A Buddhist Perspective on World News

For Sunday, the 20th of May, 2012.

As before, a wrap-up of news in the world from my Buddhist Perspective. Your perspective, on these or other stories, is always welcome in comments section.

First, a couple stories from my side of the pond (England). Last Sunday, as mentioned, the Dalai Lama was awarded around $1.7 million and promptly passed it on to others, saying something about his empty pocket maybe being upset with him, but otherwise trying to make the world a better place. Typical Dalai Lama awesomeness in words and deeds. (photos here)

Meanwhile two sources of anti-Dalai-Lama-ism persist: namely the Chinese government and strange groups of “Buddhists.” In China, TV stations aired a documentary suggesting that the Dalai Lama himself is responsible for the many recent self-immolations in Tibet (a nation controlled by China ever since 8 years of war and occupation drove the Dalai Lama to India). India, by the way, was the recipient (via the charity “Save the Children”) of about $1.5 million of those dollars the Dalai Lama was awarded last Sunday. So the Dalai Lama wins, India wins, and China… eh.

The “Buddhists” or in this case “non-Buddhists” are actually old news (and not the NKT), but the story about the Dalai Lama winning the money based on his commitment to dialog at the intersection of religion and science reminded me of the very odd article/blog post called “Fanged Dialog” which begins, “All X-Buddhisms are incapable of genuinely conversing with the sciences and the humanities.” It gets even weirder after that. Be sure to read the About, Warning!, Before you Read, and Before you Comment, pages before you read or comment.

Today, not too far away from St. Paul’s where the Dalai Lama was last week, Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupit will be debating the relevance of supernaturalism in religion (Buddhist and Christian at least). Andrew Brown of the Guardian questions whether supernaturalism is needed, and in the end suggests that either way, they’re not likely to ever get the kind of audience – and thus effect in the world – that someone like the Dalai Lama has. I’m quite a fan of Batchelor, and wish I could have seen him today. But, alas, I was busy here in Bristol with my 10k charity run (I reached my humble fundraising goal, but you can still donate).

Speaking of running, NPR had an interesting article on long distance runners and the ability to withstand pain. I don’t run that far (26.2 miles being my longest run to date), but I’d like to one day, and I’m intrigued by the mind-body (and thus to an extent spiritual-scientific) aspects of running.

Meanwhile the President’s announcement of his support of Gay Marriage continues to make ripples, notably in African American communities. The very good news yesterday was that “the NAACP’s board of directors voted Saturday to endorse same-sex marriage…”  I hope this is a topic that Buddhists (amongst others) can rally around in the coming political season.

In getting back to specifically Buddhist news: gambling and drinking monks in Korea have made quite a name for themselves in the last week or so.  According to the Arizona Informant:

The recent scandal involving gambling Buddhist monks could not have erupted at a worse time for the proponents of spreading Korean Buddhism globally.

Modern Korea is not a predominantly Buddhist country, but the nation has practiced and nurtured its own brand for more than 1,700 years after adopting it from China. Compared to Buddhism in other Asian countries such as Tibet, Japan or China, Korean Buddhism has largely remained inside the country.

Some insiders are worried that the latest scandal may taint the image of Korean Buddhism and hurt its already meager international presence.

“This story about the monks engaged in high-stakes gambling has been widely reported in the Western media,” Robert Buswell, a renowned scholar on Korean Buddhism told The Korea Times.

Korean Buddhism, like others in Asia, isn’t monolithic. And like Buddhism in China, Japan, and Taiwan, Korean Buddhism has seen a rise in different beliefs and forms of practice emerging in many ways from their encounters with the West in the 20th century (and earlier). Perhaps a positive outcome of this will be increasing public understanding of the many different faces of Korean Buddhism today. Meanwhile, as with religious – in particular Buddhist – groups elsewhere, we can hope this will bring renewed calls for financial and leadership openness.

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Speaking of which, one area we had hoped to see more openness about was the death of a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in the desert in Arizona. My post on that has drawn in very helpful and informative comments (thank you all who have commented), and the original story, broken at Elephant Journal, has even more.

The first, and only that I’ve seen, journalistic piece on the story comes from a blog on the Phoenix Sun Times, posted here.  The article does a great job of recounting the events, concluding (after discussing the letter posted by McNally’s caretakers trying to clarify what they knew):

This raises more questions, such as why she didn’t call for help sooner. McNally was delirious, sick and had lost track of time for “days” before the rescue — but managed to upload her diatribe to the Internet on April 19.

We’ll let you know if we find out anything else.

Diamond Mountain University, for there part, has said nothing more. They have, curiously, altered their board of directors page (I don’t have screenshots of the previous versions, but I seem to remember two or three more people on there) and completely removed McNally from their Lineage and Roots page. Such actions don’t really resonate with a sense of support and concern for a woman whose husband just died during one of their retreats (okay, he was officially kicked out at the time, which raises other issues, but still). Where does this leave McNally in relation to Diamond Mountain, which she is still (as of now at least) credited with cofounding with Geshe Michael Roach?

And ending on an upbeat note. One of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever come across is David Suzuki; you can read my review of a movie about him here. Next month his foundation is hosting a 30×30 challenge:

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I fully plan on taking part and hope you do too.

  • http://www.speculativenonbuddhism.com Glenn Wallis
    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the link, Glenn. I guess I’m not so worried about Westerners trying to straighten out the Dalai Lama on what to believe. The Dalai Lama is correct to say that rebirth has been an aspect of the teachings of Buddhism, dating to the Buddha himself. Certainly if you take Nagarjuna’s MMK or certain chapters of the Shobogenzo out of context (and myriad other texts) you might think you’ve found an absence of rebirth, but I would say that the ‘Buddhism without rebirth’ crowd is mostly a rather curious recent blip, historically speaking. Whether it will catch on and spread is a very interesting question. My sense is that something more than criticism is needed for that to happen. To borrow from a fellow academic Buddho-blogger, Scott Mitchell: “Remember kids! It’s always easier to criticize than to work hard, create something new, & put it out there for all to see.”

  • http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/ Glenn Wallis

    Maybe you can point out a few things to your “fellow academic” Scott Mitchell: (1) critique is harder than the platitudinous acquiescence to the x-buddhist status quo that we get on this blog; (2) critique is certainly much harder than the kind of gleeful celebration of the dharma that is rampant today; (3) critique is even more difficult than the irrelevant and anodyne work that comes out of academic Buddhist studies; (4) the whole point of critique is to “create something new;” (5) having a public blog that shares the critique is putting “it out there for all to see.”

    In other words, Justin, not a very apt quote.

    This is an unfortunate comment coming from a self-proclaimed academic student of Buddhism: “I guess I’m not so not so worried about Westerners trying to straighten out the Dalai Lama on what to believe.” Are you a custodian of tradition? Academics should be asking hard questions of and to tradition, not toiling to preserve it. We can always do better.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Why the quotation marks around fellow academic? To be fair to Scott, I did take his words from another context. But they seemed apt, and still do. The world is filled with flaws. To point them out is relatively easy. To fix them is hard work.

      I’m not a custodian – which reminds me of a couple excellent books by Don Lopez (perhaps you could exclude him from your sweeping generalization about the ‘irrelevant and anodyne work’ of academics in Buddhist studies? And surely you’ve read Pruning the Bodhi Tree? And anything by Brian Victoria?)… Most academics I’ve had the pleasure of working with do ask hard questions. I agree that we could do better; what could possibly be more platitudinous than that? Which is partially why I focus on ethics – behavior. So to me, the series of events which led to a man dying in the Arizona desert last month after a Buddhist retreat was worth writing about. All of this gay marriage legislation is worth writing about. Seriously. If you know the history of Buddhism, the idea of a contemporary Buddhist claiming rebirth to be central to Buddhism isn’t really worth worrying about. It’s like saying “I’m a Christian, but don’t anyone tell me that I have to believe in the Resurrection of Christ.”

  • http://derunbuddhist.wordpress.com/ Matthias

    Hi Justin, of course is the Dalai Lama correct in saying that rebirth was a buddhist topic all along. Did I write something different? Perhaps you should read better to get what I want to say. It’s about the integrity of a man who, for example, on side likes to be praised for his dialogue with science, but who declares on the other to deny reincarnation „is not an honest and impartial way of doing research because it runs counter to […] evidence.“

    Let me correct you. It is not that you don’t like westerners to straighten out the Dalai Lama. It is that you don’t want them to think about the obvious. Especially you don’t like buddhists to think about such obvious contradictions. They could wake up.

    Let me tell you: I, personally, think this kind of behavior is not only stupid (what else is it to be blind to such a contradiction) it is also dangerous because if you make people ignore this why not making them ignore every other topic you don’t want to become a point of discussion? What you recommend is the basic set-up of a citizen in a totalitarian state.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Matthias, I’m not sure where the contradiction is here. I don’t recall the DL saying he “likes to be praised,” but that’s a bit beside the point. In a sense the DL is correct, actually. It’s been a while since I studied the philosophy of science, but I seem to remember it being Popper who clarified that science never really denies or disproves things. A good scientist would thus say that there is no convincing proof of heaven or reincarnation, but that’s all. It’s poor logic to infer the denial of these things. Plenty of good scientists hold beliefs that are either theistic or include reincarnation without anybody (sane) attacking their integrity.

      Your correction is incorrect. “It is that you don’t want…” is just putting words in my mouth that clearly don’t belong. What follows is just a bizarre straw man.

  • http://derunbuddhist.wordpress.com/ Matthias

    Hi Justin. With Popper a hypothesis must be falsifiable. This doesn’t work with reincarnation. The DL himself ‘uses’ Popper to make the case of reincarnation in “The Universe in a Single Atom”. I have written about it in german here => http://derunbuddhist.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/realitat-und-traum/. From the use the DL makes of Popper one can conclude that he either doesn’t understand what falsification means or he is simply performing a trick in presenting reincarnation as a hypothesis in the popperian sense. I think the case is the former.

    Perhaps the DL doesn’t likes to be praised, but he puts himself in a certain light of being very orientated in a scientific way of thinking. Take this citation from the mentioned book: “„My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.“

    Scientific analysis makes reincarnation as implausible as a flying teapot in an orbit between Jupiter and Mars. The claim of personal reincarnation as the DL holds it is fals in a scientific sense. He does not stand by his word.

    That the man can go on with this is because of buddhists like you who either look away from obvious contradictions or who have no clue what “scientific” means and who are contend with a fuzzy notion of it. If one does not think hard, if one is all too willfully let into believing the holy man, then that is the believe in an authority – who in the end can do what he likes. This voluntary suspension of the critical instance in man is the basis of every totalitarian system. That is a straw man for you? That does not take me wonder.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Hi Matthias. I think you’re right that the DL confuses things when comparing reincarnation and extra terrestrial life. One could, I suppose, find evidence ‘suggestive’ of rebirth; but something like confirming the theory itself seems to me highly implausible. But that’s not to say, still, that one cannot be both committed to science and certain beliefs such as rebirth or heaven. That is, unless you conflate science and what Owen Flanagan calls “imperialistic scientific materialism.” Charges of totalitarianism still seem non sequitur. Thoughtful, freedom-loving people (gun-toting republicans included) can express a variety of beliefs, be they in materialism, theism, reincarnation, etc…

  • http://derunbuddhist.wordpress.com/ Matthias

    Hi Justin, I don’t know where the non sequitur comes from. I didn’t develop any argument. I just put forward an opinion. But indeed, maybe to speak at once about totaliarianism is a bit far fetched. I would have to develop my argument to make it clear what I mean. But this said, it is not so difficult to see in a lot of Buddhisms authoritarian structures. Let me formulate it a bit provocative: Mindfulness today is the ability to let go of everything. Just relax, be aware and let everybody have his opinion. Everybody is free to do as he likes. Being gay, overeating, republican or democrate, hamburger or soja-soup – we are a free society and the citizen is free. So we just relax and let everybody their will. Let Sarah Palin talk bullshit and let the Dalai Lama jet all over the globe. The main point is that we live together happily with room for everybodie’s personal choice. But exactly this egalitarian state is authoritarian in as it stops thinking about better or worse. Buddhists are not longer interested in thinking about what our society is about. Be happy, have another one. That’s all. Buddhist stop to be politically informed humans who think about the circumstances they live in. What do you think for example about the extra-legal killings with drones the obama-administration is undertaking on a bigger scale every year? How is it about the holy Dalai BlaBla shaking hands with Bush jr. who brought bake torture to democracy? Oh, we observe this mindfully and let’s see how it develops. At last it is all about karma. Or look at this ‘Lama’ whose man died in Arizona, the letter she wrote. A ridiculously naïve pamphlet but none the less an uttering of a Lama, an authority with years of meditation-experience. Such stupid people guide Buddhists. People who let guide themselves by such wierdos are prone to be misused by any cult leader who is not only into sitting in dark cold caves for years but who likes to have a bit more influence. …anyway, I am wastig my time here

    • Justin Whitaker

      Ah, well it seemed like an argument (in the logical sense) to me. In any case, your opinion is always welcome, even if I don’t agree with it. One thing I do agree with is the problem of authority in Buddhist traditions. It was one of the topics I discussed at the conference I attended 3 days ago. Buddhists across traditions need to discuss authority, its limits, and collective action (if possible) when a teacher goes too far. But, as you brought up Bush Jr, I think we can say that this is not just a problem in Buddhism. It can be found in every religion as well as in every so-called secular power structure, from corporations to universities and governments around the world. It’s a human problem.