him around than Brian did.

Barbara O'Brien said...

Mumon's opinions spring from a gross ignorance of the nature of Tibetan Buddhism. From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, the lineage of tulkus is critically important to their *religious* practice. As Tibetans understand it, if the lineages are broken, the teachings cannot be correctly transmitted to future generations. Therefore, Chinese government interference in the lineages is a direct assault on Tibetan BUDDHISM, not just a political issue of no real importance to Buddhism.

As a Soto Zen student myself I am not personally invested in the Tibetan lineages. I don't believe in "reincarnation" and frankly don't understand how the Tibetans can maintain the teachings of shunyata and their particular views on individual rebirth at the same time. However, I have spent enough time with Tibetan Buddhists to respect that they have developed a powerful tradition that is not nearly as different from Zen as it might seem to be on the surface. So, I respect their perspective even though I don't always share it.

Further, as Tibetan Buddhism attempts to maintain its integrity in diaspora, the Dalai Lama has played a critical role in maintaining some cohesion among the several schools and sub-schools. Again, this is critical to the future direction, and even the survival, of Tibetan Buddhism.

Mumon's attitude seems to be that since only the Tibetan traditions are affected by the Chinese government's actions, then it's of no real importance, and it's OK to kick Tibetan Buddhism to the curb. I find that appalling.

David said...

Frankly, I never found Monty Python all that funny, or British humor in general, and those accents? Can't we do without that? Jeez, every time I watch a British made program, I have to use closed captioning.

Seriously, your rather flip response I think says something and I wonder if you are aware that there is a lot of silliness in Zen too.

I don't know who these Chinese are that you keep claiming to know the views of, but once again their opinions are vastly different from the Chinese I've known, and I've known quite a few. Come down here and visit any of the Chinese temples in Monterrey Park and ask them about the Dalai Lama or the Chinese government.

It also sounds like you were fed a a bit of propaganda on this trip of yours, which is not surprising.

Mumon said...


Of course I'm aware there's silliness in Zen, but the humor I've posted has a big serious point: too many people are attached to a person.

While I have great admiration and profound respect for the guy I refer to as my teacher, just as I did my doctoral thesis adviser, I realize that these people are not to be and never should have been unquestioningly, obsessively followed.

Mumon said...


As Tibetans understand it, if the lineages are broken, the teachings cannot be correctly transmitted to future generations.

Anyone who reads the Wikipedia web page on the Dalai Lama history for a bit can understand the historical difficulties and logical paradoxes with this position of "you must have an unbroken line of tulkus."

Taking what you said at face - that it's a key teaching of Tibetan Buddhism - then it's at variance with the other aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. Despite the fact that Zen makes similar claims of an unbroken line, the importance of Zen is not on the literalness of that point, and thankfully so, because the Chinese greatest teachers' lineages did not survive, but their records have survived.

Therefore, Chinese government interference in the lineages is a direct assault on Tibetan BUDDHISM, not just a political issue of no real importance to Buddhism.

Again, you're not quite presenting the full picture here. The Chinese government has no problem with a peaceful resolution of the Tibet situation that includes the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet; the big problem is that the Dalai Lama does not want to accept their terms which in effect include recognition of those aspects of Chinese law (including its constitution) which apply to autonomous regions.


Mumon said...


Now IF the unbroken line of tulkus were truly paramount, as well as peace with people transcending ethnic background there would be no problem.

On the other hand, this could be chalked up to the karma of being simultaneously attached to religion and politics. It is the karma for the Dalai Lama's predecessor's ethnic cleansing of Chinese from Tibet. It is the very karma for accepting a political position "Dalai Lama" from a Chinese emperor.

That's the history Barbara. The Dalai Lama, like other Dalai Lama, literally historically holds his office because of a 13th century Mongol emperor of China. And if you don't realize that that is exactly how the Chinese see it and they have undisputed facts on their side, then I might as well be talking about Glenn Beck to a member of the tea party.

But on this point, as you probably read in the Eight Gates of Zen (forgive my gross paraphrase), if the last roshi, sensei, laoshi, sifu, JDPSN, etc. passed from the scene and it was forgotten for countless kalpas then zen and the dharma would completely be restored with the beginning of a single solitary person's own practice.

You say you are concerned about the survival of Tibetan Buddhism.

Yet you are in continual denial that Tibetan Buddhism exists in China.

Let me say one other thing, which is probably hard for most Westerners of European descent to understand. I think the thing that has crystallized my position on this point was actually a discussion with people from India on the situation in Kashmir. They were as liberal as you Barbara, but on Indian geopolitics they had viewpoints completely unspoken in the West, but obviously prevalent in India.

India, like China and Russia, have numerous small minorities They are not located in contiguous land masses (as is, and as was historically the case in Tibet, or at least what supporters of the Dalai Lama call Tibet).

The WWI analogs of self-determination are not really applicable in these areas, as the populations are highly intermixed. Even in Europe this norm seems to be breaking down; odd things like Slovakia and Hungary threatening each other are happening.

This narrative isn't working anymore, and the narrative that looks beyond racist ethnocentrism (whether Chinese or Tibetan) should prevail. Nobody should give a pass to the racism of either side.

They should make peace with each other.

But you can't make peace without considering all the issues that are obstacles to peace. If one is unwilling to do that, then one is "throwing Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism under the bus."

Mumon said...

One clarification/expansion:

In China and India, national identity is apart from ethnic heritage.

My Indian friends had pointed out to me that despite separatist movements in India, the Indian government was compelled to a) simultaneously develop these areas where these movements were active, and b) ruthlessly violently address violent insurgencies, because if they didn't the state would fall apart. That is why the WWI analogs of self-determination are thought not to work in these areas.

The Chinese see their situation that way. What I hear from Chinese is, "We are spending very much money trying to help the Tibetans out of their poverty and misery." It's a two way street of course for the Chinese state, but it is also true that the government understands the premise of the liberal poverty program as antidote to violence and misery and despair.