Burma and Sri Lanka

The prevalent image of Buddhists as passive, nonviolent people is very largely true. However, there are vivid counterexamples. Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka both rank in the top 25 of human rights violators.[1]

Burma is at least 90 percent Buddhist, and has the fifth largest Buddhist population in the world (48 million).[2] Yet it has had a very long, bloody past of conflict with its neighbors as well as internally. Warfare and internal strife have characterized Burmese history since around A.D. 1300, and since 1962, when a military junta seized power, Burma has been ruled by one of the most oppressive, violent governments in the world.[3] Under its present government, it was ranked as the 14th worst country[4] in terms of human rights violations.[5] Violations include detention of political prisoners, forced labor, child labor, human trafficking, and sexual violence against women by the military.[6]

The ongoing detention of political prisoners has, most notably, included Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and recipient of the Noble Peace Prize in 1991.[7]

She is the daughter of Aung Sun, who founded the modern Burmese Army and negotiated with the British Empire for Burmese independence. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was only two years old.[8] She was educated at the University of Delhi; St. Hugh’s College, Oxford; and the University of London. In 1988, heavily influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and her Buddhist beliefs (Theravada Buddhism), she entered the political arena to work for the democratization of Burma and helped to found the NLD. She has spent approximately 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until 2010 under house arrest, refusing the freedom she was offered if she would leave the country.[9] In April 2012, at the age of 66, she won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese parliament.[10]

While known for its Ceylon Tea and called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka[11] was deep in civil war from 1983 until 2009, with an estimated 80,000–100,000 people killed during that time.[12] Sri Lanka is approximately 70 percent Buddhist[13] followed by 15% Hindu, 8% Islam and 8% Christian,[14] and has a Buddhist population of 16 million people, the seventh largest in the world.[15] The constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees human rights as ratified by the United Nations, but Sri Lanka is listed as the 24th worst human rights violator[16] and has been criticized by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for violations.[17]

Amnesty International (AI) cites that both the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Hindu minority aggressively seeking independent statehood, committed “gross human rights abuses, including war crimes, for which no one has been held accountable.” Included in these crimes are the harassment and attacks of independent journalists and human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, use of child soldiers, and unlawful killings. AI further states, “At the end of the war, about 11,000 displaced people suspected of links to the LTTE were arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge or trial.” Since then, many of them have been released, but those who remain have not been lawfully charged or prosecuted.[18]


[1] “The Top 100 Offenders,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[2] “Buddhism by Country,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[3] “History of Burma,” Wikipedia, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[4] “The Observer Human Rights Index,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[5] “Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights,” Amnesty International, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[6]  “Mayanmar: Human Rights,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[7] “Myanmar,” Amnesty International, retrieved April 26, 2012, and “Aung San Suu Kyi,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[8] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Personal Life,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[9] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Political Beginnings,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[10] “Aung San Suu Kyi: 2012 By-Elections,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aung_San_Suu_Kyi#2012_by-elections, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[11] “Sri Lanka,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[12] “Sri Lankan Civil War,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[13] “Largest Buddhist Populations,” Buddhanet.net, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[14] “Sri Lanka: Demographics,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[15] “Buddhism by Country,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[16] “The Top 100 Offenders,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[17] “Sri Lanka: Human Rights and Media,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[18] “Sri Lanka,” Amnesty International, retrieved April 26, 2012.

The Problem of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is a troublesome problem for all religions, but especially those that espouse clearly defined standards of conduct. Certainly, Buddhism and Christianity would fall under that description. Below we compare what hypocrisy looks like in each religion.

Shallow Buddhists don’t meditate much and try to use “spirituality” to serve their selfish needs. They believe that somehow, the impersonal God (or principle) that is in everything will cause life to work out just as they selfishly wish it would. Shallow Christians try to use God to further their own personal agendas. They pray, asking God to be their personal servant. Genuine Christians have surrendered their lives to follow Jesus in gratitude and obedience.

Shallow Buddhists have not renounced their selfish desires. Shallow Christians have not surrendered to Christ’s authority and active direction.

Buddhism is a religion that requires a substantial amount of discipline in the regular practice of meditation. It would be difficult for someone to simply be a nominal Buddhist. Because Christianity is universally accessible and quickly available to those who make a faith-based decision, a greater percentage of its adherents are shallow (or nominal) in their practice of it.

No one is motivated to quickly report or seize upon examples of hypocritical Buddhists. There has been much sympathy toward Buddhists because of the repression of Tibet by China.

People upset by Christianity’s “one way” claim are quick to report and seize upon examples of hypocritical Christians as a basis for discrediting their beliefs.

Hypocrisy is hard to identify relative to a subjective set of ethics and beliefs. It could be dismissed as just being a different path. Hypocrisy is easy to identify relative to a well-known, objective set of demanding ethics.

If one is finding one’s own path, one can make up one’s own rules, at least in grey areas.  People will naturally make up rules that would be easy to live up to.

Christ espoused ethics that are extremely difficult to live up to, even if one is wholeheartedly devoted to following him. This is fundamentally true, because the Evil One is in charge of this world, and the primal tendencies of people (i.e., “the flesh”) are at odds with the holy nature of God.

High achievers are likely to feel that truth can be found within, when their strengths or successes may be due to caring parents and a prior Judeo/Christian or other religious background.

Big sinners know that truth and goodness are not within. When becoming Christian many people experience a radical conversion from a life of obvious, habitual sin and change dramatically from who they previously were. But such people often have not had caring parents or a religious background and may be prone to reverting back to prior sins.

Although everyone has heard about notable sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church[1] and among televangelists,[2] the press has generally been very slow to cover similar problems among Buddhist leaders. However, an August 20, 2010, article in the New York Times, “Sex Scandal Has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within,”[3] chronicled a shocking account of the excessive tolerance of sexual immorality between a married spiritual teacher of the Zen Studies Society and numerous students and other women over a period of fifty-five years. The article made the following points:

  • Because the student/teacher “relationship is considered sacrosanct, affairs were not always condemned, or even disapproved of.”
  • “There has also been a cultural aversion among Zen Buddhists to seeming censorious about sexuality.”
  • Of “Richard Baker, the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s and ’80s, Frederick Crews wrote that Mr. Baker’s ‘serial liaisons, hardly unique in the world of high-level American Buddhism, could have been forgiven, but his chronic untruthfulness about them could not.'”
  • “Sex, alcoholism and drug abuse by major Buddhist leaders have all been tolerated over the years, by followers who look the other way, or even looked right at it and pretend not to care.”

Two books, Rogues in Robes: An Inside Chronicle of a Recent Chinese-Tibetan Intrigue in the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Diamond Way Buddhism[4] and Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today,[5] have also documented major political scandals within the higher ranks of Tibetan Buddhism. In an opening quotation to the second book, we have this assessment:

“If the truth be told, the Buddha has not been smiling for a very long time. In the same way the Catholic Church transformed Jesus’ simple message of peace and love into Crusades and Inquisitions, the Buddha’s clear message of yoga and asceticism was largely ignored while rival schools developed throughout East Asia. . . . Buddha’s Not Smiling is a stark reminder that when false teachings are introduced for political gain . . . only more ignorance, and ultimately violence will result.”[6]

[1] “Child Sex Abuse Cases,” Wikipedia, is an extensive, detailed reporting, retrieved February 23, 2011.

[2] “Christian Evangelist Scandals,” Wikipedia, provides a lengthy list, retrieved February 23, 2011.

[3] Mark Oppenheimer, “Sex Scandal Has U.S. Buddhists Looking Within” New York Times, (August 20, 2010), retrieved February 23, 2011.

[4] Tomek Lehnert, Rogues in Robes (Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin, 1998).

[5] Erik Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling (Staunton,VA. Alaya Press, 2006).

[6] Sankara Saranam, author of God Without Religion, in an introductory quotation to Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling.

Was Buddha Influenced by Solomon?

Buddhism is an Eastern religion that resonates with many Westerners. Why is that? Is it possible that it came about as a blending of an Eastern and a Western religion (i.e., Jainism, a protest movement against Hinduism, and Judaism)? There is much to suggest this.

Most of Buddha’s numerous proverbs are quite similar to those of Solomon, who lived 400 years earlier. In fact, every key part of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path and Five Moral Precepts of Buddha were expressed somewhere in Solomon’s writings or in the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, most of the emphases that Buddhists are noted for were also important facets of Solomon’s beliefs and practices. These include peace, tolerance, viewing this world as an illusion and a place of suffering, meditation, overcoming ignorance with wisdom, enlightenment, monks (priests) and secular ethics. It may not be a coincidence that a high percentage of Western Buddhist leaders have a Jewish background.

That is not to say that there aren’t major differences. However, most of them are due to two things. First, Solomon was a Jew and Buddha was raised in Hindu India. Second, Solomon held onto his wealth and power, while Buddha renounced it.

What is also curious is that Solomon’s proverbs are more comprehensive in subject matter than Buddha’s. The areas where there are absences in Buddha’s proverbs are predictable, based on his life. There is a dearth of proverbs relating to government, women, marriage and family in Buddha’s collection of sayings, whereas Solomon devotes many proverbs to these topics.

Consider the following chronology:

  • Solomon died in 931 BC.
  • Buddha was born in 563 BC.
  • The first colony of Jews settled inIndiain 562 BC.
  • Buddha became enlightened in 528 BC.

So, Buddha’s enlightenment took place over 400 years after Solomon died. The Old Testament tells us that “the whole world sought audience with Solomon,”[1] and that “world” most likely included India. The Jews had a documented practice of copying their sacred writings on parchment for at least 100 years before they were driven from their homeland by the conquering Babylonians (in 583 BC). They wandered through the harsh lands of Persia and Afghanistan for 20 years before coming to the lush land of India, where there was great interest in any religious ideas that differed from Hinduism. It is quite plausible that two of those receptive ears were Gautama Buddha’s.

Perhaps Buddha’s enlightenment came when he realized that by blending Solomon’s ethics with a moderated form of the asceticism of the Jains, he would have a “Middle Way” that would provide a constructive alternative to the anti-Hindu views of the Jains. That alone would have been a major accomplishment. But then he spent the last 45 years of his life refining and proclaiming his teachings.

Even if there is no substance to the Solomon-Buddha link, looking at Buddhism through this lens can help people with a Judeo-Christian background to grasp many aspects of Buddhism. Facilitating cross-cultural understanding is a worthwhile objective.


[1] I Kings10:24 (NIV).

East West Culture Clash

In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself. —The Dalai Lama[1]

Some Eastern Buddhists have sizeable reservations about their Western counterparts. This is surprising to many, in light of all the favorable press Buddhism has received. Haven’t countless people found calm in this hectic world through meditation? Buddhists desire world peace and compassion for all people, and they want to take an open stand for nonviolence. Buddhism is exotic and inviting. It shuns the violent, materialistic culture of the West. It offers the opportunity to tailor a unique path to becoming a better person, and, ultimately, to attaining enlightenment. Why would the Dalai Lama be hesitant about urging Westerners to become Buddhists?

Beginning Buddhism is easy. You choose the kind of meditation that feels good to you, and you select what you will meditate on. However, converting to Buddhism isn’t just about beginning. It’s about going deep into meditation and sustaining that depth . . . for a lifetime.

Many elements of Buddhism strongly attract people in the West. Elements of Buddhism very similar to Judeo-Christian teachings resonate with them. They think, Here is a wise, practical path to follow—without the constraint of submitting to an exacting God.

After delving more deeply, Westerners encounter some of Buddhism’s Eastern elements and usually balk, selectively. They pick and choose what they will practice and what they will ignore. Yet this cafeteria-style approach to spirituality may not work well. Many Western Buddha-seekers end up homeless—alienated from the Western traditions in which they were raised, and yet unwilling to adopt the Eastern ways of Buddhism sufficiently.

Patrick French, the author of Tibet, Tibet, noted: “I was . . . cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytize. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice.”[2]

The Dalai Lama did elaborate on his precautions. He said, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[3]

Difficulties? What difficulties? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor who has specialized over the past three-plus decades in counseling people who have engaged in prolonged, intensive meditation, has noted some of these. They include depression, a feeling of being lost, trouble adapting to life in the city, finding it hard to be intimate with another person, weird health problems and panic attacks.[4] Westerners have much higher expectations for happiness in this world, so there is a much greater sense of loss when someone commits to retreat from this world.

Dr. Roche teaches a form of meditation he believes avoids these problems. Just keep it simple, brief and consistent. Perhaps Buddhism is like a pain killer. Taking a few tablets can do a lot of good, but swallowing a handful of pills and you better get your stomach pumped.

Dr. Roche does not see any need to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism to meditate more effectively. Most other major religions have long traditions in meditative practices. There is much that Westerners can learn about meditation . . . in order to strengthen their own form of Western religion. So why not leave it at that?

You may doubt that the Dalai Lama said the things quoted above. After all, hasn’t he spent decades traveling the globe as the world’s most visible Buddhist? While this is certainly true, what is not often fully appreciated is that one of his chief objectives has been to serve as a rallying point for the cause of the liberation of Tibet.  Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible aids him in furthering the cause of the autonomy and welfare of the Tibetan people, for whom he has served as “the temporal and the spiritual leader” for more than half a century.[5]

We all have much to learn. Imagine Jesus giving a warning to American Christians similar to the Dalai Lama’s precautions. He might say, “I do not think it advisable to blend my teachings with Western culture.” And he would be dead on.

 


 

[1] Patrick French,Tibet,Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html, retrieved November 22, 2010.

[4] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” www.lorinroche.com/page8/page8.html, retrieved September 18, 2010.

[5] “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet,” www.dalailama.com/, retrieved April 11, 2011.

How Knowledgeable Are You About Buddhism?

Below is a little true/false quiz to help you assess how knowledgeable you are about Buddhism. Mark each statement as true or false.

True/False Quiz

  1. The Dalai Lama publicly encourages Westerners to convert to Buddhism.
  2. There are no serious precautions one should take before practicing Buddhist meditation.
  3. The Buddha believed that there are many ways to become enlightened.
  4. No nation with a government headed by Buddhists has ever initiated a war with another country.
  5. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. He is confident that he will not reincarnate.
  6. Buddhist nuns are subject to about the same number of monastic laws as monks are.
  7. Buddhist beliefs are highly compatible with science.

Discussion

All seven of the above statements are false, or at least are seriously in question. Let’s look at each one in turn.

The Dalai Lama publicly encourages Westerners to convert to Buddhism. He has been quoted as saying, “In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions.  Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself.”[1] How could that be? Don’t forget, another top objective of the Dalai Lama is the liberation of Tibet.  Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible increases support for that cause. Regarding new converts in the West, he is all too aware of numerous difficulties with many of them (see discussion of the next statement).

There are no serious precautions one should consider before practicing Buddhist meditation. The Dalai Lama has been cited as saying, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[2] Dr. Lorin Roche has noted the following hazards of engaging in intense prolonged meditation: 1) depression, 2) a feeling of being lost, 3) trouble adapting to life in the city, 4) weird health problems, 5) bipolar disorders, 6) panic attacks and 7) psychosis.[3] Why? Renunciation is much harder for Westerners, who have so much, than it is for Asians, who often have comparatively little to give up. Secondly, meditation involving emptying your mind may make room for various odd things to enter.

The Buddha believed that there are many ways to become enlightened. In three successive proverbs, the Buddha said, “The best of ways is the eightfold; the best of truths the four words; the best of virtues passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see. This is the way, there is no other that leads to the purifying of intelligence. Go on this way! Everything else is the deceit of Mara (the tempter). If you go on this way, you will make an end of pain! The way was preached by me, when I had understood the removal of the thorns (in the flesh).”[4]

No nation with a government headed by Buddhists has ever initiated a war with another country. A clear counterexample is Burma (Myanmar), whose population is very predominantly Buddhist. Burma’s history has been characterized by frequent, lengthy warfare or oppression, both internally and with surrounding nations, from the Pagan Empire (AD 1044-1287) until our present time.[5]

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. He is confident that he will not reincarnate. The Dalai Lama has been practicing techniques to greatly hasten progress toward enlightenment, and yet he is quite uncertain what his fate will be after he dies. “The rehearsal of the processes of death, and those of the intermediate state, and the emergence into a future existence,” he wrote, “lies at the very heart of the path in Highest Yoga Tantra. These practices are part of my daily practice also and because of this I somehow feel a sense of excitement when I think about the experience of death. At the same time, though, sometimes I do wonder whether or not I will really be able to fully utilize my own preparatory practices when the actual moment of death comes!”[6]

If the Dalai Lama is uncertain about what his next life will be, he is not enlightened, for the enlightened Buddhist is supposed to know that he will enter nirvana when he dies and that he will not reincarnate as another sentient being. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s words highlight his uncertainty, even though he describes the state of enlightenment as including: (1) omniscience, with “full comprehension of all that can be known,” and (2) victory, since “you have overcome all problems and have achieved realization of all knowables.”[7]

Buddhist nuns are subject to about the same number of monastic laws as monks are.  Buddhist nuns have 311 vows to take, in contrast to the 227 for monks.[8] Buddha’s view of women was, to put it bluntly, archaic. For example, one of his proverbs was, “So long as the love of man towards women, even the smallest, is not destroyed, so long is his mind in bondage, as the calf that drinks milk is to its mother.”[9]

Buddhist beliefs are highly compatible with science. Buddhists believe, as do Hindus, that the universe has always existed. It was never created. This conflicts with the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe.[10]

Closing Thoughts

How did you do? If you are like most Americans, your knowledge of Buddhism may have been affected by media coverage colored by sympathy for the plight of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. While such sympathy is very well founded, it can affect objectivity.


[1] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[3] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” retrieved October 5, 2011.

[4] Dhammapada, 273-275.

[5] “Burmese Kingdom,” Wikipedia, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[6] Dalai Lama, “Introductory Commentary,” The Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005), xxviii.

[7] Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened, 221.

[8]“Patimokkha,” Wikisource, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[9] Dhammapada, 284.

[10] “Big Bang,” Wikipedia, retrieved October 5, 2011.

How to Meditate Better

“In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself.” The Dalai Lama[1]

Some Eastern Buddhists have sizeable reservations about their Western counterparts. This is surprising to many, in light of all the favorable press Buddhism has received.  Haven’t countless people found calm in this hectic world through meditation? Buddhists desire world peace and compassion for all people, and they want to take an open stand for nonviolence. Buddhism is exotic and inviting. It shuns the violent, materialistic culture of the West. It offers the opportunity to tailor a unique path to becoming a better person, and, ultimately, to attaining enlightenment. Why would the Dalai Lama be hesitant about urging Westerners to become Buddhists?

Beginning with watered down Buddhism is easy. You choose the kind of meditation that feels good to you, and you select what you will meditate on. However, converting to Buddhism isn’t just about beginning. It’s about going deep into meditation and sustaining that depth . . . for a lifetime.

Many elements of Buddhism strongly attract people in the West. Elements of Buddhism very similar to Judeo-Christian teachings resonate with them. However, after delving more deeply, Westerners encounter some of Buddhism’s distinctly Eastern elements and often balk, selectively. They pick and choose what they will practice and what they will ignore. Yet this cafeteria-style approach to spirituality may not work well. Many Western Buddha-seekers end up homeless—alienated from the Western traditions in which they were raised, and yet unwilling to adopt the Eastern ways of Buddhism sufficiently.

Patrick French, the author of Tibet, Tibet, noted: “I was . . . cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytize. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice.”[2]

The Dalai Lama did elaborate on his precautions. He said, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[3]

Difficulties? What difficulties? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation advocate who has specialized over the past three-plus decades in counseling people who have encountered problems after engaging in prolonged, intensive meditation, has noted some of these. They include depression, a feeling of being lost, trouble adapting to life in the city, finding it hard to be intimate with another person, weird health problems and panic attacks.[4] Westerners have much higher expectations for happiness in this world, so there is a much greater sense of loss when someone commits to retreat from this world for a real stretch of time.

Dr. Roche teaches a form of meditation he believes avoids these problems. Just keep it simple, brief and consistent. Perhaps Buddhism is like a pain killer to Westerners. Taking a few tablets can do a lot of good, but swallowing a handful of pills and you better get your stomach pumped.

Dr. Roche does not see any need to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism to meditate more effectively. Most other major religions have long traditions in meditative practices. There is much that Westerners can learn about meditation from Buddhism . . . in order to strengthen their practice of their own particular form of Western religion. So why not leave it at that? Actually converting to Buddhism is a much more serious and mentally traumatic thing for Westerners to do than is commonly appreciated.

You may doubt that the Dalai Lama said the things quoted above. After all, hasn’t he spent decades traveling the globe as the world’s most visible Buddhist? While this is certainly true, what is not often fully appreciated is that one of his chief objectives has been to serve as a rallying point for the cause of the liberation of Tibet. Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible aids him in furthering the cause of the autonomy and welfare of the Tibetan people, for whom he has served as “the temporal and the spiritual leader” for more than half a century.[5]

We all have much to learn. Imagine Jesus giving a warning to American Christians similar to the Dalai Lama’s precautions. He might say, “In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Christianity—if that means subordinate my teachings to the base parts of Western culture.” And he would be dead on.


[1] Patrick French, Tibet,Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, retrieved November 22, 2010.

[4] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” LorinRoche.com, retrieved September 18, 2010.

[5] “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet,” DalaiLama.com, retrieved April 11, 2011.

To Eat Meat or Not To Eat Meat

Religious leaders attempting to follow specific rules of conduct are often the object of criticism regarding hypocrisy. For example, the Dalai Lama has been criticized over his consumption of meat, when it is generally understood that monks are vegetarians due to their belief in non-violence. After all, in Buddhism the first precept is, “I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from harming living beings.”[i]

Even Paul McCartney, former Beatle, outspoken vegetarian and animal-rights activist, and practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, has written a letter to the Dalai Lama entreating him not to eat meat, which causes suffering to animals.[ii]

While the Dalai Lama has received criticism from the vegetarian community “for continuing to eat meat, while promoting non-violence,” it is on the advice of a doctor that he has begun eating “small amounts of meat after developing gall bladder issues and hepatitis.”[iii]

There are divergent views on vegetarianism in the various schools of Buddhism, however, in the Pali Canon, Buddha declared meat-eating to be karma neutral.[iv] In general, monks are to accept the food given to them with this caveat: they should not eat meat if they believed it was killed specifically for them to consume.[v]

Recently, the New York Times ran an article on the forbidden treat of Tibetan beef dumplings (sha momos). In Tibet, the tradition of meat-eating is deeply ensconced. Because of the inhospitable terrain of the country, it is not conducive to growing vegetables. Due to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1960’s, many Tibetans live in India and the U.S., and eating sha momos gives these exiles a strong cultural tie to their homeland.[vi] Being Tibetan, the Dalai Lama may also crave this connection to his homeland, as he escaped into exile from Tibet in 1959.[vii]

As an international religious and political figure, the Dalai Lama has struck a compromise for his health’s sake, and eats “vegetarian in Dharamsala and meat dishes when he’s on the road and it’s offered by his hosts.”[viii] However, the question on many people’s minds is whether compromise is acceptable in their leader.


[i] “The Precepts,” TheBigView.com, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[ii] “Paul McCartney Tell Dalai Lama He’s Wrong to Eat Meat,” WhyFame.com, retrieved on February 22, 2012

[iii] “Dalai Lama Says Eating Meat Not Always Against Monk’s Principles,” Vegetarian Star (July 29, 2010), retrieved February 22, 2012.

[iv] “Buddhist Vegetarianism, Theravada,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 22, 2012.

[v] “Buddhist Cuisine/Buddhism and Vegetarianism” Wikipedia, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[vi] Julia Moskin, “Tibetan’s (Forbidden) Special Treat” The New York Times, (February 21, 2012), retrieved February 22, 2012.

[vii] “A Brief Biography” DalaiLama.com, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[viii] “Dalai Lama Says Eating Meat Not Always Against Monk’s Principles” Vegetarian Star (July 29, 2010), retrieved February 22, 2012.

Buddhism & Christianity: Thought Provoking Analogies

Christian apologist C. S. Lewis[1] once observed that the spiritual life of a Christian is like the opportunities and risks available to an egg.  If an egg never advances beyond just being an egg, it will rot and decay.  It is designed to hatch, become a bird, and take flight.  A major problem with Christianity is that too many of its followers:

  1. never really break out of their shell, or
  2. if they do, they don’t spread their wings, or
  3. if they do, they try to fly by relying on their own power and direction.

The third option is much like a bird leaping from a tree branch without spreading its wings. It will plummet even though it wants to fly. The opportunity to receive the uplifting wind of the Holy Spirit is always available, but it requires not only an initial leap of faith but also the ongoing, moment-by-moment surrender of one’s life to God.  Without that surrender, the believer’s behavior can easily become a blight on the reputation of Christianity.

Practicing Buddhism is much like swimming,[2] while attempting to be a Christian is like flying. If a way can be found to fly safely, it is a more efficient way of getting around.  However, an air crash draws much more attention than a drowning.  Like meditation, swimming is incredibly repetitive and inward focused.  Like seeking the direction in which the spirit of God is leading you as a Christian, the flying bird can easily be blown this way or that by puffs of wind.

Initially, the Buddhist aspirant is hopeful of experiencing substantive empowerment and freedom from suffering.  Practicing deep, prolonged meditation can noticeably reduce stress levels and have a calming effect. So far, so good. After a while, however, another reality begins to set in.  Making progress spiritually as a Buddhist is very slow—to the point where the feasibility of achieving liberation comes into question.  To use the swimming analogy, it is often refreshing initially to dive into the water and begin swimming.  However, attaining enlightenment is much like swimming the 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island.  Most can swim out from the shoreline and make progress for a while, but only a very select few have trained to the point where they can go the distance. And so it is that while Buddhism has initial appeal, over the long run at most a select few seekers somehow endure to the end, hoping to attain enlightenment. It is all a very conscious, concerted act of the will.

Christians would argue that becoming liberated (i.e., saved) by sheer human effort is not possible.  It would be like swimming from California to Hawaii.  No one, by good works, can traverse the 2,400 miles of ocean to get there. Rather, becoming saved is like entrusting yourself to a ship or jet to transport you there.  You have to board, committing yourself to the entire journey.  You can’t wander out on the wings during flight, or dive into the ocean for a bit to swim part of the way.

And so we see that in some ways these two great religions are quite different. Each has easy  as well as challenging aspects.


[1] “Coming In Out of the Wind,” July 8 reading, in C. S. Lewis, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, edited by Patricia S. Klein (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), 208.[2] Buddha used this analogy when describing his path, referring to it as “entering the stream.” Dhammapada 178, in Harischandra Kaviratna, trans., Dhammapada, Wisdom of the Buddha, 1980, Theosophical University Press Online, retrieved October 5, 2011.

Different Spiritual Journeys

Two throngs gather at the base of the southern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty Buddhists wearing maroon wetsuits prepare to swim 1 ¼ miles in the chilly waters beneath the Bridge to the Marin Headlands near the Bridge’s northern tower. After crossing, it is a short hike to a very secluded retreat center in a hidden cove.

Close by a group of fifty Christians have gathered to begin their march across the north shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf. There they will board the ferry “Faith” to Angel Island. The island is a beautiful nature preserve in the middle of the Bay. It has 25 miles of hiking trails with panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco and several uncrowded beaches.

A monk addresses the Buddhist swimmers. “Blessed monks, you are about to embark on a noble journey to the Nirvana retreat center. First you must swim over a mile in the cold waters of the Straits of Bad Karma, crossing quickly before the tide comes in. Otherwise, you will be swept into the Bay by powerful currents. It is critical that you keep repeating your mantra as you swim: ‘The water is warm. I am a strong swimmer.’ You must gauge your own ability to complete the swim. If you feel that you cannot make it quickly across, you should turn around and swim back. Once you make the crossing, you will only need to hike a few blocks to Nirvana. Thoughts about it must fill your mind.”

A young monk, new to the Sangha, poses a question. “Blessed Dasbala, shouldn’t we just walk across the Bridge instead? We would only need to walk about two miles. The water is 55 degrees. Even with wetsuits, few of us will be able to brave the cold without experiencing hypothermia. After all, the Christians nearby are going to cross the Bay in a ferry.”

“Ignorant one! We would never be able to overcome the disgrace of taking the same path as thousands of reckless, speeding cars. Nor would we do so easy a thing as to take a ferry. We must take the path of tranquility, meditating as we swim and working off our bad karma.”

A few muffled groans waft through the air, laced with salt water smells. Dasbala surveys his followers with piercing eyes as he shakes his head in disappointment.

A block away a huddle of fifty Christians listen to Pastor James: “Today we will journey to the paradise of Angel Island aboard the ferry ‘Faith.’ First, however, we must march four miles across the northern shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf, where the ferry is docked. We will carry the banner, ‘Praise God’ in front of us as we march. We may encounter significant opposition and ridicule.”

The Buddhist swimmers stoically walk out to the end of the pier. They rapidly wave their arms back and forth to loosen up and warm themselves, taking deep breaths. Then, one by one, they dive into the water. Some let out shouts of shock after plunging into the chilly water. Within minutes, about half of them begin swimming back to the dock, some shivering uncontrollably as they ascend the ladder at the pier. After twenty minutes, all but one of the swimmers have turned around.

An hour after starting the sole remaining swimmer reaches the rocks by the Bridge’s north tower. Looks of joy cover his face. He gazes back, but doesn’t see any swimmers in sight. Shivering, he scampers over the rocks and onto the trail to the retreat center. There he finds an empty meditation room in a setting of complete peace and solitude. “Nirvana!” he whispers happily.

The Christians begin their march, parading their banner and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” As they approach Fisherman’s Wharf their route is blocked by a throng of protesters waving signs saying, “Phooey on God! We have Sinbad’s Fudge,” and “Powered by Devil’s Food Fudge.” The protesters entice the marchers with little wrapped bits of fudge, tossing these into the midst of the marchers. Some of the Christians catch these and pocket them while others, wary, let them fall to the street.

When the Christians get to the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pastor James addresses them: “Our ferry is about to take us safely on a 40 minute crossing to Angel Island. You must dispose of any fudge you have before you board. Otherwise, you must stay here. We will search your pockets and backpacks.” A few line up to board, but the others hang back, fretting over their fudge. Only a dozen finally board.

When the ferry docks at Angel Island, a dozen Christians disembark. There a sumptuous banquet awaits them, with a broad array of savory dishes. For dessert, however, there is no fudge. Only some amazing angel food cake.

How to Become More Compassionate

 

Never criticize someone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.
—An Old American Indian Saying

This is one of my favorite sayings. It has been life changing. It has motivated me to become a serious student of comparative religion and to appreciate the perspectives of those with different political persuasions than my own. After all, isn’t it either religious or political intolerance that create chasms and conflict between people? It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way. Practice empathy. Mentally put yourself in the place of others and try to see things from their perspective.

In a recent book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, the Dalai Lama made some profound statements. He focuses on “the centrality of compassion as a universal spiritual value.”[1] He stated that his life has been a quest to find “a balance between single-pointed commitment to one’s own faith and genuine openness to the value of other faiths.”[2] He offered this practical approach: “If you believe in God, see others as God’s children. If you are a nontheist, see all beings as your mother…Make the vow today that you may become an instrument of peace, living according to the ethical teachings of compassion in your own religion.”[3]

There is much that is similar between the great religions of the world. Typically, these similarities center on how we are to behave toward one another. They carry across the great divide between eastern and western religions. If, then, there is so much agreement on some matters, it would seem that we can be more sure about these guidelines than we might be over matters about which major religions have divergent views.

What did some of the greatest ancient wise men have to say about how to be compassionate? Writing around 950 BC, Solomon advised this: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”[4] Solomon didn’t add, “if you feel like it.” He just told us to do it, whether we feel like it or not. Once you do, feelings of compassion will arise within you. This proverb may have had its roots in these words of Moses (1300 BC): “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself…”[5]

Over four centuries later, Buddha (525 BC) said, “Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth!”[6] He also noted, “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”[7]

Five and a half centuries later, Jesus (30 AD) was quoted as saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”[8]

All this seems impossible, unless we approach it a bit at a time. How? By practicing the Golden Rule in every situation. Espoused by all religions, this rule is simply that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. Since our thoughts precede our actions, we should greet each situation where we initially have negative thoughts about another person by asking ourselves, “If I were them, how would I like to be treated?” and then treat our neighbor or enemy that way.

Jesus carried this practice well beyond what people might think to do:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.[9]

Each of these wise men appreciated how greatly our words and actions affect other people. Even when we don’t feel compassion, if we will act as if we did, feelings of empathy will surface. We can influence the world to become a more compassionate place, but we must begin within.


[1] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Toward A True Kinship of Faiths (New York: Random House, Three Rivers Press, 179).

[2] Ibid, 179.

[3] Ibid, 181.

[4] Proverbs 25:21 (NKJV).

[5] Leviticus 19:34 (NKJV).

[6] Dhammapada, 223.

[7] Ibid, 5.

[8] Luke 6: 27b-28. (NKJV).

[9] Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV).