NEW YORK, US, 12 July 2016
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
Buddhism is the lamas’ major source of income, status and power. Donations from devotees are their lifeblood. In pre-1959 Tibet, lamas owned estates. Tibetan lama government taxed nomads and peasants in old Tibet in currency, goods, and labor. Taxes were not meant to improve the lot of the people. They was raised to feed thousands of monasteries and nunneries gorging on meat and butter. Yes, doing nothing. The common Tibetans survived on a ball of ground barley, grazing sheep or toiling in the fields from sunrise to sunset. Tibetans believed that Buddhism would free them from samsaric existence.
But there is nothing original about most of the Buddha’s ideas. The ideas such as karma or nirvana get put out there with a supposedly superior Buddhist explanation. For instance, moksha in Hinduism means nirvana to the Hindus. But Buddhist explanation is that it is not nirvana. It is a realm of gods and goddesses and so still bound to samsaric existence.
Buddhism borrowed much of its ideas from Hinduism. The idea of karma, for instance, was created by the Brahmin caste in ancient India. The Brahmins were the upper-most caste in the brutal caste system of Indian society which continues to this day. It made sense for the Brahmins to hold and push the idea of karma, since that would justify to the lower classes, the lower castes, any injustices that they felt. The tradition of Buddhism inherited these ideas from the Brahmins, also in ancient India.
The Buddha himself was a prince, from the warrior caste, the second highest caste in Indian society, just below the Brahmins. The Buddha lived a rich life in which he knew no suffering, until he was a young adult and left the confines of the palace he was raised in. Then he came up with this philosophy that life is suffering. But, he never questioned why he didn’t suffer before he was 29 years old, when he lived in mansions with a retinue of seductive women at his finger tips.
One of the most hateful parts of the Buddha is the part of him that regarded women as inferior. Pressure was brewing from women who wanted to become nuns. He said if he ordained women into nunhood, Buddhism in India would survive for only 500 years! With only monks as his disciples he predicted it would last 1000 years! Women must indeed be morally so defiled for even a compassionate Buddha to utter such a thing! Sexist, the Buddha was.
The suffering of people outside his palace was caused by the great wealth of the princes and the upper classes themselves. They don’t work at producing the necessaries of life and the enormous luxury goods that they lived with. But they get poorer people to produce these things for them. They cause suffering to the lower classes who have to struggle to make the wealthy comfortable while still taking care of their own families with the little wealth that they are allowed to have.
But the Buddha preached to the poor a philosophy of renunciation. Of course, it is said that he preached this philosophy to everyone. But, it was mostly the poor somehow who came to accept the Buddha’s teaching. Because the Buddha promised that through the extinction of desire, they would be able to overcome suffering. And overcoming suffering is definitely something working people want to do! But the Buddha never understood the social causes of suffering. He never questioned why most of the world’s suffering is with working people rather than with wealthy people who are in fact attached to their possessions.
The system of working people suffering because they spend their lives forced to create wealth and comfort for rich people is still pretty much like the one we live under today. And it is unjust and causes great suffering. Lamas, Rinpoches, and Tulkus would like us common people to believe in karma still, and that it will all work out somehow eventually. But, will it? Or is this just a mythological idea that keeps people from protesting the fact that the people in power or the wealthy force us to work for their comfort while we have to live pretty poorly? Karma is just a useful tool for the wealthy preachers, to get the poor to accept that justice will be done eventually, even as the poor suffer injustice after injustice.
Prince Siddharta Gautama renounced worldly life for spiritual pursuits. This is true however deluded he might be about enlightenment. Today Rinpoches renounce spiritual pursuits for material comfort under one pretext or the other. Fancy mansions for tulkus are common. Grand monasteries stand awkward before slums in which the Tibetan laity who actually crave material comfort live. You see monks chewing tobacco and inhaling snuff. Some tulkus visit discothèques and prostitutes in Delhi. Others get soaked in power thirst. They encourage monks to beat up lay Tibetans in worldly disputes. Others get entangled in petty financial disputes and get murdered. Still some get stuck in intoxication or sex scandals. Still others plunge into sectarian politics, getting others murdered. Or some tulkus pop in anger management pills for decades. How can lamas guide us on the road to nirvana, supposing there is one, when they fail to guide themselves first?
In the early 1970s, the Dalai Lama declared Jepa Rinpoche as having attained nirvana. Jepa Rinpoche was a hermit from my phayul Jepa, a mineral-rich district to the west of Shigatse. The Dalai Lama praised him as a genuine modern-day Jetsun Milarepa. Milarepa was an 11th ACE yogi from Gungthang, western Tibet. Tibetans believe he was the only person who attained nirvana in a single lifetime since the Buddha died 25 centuries ago. It is said when Jepa Rinpoche died and his body was cremated in Manali in India, the mantra of Vajrayogini was visible on his bones. But, one evening when I rushed home in the 90s I noticed my father in a state of half-sad half-upset emotion. On my enquiry he exclaimed, “Our Jepa Rinpoche reincarnation has turned out a playboy at Delhi University!”
The Buddha did not teach Mahayana and Vajrayana. He taught the Pali canon which came in print 400 years after his death. He said once, grabbing a handful of sand on the banks of river Ganga, that that is all there is in his teaching. If any one in the future comes up with more than that then it is nothing but fraud. But today Mahayana and Vajrayana get accepted as some form of Buddhism. Mahayana rose as an intellectual revolt against the Hinayana. The time the Buddha predicted Buddhism would die out and the birth of Mahayana came about the same time! Exactly 500 years after the Buddha died. Given the frailty of human memory, and the time gap, the possibility for discrepancy between what Siddhartha taught and what was written down is immense. Try in a classroom a little experiment with about 20 PhDs passing a short story from one person to the next. See if the story at the last person matches the one started with the first individual.
Buddhism contradicts itself. On the one hand it teaches desire is evil because it causes suffering, but it encourages us to desire nirvana. Not to desire suffering is also a desire. One wonders why the Buddha called the truth of suffering and the truth of desire noble. It teaches us to practice compassion and meet nirvana at the soonest possible. The aim was to be of effective help as a Buddha to the six kinds of sentient beings. It gives an analogy of some one studying medicine and then graduating as a well-trained doctor. This doctor can diagnose the disease for symptoms and causes. This trained doctor can give a patient the right medication and advice for a speedy recovery. Then ironically it encourages us to be a bodhisattva and delay our entering nirvana. Delaying out of compassion for the sentient beings! It reasons that the motivation to be the last sentient being to enter nirvana gets you the ticket first! This is pure intellectual and moral dishonesty. It then teaches us to doubt and question if the teaching meets your experience and reason. But at the same time it demands you to have faith in your root guru as a Buddha — infallible and above scrutiny.
The Buddha said life had no beginning. This then begs the question how he could remember all his previous lives as claimed in the scripture? The tulku system is tied to history, tradition, status and politics. Their authenticity has never been tested or made transparent to the scientific community and the public. This should be done in the future. Anyway how many celibate lamas and tantric sex masters have achieved nirvana?
Nothing inspires me more than Siddhartha’s investigative spirit. To the seekers of truth he says:
“Do not accept anything by mere tradition — [that is, thinking that it has
thus been handed down through many generations]. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything by mere inference. Do not accept anything merely because it seems acceptable — [that is, thinking that as the speaker seems to be a good person his words should be accepted]. Do not accept anything thinking that the ascetic is respected by us [therefore it is right to accept his word).”
This investigative spirit that does not spare a Buddha is a legacy worth adopting. This approach from top down is nonexistent in all other religions which make them childlike intellectually. A good example would be Christianity with “I believe …” when you hit 18 years of age. Islam preaches conversion by force or death to the non-Muslims. Issuing death sentence to apostates is a classic example of an emotionally sick and insecure religion.
But, we need to ask ourselves, “how much do we as Buddhists investigate the dharma and the masters?” The debates in the Tibetan monasteries that I observed over a period of 2 years are so superficial. The monks have already in their heart accepted the Buddhist faith as superior before they have even begun the search. The monks argue to better their debating skill, not to correct their viewpoint. They mainly focus on inferential evidence. And also on scriptural evidence which is nothing but a circular argument that gets nowhere. Not one monk left the monastery because he found the teaching incompatible with evidence, and reason. It is little wonder because they hardly question the scripture, masters, or the Buddha.
Tibetans suspect atheism stemming from a chest with heartlessness. And those atheists are bound to commit to a life of heinous crimes. This is not the case. Many atheistic countries like Norway and Sweden have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Crime against humans, animals and nature is low in these non-religious countries. This may have a lot to do with the socialist system set in place.
But 5,000 wars were fought in the last 2,000 years in the name of religion around the world. Hundreds of sectarian wars were fought in Tibet since 8th ACE. This is history.
As an atheist I have saved more than a dozen human lives, risking my own, from rough waters or wild animals. I do honor ethics, facts, evidence and reason. Lack of evidence in the Buddhist truth claims has turned me to atheism and secular ethics.
Rinpoches eat, sleep and defecate like us mundane creatures, and we are not supposed to criticize them. One common feature among these preachers of renunciation is that they don’t lack money. When questioned, their response is “It is a renunciation of the the mind, not material per se.” This excuse is followed by another one that one should examine the teaching, not the conduct of the masters. That is to say see if the medicine is working or not, don’t bother about what immoral life the doctor is living.
I appreciate kindness, friendliness, honesty, trustworthiness. I appreciate love for all — it does sound somewhat artificial but the aspiration is noble. I appreciate empathy and compassion — it does sound arrogant but the action is noble indeed. The reason is a simple, not a lofty one. I do not appreciate stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, desperation, frustration, pain, and suffering. So I vowed not to will to do anything harmful to others that I can not will others to do to me. This is not as same as don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you. If I cannot will others to lie to, steal from, hurt or kill me then I would not will myself to lie to, steal from or hurt or kill others. This moral compass has proved powerful to me over the years. Mindfulness and analytical meditation get involved here.
But also I don’t delude myself into thinking I will not fail! I appreciate empathetic action even if this is my first and last life. I don’t need the theory of rebirth to appreciate compassion. Nobody in his right mind appreciates a life of cruelty, pain, and suffering. Our sense of pain and pleasure is what gives meaning to our life. Life per se has no intrinsic purpose. That is until new evidence suggests otherwise. Cosmology puzzles us with billions of universes that come and go. It does give us a hint that neither creator nor karma is at work.
This is the second part of Mila Rangzen's series on "Buddhist faith and the sleep of the Tibetan brain."
Other articles in the series, including comments from readers:
About the author
Mila Rangzen is a US armed forces veteran serving the New York Community as an immigration translator. He can be reached at [email protected]