Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Kiss Mo & Co Goodbye!

"I've been trying to get an appointment with Rinpoche for months!" My friend sounded tired. He had a knee problem, a birth defect, which made him limp since he was a child. But with age the problem became more severe causing him pain now and impairing his walk. The doctor said he should get it operated whereupon my friend enlisted a second opinion from another specialist who also recommended surgery. Still he was delaying the decision. He didn't want to do anything without consulting his Lama first.

"Should I get my knee operated? When should I get it operated? Which day? At which hospital should I get it operated? Can you please do a Mo?"

These are his burning questions.

For all the laudable Guru devotion generated towards his spiritual guide: Are these topics for a Lama?

And Mo?!

Among the elements that make up Tibetan culture, divination or Mo to me is an intransparent book of seven seals. It feels antiquated and shamanic. It feels like heathen Voodoo stuff and is not my cup tea. But even some of my closer Tibetan friends and their acquaintances, who are mostly modern and educated people, resort to Mo divination without a second thought.

On the other hand, I read that Mo is mentioned in the Kalachakra Tantra and reflects Wisdom Buddha Manjushri's advice, so at least in this instance then, we must assume it is a proper Buddhist practice and not old-fashioned superstition. But one still wonders how divination can be reconciled with the Buddhist core concept of the law of cause and effect: When we know everything is governed by las 'bras what good is divination for? Soothsaying Mo can't possibly make a difference. Whatever happens to us is a result of our own thoughts, habits and actions. We are the shapers of our fate. Fortune-telling Mo is irrelevant.

And if the advice coming out of a Mo is really Buddha Manjushri's voice, at least people's divination requests should be related to their Dharma practice then, should they not?

My friends' Mo-issues however, always steer towards mundane stuff: "Should I take the new job? Should I get married to this person? Should I opt for early retirement? Should I buy this house? When should I move in? Which college should my child apply for?"

These are pressing questions that come up in many people's lives. They are normal questions with the big difference that normal people weigh, evaluate and decide autonomously.

But Tibetans and also foreigners, who converted to Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes feel the urge to relegate the discretionary competence over normal questions to someone else. Usually this someone else is neither trained nor has hands-on experience of things like surgery, jobs, marriage, retirement, housing or schools.

My friend of course disagrees. He has great faith in his Lama and thinks involving him in medical issues is reasonable and respectful because surgery is a drastic intervention in one's life. To have his Lama on board has a calming effect.

Well, if he absolutely had to ask the Lama for a Mo, at least he could have asked in a more self-reliant way. After all, he is not our average uneducated Tibetan villager but a Western-trained health care professional. So rather than asking: "Dear Rinpoche, should I get my knee operated?" He could have asked: "Dear Rinpoche, I decided to have surgery on my knee for this and this reason. Do you see any problems with that?"

Asking this way would show the Lama that the person has thoroughly thought about the topic. It would show that the person is not expecting the Lama to think and decide in his place; he has not passively surrendered his intellectual independence but actively completed all the thinking himself and now requests a Mo as an additional opinion, and will then make his decision autonomously.

Personal responsibility is also what the Buddha requires of his followers: To critically scrutinize his teaching and, when you are convinced of the validity, then apply it to yourself. A competent Lama sought for a Mo will no doubt appreciate the groundwork, and charlatans, of whom there are said to be many, will have a tougher time to manipulate people for their own goals.

To my friend's disappointment, the result coming out of his Mo was, as so often, vague and not specific at all. It said: "You should have your knee operated. It doesn't matter when you do it and it doesn't matter which hospital you pick."

And the poor man waited for months with a hurting knee for such vacuous reply!

"Look at it this way," I tried to console him, "it's Buddha Manjushri telling you not to wait for him but go ahead and make up your own mind."

That would be my take-away: Learn to get real on issues that are clearly not Dharma-related. Deal independently and self-confidently with matters that are on your own mundane turf.

But my pal took my response for a bad joke. He had expected a specific guidance and was ever more insecure about the next step.

What to do?

Tibet was a magical place, secluded behind high mountains. Modern government never arrived there and religion was part of official government rule. Unwavering faith and superstition are still hard to tell apart. Even today after more than half a century of Communist shock therapy people wear all kinds of protective amulets while carrying iPhones. They continue to request divinations for things they could decide themselves. Among the Tibetans abroad, who have lived in Western-style democracies all this time it doesn't seem much different.

Perhaps it's harmless bogus and I should move on. Even if it doesn't help, a little Mo can't hurt, can it? A little magic and mystery pep up our every-day lives which otherwise could easily amount to unbearable realism.

But the reliance on divination for trivial matters can also be alarming because it creates a dependency that slows us down, makes us passive and harms our faculty to reason. When you are so afraid to take the wrong decision that you outsource the decision-making to a supposedly higher figure, you also deprive yourself of the opportunity to take responsibility and also learn from your mistakes. It's hard to improve that way.

And if we can't think and decide about small matters and learn to deal with the consequences, what then can we do when confronted with the big questions? If we can't decide whether to sell our sweaters in this or that town, move to a new house on this or that day, have surgery in this or that hospital – will we have the capacity to assess in any way our situation vis-à-vis China? Are we capable of exploring new ways how to make the best of our political situation? Are we capable of innovation?

Usually it's the government's role to take the lead in educating and inspiring the public so people become self-empowered and capable of critically reflecting topics and taking informed decisions. But when we look at the Tibetan leadership today, we still see them do the exact same thing as the little guy in the Barkhor: They turn to paranormal sources such as "oracles" for policy guidance.

The Nechung Oracle in action;
"official oracle" of the Tibetan
The way I see it, consulting "oracles" is nothing else but doing Mo on a grand scale. Actually an "oracle" is even creepier than a Mo because not only do you ask a diviner to consult a paranormal source but with Tibetan oracles the diviner becomes possessed by the paranormal source which then speaks through the diviner's mouth. Sometimes the claptrap is so unintelligible that an "interpreter" needs to get involved. – We are talking planet Earth, 21st century.

If we continue to think inside the box we will say there is nothing wrong with relying on oracles because the Tibetan government has always resorted to this kind of decision aid and that it is a cultural feature. After all, there are so many challenges the Tibetans face, it's overwhelming for any ordinary mortal: Parallel to trying to solve our gigantic political problem with China, we must also try to safe our culture into the future. And in addition, we face the challenge to modernize our society and empower every individual. So who can blame us when we resort to some extra help through divination from time to time? At least we don't do weird drugs to cope with our situation. We merely use a little Mo with no health hazard attached.

But every time we resort to that extra help, we also delay a thorough involvement with the forces of critical reasoning and knowledge. We never take the step out of our comfort zone. We never begin to think outside of the box.

Whether that makes dealing with our external challenges any easier? To me it looks like a vicious cycle.

In our time, it's absurd for a government to resort to divination in order to determine what needs to be done. But the Tibetan government merrily goes on to classify oracles as "official" reflecting a mindset that is so removed from reality like a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.  And besides being totally creepy, resorting to divination points to a really grave paradox which is staring us in the face: A society and government which lack a fundamental knowledge-empowered and knowledge-driven culture and instead rely on supernatural forces for guidance, cannot at the same time possess the potential for democracy.

Democracy emancipates the individual; Mo and the like keep the individual small. Democracy is active; Mo is passive. Democracy is relying on your intellectual resources; holy Mo is relying on external, supernatural forces. Democracy is stimulation; Mo is stagnation. Democracy is here and now; murky Mo is medieval heaven-only-knows where.

If we are serious about closing up to the democratic world, there is no alternative to critically examining our attitude towards divination.

A Buddhist monk once jokingly referred to our political situation: "In the world, there is probably no other people with more deities and gods to resort to for help than the Tibetans, and yet the Tibetans are the most miserable (skyo shos) of them all."

At the time his remark sounded like a contradiction. But after noticing how people have an almost pathological need to thugs dam shu and resort to divinations of all sorts to manage their lives and complete their tasks, it doesn't sound like a contradiction any longer but looks like plain common sense: The more help one is used to, the more dependent one becomes and the less self-reliant. You are externally controlled and can't actuate much because you wait for input all the time. Slow and passive, the collective inertia turned a whole people into easy prey.

It's abundantly clear now why we ended up as "the most miserable": While other people and governments in the world act, make things happen and deal with the consequences, we continue to bank our hopes on abstruse external figures to avoid responsibility altogether.

How can we hope to grow as a society that way?

It's also abundantly clear what each one of us can contribute in order to improve our situation: Stop running to a diviner over every booboo. Kiss Mo & Co. good-bye! Galer phebs rogs! We don't need that stuff. We never have.

We could start small with deciding for ourselves the things we have under our control, and gradually build on our decision-making power step by step until we are fully confident to run our lives independently of Mo & Co.

In this regard, there is a matching dictum I picked up from some of the older Tibetans who made no bones about living their lives: Rang thag rang bcad.

That sounds like the right attitude: "I decide my own business myself!"

Mountain Phoenix

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