Comments on Dalai Lama Post

Hypocrisy? Sorry. Yes.

Posted Jan 06, 2013

Tibetan demon
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!

Tibetan demon

~ Zen master, quoted by Kopp (1972) in his book by the same title

The commentaries to my post on the Dalai Lama have been polarized, as expected. I want to make the following clear. I do not hate the Dalai Lama or Buddhism (why would I?). Instead, I am intrigued by him and how he has become the most revered person on the planet. The Dalai Lama is, after all, a human being with the usual flaws, which he cheerfully admits when referring to himself as a simple monk. At the same time, however, he deftly nurtures and enjoys the response from a world that does not see him as just a simple monk. This too, is all too human. He allows the world to treat him as if he were a god – which he is not, if indeed he is just a simple monk (unless we get into the complicated theology of atavism, according to which he could be both).

I did not write that the Dalai Lama has behaved hypocritically, as one commentator suggested. However, such a claim can be made, and Goldner makes it in his book, ad nauseam. For example, Goldner writes that the Dalai Lama has supported guerrilla operations in Tibet, did not denounce violence, accepted funds from the CIA, allows Hindu day laborers at Dharamsala to be treated shabbily, and did not speak out against recent U.S. American expeditionary wars. This record seems too spotted for a man who is regarded as the most peaceful individual on earth.

I did suggest that the Dalai Lama is being self-serving when allowing himself to be seen as a lodestar of save-the-planet ecologism when he leaves a carbon footprint that is exponentially bigger than that of all the commentators combined (I presume). Goldner writes that the Dalai Lama enjoys being put up in the luxury étages of luxury hotels. That is fine. Many of us would like to enjoy the same privileges, but we don’t present ourselves as simple monks.

A commentator points out that the Dalai Lama eats meat and that this is no contradiction in Buddhism, which only forbids the killing of animals. I did not address this issue, but Goldner asks whether it is not disingenuous to eat meat while proscribing killing. What we have here, I think, is indeed a case of hypocrisy. What does the religion care about? That an animal is killed when it wants to stay alive, or that the adherent of the religion does the killing? The former framing of the issue is anchored on the object (the animal), whereas the latter is anchored on the subject (the Buddhist).

A religion that cares about an individual’s salvation or improvement of karma will focus on the subject. The person is enjoined to respect taboos and follow commandments. Only the individual’s immediate behavior counts. This can lead to sophistry when indirect effects are ignored. The Buddhist enables the killing of the animal indirectly when ordering a steak. If he does so repeatedly, and his fellow Buddhists do to, there will be a meat-supplying industry. Yet, with a narrow behavioral definition of religiously sanctioned behavior, the Buddhist will expect to gain, not lose, karma points. To not kill the animal oneself, but let it be killed by an intermediary, is to have compassion only with oneself, and not with the animal. See here for a report of the DL's love of veal (I thank a commentator for this link).

The meat-eating example is an opportunity to illustrate my frustration with the DL’s lack of depth when presenting his ethic of compassion (as in Ethics for a new Millennium). As I noted in my essay, ethics become interesting when cliché-morality leads to contradictions. If the moral law is to show compassion, the question of the target must be faced. Shall the carnivore Buddhist show compassion with the animal, which would rather live than die, or with the butcher, who is trying to make a living and feed his family. Here, the DL comes up empty -- shockingly empty, in my opinion.

A consequentialist ethic, such as utilitarianism, does a better job. It asks us to consider and weigh all the outcomes of our actions (or inactions), be they direct or indirect. Behavior is moral inasmuch as it maximizes the overall benefit. In contrast, a system that categorically demands or forbids certain behaviors (do not kill animals) encourages the search for loopholes, and thus becomes a breeding ground for hypocrisy.

What I hope readers will do is consider these questions for themselves and form an opinion. It is a good opportunity to review one’s own values, preferences, and prejudices. Labeling me as a Buddhist-hater is facile. Where is the compassion? ☺

Afterthought on carnivorousness: You can have your meat and eat it too without killing. The animal would have to die of natural causes, though, which would make it  carrion, but that’s just gross, right?

Post-after thought on the DL: I see the Dalai Lama as an example of the humility paradox. He keeps pointing out, tirelessly, that he is a simple monk. This contributes to his appeal and status, and thereby negates the truth of the statement. If he really were a mere simple monk, just saying it makes it untrue and sound coquettish. The alternative would be to say, “Hey, I am a god-king and therefore better than the rest of you!” If that were true, it would become false once uttered because the world would stop adoring him and granting him that status. Another alternative would be not to raise the issue at all and avoid all self-reference, an option that seems out of reach for His Holiness. 

Another read: If my own reading of the Dalai Lama and the cult of personality surrounding him strikes you as biased and cynical (I tried to restrain myself, but was only partly successful), I recommend a book review I found in the New Yorker. Pankaj Mishra reviews The open road: The global journey of the 14th Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer.

Got Goldner? One commentary (to this post) was sent from The commentator rhetorically asks if I realized that Goldner’s book has “not been taken seriously by any Tibetologist, Indologist or academic with knowledge about Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, etc.” No, I did not realize that, but I am not surprised. Further, did I realize that “if there is any academic review at all of Goldner's book it makes clear that this book is misleading and biased”? No, I do not realize how the absence of academic reviews is evidence of bias in a work that was not reviewed. Finally, did I realize “that the book has gained the reputation that it is racist?” No, I did not realize that. In my own reading of the book, the language, sloppy as it is in parts, does not strike me as racist but as anti-caste-ist, anti-feudalist, and anti-grand-standist.

The commentator gets more specific with regard to the last charge by noting that Goldner lost a court case when suing a reviewer who accused him of racism. Frankly, I do not see anything in his book that permits the equation of his views on the Tibetans with the Nazis’ views of the Jews [of course, I could have missed something – it’s a big book]. A Viennese court apparently saw it differently. I ask the commentator to supply the entire text of the court’s decision so I can form an informed opinion.

What strikes me is what did not happen. The suit was brought by Goldner with respect to an issue of language and not of fact. I would be interested to learn if there are cases of successful suits against Goldner, showing that critical parts of the evidence presented in his book are false, made-up, or grossly distorted.

The commentator closes by again, rhetorically, asking whether I overlooked “the suggestive manipulations of the book, e.g. [on] page 169 where Goldner skillfully and indirectly suggests to the reader that the Dalai Lama might have had sex with Indira Gandhi?” No, I did not overlook these deplorable stylistic choices, and I said so in my original post. The Gandhi episode is particularly convoluted. Here’s what Goldner writes on p. 169 (my translation). “[The Dalai Lama writes in one of his books that] his good relationship with the Prime Minister of India was continually misrepresented by Chinese propaganda, which referred to him as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ suggesting that he ‘performed certain astounding sexual services for Mrs. Gandhi.’ Whether this is a case of a malicious rumor or not cannot be judged. The tantric talents of the Dalai Lama are, at any rate, undisputed.”

There you have it. Goldner screws up by adding the last sentence. Why not leave it with the Dalai Lama’s report of the Chinese propaganda against him? It’s just a juvenile use of praeteritio.

Got Lama? A commentator pointed me to three youtube clips (1, 2, 3), which suggest that Goldner is not an isolated critic. When you watch this disturbing footage, ask yourself how you would rate the DL on his debating skills.

Sources. One commentator took me to task for relying one a single, and polemical, source. I did not, according to this writer, do my due diligence. In response, I note that I expressed my awareness of both points (singularity and polemics) and advised readers to do their homework. My essay was, after all, a blog post, and not a dissertation in Tibetology. To quote another commentator, can we “lighten up”?

I have now looked for online reviews of Goldner’s book. The Wikipedia entry on Goldner lists 6 (all in German), one of which is a talk that mentions the book only in passing. Three of the others are quite positive (here, here, and here) and two are negative. This one only complains about Goldner’s polemical style, but does not dispute his claims other than pointing out that the Dalai Lama remains popular in Tibet (relevance?). The other one admonishes, in a priori fashion, that both, idealizations and demonizations, are unproductive. The reviewer charges that Goldner only searched for and reported evidence to support his prejudices, but she does not present evidence (balanced or otherwise) for that claim.

Thanks to a commentator, a review was brought to my attention on 1/16/2013, which can be found here. The author, an expert on Indology and the Tibetan lama culture, reviews Goldner's book along with another book on the DL. This review corroborates my initial impression that Goldner erred more in matters of tone than fact. Unfortunately, this review is also written in German.

Last, but not least, I bring into evidence a bit of giggle humor I found in The Onion. Enjoy.