Sunday, April 28, 2013


Keep your sense of reality even if this book is beautifiul


The book is beautiful and the illustrations are often original and brilliant. The book tries to give a descriptive picture of what the Tibetan Buddhists think and do. Their version of Buddhism is explained in enough detail for anyone to understand, though at times it is not clear, like the number of Taras, the white and the green ones first and then the author writes “in addition to these two” and he states there are twenty-one representations. This would make a total of twenty-three and yet the illustration that follows on the next page shows twenty-one Taras around a single green one in the center, which makes twenty-two. There are several other cases like that. But those are details and the rest is generally very clear.

The second element is of course the acceptance of the official version of recent history coming from the exiled Dalai Lama. It is in many ways surprising because it does not do what the Buddha said has to be done before anything: examine the real situation in its real contradictory dimensions. The illustrations are not dated in the text itself and we do not know if they are from Tibet or from the diaspora. Some facts are given here and there that provide a bleak picture of what Tibet was before the expulsion of the theocratic power by Mao Zedong. One fourth of the male population was in the monasteries. Women were and till are non-ordainable in Tibet and have to go to Taiwan if they want to be ordained (note the Chinese connection in this fact: Tibet even in its religious dimension, cannot exist without China, continental or Taiwanese, and note the candidate to this procedure has to find the funding for it, which of course is difficult.). The Dalai lama, elected by no one and with no elected parliament of any sort, I mean here elected by all the people who are of age to vote in Tibet, concentrated in himself, and still does in the diaspora, both supreme religious power and supreme political power. The monasteries and the monks had to be entirely taken care of, provided with the means to live, by the surrounding population that was subservient and excessively forced to work the fields to provide the monasteries with the food needed by something like one eighth of the population that contributed nothing to the gross national product of Tibet. The only production ever mentioned is “tsha tshas” produced by some lamas and sold to the laypeople of Tibet, in other words a fundraising activity that produces no economic added value whatsoever.

The present situation is of course complex but there cannot be any kind of an independence referendum for the Tibetans because it is impossible to clearly state who could vote: all the people residing permanently in Tibet (including a vast increasing proportion of Chinese); all the Tibetans in China (including all the Tibetans that have left Tibet to have an education and an economic or social career in China, hence outside Tibet but inside the national borders of China); and all the Tibetans that have left China altogether and constitute the diaspora (including those who have abandoned their Tibetan nationality or rather their Chinese passport to get another passport from another country where they have become citizens.) The three solutions are problematic: the Chinese population in Tibet is increasing very fast. The Tibetan population outside Tibet in China has been integrated in the Chinese perspective of development. Emigrants who abandon their original nationality (without retaining a double nationality which is not possible in all countries in the world) in all other electoral situations also lose their right to vote in the elections of the countries they have left and whose nationality they have dropped. And in the diaspora there is the special case of the generations that have been born in exile: what is their status, what is their real national affiliation? The only possible solution is through direct negotiations between the diaspora and the Chinese government, with or without international help or supervision and then the problem of the representativeness of the Dalai Lama will come up fully. What’s more, the fact that the Dalai Lama speaks of “enemies” whenever he speaks and the necessity to demonstrate compassion for them is not encouraging. The Chinese in this situation are not enemies but at the worst, and for some the best, challengers of the feudal theocratic power that existed in Tibet up to 1959.

That’s the shortcoming of the book.

What is the best quality of it then?

It is the fact that John Peacock tries to explain the theoretical system that is behind Tibetan Buddhism without hiding the fact that they have integrated a tremendous amount of beliefs from the pre-Buddhist religions of Tibet especially the Bon religion based on extreme visions of the frightening, awful and always angry gods that required all kinds of sacrifices and offerings to be pacified, including human sacrifices with a religious folklore that has survived in some stories and myths, and they say some areas, at least symbolically with some practices. The Bon religion was performing human sacrifices and it was common to have some kind of “communion” or “sharing rituals” with the blood of the victims being served in human skulls and drunk from them. This morbid and bloody practice has disappeared, and probably disappeared with the arrival of Buddhism from India but we can wonder about some customs like the burial rites. The best burial rite is the “sky biurial” in which the body is dissected, then the bones ground and mixed with barley flower and served to vultures before the flesh itself. The second burial rite is the “water burial” in which the body is dismembered and then thrown into some river. The real interment is only for criminals, sick people so that they cannot be reborn, imposing thus a punishment onto these dead people and for some because of their sickness which is not really their responsibility. Cremation is kept for the aristocracy of this feudal theocratic society, the monks and the scholars, and the top of this aristocracy can be embalmed. In both cases the ashes of the embalmed bodies are kept in stupas. One of the latest embalmment was for Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of the present Dalai Lama. Thigh bones are used to make pipes that are then used in Buddhist orchestras performing in festivals and rituals. In the same way human skulls are used to make drums.

This morbidity has to be explained and it is the result of a strong warping of the Buddha’s teachings in order to integrate these Bon practices and thus in order to take the control of the local population when the Buddhist monks, all of them from India and of Indian origin colonized (that’s what it is called in all other situations of the type) the country, Tibet, not to speak of the period when Tibet was integrated into the Mongol Empire of particularly ill-repute as for its brutality.

The warping can be easily seen in two elements.

First the concept of “dukkha” is totally cut off from its antagonist concept of “sukha”. “Dukkha is systematically and exclusively translated as “suffering” (which is a mistranslation) and since “sukha is not mentioned the vision is entirely negative. Life is a valley of tears, a vale of suffering and nothing else. In Buddhist Theravada tradition, “dukkha” is connected to samsara, that is to say the cycle birth-life-death-rebirth. But the present book takes life out which is at least debatable in the Buddhist perspective. You need to live, hence grow first and then become old before dying. This long period between birth and death is reduced to some kind of “bardo” which means “in-between” and then “sukha” which is the joyful and positive side of life is dropped. The middle way of the Buddha is abandoned. For the Buddha there is happiness in life if you avoid the two extremes of attachment to material wealth and attachment to the rejection of the said material wealth with total asceticism. In fact it is this total asceticism in the form of the rejection of all material pleasures as inexistent, that becomes the main objective of Tibetan Buddhism, but within a feudal theocratic system that puts material wealth in the hands of the small upper fringe of the clerical aristocracy who controls as individuals or as the collective authority of the monasteries the land that is worked by the people who are nothing but serves since they are attached to their duty (and the land that carries that duty) to provide the monasteries with sustenance, the means to survive in comfort and security.

When this warping is done, the whole Biuddhist approach is also warped. Life is no longer the attempt to cultivate for oneself and for others some kind of happiness but it is exclusively the obligation to cultivate the actions that will enable you to be reborn properly, or eventually, for some and no more than some, to escape this cycle of samsara and hence get liberated into final nirvana (I prefer the pali concept of nibbana that can only be reached when dying, whereas in this case if this nirvana is final when you die, it implies that you can experience nirvana before death, hence in life for the very few who will be able to fulfill the eightfold path and reach Awakening. This by the way is in contradiction with the erasing of “sukha” since the Buddha himself experienced Awakening rather early in his life and could then live a long life afterwards in some kind of “bliss.” He always said that anyone can do it, even women and untouchables. In Tibetan Buddhism this is a privilege for the top fringe of the clerical aristocracy.

Of course then, and that’s my second argument; the main rite, based on a ritual manual, is that of “Bardo Thodal”, a long ritual that presupposes that the mind of the individual (note this mind was not defined in this book which leads us to believe it is some kind of “soul”) survives the material death of the body. Hence the important concept of “anatta” (non-self, no-self or not-self) is here clearly negated and only marginally quoted as “anatman” at the beginning of the book but as a side-effect of the concept of “emptiness.” Since the “mind” we are speaking of can survive the death of the body for three days first and then up to 49 extra days (7 cycles of 7 days) before rebirth or final nirvana, this undefined “mind” has its own essence and the individual could be defined as a “self” by this “mind” that survives and may be either reborn in a material vessel or liberated into something that is not specified. This “Bardo Thodal” is to be read in the ear of the dead person during the first three days after his death in order to help the person (by the way it is never said if women are concerned by this ritual) manage these eventual seven cycles of seven days that give this individual seven chances to reach final nirvana before rebirth. The excerpt of this “Bardo Thodal” given at the end of the book provides the text that is read and contains no real mention of the sex of the deceased person who is addressed in the second vocative person “you” though the author in his commentaries in square brackets and italics between the quoted excerpts speaks of the deceased in the third person as “he or she” but this cannot be from the original text, and sure enough in the standard translation by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup that deceased person is referred to in the third person as “the deceased” in the links between the various passages. By the way the “priest” who is reading this “Bardo Thodal” in the ear of the deceased person can only be a man since women cannot be fully ordained as we have seen.

John Peacock is known for his lectures and books on secular Buddhism and this book reveals clearly why he would drop all the corpus of deities and godlike creatures. They are superstitions that blot out and even erase the most humanistic and progressive dimension of Buddhism. The Buddha was during his whole material life an opponent to all kinds of hierarchical and feudal power structures and a proponent of basic total and equal freedom for any human individual as for the possibility to get onto the eightfold path and reach awakening.

Tibetan Buddhism is in many ways the negation of this dimension. When Buddhist monks and monasteries in Laos work with UNESCO to enable the monasteries to become self-sufficient and sustainable thanks to the development of productive activities we wonder how long this feudal theocratic vision of human society can survive in the modern world? When we listen to the Dalai lama we don’t even wonder anymore because he does not advocate this religious vision but a more open ethical and even in many ways secular vision saying for example: “Religion is valuable but not necessary” meaning that we can develop good ethics and even good karma even if we do not believe in karma or samsara and rebirth. Buddhist ethics can be developed and advocated even without any reference to Buddhism. As John Peacock said in his seminar in California in 2011, “if I wanted to teach Buddhist ethics to young people I would first of all not even mention Buddhism but orient them towards doing things, acting.”

This book is a good introduction to Tibetan Buddhism but there is a tremendous amount of discussion to be started, distance to be built and disambiguation or clarification to be achieved if we want to make Buddhist social, cultural, educational, economic and even political ethics part of the universal human heritage. This means research and research is never respectful of petrified ideas and rituals.


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