Saturday, July 7, 2012
'As someone who was raised a Christian, became a Buddhist, and also practices classical Indian dance, I often find myself in turbulence on an airplane wondering who to pray to'. The President of the Buddhist Community at Stanford was introducing one of our recent visiting speakers, Sylvia Boorstein. Hannah'd been prompted to make the remark by an anecdote that occurs in one of Boorstein's books and which the speaker then retold for the audience after the introduction was finished. Boorstein had been traveling along winding mountain roads to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. She was in the front seat and could see all the way down the sheer cliffs on her side of the road. At a certain point Jack Kornfield, who was traveling with her, reached forward and asked, 'Are you scared?' Boorstein said, 'Yes'. Kornfield asked, 'Are you praying?' Boorstein again said, 'Yes'. 'To Buddhist gods or the Jewish one?' Kornfield pressed her. 'All of them', Boorstain replied. Kornfield said, 'Good'.
Sylvia Boorstein packed the house. The house was the sanctuary, a religious space on the top floor of one of the Stanford student-union buildings. Usually we get two or three people in there at a time for meditation, and maybe twenty if a local speaker comes. When Simon Child came from England there were thirty or so people in the audience. For Sylvia Boorstein they came out in droves, presumably down from Marin where Boorstain teaches, at Kornfield's Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They had the look of devotees on what Kornfield calls 'the upper middle path': older, white, earnest, wealthy. Boorstein herself fit right in, a kindly grandmother who's just made tea and now is going to tell you a story. And tell she did. There was the one about the trip to Dharamsala. There was the one about activism in the 60s. And there was the one about the hairdresser in France who asked her why she was always wearing a bracelet on her wrist. 'That bracelet was blessed by the Dalai Lama!' was her answer. 'If I had a bracelet blessed by the Dalai Lama, I'd never take it off either!' was, apparently, the hairdresser's reply.
There were lots of stories about the Dalai Lama. People like the Dalai Lama. He's like Nelson Mandela or the Queen - he's old, seems harmless, and he smiles a hell of a lot. Now, it's probably the case that his policy of peaceful negotiation with China has been better - or, at least, less disastrous - for his people than violent resistance against the world's largest army would have proven. There's no question that he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1989. And I have no wish to rehearse in full the standard attacks from the left that have been compiled by journalists such as Johann Hari: that the Dalai Lama is an unelected theocrat, that he has conceded too much to China, that he believes that disabled children are sufering for the karma of past lives. (It's worth pointing out here that Hari's interviews should be read with great care after allegations surfaced that he made much of them up.) All the same, there are a few things American Buddhists, and Americans sympathetic to Buddhism, need to realize and remember about the Dalai Lama.
First, the Dalai Lama is not the leader of world Buddhism. He's not even the leader of the most widespread sect of Buddhism, so that his position lacks the authority of, say, the Pope (a figure with whom he is often implicitly compared). He is a senior monk in one tradition (Gelug) within Tibetan Buddhism, and also fulfils a conventional role as the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans more broadly. Second, the Dalai Lama's type of Vajrayana Buddhism is an especially strange form of the religion, departing quite far from the orthodox Theravada path and even from the more florid offshoots of the Mahayana branches of Buddhism. It subscribes to the clumsiest and least rational forms of the doctrine of reincarnation: when one Dalai Lama dies, followers look for another by dangling the former incumbent's possessions in front of Tibetan babies, hoping their eyes will light up in recognition. Finally, the traditionalism of the Dalai Lama's practice leads him to take up positions that would shock most of his liberal fans in the West; he believes, for example, that anal sex is an aberration.
Some observers have also found him to be intellectually underwhelming. And then there is his closeness to celebrities such as Richard Gere. As with many public fugures, the list of complaints could go on and on. As I was preparing to write this post, however, I was afforded a reminder of the core integrity of the man. A correspondent sent me the news of the latest scandal in the perpetually scandalized world of American Buddhism. Ian Thorson, a graduate of Stanford, was found dead beside his girlfriend in the Arizona desert, after the two had left a silent retreat in the wilderness. The leader of the retreat (who'd studied at Princeton) was Michael Roach, who'd previously been married to Thorson's girlfriend. Although he'd taken vows of celibacy and poverty as a monk, Roach had recommended Buddhism as 'a path to prosperity', and had recently taken to hitting the dance-floors of New York. But when the guru traveled to Dharamsala with a group of students in 2006, the Dalai Lama refused to see him. Not even Tenzin Gyatso knew exactly what gods Roach was praying to on those winding mountain roads, but it's a fair bet that one of them was Moloch.