My journey with the Dalai Lama
His Holiness' qualified support for George Bush's War of Terror, his antediluvian attitudes to sex, and the revelation that he took money from the CIA don't seem to have done much to diminish his popularity in the West, where he still attracts worshipful crowds.
Last week a Kiwi admirer of His Holiness gave me one of the man's many books and urged me to enlighten myself with it. Hell, why not? I thought. I mean, if I can occasionally read Trevor Loudon's blog then I can hardly claim that His Holiness' prose is below me. Well, I'm twenty pages into Transforming the Mind: Eight Verses on Generating Compassion and Transforming your Life, and I'm beginning to pine for the archives at loony Loudon's site. And I think it's only fair that I share my journey through His Holiness' ancient wisdom with you.
Our 'simple Tibetan monk' begins his discourse by saying he's going to leave aside the question of whether consciousness can exist independently of the body, because that question is not important. Well, speak for yourself, your Holiness - for me it's a point that the leader of any religion worth its salt has to address.
But the Dalai Lama says the real religious question is 'How can we be happy?', and that he's recommending Buddhism because it can make us happy. Of course, this formulation raises all sorts of questions (what is happiness? is it always good to be happy? are there more and less legitimate ways to make yourself happy? what if torturing kittens makes me happy? and so on) but I was prepared to cut His Holiness some slack and suppose that he wanted to make a 'pragmatic' argument for Buddhism -that he wanted to 'use it because it's useful'. There's a respectable lineage for such an approach to philosophy - one thinks of Confucius, who responded to metaphysical queries by saying that there was enough to understand on earth, without worrying about heaven, and of the existentialists in more recent times.
On page four His Holiness tells us that in order to be happy we need to conquer hatred, because hatred is always bad (really? is hatred of cancer bad? What about hatred of Nazism? Is a New Yorker who hates Osama bin Laden or an Iraqi who hates George Bush bad, let alone irrational? how does one love one thing without hating its opposite? anyways...) We get rid of hatred by meditating, but we are only allowed to meditate on certain 'positive' objects. The Dalai Lama solemnly warns us not to meditate on 'negative' objects, like a person we find sexually attractive, because this leads to 'base thoughts'. Oh dear. There are two types of meditation, and His Holiness claims that believers of all religions use them. In fact, he says that we all practice meditation already, without realising it:
Take the example of a businessman. To be successful, he has to have sharp critical faculties, examine all the pros and cons in negotiations, and so forth, so whether he is conscious of it or not, he is applying the very same analytic skills we use in meditation.
It's splendid to get His Holiness' confirmation that the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump really are enlightened folks after all, but it is rather hard to see the point of instructing people in the use of something they already apparently use unconsciously but effectively. The truth is that His Holiness' definition of 'meditation' is hopelessly banal - it would overlap with most people's definition of thinking.
On page fourteen the Dalai Lama plunges into a discussion of 'The Nature and Continuum of Consciousness'. He begins with the bold claim that Buddhism 'rejects any notion of an eternal soul...defined as something independent of our physical and mental reality'. Well, that was good to hear, but what His Holiness gave with one hand he took away with the other, because he went on to claim that the 'luminous nature of the mind' is in some ways 'eternal'. A part of our 'mind' continues to exist after we die, apparently. It seems to me that the His Holiness simply substitutes 'mind' for 'soul', perhaps because the latter term is too much of a hardsell for a middle class Western audience disillusioned with religion.
The Dalai Lama's explanation for the mind's ability to survive death is vague and strange. He seems to be saying that the mind will continue to exist because the universe is eternal, and therefore the atoms which compose our bodies will not die. But there's a qualitative difference between a person and the corpse they leave behind, even if these entities have some of the same atoms. A useful analogy might be the tree that is cut down and turned into a telephone pole. The same wood that graced the tree exists in the pole, but a qualitative chnage has taken place, because the object is no longer living. When a person dies everything we normally associate with 'mind' appears to die with them - their memories, their ideas, their personality. Of course, a religious person might argue that these things exist in another place - in Heaven or even Hell - but the Dalai Lama is not making this claim. He's saying that the 'mind' of the dead person continues to exist in this universe, because the atoms from their body continue to exist.
His Holiness goes on to argue that the universe has always existed and must always exist. The Big Bang couldn't have happened, because if it did how could we explain what occurred before the Big Bang? I'm no expert in cosmology, but I think someone who was would reply by saying that the Big Bang created space and time, and that it is therefore illogical to try to imagine time before the event. It goes without saying that the Dalai Lama makes no attempt to deal with the fifty years of scholarship that have contributed to the Big Bang theory, and does not introduce his own explanation for the phenomena (increasing background radiation, for instance) that the theory is able to explain, and its erstwhile rival the now-defunct Steady State theory was completely unable to explain. Ah well.
His Holiness goes on to argue that the fact that every event has a cause proves that there must be some 'fundamental principle' that explains every event. He is pretty vague, but I got the feeling he is talking about some sort of 'life force' or 'karma force' that acts consciously, or at least rationally, throughout the universe. I fail to see why we have to jump from the fairly sensible claim that events are caused to the claim that some fundamental law explains every event. I mean, think about it: last Wednesday I ate mashed potatoes for dinner, a gunman killed five kids in America, and the moon continued to orbit the earth. What is the fundamental principle that unites and explains these three events, and the trillions of other events that occur every day? Why is there any need to postulate some sort of fundamental law to explain all these diverse events?
It seems to me, then, that the first twenty pages of the His Holiness' discourse boil down to half a dozen propositions:
1. The point of life is to be happy
2. Hatred is bad
3. Meditation, which we all do without knowing it anyway, helps us control our thoughts and avoid hatred, and is therefore very good.
4. The mind is eternal because the universe and its atoms are eternal.
5. The universe is eternal because its beginning is inconceivable.
6. Because every event in the universe is caused by another event or combination of events, a fundamental principle must explain every event.
Propositions 1-3 are so vague as to be meaningless; propositions 4-6 are fallacious.
I'm sorry, Mr Gere, but I think you bought a lemon.