Saturday, June 8, 2013

Habemus Lamam! Habemus Dharmam!

Usually we don't talk religion and religious orientation at work. But after the recent announcement of a new Pope, some of my colleagues came out as Catholics. One of them said during a coffee break he still paid church taxes but neither attends mass nor uses any of its other services because he didn't agree with some of the positions held by the Roman Catholic Church.

Then looking at me he went on to praise Buddhism, which in his perception of a casual onlooker, was easier to embrace because it was a tolerant philosophy rather than a hierarchical religion. According to my colleague, Buddhism was not standing for values that were out of touch with our time – unlike his faith of origin.

I couldn't bring myself to destroy his superficial impression of Buddhism. Religion is not the right topic for a coffee break anyway and criticising one's native religion in front of outsiders is not exactly what a well-bred Tibetan girl should do. So I merely replied that although Buddhism is a philosophy, when it's lived out in Asia, people also practice it like a religion and I added that with regard to the challenges of our times, Tibetan Buddhism faced its share of problems. Then I pretended I had to hurry back to my desk.

Of course Tibetan Buddhism has its problems. It's just that unlike Western Christians, we don't complain in public.  There are taboos and don’ts. Openly challenging authority, whether religious or worldly, is one. So it's perhaps understandable when outsiders come to assume that the grass is greener on our side.

In practice, some of the challenges the Roman Catholic Church is confronted with are amazingly similar to those of Tibetan Buddhism: Abortion comes to mind, celibacy, homosexuality, women priests, paedophiliac clerics and child-abuse - to mention but a few topics off the top of my head.

To a Tibetan Buddhist, the Catholic Church actually doesn't seem as bad as some of its members say. In fact, my own experience has been positive through and through. As a school kid, for instance, I was a member of the Catholic youth organisation in my town. It was a girls scouts' type of club where I spent many happy hours with kids my age. I also took part in the annual, weeklong summer camps led by the friendly and always cheerful Reverend in our community. I would celebrate mass with them, joining in the chants and murmuring Pater Noster.

Neither the Reverend nor any of the adults, nor the other children ever excluded me because I wasn't Catholic. That claim to absoluteness that it is the only true faith was not taking place on the ground. I wasn't baptized and technically a heathen, but no one tried to convert me or made me feel unwelcome. The church I experienced as a child was open, generous and inclusive.

But what about the Vatican saying abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin and celibacy is a must? Sometimes I wonder why people get so worked up over the Pope. In daily life, it's pro-choice, same-sex marriages are legal and paedophiliac priests are exposed and punished. With the long-established and firmly grounded legal system that separates the church and state - which both sides respect - people have long emancipated themselves from the dictum of the Church. Where is the problem? I wish we could say the same about Tibetan Buddhism and society. 

The separation of religious and worldly spheres was never instituted. Current attempts to implement it in the Tibetan exile polity are in their infancy and don’t look promising, to tell you the truth. The Dalai Lama formally announced his withdrawal from politics two years ago and I was speculating about the significance in Could This Really Be It? But by now, it's all back to business as usual. He can be seen travelling the world to meet political leaders as in the days when he was the official head of state, and he continues to express political views to the exiled Tibetan populace on every occasion, explaining that though he is retired from politics, it is his duty and his right to freedom of speech.

Apart from the institution of the Dalai Lama and monastic Buddhism, the Dharma or Buddhist teaching itself sometimes has clear positions with regard to a proper or improper action. The reference point is whether an action is conducive or averse to reinforcing a person's Buddha-potential. Take the view on homosexuality for example: I believe same sex relations are grouped under "sexual misconduct" along with sexual intercourse with children, relatives, people in a relationship with another person, etc. 

"Sexual misconduct" is also one of the five basic negative actions any Buddhist should refrain from. The other four in that category are killing, lying, stealing and using intoxicants. All five are considered extremely detrimental to realising one’s Buddha-potential because they are said to reinforce mental delusions. It’s common Buddhist practice abstain from these five negative actions by taking a vow. That puts homosexual Buddhists in a very difficult position. Our Lamas normally don't talk about it either. When they get asked during Q & A and have to say something, it's a difficult balancing act between compassion and trying to guide people according to what the Buddhist scriptures say. 

The Catholic Church sometimes is also criticized for its strict adherence to celibacy for its priests which many find outdated: Priests should be allowed to get married; celibacy it is said, is a big hindrance in recruiting new priests, and that when what is natural is repressed, what is unnatural will arise: Unholy stories of paedophiliac priests are quoted as proof of the unnaturalness of the Catholic sacerdotal system.

Here too, there are negative parallels to the Tibetan monastic system. Particularly with regard to celibacy, the monasteries face similar challenges where hundreds of males of different ages and generations live together and somehow have to get to grips with their sexuality. Stories of sexual (child) abuse in Tibetan monasteries abound. But while the Catholic Church rightly has to face up the storm of public anger and is struggling to find a solution for paedophiliac priests and child molesters, when it comes to Tibetan monastic Buddhism, there is a veil of silence on the topic. There seems to be nobody to speak up for the victims, nobody to sensitise the offenders, even nobody raising the issue for open discussion.

Another practice for which the Catholic Church comes under fire is its refusal to allow women to become priests. When the whole of society is in post-gender mode and other reform-minded Christian orders have adapted to the signs of the time, the Roman Catholic Church for many looks out of touch with reality when they refuse to accept female priests. The argument is that among the apostles of Jesus Christ, there was no female.

Again, they are not alone! Tibetan Buddhism too has refused to allow women to play an equal role. Here too, the Buddha is invoked to defend the position. Not only are there extremely few female religious leaders or Lamas, but also women cannot become fully ordained even as simple nuns. I blessed everyone on this tedious topic in Emptiness And Empty Talk. Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe this fundamental point of inequality has not changed even now that it is somehow possible for Tibetan nuns abroad to obtain some sort of Geshema degree.

Geshe or Geshema is the highest degree in Tibetan Buddhist study; it’s a PhD in Theology so to speak. But in order to be allowed to study the entire body of knowledge necessary for passing the Geshe exams, one needs to be ordained. If nuns now can become Geshemas, it either means: Rejoice! Full ordination for nuns was materialised! Or it’s a kind of “compromise” Geshe degree only given to nuns, but fundamentally they are still blocked from full ordination or equal treatment. Which one is it?

When it comes to abortion, the position of the Tibetan clergy is perhaps somewhat more pragmatic than that of the Catholic Church, but I suppose the act is still considered killing in the eyes of the Dharma. According to Buddhism, when the sperm and the egg unite is also the moment when the mental continuum begins. To give it to you straight, in Buddhism we are dealing with a living being complete with body and mind the first instance of inception and abortion is murder. The karmic consequences of killing are said to be grave.

The Buddhist position on abortion is also nicely illustrated by how Tibetans count their birthdays. When a child is born, it is considered one year old because the time during pregnancy is included. They don't abruptly switch back to zero once the baby has left the womb as it’s done in the West. In my eyes, this further underlines the Buddhist view that the foetus is considered fully human from the start of the embryonic stage.

Fortunately, abortion is one of the topics where representatives of Tibetan Buddhism seem to be taking a new approach. In this case, they do not appear to literalise as in other cases, but allow for a more pragmatic view. For example, the Dalai Lama has said that if the pregnant woman was not in a position to guarantee the welfare of a baby, it may be better to abort than to carry the child to full term. It's about personally weighing the pros and cons and self-responsibility. Abortion is still killing for Buddhist believers, but the decision is left with the individual. That's pro-choice, reasonable and the way it should be. Why can’t our Lamas show the same flexible spirit and humility with regard to other issues such as homosexuality and women-priests?

And what do we make of another perception that Buddhism is non-hierarchical and laisser-faire whereas Catholicism is top-down and rigid? To me the two institutions of Pope and Dalai Lama look practically identical in terms of hierarchical organisation. Dalai Lamas are chosen as infants, Popes are elected as old men but traditionally both have been endowed with political power in addition to their religious role. Popes are actually the Bishops of Rome but unlike the other Bishops they are endowed with political power through their own state, the Vatican. The Dalai Lama is actually "just a Lama of the Gelug order" and not even its nominal head, but at the same time, he is also the absolute political leader of Tibet. Both positions combine worldly and spiritual power in personal union.

Whereas the person becoming the Pope can be elected from any Catholic order, much to the chagrin of Tibet's Buddhist schools, only the Gelug order has had the prerogative to institute a Dalai Lama. For more than 500 years since the Mongol invaders created this institution, with Altan Khan installing the abbot of Drepung monastery, Sonam Gyatso, as ruler of Tibet, no other Tibetan Buddhist order could even hope to nominate the head of state. That's how Tibet got its most recent form of government. It was a circumstantial and historical creation that was never challenged despite serious structural shortcomings, for which Tibetan society continues to pay to this day.

While the Catholic Church and the Pope are always under scrutiny by the public, there is no such thing in the Tibetan context. Tibetan Buddhists by and large, still value integration into society and subordination to authority. Although freedom of expression is nominally encouraged under the banner of democracy, it is not genuinely appreciated particularly when it begins to deviate from the official view.  An illustrative political example is the recently displayed attitude towards advocates of Tibetan independence.  A religious example where the authorities have been most unaccommodating is the socially disastrous Dorje Shugden affair.

If my nominally Catholic colleague from work had any clue about some of the things that are going on in Tibetan Buddhism, would it still appeal to him more than his faith of origin? Perhaps what my colleague mainly sees is the universal message of peace, compassion, and happiness. Live and let live. Cool message for our times, doesn't hurt anyone - who could object?

But the core of Buddhism, if I have it right, is that there is no individual self. The belief in a stable self leads to all kinds of troubling emotions and hang-ups subjecting us to the cycle of birth and rebirth. We are bound to come back again and again, if we are lucky as a human, if we are less lucky as an animal, a hungry ghost or a hell being or a god. There is not only "life after death", but also countless lives and countless deaths in all kinds of realms and forms. The individual self is lost in the process.

How cool does Buddhism still look? 

Maybe not too cool: Some Westerners drawn to Buddhism are already beginning to take the Dharma apart, redefining it to suit their outlook. Integral parts such as rebirths are declared to be "Asian cultural baggage" which progressive modern Western Buddhists can do without. Here today, gone tomorrow. 

On the other hand, there are also efforts on the so-called traditional Asian side to "upgrade" Buddhism in relation to Western science such as physics, psychoanalysis and more recently neuroscience, perhaps in an attempt to make Buddhism more palatable to the West. When we look at the symposiums conducted by the Tibetans under the header "Mind & Life" the goal on the Tibetan side seems to be to find as many areas as possible where Buddhism somehow can be seen as converging with science.

The Dalai Lama said if science proved that a Buddhist view was incorrect, then we would have to correct the Buddhist view. Leaving aside the high-handedness such a statement could convey particularly to all the other - non-Tibetan - Buddhist orders around the world, I ask myself whether those participating scientists are equally as eager to incorporate insights from Buddhism and adapt science accordingly? And what about spots where the two diverge? 

As cool as the approximation of Buddhism and science sounds, personally I prefer an attitude that was expressed by Dzongsar Khyentse, the filmmaker-Lama from Bhutan, who said in all naturalness that if anyone can learn anything in an exchange between Buddhism and science, then it's the scientists. I love the matter-of-fact self-confidence coming out of this statement.

It's great for Buddhists to be interested in science. Exposing the Tibetan Sangha to science and modern education in general is absolutely needed and it's a shame if it hasn't been done already. The aim should be to have a modern, well informed and critically thinking Sangha that is all the more firmly grounded in the Dharma. What the aim of introducing science into the Dharma should not be, in my humble view, is to make Buddhism "better", because Buddhism needs no enhancement.

If people reject Buddhism because they find it unscientific and fantastic, ideologically too rigid or unrealistic and unachievable or "too Asian", that's no problem for Buddhism. That's exactly where the much-lauded cool part about Buddhism comes in: It's "Take it or leave it", no claim to absoluteness, no ill feelings. 

Also if you happen to have a personal issue because of a specific position on a topic like homosexuality or women's role in the Sangha, I believe there is always a workaround because in the end, Buddhism is about improving one’s mind to the extent where one can eventually make it out of the samsaric cycle. No one but us can judge our mind and the inner motivation for doing or not doing something. There is no external arbiter.  We must give account ourselves. In this sense: Flout hierarchy :--)

When Buddhism was on the verge of extinction in India, the Tibetans saved it by bringing it to Tibet providing safe haven. As a result, many Tibetan Buddhist masters have arisen ensuring that this knowledge is carefully preserved, passed on reliably and in its entirety from one generation of masters to the next. They have done a superhuman job. Now that the Tibetans lost their country, one could perhaps say that Buddhism is saving us back: Where in the world would we be as a people under the current circumstances, had we not the Dharma to offer? Who would care?

I'm in agreement with my Roman Catholic colleague from work. Buddhism is cool. Actually it’s so cool, I rejoice:  “Habemus Lamam! Habemus Dharmam!”

Mountain Phoenix

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