The Tibetan Gaze
September 25, 2019 5:49 AM   Subscribe

The next time [the Dalai Lama] showed up, in 1987, he’d switched gears to focus on political activism for Tibetan autonomy via non-violent resistance based in faith. His goal is demystifying the Tibetan Buddhist civilisation he’s trying to protect, and building sympathy for it. He does so by focusing on its most universalisable and, to us, comprehensible aspects. He speaks of Tibetan Buddhism as one path among many by which to live ethically and reach core truths, encouraging people to stick with their own faith rather than convert.

I saw him speak in 1987, in the US, and this seems pretty accurate, although if anything the idea of activism for Tibetan autonomy was downplayed. I remember he literally said: "Maybe Buddhism not for everybody. That's OK! Maybe Buddhism not for you."
posted by thelonius at 6:16 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

But they were unlike the Buddhists who had attracted mass public attention before them. Instead of arriving in scattered groups or one by one, they came with their full hierarchy intact; learned teachers and their students left their homeland together, and continued to stress the importance of everyday rituals and esoteric traditions such as tantric rites.
This is a key point. If, a Westerner, you want to know what "authentic" Buddhism looks like, go practice with a Tibetan lineage group.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 6:26 AM on September 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

Buddhist-based mindfulness practices are used to teach dissatisfied cogs in corporate or social systems to suck it up and move along.

This has bothered me to no end. I worked for a regional management consulting company where my practice leader (and, to be fair, all of her management structure upwards) were doggedly committed to finding psychological hacks to mind-control their workforce. She would talk really openly with her practice leadership team (of which I was a member) about concepts like "going up the ladder" - understanding when people are telling themselves a narrative and ratcheting up their anxiety. Or "that's not my monkey" - refusing to take problems people bring you as a monkey on your back - keeping them the victim of the monkey rather than yourself.

The very worst, indeed sinister, of these though are the ones that seek to change employee's perceptual mindsets about their work situation in order to avoid dealing with difficult problems for managers to solve for their people. Actively instructing and managing people to change their unique perspective into telling themselves that their shitty situation isn't really that bad and they should stop complaining.

Sometimes people should complain! Sometimes problems should be dealt with. It's damaging to people to try to reframe things in ways that aren't in sync with...reality. Co-opting a religion like Tibetan Buddhism, with the helpful techniques like meditation that it offers, with the ends of using it to control people, is a dark, complicated reality of it's own. It's psychological abuse. And if you believe in that karma shit, you have some bad karma coming for you for doing that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:30 AM on September 25, 2019 [25 favorites]

While the framing of the article initially left me confused--what's that word dark doing there, is this going to be some scandalous exposé--it quickly became clear that this is a description of the West's problems with Buddhism, its flattening of religion and people for our own purposes, and that made it an interesting read...except, y'know, it's not exactly an unfamiliar story, and while there were a few Asian and Asian-American voices present, more of their perspectives would've made for a much more interesting story. Anyone familiar with the Western flavors of Buddhism already knows a lot of this material, but what do the people whose religion is being borrowed, adapted, flattened, or appropriated think about it? What's their view of the effects of this flattening when it comes to foreign policy?
posted by mittens at 6:43 AM on September 25, 2019 [14 favorites]

When most westerners think of the Dalai Lama, they're really thinking of John Lennon or someone.
posted by acb at 8:08 AM on September 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is a key point. If, a Westerner, you want to know what "authentic" Buddhism looks like, go practice with a Tibetan lineage group.

I'd agree with this with regard to "authentic" (noting the problems of that word) Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is one type of Buddhism practiced by one set of Buddhists, so it's one branch of a worldwide religion with diverse adherents.

There isn't a dichotomy between Tibetan Buddhist traditions and theosophical woo repackaged by New Agers, any more than there's a dichotomy between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Joel Osteen.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:19 AM on September 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

I guess something that bugs me about the article is that it occasionally seems to conflate Tibetan Buddhism with Buddhism as a whole, or as somehow the most "authentic" form, which is a tendency seems to cause as much confusion as anything.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:22 AM on September 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

While the framing of the article initially left me confused--what's that word dark doing there, is this going to be some scandalous exposé....

I was expecting something along these lines.
posted by thelonius at 8:52 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

i'm not impressed with this article for all the reasons that mittens articulated upthread. - nb i do not agree with sperling's digressions on orientalism, but this article is from 2001, so uh, this is well trod ground even for white scholars who imo tend to be quite late to the party

anyway here's an interview with tsering woeser
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 9:05 AM on September 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

In conclusion, Buddhism is a land of contrasts.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:30 PM on September 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:30 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have listened to a lot of audio tapes by Alan Watts. I liked them. For example, he said it's not about nothingness, it's about "no thing"ness. But what do the cool Buddhists think about him?
posted by hypnogogue at 3:28 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

My wife is doing her PhD on the history of Buddhism in Japan (among other things). While we were living there, we went to a lot of temples. Japanese Buddhism is a completely different branch than Tibetan, being Mahayana as opposed to Vajrayana, but it's led me to get rather irritated every time I read the "Buddhism isn't really a religion, it's a philosophy," bullshit that seems to crop up. It's a religion. There are gods, there are hells, in Mahayana your goal is to become a Buddha and get your own Buddha realm. (There's the doctrine of expedient means which is how Mahayana, at least in the Lotus Sutra, explains that the idea of goal is not dissolution, but obtaining Buddhahood.) The Buddha's mother was impregnated by having an elephant pierce her, he was born from her armpit. (I've seen statues of that.) Zen is Mahayana. Zen is not a philosophy. Zen is a way to become a Buddha.

People have created philosophies based off of Buddhism. I think of this as "Western Buddhism," something that was created to not scare off the people who would be weirded out by the multiple worlds, the hungry ghosts, the magic and gods and state protection and all that good stuff that comes with a religion. The closest I can think of is the Jefferson Bible (by Thomas Jefferson, who was at best a deist), where he hacked together a single testament and took out all the supernatural.

I could rant about this all night, but I'm not going to. Just that there is so much to Buddhism that the west doesn't see. There's a reason there's a 40 foot tall seated Buddha in Todaiji and it's not to promote a philosophy of nothingness and detachment.

And I didn't even get into merit and how one gets a better spot on the wheel of reincarnation by paying to have copies of sutras made. Spend money, improve your karma.
posted by Hactar at 6:30 PM on September 25, 2019 [18 favorites]

I studied Tibetan Buddhism for a year, I liked the philosophies, but I didn't quite make the leap of faith to be an adherent, because my heart wasn't into it. At the time, I was working as an office manager in a dysfunctional corporate environment. When I started meditating, repressed rage boiled up to the surface, and I eventually quit my job. So for those corporate managers using 'mindfulness' as a method of enforcing structural docility, be careful of what you wish for, it could backfire.

If anyone is actually curious about the real question of "What is Buddhism?", Wikipedia has some decent articles on The History of Buddhism and related subjects.

(Regarding Alan Watts, he takes some ideas from Buddhism, and he goes into an interesting personal direction with it;)
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

There should be a discussion of Bön, the shamanistic tradition predating the arrival of Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche, the guy who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet in 800 CE. The practices and views of Bön are inseparable from what Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) has become. And they're both Mahayana Buddhism! Didja ever wonder why Japanese Zen (formerly Chinese Ch'an) is apparently austere, while Tibetan Buddhism is overpopulated with female and male deities? And what do all these deities have to do with the practice of Dzogchen, the ne plus ultra of Tibetan Buddhism, in the eyes of Westerners forking up dough for retreats? This is pretty complicated stuff in the eyes of those who would like the Buddha to represent the guide to pure enlightenment. But he lived a long time ago, and his teachings have proved to be incredibly malleable to societal norms, unlike, say, Hinduism, still tied to the caste system.
posted by kozad at 7:08 PM on September 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I agree, Hactar, that Buddhism is another religion to most of its adherents. Since you bring up the huge Buddha statue in Nara, though, I have to say that it represented a branch of Buddhism known as Kegon, closely allied with Shingon, both Tantric branches of Buddhism. They are esoteric (i.e. secret to most) and allied with other Mahayana practices.

Now, the most popular branch of Buddhism in Japan is Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-Shu) and is very much about worshiping Buddha and aspiring to be reborn in Buddhist Heaven.
posted by kozad at 8:00 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah so I’m a westerner, and devout Tibetan Buddhist. It’s all things described in the article - esoteric, mystical, cosmic, symbolic, visual. But, like, I don’t expect the average public to have to know about it? I know jack shit about Judaism and Islam. So it’s not some tragedy that people flatten the religion, so long as it doesn’t disappear entirely. If you want to study Tibetan Buddhism there are places you can go or this book is a great resource.

Now I get why the dalaï lama doesn’t get into the Tibetan details because he’s talking to a broad audience of non-buddhists. Reading some of his works, there are definitely hints of it there, though he is making it accessible to westerners by making it seem like Spiritual Rationalism. He’s not trying to convert anyone he just wants some peace in the world.

As for angry buddhists - there are definitely stories in the scriptures, like the monks who tried to embarrass Shantideva by making him give a speech (thus expose him for not knowing anything so they thought) and lo and behold he gives the seminal sermon Guide to the Bodhisattvas Way of Life. So, definitely stories of monks being assholes for sure. There’s also the concept of wrath, which is clear minded forcefulness, separate from the delusion of anger. But Buddhism does not condone violence, and a violent Buddhist is not a good Buddhist just like any religious extremist whose forgotten their roots.

Yeah so anyway this article read like a big ball of meh to me, I’m not sure the author knows much about what he’s talking about, I felt like he was taking up arms of a cause that no one asked him to fight for them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:53 PM on September 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

If you'd like to watch a bunch of hot buddhas serving at a temple and trying to save the world...

NAMUAMIDABUTSU! -UTENA- - Watch on Crunchyroll
Long before superheroes, there were legends. One of them begins with Shaka Nyorai, whose bravery and enlightenment once saved humanity forever. But forever is fleeting because Mara, the personification of Earthly desires, forges a corrupt coalition with the devil to bring wrath and vengeance to humanity. To counter Mara’s cruel attack, Taishakuten and Bonten must join forces with the Thirteen Buddhas to save humankind in their darkest hour.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:56 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m not sure the author knows much about what he’s talking about, I felt like he was taking up arms of a cause that no one asked him to fight for them.

I think this perfectly describes a whole sub-genre of think-pieces.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:18 PM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

zengargoyle, this is fantastic and will be shared with my wife as soon as possible. She's going to love/hate it.
posted by Hactar at 7:22 PM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

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