A Critique of ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’ by Robert Thurman, Part 2

Chapter 1: Who is the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama Deified - What cult of personality?
The Dalai Lama Deified - What cult of personality?

Here Thurman continues the work of expounding on the Dalai Lama’s good qualities. As this chapter proceeds, superlative is piled upon superlative. It is like being at a banquet where one rich course after another is served, but each new course is received with less and less enthusiasm until it’s not possible to eat another morsel.

At a certain point, you become aware that you’ve had your fill and are feeling a little nauseous. Is any living being on the planet truly worthy of such transcendent praise? Especially a politician?!

In the forty-three years that I have known the Great Fourteenth Dalai Lama, he has never failed to impress me with his sincerity, his compassion, and his commitment to purpose…..

….The Dalai Lama is a giant of spiritual development – a living exemplar of the best qualities of a Buddhist monk, an inspired practitioner and teacher of the ethical, religious and philosophical paths of the bodhisattva, a Sanskrit term suggesting a cross between a wise saint and a compassionate messiah. He is believed to be a conscious reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion. (page 3)

Let’s critically examine Thurman’s claims. We can all agree that the Dalai Lama has commitment to purpose. For example, he is very committed to destroying the spiritual tradition of his root Guru, Trijang Rinpoche. From the Dalai Lama’s speech on the Al Jeezera News Report:

“Recently monasteries have fearlessly expelled Shugden monks where needed. I fully support their actions. I praise them. If monasteries find taking action hard, tell them Dalai Lama is responsible for this.”

From a talk in Caux, Switzerland in July 1996:

“Until now you have a very good job on this issue. Hereafter also, continue this policy in a clever way. We should do it in such a way to ensure that in future generations not even the name of Dhogyal (Dorje Shugden) is remembered”

The Dalai Lama has single pointedly pursued the persecution of Dorje Shugden practitioners, banning the practice at home while lying to the Western media abroad:

“So then it is my duty or moral responsibility to make clear, but whether listen or not, up to them. So some people criticise me, I banned that sort of spirit worship, that is not true…” (From an interview in Nottingham, UK, May 2008)

More calumnies from the Dalai Lama: (Al Jazeera news report)

“Shugden followers have resorted to killing and beating people. They start fires. And tell endless lies. This is how the Shugden believe. It is not good.”

Where is the evidence of the violence and arson? The only violence for which monks have been sent to jail is the bombing a Shugden practitioner’s residence by Dalai Lama followers. Who is telling endless lies? The Dalai Lama has told hundreds of lies over the years to justify his persecution and ostracism of Shugden practitioners. Can a liar exemplify the best quality of a Buddhist monk? Do the Dalai Lama’s lies qualify him as a Teacher of Buddhist ethics? Do they make him worthy of Thurman’s extravagant praise?

Strangely for a Buddhist scholar, Thurman reverts to biblical language to express his emotions, and in doing so sounds like he is gearing people up to believe in the Second Coming! He really does seem to see the Dalai Lama as a messiah or saviour of the world, even though this is not a Buddhist understanding of what a Bodhisattva is (that is, a person striving for enlightenment motivated by compassion for all living beings.)

As to the claim of being the bodhisattva or Buddha of universal compassion, let’s hear from some of the victims of the Dalai Lama:

“If he is really Buddha, if he’s really God, he would not create so much problem. He won’t give us so much trouble. If he is the Buddha, he would not give any problem to any human being.”

“Dalai Lama is being unfair and selfish. He is doing his own wish.”
(Al Jazeera report)

From the same report:

(Reporter:) No Shugden worshipper has ever been charged or investigated for terrorism and yet the monks that continue to worship Shugden remain victims of name and shame.

(Shugden monk:) “What the posters say is that we are related to the Chinese government. We don’t have anything to do with China. There is no proof, yet many people are harassing us and threatening us.”

(Reporter:) Fearing for their lives, these Shugden monks are now living in hiding in a monastery in southern India where they sought refuge after being told they must leave their monastery.

And from a recent report by popular French documentary channel, France 2, quoting one of the Dalai Lama’s faithful, old bodyguards:

(Lobsang Yeshe:) The Dalai Lama, I don’t want to hear about him any more. He is no longer the Buddha of Compassion. He is a traitor. The Dalai Lama has commited the gravest crime. He has divided all the Tibetans. He is against our deity, Dorje Shugden. He has forbidden us from venerating him. Because of him, I had a heart attack. Today, I am a broken man.

The Dalai Lama’s persecution of Shugden practitioners is the source of these sufferings. For all the sweet words plucked from his Guru’s teachings, he displays no compassion whatsoever for his enemies, who were his erstwhile closest friends and supporters — the practitioners of Dorje Shugden. In this respect at least, he is acting like an ordinary, deluded person, not an exemplar of the holy qualities of a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

Wake up, Robert Thurman. You look complicit or at least foolish writing a book of such high praise to someone who is now being publicly revealed as persecuting others like this. It is only a matter of time before everyone knows what the Dalai Lama has been up to in his own backyard, and then how will you defend your words?

The next section is ‘Personal Encounters’ — a misty-eyed trip down Memory Lane in which Thurman recounts his meetings with the Dalai Lama. What he seems to be describing is how he gradually came under the Dalai Lama’s power. He recounts firstly how he ordained and then abandoned his ordination for a worldly life:

“…I had firmly expressed my lifetime determination only later to change my mind” (page 7)

and later:

“I spent the next eight years in the sword dance of overachievement required to get tenure as a college professor” (page 8 )

Thurman abandoned his meaningful spiritual life as a monk within just a couple of years to seek the position of a college professor. Yet his ordination as the first Western monk ordained by the Dalai Lama is still heralded as a credential in all his biographies and profiles, despite it being totally undermined by the fact that he was also one of the first Western monks to disrobe!

Thurman openly admits that he felt the Dalai Lama was strongly disappointed with him for disrobing. However, in some ways it is not Thurman’s fault because the Dalai Lama does not seem anyway to have much respect for Westerners who practice Dharma. Certainly, the liberal and seemingly open-minded speeches to Westerners abroad are at stark variance in tone and content to the authoritarian speeches to his Tibetan faithful at home. From a talk in Caux, Switzerland in 1996 by the Dalai Lama:

…As for foreigners, it makes no difference to us if they walk with their feet up and their head down. We have taught Dharma to them, not they to us. …

Moreover, the Dalai Lama has said that it is only in getting Tibet back that Dharma can really flourish again – in other words, Westerners are not capable of carrying on Buddhist traditions without Tibetans. This belief is also plain to see from the hierarchy of Western Buddhist Centers under the Dalai Lama’s patronage, where Tibetan teachers always come first.

In reading this section, it becomes clear that Thurman became more and more enamored with the Dalai Lama, falling under his charismatic power. First he had a dream of the Dalai Lama as a giant Kalachakra Buddha towering over the Waldorf Astoria where he was staying during a visit to New York (the Dalai Lama doesn’t stay in modest accommodation) and then he says:

During that trip and the following year, I couldn’t get over the rich power of his charismatic energy. He had always had charisma of office; now he had ten times more charisma of person. (page 9)

In a Newsweek article in 1998, Thurman vilified Dorje Shugden practitioners as a cult:

“Shugden appeals to crazies by offering instant gratification,” says Thurman. “Once you get involved, you’re told you have to devote your lives to the cult, because the god gets very angry if you don’t attend to him every day.

He did not back these wild statements up with any evidence or examples. No one who practices Dorje Shugden recognizes what he is talking about.

Here, by leaving reason and truth outside the door in a desperate attempt to defend the Dalai Lama in the national press, Thurman appears to be the one who has been brainwashed. He has fallen under a spell that makes him feel he can describe holy beings and sincere Buddhist practitioners of the past 400 years, including the Dalai Lama’s own teachers, as “crazies” – with no seeming fear of censure. He has devoted his life to the Dalai Lama, to fulfilling his wish to exert power and control over Tibet once again; and his entire career is bound up with the Dalai Lama. Therefore, he must defend him at all costs, even if it means telling lies to the public. The whole purpose for writing this book is to serve the Dalai Lama and to accomplish his goals. Who has been swept up by the charisma, who is behaving like someone in a cult?

Thurman praises the Dalai Lama’s talks on various topics:

Especially since around the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, his general talks – on kindness, the common human religion; on non-violence, even disarmament; on science, focusing on the ecology of the environment; and on comparative religion, focusing on Buddhist-Christian dialogue in particular – have gotten better and better, more moving, lucid and powerful in understanding and passion (page 10)

Actions speak louder than words. The Dalai Lama is full of words, but his actions speak differently. Talk of kindness is cheap – one has to act kindly to make a difference.

The great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says that spiritual practitioners are like mangoes – some are ripe on the outside but unripe on the inside, some are unripe on the outside and ripe on the inside, some are both ripe on the outside and ripe on the inside, and others are unripe on the outside and unripe on the inside. Based on his divisive and harmful actions, the Dalai Lama is clearly very ripe on the outside but unripe on the inside. Like many politicians, he’s good at saying one thing and doing the opposite. He knows the effect he is looking for and how to achieve it with his speech.

The next section is entitled ‘The living embodiment of the Buddha’ in which, amazingly, Thurman argues that the Dalai Lama has grown so close to Shakyamuni Buddha that they are indistinguishable.

This is a clear case of double standards. Bob Thurman and other Dalai Lama devotees think nothing of praising him to the high heavens because they know that no one will lift an eyebrow, yet the phrase “third Buddha”, used precisely once about Geshe Kelsang 15 years ago, is quoted again and again by the Dalai Lama’s supporters to prove that Geshe Kelsang’s disciples are cultishly enslaved by him.

Later on in the book is a picture by the artist Alex Grey, depicting the Dalai Lama as Avalokiteshvara. What if someone painted a similar picture of Geshe Kelsang as Buddha? NKT would never hear the end of the accusations of being a cult, brainwashed by a charismatic leader. What hypocrisy!

In the next section, ‘What the Dalai Lama Represents Today’, Thurman begins:

It is not merely that the Dalai Lama represents Buddhism. He is much more than a nominal leader of an organization. (page 11)

The Dalai Lama does not represent Buddhism for everybody. He is a political leader who has received a religious education and who happens to be a monk. He may be regarded as the leader of Tibetan Buddhism but in reality he cannot speak for any of the individual schools of Tibetan Buddhism because he is not the head of any school of Tibetan Buddhism, let alone any other Buddhist tradition in the world. The Dalai Lama is, in fact, the nominal leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile, nothing more. That is really as far as his authority goes; his spiritual authority is self-assumed.

Usually Dharma Teachers are appointed by senior Teachers in their tradition. Who appointed the Dalai Lama and gave him spiritual authority? Who gave him permission to give Buddha’s teachings throughout the world?

It is precisely the use of the Dalai Lama’s self-assumed spiritual authority to interfere with the individual schools of Tibetan Buddhism that is the root of both the Karmapa and Dorje Shugden controversies. In 2001, the International Karma Kagyu Organization wrote an open letter to the Dalai Lama completely rejecting his interference in the matters of the Kagyu tradition:

Up until Your Holiness’ interference in 1992, no other Dalai Lama has ever played a role in the recognition of a genuine Karmapa. As Your Holiness well knows, the Karmapa incarnations precede the Dalai Lama line by over three hundred years. There is no historical precedent for Your Holiness’ current involvement.

It doesn’t matter that Thurman views the Dalai Lama as being Buddha Shakyamuni — the Dalai Lama has no authority to interfere in the spiritual matters of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has similarly interfered with the Gelugpa school, but he has no authority to brand Dorje Shugden practice as ‘a cult’ and ‘spirit worship’, and he certainly has no authority to pass a law to ban the practice. The Dalai Lama’s ban is unlawful and immoral. There is currently a case against the Dalai Lama in the High Court in Delhi for his breach of the Indian law of Deity discrimination, which will be heard in November 2008.

Thurman concludes:

What is the Dalai Lama? I have come to see him as a living Prince of Peace, a teacher of intelligence, an inspirer of goodness of heart, a reincarnation of the Buddha of universal compassion. He comes to join us in our world today, offering us hope in our stressed-out lives and calling upon us to take up our own wild joy of universal responsibility.

The Dalai Lama does not offer hope to Dorje Shugden practitioners, he just makes them more stressed-out:

‘There will be no change in my stand. I will never revoke the ban. You are right. It will be like the Cultural Revolution. If they (those who do not accept the ban) do not listen to my words, the situation will grow worse for them. You sit and watch. It will grow only worse for them.’ (January 1999)

If the Dalai Lama really was as pure as Thurman has portrayed him, by practising the love, compassion, tolerance and religious freedom that he espouses, there would be no problems: no Karmapa controversy, no Dorje Shugden issue, no Western Shugden Society and no demonstrations. Buddhists of all traditions could continue their practice in peace and harmony with all other Buddhists.

However, all the problems that the Dalai Lama blames on Dorje Shugden are of his own making, principally because he’s acting as a politican and not practicing what he preaches. It’s about time he started to act responsibly and put Buddha’s teachings into practice if he really wants to solve everyone’s problems.

Later on, more hyperbole:

The Dalai Lama has been called a “Buddhist Pope”, a “bodhisattva” a “head of state” in exile, and so on. Each of these is incomplete but has a grain of truth. He describes himself as a “simple Buddhist monk”, though he is not aware of the other dimensions of his being. (page 13)

Maybe the Dalai Lama has been called a “Buddhist Pope”, but only by those who do not understand Buddhism. There is no supreme head of Buddhism like there is a supreme head of the Catholic Church. There are some who believe that the Dalai Lama does have ambitions in this direction. We can certainly say that the Dalai Lama is the most well-known Buddhist in the world, but that’s due to his tireless self-promotion, aided and abetted by Bob Thurman, more than anything else.

How do “simple Buddhist monk” and “head of state” go together? Does Thurman not see some contradiction in some of these roles? Later on he says that the Dalai Lama is “a statesman, a politician, a diplomat, a personal manager, and a chief executive officer”. Again, more contradiction with being a “simple monk” who traditionally practises renunciation and has no interest in power, politics, diplomacy or being a statesman because he understands that they are the nooses of samsara. Nagarjuna, for, example, used to pray never to be reborn as a politican because it is an obstacle to pure spiritual practice.

Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s more ‘commercial’ interests do not sit well with being ‘a simple Buddhist monk’. In the article om “money” padme hum? on the Dalai Lama’s book on leadership “The Leader’s Way” he is quoted as saying some very strange things:

Buddhism also values free enterprise. “Buddha recognized entrepreneurship as a valuable activity,” the Dalai Lama writes. “He encouraged entrepreneurs to be successful by being reliable and having an eye for what should sell.”

The article concludes:

Free marketers will be happy that the Dalai Lama – with his moral stature – has unequivocally backed capitalism and globalization, with the usual riders about mitigating its excesses.

Is it really right for a ‘simple Buddhist monk’ — who has taken vows to not even handle money or obtain profit through business, and who regards wealth and worldly attainments as deceptive — to advise big business on how to make more?

Clearly the Dalai Lama can’t be all things to everyone, despite what Thurman says.

It is a concern that when Thurman attempts to explain various aspects of Buddha’s teaching, his casual use of language can actually lead to misconceptions. I understand that he is trying to be ‘populist’ and is appealing to an audience that is not necessarily Buddhist but he does take considerable liberties. For example, using the word ‘soul’ for the root mind that transmigrates from life to life will quite possibly evoke an understanding in the minds of Christian readers that is not what Buddha intended.

There are other examples too. When describing karma, Thurman says:

According to this Buddhist view, the effects of these actions become encoded at a super-subtle energy level in a “mental gene” or “soul gene” which then shapes the experience and quality of the individual’s gross mind and body as it evolves through many lifetimes.

Huh? This raises more questions than it answers. Where is the ‘super-subtle energy level’ – is it the ether?, what encodes the action? What does the encoding look like? Actually, all these questions are spurious because Thurman’s initial explanation is inaccurate and, as we know, there’s no meaning in trying to refine your understanding of something that’s wrong in the first place. Karmic actions leave an imprint on the mind – no encoding! This imprint is not a gene in the sense the most people understand genes because it’s non-physical; it’s not made of DNA. There’s no ‘super-subtle energy level’, just the very subtle mind, and so on.

I think that Thurman has gone too far in trying to adopt scientific language and concepts in his attempt to make Buddhism acceptable to people who view science as a religion in itself. Perhaps the lack of clarity will pique their curiosity and they will start reading about Buddhism, who knows? I’m used to Geshe Kelsang’s explanations where he gives clear definitions for all his terms and never uses pseudo-scientific language to explain Buddha’s teachings. The muddiness of Thurman’s explanations suffer in comparison.

I’m disappointed with Thurman: I would have expected a more accurate and careful explanation from a Buddhist scholar. It would have been better not to include this material at all rather than to present it badly with the possibility of causing serious misunderstandings in his readership. There are enough problems in this world without people misunderstanding the path that leads away from problems!

The rest of the chapter continues in this vein, highlighting the good qualities and achievements of the Dalai Lama in the same sycophantic manner as before. There’s nothing new to say. The material is too much and too monotonous to warrant further examination. One thing that Thurman says is

“The present Fourteenth Dalai Lama has already earned the title “Great Fourteenth”, due to his profound inner development and his magnificent works of teaching, writing, political leadership, and prophetic engagement with global society.” (p 32)

Who confered this title on him? There’s no committee like the Nobel committee in Buddhism to bestow such honours. This smells of something introduced either by Thurman or the Dalai Lama. Perhaps they hope that such an honorific will become common currency, like “the Pope of Buddhism” and that it will be widely accepted and held to be true. Here Thurman seems to be disingenuously attempting to write history. He has an eye to the Dalai Lama’s ‘legacy’, just as many politicians are concerned with how they are seen by history. He’s a good servant!

And Thurman’s final, convoluted description of who the Dalai Lama is:

The Dalai Lama is something more and something less than a pope of Tibetan Buddhism. He is more than a pope because he is not merely a vicar of the Buddha; in messianic form as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, he is actually seen as the returning presence of the Buddha himself. He is like Jesus returned, not just for the second time but always returning. (p 34)

(Hmmm, Sarah Palin anyone?) What a stew of mixed religious terms! It’s difficult not to poke fun at this final over-the-top comparison. He’s a Catholic, Church of England, bodhisattva messiah Buddha, multiple Jesus kind of guy! Just remember that the next time someone asks you who the Dalai Lama is!

He’s not just a politician with delusions of grandeur then?

Postcript: I am not pointing out Bob Thurman’s and the Dalai Lama’s flaws just for their own sake and especially not for political reasons, but because they are having an adverse effect on Buddhism and Buddhists. If people believe all the hype about the Dalai Lama perpetrated by Thurman, the Dalai Lama will be able to continue to persecute Dorje Shugden practitioners with impunity, and succeed in destroying a priceless spiritual tradition.

All I am aiming for is to allow people to see Thurman’s and the Dalai Lama’s actions more clearly. Then they may question them about the Dalai Lama’s ban of Dorje Shugden, and maybe even urge the Dalai Lama to lift that ban. Once he has lifted the ban and met the aims of the Western Shugden Society, there will be no further need for book reviews.


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