Thursday, October 05, 2006

My journey with the Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is an intriguing figure. In an age when organised religion is in decline, he seems to command a remarkably broad audience of admirers. When he visited Auckland a few years back he packed out Eden Park, a feat not even the All Blacks can always manage these days. Many of the people who crowded the terraces to see His Holiness would never have normally contemplated attending a religious event, but were prepared to make an exception for the man Richard Gere refers to as 'my root guru'.

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.


Blogger muzzlehatch said...

yeah, your many criticisms were border -line dubious. The faculty of concentration was what the Dali was no doubt refering to that everybody does, and taken to its enth degree in an exercise dedicated to concentration on a single image (or an activity like breathing)is what meditation is. This produces certain results which can be quite difficult to translate into words, (hence terms like 'happiness' or 'non-hatred' are used), the best description of it (the process and probable results) I've read is by Alistair Crowley, he has an essay on it in Magick 4, I think, if you want to look it up. The Big Bang theory (of which I know nothing about) would to the layman have to answer the question 'Where did the atoms come from that collided for the Big Bang?' and 'Where did they exist before the collision?' also how conciousness is related to matter, 'is matter in some way concious?' 'what is conciousness?' Was the book you were given aimed at a layman audience? so the Dali specifically avoided going as far as he is capable into certain subjects? Not that I know anything about his writings, but the subject has been gone into far more than the references you give. Is hatred of Nazism / George Bush / Osama bin Laden a bad thing? Maybe, if it doesn't help to resolve the problem. The Amish community have just given a fascinating example of contemporary 'non-hatred' with their forgiveness of the gunman who shot their children, and the desire that his wife and kids don't feel obliged to leave the area, more useful than hatred?

5:55 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I'm a bit dubius of the Dalai Lama - but some people's interest is directed away from certain "materialistic" attitudes by Buddhism -these attitudes (crass simplsitic materialism) are as not positive -

Hatred not being defined as not good is a good start - Muzzlehatch has some points - and supporting business is not a bad thing as such - business sucess and prosperity can be seen as good model of a sucessful society -but I suppect that the Dalai Lama gets also a lot of support - (or he has done) come from the anti-Communists sides of the CIA - and certain rather vague notions of spirituality or "good" - but certain aspects of Buddhism - apart from the Dalai Lama - are more attractive than Moslemism or Christainity etc these religions seem extremely absolutist at their worst.

11:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seconds after his death mr Hamilton will know the truth of the doctrine he so indefatigably mocks.


11:35 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

But we wont know that he knows so how do we know that he will know this "truth"?

Fore - and this my own view only - just being alive and being conscious and so on is kind of mystery and is thus a "spiritual experience" but I reject organised reliions of all kinds including Buddhism (although it may contain some wisdom - I don't doubt that) - Being for me is enough - and constant amazement.

BTW Mr Hamilton is no ordinary simplistic realist Marxist - I believe he is a Materialist - but he reads widely - is a great poet - and is no slavish follower of doctrines. So he is the "Thinking Man's Marxist".

11:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the Buddha-soul knows his thoughts. And believe me, O Taylor, they are not enlightened.


2:45 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Maps you seem to be passing judgment on a vast spiritual philosophy after reading 20 pages of one book! I hope your journey with His Holiness and Buddhism continues and your knowledge about Tibet and its culture grows. Though I do no profess to be an expert on Tibetan Buddhism, I have spent considerable time living within Tibetan Buddhist culture, while traveling through northern India and Ladakh. I have also had the privilege of meeting His Holiness and hearing him talk on a few occasions. I will be writing a blog post soon detailing my travels in Ladakh and India. For now I would like to say that the Dalai Lama was the most at peace and spiritually wise person I have met to date. He exudes a wisdom and calm (something about Buddhism and developing his mind is working for him and the many Tibetan Buddhists I have met!).

11:53 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:57 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'm afraid I'm rather suspicious of characters who are addressed as His Holiness. Reminds me of Stalin and his statue factory or Mao putting his protrait everywhere.

The next time you meet His Baldness you might like to ask him about some of the issues raised in the articles I hyperlinked to: about his taking money from the CIA; his support for Bush's War of Terror and India's nuke programme; and his involvement in the persecution of minority groups in the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community.

I'd also be curious to hear a defender of Tibetan Buddhism explain what gives the religion the right to engage in child abduction and abuse. In the last few years we've seen the Catholic church get a well-deserved going-over for its complicity in child abuse by priests, but the barbaric Buddhist practice of seizing young boys from their parents and community, proclaiming them 'reincarnations' of some dead monk or other and forcing them into lives as religious figureheads is still regarded, in the West at least, as some sort lovely quaint pagan ritual. What would you do if the Exclusive Brethren tried to do the same thing to your kid?

With such a traumatic early early life it's no wonder the Dalai Lama's head is so full of nonsense.

12:22 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

I suspected my addressing the Dalai Lama as His Holiness would wind you up. It is used as a mark of respect, to acknowledge his position as a leading spiritual teacher. It's a bit like me calling him "sir." Though I can see your point that giving any leader elevated titles is a bit dangerous and reminiscent of 'Stalin and his statue factory or Mao putting his protrait everywhere.' I'll write more in my post on some ofthe issues you have raised.

1:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a bit like calling the Queen Her Majesty. His Holiness is an unearned honorific - it's not like the Dalai Lama brought his CV along and got the job. I'd call Richard Hadlee His Majesty, but not because he was Walter's son.

1:29 pm  

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