More Tibet

Last week as Tibetans around the world celebrated Tibetan Uprising Day, which marks the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule in Lhasa, Time Magazine published an article suggesting that the Chinese government is using Christian missionaries to “dismantle” Tibetan Buddhism:

Missionary work remains illegal in China and is viewed as a tool of Western infiltration. In 2011, officials issued a secretive 16-page notice ordering universities to counteract foreigners suspected of converting students to Christianity. But in parts of Qinghai proselytizing is being quietly tolerated, according to Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. He cites estimates that as many as 80% to 90% of the few hundred foreigners living in Xining are fundamentalist Christians.

Barnett believes the reason for the government’s tolerant attitude is twofold. First, American missionaries, often funded by their churches, provide a valuable service teaching English for scant pay. Second, by targeting Tibetan Buddhism, missionaries might just help the government erode this integral part of Tibetan identity.”

The Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas until 1959.
The Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas until 1959.

This particular tactic was the subject of another article, published last month by the Guardian.

Tensions are rising. The self-immolations has now risen to over 100. On Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10th, Nepalese police arrested 18 people in Kathmandu on suspicion of “anti-China activities”, although they were released later that day.  According to reports, a court in western China’s Qinghai province sentenced a popular Tibetan singer up to six years in prison for calling for an end to Chinese rule, while a monk who had written some of his lyrics has also been imprisoned on unspecified charges after he was tortured in detention.

On the more positive side, Tibet is expected to be open to the outside world this summer in a pan to attract more visitors from aboard, Padma Choling, chairman of the Tibet region legislature, disclosed on Wednesday.

China has a new president, Xi Jinping, but there is little expectation that things will change. By allowing Christian missionaries to target Tibetan, for their proselytizing it seems that China is intent on destroying Tibet Buddhism and Tibetan culture. For years China has indoctrinated its people with the view that Tibet is an integral part of China, and that the freedom movement is the product of a conspiracy by foreigners with the “evil” Dalai Lama identified as one of the top co-conspirators.

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has expression his appreciation to Christians in the region for their efforts to prevent persecution, and he has noted that Tibet’s land and culture is a gem that all people, regardless of their religion should admire.

When the gem was mine
I cared not, and ignored its value.
Now that the gem is lost to others,
Melancholy overwhelms me
As its pure worth dawns on me”

Tsangyang Gyatso, 6th Dalai Lama


The Sacrifice of the Bodhisattva

Buddhist nun Palden Choetso
Buddhist nun Palden Choetso (d. Nov. 3, 2011)

This week two more Tibetans set themselves on fire in the cause for greater freedom and the return from exile of the Dalai Lama. 102 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons have set themselves on fire since 2009.

I support not only autonomy for the Tibetan region but independence from China. That, however, is not the subject of this post, just my simple statement of solidarity with the Tibetan people.

While some, the Chinese government, for instance, maintain that the self-immolations violate Buddhist principles, there is another side to that. In traditional Mahayana teachings, the sacrifice is a critical aspect of Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva engages in altruistic action with all the forces of body, speech and mind, and in the cause for the liberation of all living beings, there is nothing the Bodhisattva should hold back. A Bodhisattva does not acquire anything that “he would have not the heart to let go,” says the Narayana-pariprccha. That includes “his own hand, his foot, nose, head, limbs greater and lesser, son, daughter, wife, love, servant, mind, ease, house, wealth, country, treasure and all that is his,” according to the Bodhisattva-pratimoksha. The merit the Bodhisattva accrues because of altruistic action is up for grabs. Even one’s own body is but an offering to place on the altar of altruism.

Elsewhere in the Narayana-pariprccha, it says,

Even so the Bodhisattva must regard as medicine this his frame composed of the four great elements, and say, ‘Let all creatures take it of me as they require it, a hand, for such as need it, or a foot, for such as need it.”

In the Akshayamati Sutra, the Bodhisattva vows, “I must wear out even this my body for the behests of all creatures.” Because the Bodhisattva understands the impermanence of the body, it is not held dearly. The body is shared in any case, shared as we shared the air and the space around us, through interconnectedness. And yet, even though the body is non-essential, to be shared, “worn out,” renounced, the Bodhisattva is nonetheless enjoined to preserve the body, keeping it healthy and strong:

“O Sariputra, one must preserve one’s self when one intends to preserve others.”


The Akshayamati Sutra suggests that it is important for the Bodhisattva to keep the body free from disease, “out of regard for his fellows.” That’s an interesting thought, to maintain good health for the benefit of others.

Medicine King Bodhisattva
Medicine King Bodhisattva

There are a few stories about this extreme form of compassionate effort, such as the jataka tale of the Bodhisattva who made a sacrifice of his body to a hungry tigress. The Mahayana Nirvana Sutra tells of Himalaya Kumara or the Snow Mountains Boy who leaped into the mouth of a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. There are self-immolations, as well, one being the Medicine King Bodhisattva who as an offering to the Buddha set his body on fire and burned for twelve hundred years.

But, these are myths, and as the Japanese priest, Nichiren once pointed out, “Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people . . . Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.”

Faith in this sense is not a matter of belief, but sincerity. For those who follow the Buddha way, more important than offerings of incense or money and the like, is the offering of our sincere efforts to live up to the spirit of the teachings. That means to practice kindness, to respect others, to take care of others, and to take care of ourselves.

Most of us, hopefully none of us, will ever find ourselves in a situation that would demand engaging in the ultimate selfless action of setting our body on fire, or any other sacrifice of that nature. Those living in Tibet, however, are living in the worst kind of nightmare.

Recently, Prof. Robert Thurman, in an article, “The Cry of Freedom,” wrote of the self-immolation of the Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso:

When you destroy your body, you violate your own life, the lives of what Buddhists call “the 84,000 cells” that constitute it. This does seem violent. Yet in this case, the individual sacrifices herself to appeal to her enemy, to convey the perhaps all-too-subliminal message that they have nothing to fear from her, that she will resist their relationship of fear and harm by removing herself from being the target of their ultimately self-destructive, evil behavior. That is true non-harming—perfect resistance by complete surrender.”

Thurman calls these extreme acts “a final appeal for a change in the iron hearts of their oppressors.”

Some critics of the self-immolations say the Tibet situation is not about Buddhism, it must be about politics or something. However, it seems they are missing one of the prime points of the teachings. The Bodhisattva-pratimoksha says, “in all business of life.” The Anantamukha-nirhdradhdrani, “Wherever conflicts arise amongst living creatures . . .” And the Lotus Sutra, “No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” It’s all about dharma. Everything.

How one reconciles these teachings on the sacrifice of the Bodhisattva with conflicting Buddhist teachings is an individual matter. My own feelings about the self-immolations are torn. I believe, for instance, that being outside the region, Tonden (David Alain), the British monk who set himself on fire at Nalanda monastery near Labastide-Saint-Georges, might have had more lasting impact and greater influence had he chosen another way to protest. As far as the Tibetans are concerned, they are inside the tyranny, I am not, and therefore I cannot judge them. All I can do is to support their cause in my own meager and ineffectual way.


Presidents, Big Buddhas and Secret Buddhas

AP/Carolyn Kaster

I could be wrong about this, but I believe Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. President to visit a Buddhist temple. Yesterday, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the President made his first stop in Thailand at Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok. Now this didn’t amount to much more than a photo op, but some of the photos are pretty cool, like this one on the right.

That’s one big Buddha: 150 feet long, 50 feet high.

This was not Obama’s first visit to a Buddhist site. In 2010, he toured Kotoku-in, a Jodo (Pure Land) temple in Kamakura, Japan, where another big Buddha statue is located, the “Daibutsu” statue of Amida. It was actually the President’s second visit there, the first he made when he was 6 years old.

AP/Charles Dharapak

Sad to say, but I don’t expect a whole lot from the President’s historic visit to Burma. As I write this he has just arrived and is only spending six hours in the country, meeting naturally with Aung San Suu Kyi, and I’m sure that neither will have anything significant to say about the violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and particularly not about the persecution of the latter group, which is to be expected I suppose, since the purpose of the visit is to encourage the Burmese government to continue democratic reforms. Yet there does seem to me to be some linkage.

Suu Kyi has been criticized regarding her “silence” on the issue. But, to be fair, a lot of people have been silent about this thing. I have yet to see very many Buddhists step out and suggest that Burmese Buddhists need to stop persecuting the Rohingyas. For her part, Suu Kyi recently said that the Burmese government should send troops to the Rakhine State to bring peace to that violence-stricken area. I don’t quite get that since the troops are among those who have been mistreating these poor Rohingya people.

I must sound rather pessimistic today. But I am also disheartened about our country’s lack of attention to the Tibet issue. Sunday, to protest repressive Chinese rule a 24-year old Tibetan man set himself on fire, on Saturday it was a cab driver and mother of two, last week a Western monk, and four more people the week before that. You don’t see any of this reported in the mainstream news media. No one in Washington is talking about it. I don’t see how the U.S. expects to have credibility on human rights abuses when we are so selective about the ones we denounce. If Burma or Tibet were in the Middle East you can bet Anderson Cooper would be all over it like a fly on dog doodoo.

You know, every President since George H.W. Bush has met with the Dalai Lama, and has sung his praises, but when it comes time to vocally support his cause, they have been practically mute.

Beyond occasional meetings with the Dalai Lama, connections between the U.S. Presidency and Buddhism belong pretty much to the realm of imagination. Case in point: Earlier this year, Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha by Suneel Dhand was published by Mindstir Media. The author, a physician in Florida, imagined a scenario where Jefferson had a secret Buddhist adviser and all these years later the adviser’s letters are discovered. It’s not as far fetched as it may sound, for Buddhists have been known to show up in the strangest places. Godfrey de Bouillon, for instance, the Frankish knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and who became the first ruler of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” had a Buddhist adviser.

As far as I know there is no evidence of any real connection between Thomas Jefferson and Buddhism. But we do know that Jefferson had rather complex views on the subject of religion. In fact, some folks question whether he can be rightfully called a Christian since he did not believe in the Holy Trinity of orthodox Christianity and questioned the divinity of Jesus.

Confusion about Jefferson’s religious beliefs stem no doubt from his reluctance to discuss them publicly. He felt that religion was a private matter, and so his public remarks on the subject are few in number. However, in a letter to a Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, dated August 6, 1816, he did say this:

I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.”

Good words.


Sectarian Violence in Burma

First, an update related to Saturday’s post on Tibet. China has recently closed Tibet to foreign visitors. The fear is that with Tibet cut-off from the world, the Chinese may engage in a massive crackdown (which to some extent they already have) that no one will ever know the true dimensions of. On June 1 Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Programme Director said, “Massively cracking down on the population in Lhasa is not a solution to the broad unrest we are seeing among Tibetans.”

Rohingya Muslim protesters in front of a United Nations office in Bangkok (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Over the weekend in Burma the government declared a state of emergency to deal with unrest after hundreds of Buddhist villagers’ homes were set on fire and seven people killed in rioting on Friday and Saturday. The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims threatens to undermine the new government’s reforms and the country’s transition to democracy. Read more here at Reuters.

At the center of the violence, as the news service points out, is “an issue that human rights groups have criticized for years: the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions . . .”  The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and there have been accusations of persecution by the military for years. The Rohingya also claim that many of their people are forced into labor at military camps.

Burma is also facing a crisis with the people in Kachin, the country’s northernmost state. June 9 marked the first anniversary of the breakdown of a 17-year-old ceasefire between the “Myanmar” government and the ethnic Kachin people. In the last 12 months there have been over 100 clashes between government and Kachin forces. The United Nations refugee agency say there are more than 50,000 displaced people in the Kachin state. It, too, is blocked off, as most international aid agencies and journalists are not allowed there.

Getting back to the violence over the weekend that led to the emergency rule, Reuters notes that the Rohingya Muslims “are despised by many ethnic Rakhine, members of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist majority.”

Rakhine Buddhist holds a machete as he guardshomes in Sittwe, Burma (Reuters)

The Rakhine are largely Theravada Buddhists. It’s difficult to understand how a group that claims to be one of the first people to embrace Buddha-dharma in Southeast Asia could despise another people. Mahatma Gandhi had the same feeling in 1938, when he could not understand how it was possible for Burmese Budd


China’s “Harmonious Campaign” and Buddhist IPOs

This week The Buddhist Association of China announced it was launching a “harmonious monasteries” campaign in Tibet. Here’s what the People’s Daily Online reported:

Tibetan Buddhism has always upheld harmony and peace, sought to create a graceful world and extended sympathy to all lives, said Jamyang Losang Jigme Tubdain Qoigyi Nyima, a living Buddha who is also vice president of the association.

As both Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese citizens, monks and nuns should benefit the country and the people, adhere to religious doctrines, promote Buddhism and serve followers, he said.

In the statement, the association’s Tibetan Buddhism division urged monks and nuns to behave as good citizens, protect the national unity, ethnic harmony and social stability, as well as avoid secessionist activities . . . The association also called on them to abide by the law.

Chinese police demonstrating a harmonious way of dealing with foreign pro-Tibet activists in Beijing, 2008. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

It’s not hard to read between the lines here. It’s just a attempt to persuade Tibetans to behave and not protest while China destroys their culture and engages in what Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, described some years ago as “ethnic cleansing by population transfer.”

According to Wikipedia, “The [Buddhist Association of China] shares jurisdiction over Buddhists in China with the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates all recognized religions.” While technically the BCA is not state-run, its ties to the government are obvious. In addition to the guy with the long name mentioned above, the “11th Panchen Lama” is also a V.P. of the BCA. His name is Gyaincain Norbu and he is China’s pick for the position of the highest lama in Tibet after the Dalai Lama. The person recognized by Tibetan Buddhists as the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was detained by Chinese authorities shortly after his selection was announced in 1995 (he was six years old) and he hasn’t been seen since. Many Tibet/China watchers believe he is dead.

Here is a little flip side to the state-sponsored Buddhism scene in China: Liu Wei, an official with the State Administration of Religious Affairs, recently told Buddhist and Taoist temples that they have no right to go public and list shares on stock exchanges. According to Reuters, “The listing of companies linked to world famous Chinese heritage sites is not new in the country’s three-decade-old capital markets, but attempts to list at least one religious site have apparently crossed a line.”

Now we know why the Happy Buddha is so happy.

This is not aimed at just Buddhism and Taoism, but also the other religions (Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) recognized by the Chinese government. Apparently a few of the more historical and popular religious sites are suspected of becoming overly commercial. This is one of the few times I agree with the Chinese government. Buddhism and commercialism should not mix.

A few years the commercialism charge was leveled at Shaolin Temple, probably the most famous Buddhist temple in the world. Over a million people visit Shaolin Temple in Henan province each year. The temple rakes in money from entrance fees, online sales of Shaolin memorabilia (fans, t-shirts, etc.), and its traveling performing troupes. A sub-industry has spouted up in the land around Shaolin where there are now more than 80 private kung fu schools that train more than 60,000 people to be like the monastery’s famous warrior-monks.

Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 CE. According to legend, the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years in a nearby cave and then taught the monks at Shaolin meditation and an exercise called the Eighteen Arhat Hands. The monastery has long been associated with Chinese martial arts.

In the West. Shaolin Temple may be most famous for being the place where Kwai Chang Caine (AKA “Grasshopper”) was a monk as a young boy in the Kung Fu television series starring David Carradine, along with two great Asian character actors Keye Luke (blind Master Po) and Philip Ahn (Master Kan).

I can just picture a modern day Master Kan telling young Grasshopper, “Quickly as you can, sell the shares listed . . . When you can sell all the shares before the closure of the IPO, it will be time for you to leave.”