Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Last Easter Sunday, I gave the morning talk at the Zen Center and said that I refused, among other things, to singularly discuss the recent tragic events in Tibet. While I find the recent acts of the Chinese government deplorable, I don't want to single out the Tibetan Buddhists as "my people" and complain about their plight, all the while ignoring similar or worse tragedies in Nepal, in Dafur, in Iraq, in America ("Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries as to those that occur in English speaking countries"). If I were to talk only about the plight of the Tibetan Buddhists, I would be falling into the same trap of discriminating between "us" and "them" that causes so many of these conflicts to begin with.

(Those of you interested in the situation in Tibet should see the excellent commentary in Mumon's blog. Those concerned about Nepal should read Jimmy Carter's op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times.)

But anyhows, a couple weeks ago I found myself in a bookstore (Portland's outstanding Powell's) trying to select one among the several new books out on the subject of atheism. I had narrowed my selection to Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. To help me decide, I looked at the index of each book to see what they had to say about Buddhism.

According to Dawkins, "I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life."

Great. My belief system will not be challenged by the formidable Richard Dawkins. But Hitchens accuses no less than the Dalai Lama himself of claiming to be a "hereditary king appointed by heaven itself" and of enforcing "one-man rule" in Dharmasala, his exile community in India.

I could see that this could get unpleasant, so I chose the Dawkins book over the Hitchins, and so fell right into the trap of duality that I spoke about on Easter Sunday. I chose the book that said, in effect, hooray for my side and a pox about the other, not only wishing others ill but, more importantly, distinguishing between an "us" and a "them."

In any event, I bought The God Delusion, but before allowing myself to sink into it, I also bought Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale to better acquaint myself with his other work before starting in on his theology. I have to say that I found The Ancestor's Tale a great read and a fascinating book, and I plan to blog soon about some of the lessons I learned from the 600+ page tome.

But back to the Dalai Lama and Hitchens' criticisms. While I want to dismiss his characterization as uninformed, no less an authority that Pankaj Mishra (An End To Suffering) recently noted in The New Yorker that "the Dalai Lama can appear a bit dull. Precepts such as 'violence breeds violence' or 'the quality of means determine ends' may be ethically sound, but they don't seem to possess the intellectual complexity that would make them engaging as ideas. Since the Dalai Lama speaks English badly, and frequently collapses into fits of giggling, he can also give the impression that he is," as a journalist noted, "not the brightest bulb in the room."

Sadly, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is probably the best in several centuries of his lineage. As Mishra goes on to note, the Ninth, Tenth Eleventh, and Twelfth Dalai Lamas all died young, some rumored to have been poisoned. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama barely escaped an assassination attempt, allegedly by his own regent. His plans for Tibetan reform and modernization were thwarted by a monastic elite that lived off the labor and taxes of peasants, and in 1934 they punished the reformist politician Lungshar by having the knuckle bones of a yak pressed against his temples until his eyeballs popped out. Is it any wonder, then, that Mao considered religion a "poison" and sought to modernize and liberate Tibet from theocratic rule?

None of this is any apology for any of the recent brutal and indefensible actions by the Chinese government, nor is it a justification for the cultural genocide in which they are engaging. But I do hope that it helps blur the line between "us" and "them," between the "good guys" and the "bad."

I will work in the meantime on blurring the line between "nice" Richard Dawkins and "mean" Christopher Hitchens.

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