The Dalai Lama on July 17th 2011 appeared in the Reality TV-Show MasterChef Australia – a cooking show in which young aspiring chefs try their luck to get a kick off for some career. The show was produced in New York and aired the same day with His Holiness attending on a stop while en rout from Washington to Chicago – from the kalachakra empowerment, an important tibetan buddhist rite, to a public talk presented by The Theosophical Society in America.
Not being terribly obsessed with the day-to-day business of His Holiness I get knowledge of this event only by a short article in the guardian, the british newspaper. Reading the article I begin to wonder how far this tibetan buddhist thing will go? The Dalai Lama on Realty TV. Isn‘t this strange?
Nowadays, the Dalai Lama is tibetan buddhism. He is the main defining force what tibetan buddhism means. At least when you look at it from the standpoint of his presence in the media. Seeing the Dalai Lama on Reality TV I wonder how a practicing buddhist still can call himself a buddhist? Isn‘t tibetan buddhism in the western world becoming more and more a commercial product? There are lots of signs for this and the topic is far too broad than to deal with in a sketch, but the appearance and participation of the Dalai Lama in a Reality TV-Show seems to me to be one more sign for the transformation of western tibetan buddhism into just another lifestyle product with lots of merchandising.
For many buddhists, a lot of connotations which run with the medias notion of buddhism might no longer say anything about any intention they possibly have and, which is far more important, this buddhism nowadays is a far cry from mahayana buddhist way of being which developed from Nagarjuna‘s time on. In fact, in my opinion, the buddhism of the culture industries develops a lot of facets which are simply the opposite – it is becoming something which delves deeper and deeper into a world which is not identified any longer as dependently co-arising, one of the central notions of mahayana buddhism, meaning… oh well, meaning nothing if I begin to talk about it. Modern western style buddhism is on it‘s way to morph into simple minded esoterics disguised as „the teachings that can save us all“. That is how Robert Thurman likes to put it as one of the main proponents of american tibetan buddhism.
In fact there is some irony here. If you look at what happened in western philosophy in the last fifty or sixty years, sometimes you have to marvel about what some of these people have to say. You might look at Jacques Derrida‘s notion of la différance. What he means is nothing far from Nagarjuna‘s „Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness.“ The irony is that while we are looking eastward for orientation in postmodernity – which seems to rip us off of all meaning and value – right in our middle the whole perspective which we believe to lack is given. Yes, the problem is that only a few are able to read Derrida and the like and, of course, the buddhist philosophy looks much more straight forward and more easily to comprehend. But this last impression is exactly the result of the western consumer capitalism realizing that buddhism is a commodity and making it a product is just another great opportunity for generating profit – for which purpose you have to make it digestible for the hoi polloi.
You might say, in religion there is always a distinction between the general user, which for one reason or another isn‘t able to be immersed in the most far going sense while on the other side there are the few real mystics and yogis who look at it as it is. But then, who and what is the Dalai Lama?
What is his agenda? From the kalachakra empowerment in Washington july 16th early evening to the New York MasterChef Realty TV-Show late morning july 17th. Immediately afterwards off to Chicago for a date, right after lunch, with The Theosophical Society in America. What a schedule! What is his purpose? Is he doing this as the manifestation of Chenrezi, the most beloved spiritual force of the Tibetans? Does this mean he is there as the most developed spiritual being in the universe, being free to vanish and manifest as it pleases and as it is necessary for the welfare of his people and all mankind: Chenrezi at Reality TV? Or is he just the simply monk, as he likes to call himself, from the green grasslands around Takster, his place of birth 1000 miles from Lhasa? What is his purpose? Does he has one?
In Thomas Laird‘s Book „The story of Tibet. Conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama“ the Dalai Lama mentions several times a „master plan“ of Chenrezi for the Tibetan people. For example he talks about a plan for the first 6 Dalai Lamas and also for the 13th. He says there is no plan for him right now, but – how confusing this might be and what ever he might conceal as the manifestation of Chenrezi – would he go to a TV-Show with a hidden agenda of a god? Could he have a plan, an intention, a path he follows which leads him into the heart of postmodern life where Reality is TV?
I don‘t buy into that, I don‘t believe it. I think of the small boy born in Takster, a half days ride from Kumbum, the Gelug stronghold in Amdo, founded by the 3rd Dalai Lama, the birth place of Tsongkapa in the far north-eastern reach of Lhasa. I have a rather sick feeling seeing the 14th in a TV-Show, hosted in New York, half around the globe from where he was born 75 years ago. I come more and more to see him as exploited.
In the account „Tibet is my country“ of his brother Thubten Jigme Norbu, who was educated at Kumbum as the tulku of the rich takster labrang at the time, one can get brief glimpses of how life was in the 1930s for a 3 year old boy which was the chosen one. There he is beginning a strange journey emerging from a mediaeval world in one of the most remote areas of the world eventually becoming someone who‘s tweets are watched by more than 2 million followers – which is probably more then the number of his people at the time of his birth.
In Kumbum he was taken hostage by the mighty warlord Ma Pu-fang, who refused to let the monks from Lhasa, who came searching for him, take him with them until he was paid a ransom of the magnitude of roughly 3.5 millions of 2011-british pounds. One can take a look at Leonard Clarks characterization of Ma Pu-fang in his „Marching Wind“. Ten years after the search party left with the Dalai Lama, Clark, the explorer and adventurer, met the warlord in 1949. He describes Ma Pu-fang as the cold blooded, almighty regional supreme commander, ruler of life and death – who un-icarnates you in a split-second decision if he feels the need.
This is not the world of the niceties of New York celebrities, of the rich and chic and oh-so-vegetarian which believe in Tibet as the country of „year-round blissful vacation“ – again Robert Thurman.
The picture is quite different. When the Dalai Lama finally was brought to Lhasa he again found himself, though not realizing it as a 5 year old, under the rule of a ruthless man. The 5th Reting! The regent and strongman during the absence and re-emergence of the god – a man which is characterized by the historian Melvyn Goldstein as being in 1936 in total control of the administration in Lhasa, totally autocratic, blatantly hedonistic (having at least, as a gelug monk, one child and also a homosexual relationship), with a labrang which during the years of his regency became one of largest trading companies in Tibet – and the most infamous, due to its exploitative trading practices. A man who waged a kind of civil war in and around Lhasa when he definitely lost control over his protégée the young Dalai Lama. A story for which, in certain circles of tibetan buddhism, you will be yelled at to shut the fuck up because it is so at odds with the official rendering of Tibet as Shangri-La. In April 1947 this fairy-tail of western tibetan buddhism is all about a mail bombing in Lhasa, it is about monks shooting at each other, murdering their abbot, rounds of mortars raining down around Sera monastery, and in the end the 5th Reting dying poisoned in a dark room at the Potala, crying in agony not far from the quarters of the Kundun.
Not quite the story you want to hear at a kalachakra empowerment in modern day Washington with all those famous shmoos around. Maybe Whoopi wouldn‘t understand – yes she was also there, among a lot of other dependently co-arisen not so important celebs.
But the story goes on. It is the Dalai Lama meeting Mao, again as the play-ball of politics. The peoples liberation army getting at Tibet, the exile, the CIA paying his administration, the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution with the Dalai Lama watching helpless the heritage of his people razed. Then the Dharma Bums, Allen Ginsberg and Chogym Trungpa bumping into each other at Times Square, looking for his boon and getting him to europe, america, all over the world and so on and on and on and now he is jetting the globe like mad.
Later in 2011 it is France, Estonia, Finland and back to Dharamsala. Then again, halfway to the moon, Montreal, Monterrey, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and home again. He is jetting over from the most holy kalachakra initiation in Washington to the most profane Reality TV-Show. From emptiness right into the middle of the matrix – unfailingly left with out any bearing for the uninitiated.
In this mashup, what is he when he is not, once again, a pawn? Moved around by the hands of consumer capitalism. Respected of course, oh yes! But truly respected? – In the show he is asked to bless the food and one of the dishes is called Buddha‘s Delight – wait a moment: Buddha‘s Delight?… Somebody else at the table blesses with the formula, „may we think about those how have nothing to eat.“ What? How much money is dumped for this show with a holy man from Tibet popping in to get a taste of Buddha‘s Delight? Oh my God, please help me understand!
To set the record straight: this would not be the first Dalai Lama going astray. The historical account the Dalai Lama gives in Thomas Laird‘s book is rather different from what you can read in other histories of Tibet, for example in Goldstein‘s „History of modern Tibet“, in Matthew Kapstein‘s „The Tibetans“ or Shakabpa‘s „A Political History of Tibet“. Of course the view on history can vary greatly and one can see the history of Tibet and the tibetan buddhism in various ways but even the Dalai Lama admits that between the Great 5th and the 13th there where not many great beings dwelling as the manifestation of Chenrezi and that the latter‘s master plan for Tibet faltered. So if even Chenrezi is fallible, how would we know for sure that this whole show is not just one big scam?
There is nothing wrong with a dish called Buddha‘s Delight. There is nothing wrong with consumer capitalism (except… well, you name it). With a bit of humor one can see a very human playfulness in all this. But the Dalai Lama on Reality TV adds a certain flavor to the story of this buddhism. It is the approval for every western tibetan buddhist that switching in an instant from most holy kalachakra to the dumb dullness of Reality TV is the way it should be. But maybe ultimately it is the blessing of the destruction of the temple. If one can toggle from the most noble undertaking of a boddhisattva to the most profane amusement of everyday life then one is either an enlightened being, fulfilling one‘s super-worldly intent, gong-pa as a nyngma yogi would put it, or one is just another one-eyed leading the blind.
A lot (not all!) of modern western tibetan buddhists lack any playfulness at all. They lack any insight in the mechanisms of modern life, the seductive and mind altering powers of the media and the culture-industries. For a lot (not all!) of them it seems enough to have been physical present at something called kalachakra or any other initiation or wang or whatever tweedly tweets you put on it to misread a notion for an experience, to feel free „to swagger about in the haughty gait of an elephant, in undiscriminating ignorance, brows adorned with golden chains of jealousy and wrongheaded concepts, flattering themselves with the assumption that they understand.“
Maybe 650 years ago when Longchenpa noted this, it was the same and the „elephants“ of those days are postmodern-time‘s narcissuses who think, once they lie flat bellied in front of a lama, they got it, while, possibly, it could be the other way around: they get laid – not by the lamas but like them, to be sure, by the hosts of the Truman Show. Entirely to their delight.
The point is, even if the Dalai Lama has a motive other than being pushed around by maybe not so unknown forces as part of the global 24/7 Reality TV-Show, his surely well-intentioned message is grotesquely twisted. While you are made believe you free your mind taking on this brand of tibetan buddhism, looked at it with a broader perspective you are just a consumer taking part in a fun-fair. Welcome to the pleasure dome. Take in the sweet narcotic, lean back into the deepest forgetfulness, forgetting even that you have forgotten…
Do you know the buddhist allegory for being precious life, the allegory of the tortoise swimming in an immense ocean? In this vast sea there floats also a piece of wood which by accident has the form of a ring, maybe as big as a tire. If you gain consciousness and if you want to remember – that is like the tortoise coming up for air and by chance sticking it‘s head out in the wooden ring.
If you come up for air, don‘t waste your time.
That was a long essay. A bit wandering. Lost me often in allusions to things I don’t understand. Yet I feel I walked away learning something though I couldn’t repeat it.
I worked in Chengdu, China for a year. That is on the edge of the Tibetan plateau and is considered part of old Tibet. There I ran into Tibetans and tibetan Buddhism in ways my Western pro-Tibet mind did not expect.
I am curious about who you are writing for. This seems written for those who already understand much of Tibetan history and Buddhist politics.
Will you be expanding this fine blog?
Thank you for your friendly comment. Who am I writing for? Good question. Perhaps partly for myself to come to grips with me own expedition into buddhism which is now into it‘s 7th year, partly because I simply like writing. But coming from the financial markets I have no history of professional writing and that‘s why I might be not as clear as it could be.
The main motivation for doing this is that I am at a point which is somewhat similar to Glenn Wallis‘: a great frustration with buddhism. I wrote for the last year some german texts at BuddhaGoesPop but this was not a blog. Now I want to look if there are likeminded people in the german speaking world which share me critical view at buddhism but who also think that there are aspects of buddhism which are worth to be developed further.
This will be a bilingual blog. I don‘t know if this works out but I want to have the possibility for contacts to english speaking people. You are much more advanced in the discussion about these topics then we.
I still have to do an introduction for this blog to explain all this a bit more.
A briliantly written and thoroughly knowledgeable essay. The author obviously knows what he´s talking about from reading media, gathering information, contemplating and thinking for himself rather than to swallow holy shit just because millions of others believe the shit to be ambrosia….
Now comes the „however“…. However, basically he invites us to share his frustration with buddhism. Why is this? Although I understand anybodys frsutration with any -ism, I do wonder how someone who apparently has emerged himself more than skin-deep into dharma teachings can be really surprised at this phenemenon we call frustration.
Did you expect the honeymoon with enlightenment to be forever?
In my experience, the real challenge in all relationships comes after the honeymoon….
Besides, I seriously doubt this blogs` claim that thinking is an alternative (or a better one at that!) to meditating.
Om Ah Hung Ene Mene Muh
Thanks for your reply. I am in retreat for the next three days and offline. I come back to this on Monday.
thanks a lot for your kind response. I appreciate that you take the time to read through quit a long text which is critical of the Dalai Lama and which is somewhat polemic. Today it‘s more or less the norm to communicate under the diktat of the force to press complex human interrelationship into some short sentences and to confuse the person of flesh and blood with some tweeds or facebook-like self stylizations. All the more I value that you spend your time reading this text.
One of the themes in this blog will be communication and in this regard your reaction also gives me cause to say something about this in view of the buddhist question. Standard western buddhism, or x-buddhism, the term Glenn Wallis is coining, is unable to communicate in a truly democratic matter, in a matter which is essential for what Karl Popper branded Open Society. The basic structure of x-buddhism is per definition that there is a given, for example „the dharma“, which inscribes stealthily into the event, for example my position via the Dalai Lama, how it should be read. Under law of the tibetan holy dharma the Dalai Lama is always right and from this follows in quite a trivial way that every critic of His Holiness is always wrong. Because ’the dharma‘ is always already defined as right, true and irrefutable there is no way to interrogate it in a way which leaves the outcome open.
Now, I want real conversation. This means that the participants in conversation make room for the unexpected. As a trader in the financial markets I am quite used to that because if you put your own money on the table you don‘t want to go belly up just because you believed in the fancy stuff somebody utters just because somebody else holds him a microphone under the nose. Many commentators in the financial markets in this regard are not different from modern buddhist teachers. Their stuff is regarded as important only under the posit that they talk holy dharma. Once you deconstruct the posit you a have a naked emperor.
One of the theorems which follow from the axiom of the holy dharma as always true is that the one which accepts the always true is already in the position to tell other people what is wright or wrong. This is not real conversation because when it is already clear what is wright or wrong the unexpected is excluded and this means every further development is stopped – that is, I think, why somebody said „the truth is the killer of conversation“.
This said, it seems to me that you follow at least partly this trail. In this regard I could easily have dismissed your posting as just another ad hominem. Your conclusion is that I „invite“ you to share my frustration. How do you know that I want you to share my feeling? I think I made some points in the text about the Dalai Lama and his appearance in reality-TV and tried to put forward some supporting arguments. Of course I have a motivation for writing this piece and frustration might be a bit of it but how does this motivation alters the relevance of my position?
If you really think that I invite somebody to share my feelings of frustration instead of making a case, I invite you to share your argumentation. This would be very helpful in terms of a real conversation.
Besides this you use terms I simply do not understand because they are generalizations and I don‘t know the context in which you use them. For example what is a „dharma teaching“ or „enlightenment“? If you talk about a „honeymoon with enlightenment“ you must have in mind something strong. A honeymoon has to do with one of the most mighty desires one can have and enlightenment could be similar – at least if one reads it as „the urge to know“… (what would mean it simply does not end).
Now at last, regarding you doubting the motto of this blog. Think, don‘t meditate. Of course you cannot know what this is about if you don‘t know my thinking or my meditation. I have to write an entry for this blog about this. Thanks for the reminder. In the meanwhile, if you are interested in what I think about meditation you might read this (german) text. It is not as good as it could be and I should rewrite it but it makes clear at least what I regard not as
thank you for taking the time to read and to reply to my remarks.
I read your texts because I have known you many years ago and was curious what you are up to nowadays. And I read it because of my own involvement with dharma, buddha and sangha.
Here are some clarifications as to my usage and understanding of expressions and words
I dislike the term „holy dharma“. Reminds me of „Holy Q´uran“ and legions of narrow-minded fanatics. Dharma denotes the „is-ness“ of things, they way everything IS. Attaching qualities like „holy“ or „profane“ to appearances is simply stupid (although very human). I like to stick with Bodhidharmas´famous quote: „Emptiness, no holiness“.
I don´t know your thinking or your meditation (apart from conclusions I draw from what you write here). I don´t need to, because I know my own thinking and my own meditation. It is like saying: „You don´t know my breathing or my pissing“. No, I don´t, but since we belong to the same species my experience will be basically the same. So here is my experience: thinking (and feeling, btw) is the activity of the waking mind (also of the mind in the dream state, but the parameters are slightly different then). Meditation opens the space in which all activities can come and go without someone who controls the mind stream. This is the very essential of meditation, although there are certainly lots of mental activities which are considered „meditation“ but are rather efforts of concentration, visualization, contemplation etc.
The honeymoon with enlightenment is the joy, the ecstasy (and occasionally the impulse to share this with everybody) when you first fall in love with/ get in touch with meditation. It can happen by grace, through drugs, through communion with a guru… in my case it was all three together (not simultaneously, though). It inevitably ends like all honeymoons. The GOOD FEELING wears off, it becomes increasingly difficult to replace your usual state of self-experience with the states of bliss, happiness, lightness which were so beautifully present in the beginning. (Here ends the mediocre minds´ willingness to „stay on the path“ and he or she returns to „GO“, looking for another partner, another guru, another drug…)
And yes, you quite obviously invite everybody to share your frustration. Let´s call a spade a spade, my friend. One can read between your lines – and often even within the lines – that you are deeply dissatisfied, frustrated and clueless as to the complexity and inconsistency of Tibetan budddhism.
An attitide I fully understand and appreciate. I share your view that official buddhism needs critcism. As needs official christianity, islam, hinduism and so on. As far as the Dalai Lama is concerned, I simply like the guy. Whenever I saw him live or on the screen I saw a man of knowledge and of wisdom. Knowledge, because he certainly is one of the best-trained experts on the details of his particular tradition. Wisdom, because he radiates the friendliness and humour that comes with insight into your own buddha nature. My feeling is that he can bring these qualities even into a cooking show on American TV and that´s what I love about the guy.
For a man who presides over one of the most ancient religious traditions he is remarkably critical of traditional habits (at least as far as the political dimension of his tasks is concerned). From what I read or listen to in his books and talks he is also very un-traditional and open-minded when it comes to his role and duties as a religious leader. Of course that again is his limitation: he never stepped beyond this role he was trained for and which he chose to accept. And maybe that´s too much to be expected. Such a radical approach would be rather Osho-style.
Let me finish this posting with one of his quotes: „I have to give you an incentive, encouragement. The idea of being blissful, the idea at being enlightened, the idea of attaining the truth, somehow catches a few people’s minds, and they start moving in that direction. Finally they will find that all these things will happen – but they will still be of the mind. I can’t stop at that. But that can he said only to those who have travelled the path. There is something more than experience that is beyond mind.“ (Source: Osho: The Path of the Mystic)
Love & peace
You put into question the credibility of my text by positing I have no clue of the subject and my motive is frustration. You do not put forward any argument. While an argument on your side showing my goofiness in regard of the Tibetan Buddhist thing would further the case – that‘s what it is all about – you still have to show why any frustration on my side annuls my claim that the Dalai Lama is a pawn in the hands of the Truman Show.
The death of Friedrich Kittler gives reason to remind here of Heidegger‘s insight (oh, oh: Heidegger vs. Osho this is getting funnny ;-) that technology is not simply a tool. The famous quote of Marshall McLuhan hits the same point. Does the Dalai Lama at the Truman Cooking Show just uses Media for his case as you put it? This is not only impossible from the point of western media theory, the same goes with Buddhist philosophical insight: the thing you use alters you in the moment you use it. That‘s true from the first flint-stone sharpened and put to work to cut through a piece of fresh meat. The question is, is the person Dalai Lama conscious about how far the picture of the Dalai Lama is a construct that is outside his reach? The question to you is, are you conscious about how far the picture of the Dalai Lama might be a complex construct you are not aware of?
There is a lot of evidence that the Dalai Lama or the media which generates ’His Holiness‘ to a good part furthers more or less consciously a picture about himself and the Tibetan Buddhism which is not honest. I give one example: To this day the Dalai Lama is cited as saying, he wonders how the search party which was looking for his reincarnation could find him in the wide green grass lands of Amdo? (Look it up in „Meine spirituelle Autobiografie“ S. 60) This indeed looks like an astonishing accomplishment as long as you look at it from the frame of the ‘theory‘ of reincarnation. If you look at it from the point of a historian the whole story is much less miraculous. The search party on the way to the monastery of Kumbum went there in the first place because the brother of the Dalai Lama was already on his way to be the abbot of this Gelug stronghold far from Lhasa. It was a simple political reasoning to look for somebody from his family to be in a high position in Lhasa. Kumbum is 1000 kilometers form Lhasa, a three month journey in the nineteen thirties, located at a geostrategic point in the far north-eastern reach of Tibet at a major trade route going into China, do you see the point? On the way to Kumbum the search party met the Panchen Lama. He gave them the address at the small town of Takster where the child who became the Dalai Lama was born two years before. After the search party had seen the boy never any other candidate was earnestly taken into account. You see, the whole story is much more profane then when one looks at it only from the Tibetan Buddhist official point of view. (Look it up if you like at Goldstein‘s „History of Modern Tibet“ V.I, p. 316 ff. A scan of the relevant chapter you find here.)
This all does not question the point that the Dalai Lama might be a nice guy. But it is not my intention to discuss him here at great lengths anymore. I am on to something different. You say some interesting things about „meditation“ and „the honeymoon with enlightenment“. I will come back to that because it strikes a point I am much more interested in. In the mean time, if you happen to be in the area, my house is open to you.