Saturday, February 16, 2013

What might a Buddhist response on Tibetan self-immolations look like? Part 2

I had started this post a couple of days ago, but have been sort of busy.  Evidently the post resulted in a a response from Barbara, who took issue with how I related events in Vietnam.  I still stand by my point, which was that the immolation of the Buddhist monk did not succeed, and certainly wasn't immediately causative in the removal of the Diem regime.  The Diem regime was horribly oppressive to Buddhists, and the non-violent mass protests by Buddhists did play a part in what unfolded. But what did unfold was simply that a religious extremist clique that was oppressing Buddhists was toppled from power by a corrupt clique, with a wink and a nod from the United States.   That is to say, the fall of the Diem regime happened because it could have, and if all of those things above were not in place, it would not have happened, at least that way.  In other words: non-violent mass protests by Buddhists + oppression by the Catholic Diem regime + corrupt junta-in-waiting + indifference of the US to the fate of the Ngos = coup d'état.  Notice you didn't necessarily need a self-immolation there. And the objective of ending violence in Vietnam and having a secure position for Buddhists in Vietnam wasn't part of the deal. 

Seriously, I think a point of disagreement here is one of how one views the world politically.

Barbara also takes a bit of issue with the immediate causes of the self-immolations, and in particular objecting to Beijing's rather direct management of official religions in that country.  I can understand her point, but there is a counter-argument to it as well.  It also goes to the issue of the Dalai Lama's rather unfortunate dealings with certain American agencies back in the last century, and why, as I said, the Chinese government doesn't exactly see him the way the "Free Tibet®" crowd.  And yeah, he did say he "relinquished authority," but...well, I replied to that elsewhere.

But again, most  of that above is really not my point here.  Let me get to that point...

Another Buddhist blog recently,  perhaps in anticipation of this blog post, has a post that references ninjutsu (忍術) which,  oddly enough is in the service of something called "social action," to use that which is attractive and repulsive in the service of one's practice.

That's not horrible, actually.  But at the same time there's a blind spot.

And unfortunately I can't show that blind spot.  

But I can talk about 功夫.

Which is what this post is more-or-less about: a Buddhist response to the self-immolations in Tibet would be to encourage those monks who are challenging "ownership" of "Tibetan Buddhism" "in China" to instead lead lives that, through the practice of Buddhism, make the point irrelevant, in the same way that one can train one's self to use what one is physically capable of doing to make potential foe's strengths irrelevant as well.

That it may be problematic for the Dalai Lama to say this or to speak to stop the self-immolations I can understand.  But I do think these things ought to be said.  Finally, I do want one other point to be made regarding what Barbara wrote here:

Something I didn't appreciate until I did the research is that in Tibetan Buddhism, the reborn lamas are thought to play a mystical role in transmitting the dharma to succeeding generations. In Tibetan understanding, if the legitimate succession of lamas is broken, the dharma itself may be lost. As zennies we may choose to disbelieve this, but it's not our tradition. And I appreciate that the way high lamas were chosen in the past often smacked of political favoritism rather than mysticism. 
Even so, from a Tibetan perspective, for the government to choose high lamas from the sons of loyal party members is a bit like the government handing out Chan dharma transmissions to political cronies and not allowing authentic transmissions to be recognized. It irreparably screws up the tradition. For Gelugpa monks in China, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region, being cut off from the Dalai Lama is being cut off from full transmission of dharma. This is why it is a Big Deal; dismissing it as just not being allowed to carry a photo is callous.

Look,  we've just had the Sasaki affair on top of the Shimano affair, etc. etc. etc. I have to applaud the really trenchant posts that Brad Warner's been writing about this, especially, for purposes of reference here, this post.  To put it simply: Tibetan lamas are just people, or as Brad Warner puts it, overdeveloped apes just like you and me, or to put it in a Zen metaphor, we're all foxes living out a few hundred or so lives.

Certainly you can object to the Chinese government choosing religious officials based on political considerations if and when those officials are unqualified.  But contrary to what I've seen from some "Free Tibet®" apologists, there are authentic Dharma practitioners amongst the clergy in China, but admittedly, I myself, have not been to Tibet (though I have been to the Lama temple in Beijing, where discussion about such events has been quite frank, at least to non-Chinese). my larger point here: I swear I'm not channeling Christopher Hitchens, but it's some kind of odd sort of Orientalism to   decry the guru syndrome in Westernized Zen Buddhism because of abuses of authority but to uphold the guru syndrome in Tibetan Buddhism!  The point may be taken "Yeah, that's what they believe," but it doesn't mean we should encourage it!

Some Catholics make similar points regarding the Pope (as do at least some Copts, some Greek Orthodox, etc.)  But Christianity hasn't been "lost" because of schisms, the Protestant Reformation, etc. and besides,  to take Barbara's point to its logical conclusion Barbara and I, and the folks in our respective lineages  may not be authentic practitioners of the Dharma, because our practice is not dependent on the Tibetans' lineage.  I can't buy that.

It may be upsetting to some for me to say that the Dalai Lama has a pretense of religious authority because of the above, but my own teacher is as much a human as I am and you are as well as the Dalai Lama.   Or for that matter, anybody in China.


Jordan said...


Mumon K said...

Not exactly...but you bring to mind something I read that's typical of the situation: one of these monks puts himself on fire in view of Chinese security (Army? Police? I forget which). A policeman, let's assume, tries to put out the fire, help the monk who put himself on fire.

Another monk intervenes to try to stop the officer.

That monk is arrested and charged with something like helping out a killing or something like that.

That was one of the stories that led me to write this stuff. You can imagine, a relatively young guy in his 20s - that'd be the typical demographic for a policeman in this sort of thing - who is being prevented from trying to save the life of a suicide! Who wouldn't sympathize with the officer?

Well, not the Free Tibet crowd, that's who, because they called the arrest of the intervening monk a human rights violation!

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