The end of a religion?

The Age travel section’s top 10 Buddhist sites omits mention of Dharamsala or Ladakh, the seasonal homes of the Dalai Lama. That’s akin to a list of Catholic pilgrimage destinations ignoring the Vatican. His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, teaches at an unprepossessing building in northern India, surrounded by Tibetan refugee community. The author also skips Bodh Gaya, the temple on the site of Buddhism’s birthplace. Other than being irrelevant to understanding the philosophy, the chosen attractions are photogenic enough. And that fulfills tourists’ expectations.

Lunch at Dharamsala

Despite their welcoming foreigners through services such as FM radio translations into a multitude of languages, tourists expecting an impressive palace would be disappointed. This is no relic, but a centre for debate and lively discussion. And there’s complimentary vego lunch shared with the monks (that puts it in my top 10!). Of course this tradition has a humble leadership, also Tibetan Buddhism has no exclusivity – other Mahayana traditions include Japanese Zen or Chinese Chan, which blended with Taoism (and found a home in Taiwan due to cultural revolution persecution). The talk I heard began with acknowledgement to practitioners of the earlier Theravada tradition, welcomed as one would do for founding elders, since followers from Sri Lanka through to Thailand were in attendance. Such inclusiveness is best understood after reading Tenzin’s 2012 book ‘Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World’. Even the first chapter, Rethinking Secularism’, is an embracing of religious diversity as written into India’s constitution. Breaking down of barriers is practiced as it is taught – he’s as likely to attend a mosque as he is an interfaith conference.

Discarding dogma.

Tenzin was chosen as the reincarnated embodiment of compassion by Tibetans under the guidance of the Panchen Lama, whose identity is currently confused owing to Chinese authorities incarceration of the Tibetan people’s chosen tulku (reincarnate custodian of a teaching). And such political interference is on Tenzin’s mind, as evidenced in this year’s documentary ‘The Last Dalai Lama’.  It’s hard to review a film whose only viewing was sold out, but the gist is gleaned in previews and an interview with project collaborator, psychologist Dr Paul Ekman, where he encourages us: “change our emotions – only through education, not through religious teaching or prayer“. By calming the mind, we can utilize our intelligence. This is an awkward moment for the follower, when the teacher is at odds with dogmatic teaching. Unsurprising however, given Tenzin’s infatuation with science. But it isn’t without precedent, since the Buddha hadn’t sought to found a religion. Psychiatrist Dr Paul Fleischman instructs that the Buddha’s sacred canon argued against an ‘ism’, a rigid stance or doctrine. Rather, it’s a path, a chosen direction with unknown destination. This doesn’t mean joining a collective, and indeed Buddha railed against India’s then prevailing caste-based belief system, Brahmanism. This too is Tenzin’s task. Getting us to think for ourselves, according to the gospel of Python 😉

Rigid organizational dogma and commonsense part ways regularly, without earth-shattering consequences. Nobody derides the wonders of the pyramids because of the ridiculous notions of the pharaohs, that their afterlife would be one of comfort due to investment in sandstone real estate. Indeed, preserving royalty as a result of some divine intervention is to this day a celebrated boon to the British economy. Tenzin isn’t shutting down Tibetan Buddhism by his opening of a dialogue as to whether there should be a 15th Dalai Lama. That 2011 essay link recalls his 1969 teaching that the community of followers shall decide whether to continue reincarnations of his role. Being enlightened leaves options of future rebirth open, although as a Bodhicitta there’s commitment to compassionately helping others for eternity. Else, through leaving humanity in ignorance, cause their suffering cyclical birth until they get ‘it’.

The first biblical reference to inherited karma between lives is in Numbers 14:18 “The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the sons“, and it’s true that vices pass on more readily than do virtues. Teasing hope of an afterlife has no supportive evidence, furthermore individual reincarnation is illogical in this increasingly populous world. Old world teachings of the mind and character traits as proof of prior lives are now well understood as a seed by genetic coding. Palliative counselor Stephen Levine’s 1982 ‘Who Dies?’ draws in several religions’ perspective on death’s door as an entrance, but there’s no promises other than that by allaying fear of losing your life, you’re then liberated to live it more freely. Further, by stressing karma as an abiding consequence of one’s actions, it’s realized as foolish to blame others for your own situation. For the Tibetan Buddhist, the door opens onto many realms which include punitive suffering for badly chosen paths – such as rebirth as animal, or ghost (mind without form).

Consider Prince Siddhārtha Gautama, meditating under the Bodhi tree in impoverished Bihar province, on his way to enlightenment as Buddha. For 7 weeks, monkeys are the one constant – alphas dominate, infants play, mothers nurture, perhaps another tribe’s challenge must be fought off, and all struggle for food. Is it any wonder that Buddhist understanding of universal suffering is inclusive of animals, and takes the commonality to a logical conclusion of shared spirituality? The first written Canon of Buddha’s sutras, the teachings by way of debated discourse, was 454 years later. The arguments use a logical flow to express ideas – a derivation from first principles (using terms borrowed off those mathematically inclined). The rules evolved, and continue to do so. Belief in the merit of original teachings doesn’t rely on faith in their perfection, but on their helpfulness in overcoming suffering. As they’ve done for thousands of years, and shall continue doing so.


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