Aggressive Buddhist Appeasement

By Matthias Steingass


I think a lot of people have difficulty understanding “negative thinking” because today we are primed by the like-button. This is not a joke. Facebook’s like-button is the latest incarnation and variation on the terror of positive thinking – be happy, don’t worry, have fun. Regarding teachers in Tibetan Buddhist lineages, this ultimate truth is presented in its most ludicrous way in Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life. There, he asserts that Tibetans were living in an “endless vacation”  for hundreds of years until the Chinese invaded. Robert Thurman has been called “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism” by the New York times. Infinite Life has been “okayed,” as Thurman puts it, by the Dalai Lama. Thereby, the Dalai Lama supports Thurman’s ridiculous claim about the “endless vacations” of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama himself supports at other places an equally delusional view of Tibet’s history (in, for instance, Thomas Laird, The Story of Tibet). This is an important part of the ideological structuring in which so called Tibetan Buddhism situates itself today.

Another part of the story is that Tibetan Buddhists are forced to believe in an afterlife, in personal reincarnation, in disembodied ghosts, fortunetelling via oracles, decision making via lottery; and it encourages (“His Holiness” no exception, quite to the contrary) the belief in personal superhuman powers among a lot of other things that a normally functioning mind today would disregard as medieval dreamworld thinking.

Third, as Tom Pepper has demonstrated here with the the thinking of Alan Wallace as an example, Tibetan Buddhism deems itself as absolutely superior in every aspect of life, especially regarding the sciences.

This self representation of absolute superiority of Tibetan Buddhism is the background before which we have to see figures like Ken McLeod: they present themselves as part of a global spiritual elite holding the key to a perennial philosophy representing age old wisdom to which only certain specialists have excess.

Interestingly, this thinking can be traced back to and can be identified as a typical western christian-romantic omnipotence fantasy. The lineage goes, for example, as such: Thurman and his “endless vacation,” Chögyam Trungpa and his “Shambhala,” Edward Conze literally speaking about a perennial philosophy showing up in the prajnaparamita-literature, Anna Blavatzky inventing a saga about a secret knowledge from Tibet, and even Schopenhauer proposing the idea that the oldest religions are the best. This idea goes hand in hand with the idea that the key to this perennial knowledge is to be found deep within one’s own soul. This latter idea then does not come from the East but was the interpretation of Buddhist practice in the West from the first day on. We find this interpretation of Buddhists practice already with Leibniz, and it reproduces itself in the thinking of Herder and Hegel, for example. Although, that is important, too, this Idea has been connoted very negatively until the nineteenth century and only then has the thought about meditation as the search within changed into something positive.

So, the idea of Buddhism as a like-button for ultimate well-being is an age-old phantasm of the European reception of Buddhism. This idea coupled with the idea of a secret knowledge that is only available to certain highly developed people (Anna Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley, etc.–even Edward Conze proposes it as, of course, does “His Holiness”) is the background of Tibetan Buddhism today.

Somebody like Ken McLeod, who in his autobiographical text, places himself firmly in the Tibetan tradition, has to be seen, too, as somebody who, potentially, misinterprets “his” tradition in the way I sketched above.

A strong indication that even “highly realized” tulkus can be victims of what I would call the  esoteric fallacy is Chögyam Trungpa. His book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, published in 1972, is based on teachings given in 1970 and 1971. As far as I know, it is one of the earliest esoteric teachings from the Tibetan diaspora given in the U.S. Basically, this text says nothing but: search within, go into meditation, abolish your thinking ego and you will find the golden key to eternal wisdom – all moral context is left out (the pārāmitas for example). The esoteric fallacy then is the belief that meditation alone will solve every problem a human might be confronted with.

Presented in such a way the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism represent nothing but a misrepresentation and misconception. It is, that is to say, basically a lineage stemming from Christian religiosity, the internalization of an external god in Romanticism and finally the projection of the ideal of finding god within into some exotic tradition from the east. The interesting point with Trungpa here is that he already presents “his” tradition in terms of the esoteric fallacy.

A major problem embedded within the esoteric fallacy is the omnipotence fantasy. It is traceable in each protagonist of the Tibetan “tradition.” Even “His Holiness” himself is a victim of it – although he seems always to be oh-so-humble. Bob Thurman is just as superpotent as his superior. The same goes for Sogyal Rinpoche. Beside these VIPs, all second and third class ranking teachers should be viewed as potentially deluded by a misconception of their traditions in terms of the esoteric fallacy.

I think any misconduct, sexually or otherwise, should be seen against this background. The omnipotence fantasy of the Buddhist teacher is at the heart of the problem – a problem that is located in a cultural context invisible to those teachers. This inability to see this or even to attempt thinking about its possibility I deem a dangerous stupidity. I don’t know about McLeod, but I know about “His Holiness,” Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche. All three are absolutely blind to the cultural context of the dependent arising of their cults – and I call it “cult” because of their ignorance and stupidity.

I would predict that thinking negatively about Tibetan Buddhism in this way is impossible to most of the protagonists. People like Robert Thurman or Ken McLeod would have to rethink their whole biography (not to think about “His Holiness” who is cult). Thurman for example built his life on the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism. Even to consider that his Buddhism could be, in its innermost core, just a variation of a narrative stemming from his own culture–which he tried to flee–and that in reality there is nothing new, would bring to shambles his whole life (the irony of this being of course that the guy has no idea of anatta). How aggressively he reacts to such insinuations is visible in his infamous retort to Donald Lopez’s book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Reflections on Prisoners of Shangri-La.

I think, today, any “spiritual” teacher who puts forward some lineage to support his authenticity  has to be discarded outright. Seen in the context sketched above, lineage is the cornerstone for building an autonomous, self containing, self sustaining personality as the ultimate contradiction of anatta. Furthermore thus lineage leads only to a kind of Führerkult of which sexual abuse, sadly enough, is only one expression.

I think there should be much more militancy vis-à-vis such “teachers.”

One last word. As I am writing this I learn about the latest sex-scandal. Again it is about a teacher who has been rumored to be a sex-abuser for years now. Finally, the truth comes out. Again it is said that there “needs to be done some serious housecleaning.” Yet again it is said “for decades” misbehavior of one of those dharma clowns “has been ignored, hushed up, downplayed, justified, and defended by the monks and students that remain loyal to him.” Haven’t we heard this all before? It is ridiculous. We should see bigotry and hypocrisy as an authentic and constituting part of Buddhism today and not as some rare malfunction. Let me suggest one solution: think about Buddhism itself as the problem. If you want to be enlightened, give it a try,  and send Buddhism to hell. Be honest enough to declare a false decision a false decision. Don’t waste your time. Think about Buddhism in the West as a christian-romantic zombie disguised as some exotic oriental drug to flee reality in the 21st century. The dreams of the Dharma Bums stink. Abort the malfunctioning ship altogether. Sink it. Send to hell these dharma clowns who know nothing but appeasement in the face of outright fraud. And don’t forget to call them liars if you meet them on the road!

P.S. This is a commentary. Sources have been left out intentionally. The topic of Buddhism as esoteric fallacy obviously needs to be treated in more detail.

Please read also Katie’s commentary here, which was the occasion to write this comment.

Photo caption: An exiled Tibetan Buddhist nun prostrates around the main temple and the residence of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Photograph: Ashwini Bhatia/AP. Taken from an article in the Guardian titled: “Lama sex abuse claims call Buddhist taboos into question: Allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche highlight the dangers of Buddhist injunctions against gossip and insistence on loyalty.”

7 responses to “Aggressive Buddhist Appeasement”

  1. hridayartha (@hridayartha) Avatar

    This is kind of ironic… I very recently watched the Buddhist Geek’s video DO WE NEED TO UPGRADE THE STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIP FOR MODERN TIMES? You can find it here: M Ken McLeod explains (2:00) how, when he came out of his Buddhist retreat in his late thirties, he had spiritually progressed, but socially, professorially and emotionally regressed, and felt he was only 21-22. He explains that he had a lot of growing up to do and to learn how to treat people like adults (3:00).
    BTW to answer the Buddhist Geek’s video’s question, I would say No, we need to get rid of it.


  2. Michael Dorfman Avatar

    Do you happen to know of a good critique of the Laird book mentioned?

  3. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hi Hridayartha, the video is an interesting little piece of buddhist conversation and what McLeod relates gives a bit of an insight of the difficulties these long retreats might bring with them.

    I found also interesting Dian Hamilton’s answer to the problem. As I understand it, she wants to part “mind to mind transmission” from any other interaction to get rid of the problem. I don’t think that this works, it rather opens wide the door for misuse. Anybody eloquent and charismatic enough can fake that he holds a ‘transmission’.

    Michael, I don’t know one. In a sense the book by Laird is good because it gives a real insight how the mind of the Dalai Lama is working and what view he has in regard of Tibet’s history. Personally I would say his view is rather naïve. But Laird gives him a fair treatment I think. Also one can detect sometimes what a role the atmosphere plays when one sits with ‘His Holiness’. I would recommend reading the book parallel to Kapstein’s The Tibetans. In this way you get a kind of differential analysis. At certain points ‘His Holiness’ seems to directly oppose Kapstein – for example when he repeatedly insistes on his opinion that the politics of the fifth Dalai Lama weren’t politic at all.

  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Matthias. About your final sentences: it is interesting that these are common x-buddhist tropes–abandoning the raft, killing the Buddha, letting the collapsed house lie in shambles. Yet, no Buddhist–no Buddhist–ever takes these apparently acid-tests for being the faithful Buddhist subject seriously. Why is that? My suspicion is that to be an x-buddhist is to reject the truths articulated by x-buddhism. What fucking irony! If it weren’t for the ignorant hypocricy, I could see real beauty in its Escher-like symmetry.

  5. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Glenn. I wasn’t thinking about these tropes when writing this yesterday, at least not in Buddhist terms. It’s good that they are still there in my thinking – and probably they are what made me being interested in Buddhism in the first place.

    The Escher-like symmetry also reminds me of the short discussion with Tomek recently (here #60). He was asking me

    “do you believe that there are any, what you call, “buddhist ideas and philosophies” that function outside of that, what Glenn means by “self-serving hermeneutics of exemplification, called >>The Dharma<<.”

    "Abandoning the raft" is one of these ideas and philosophies. The point is what kind of hermeneutics I applie and if somebody else is willing to follow me in my interpretation abandoning the raft of x-buddhist hermeneutics.

    That regards also Tom's reinterpretation of Samsara, for example.

  6. Orategama Avatar

    Why do you reduce all buddhism to the sects in us? The guardian newspaper is not a reliable source on tantra with a few sentences from a scholar. In dharamsala and dolanji in india, there are more reliable sources about tibetan buddhism: the original schools. The practice of “tantric sex” is mainly pursued by nagpas, the monks and nuns who are married so no misconduct is possible with this practice. In the west long term, non abusive relationships are also accepted suitable for this kind of practice, but there is a lot of contraversy.

  7. small i please Avatar
    small i please

    The problem with Vajrayana/Mahayana Buddhism is very simple.

    Vajrayana/Mahayana are said to be “the great paths” due to them being the paths to obtain enlightenment for _other_ beings.

    Were as Hinayana Buddhism is said to be “the lesser path” due to it being the path to obtain enlightenment for _oneself_.

    The problem is most teachers and students of Vajrayana/Mahayana truly believe that there are Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhas.

    This is clearly not possible as there is still sentient beings who suffer, so how can there be a Buddha on the Vajrayana/Mahayana path as this is the path were the goal is to obtain enlightenment after all beings are free of suffeing.

    The whole Vajrayana practice is based on a lie.

    Vajrayana is truly dangerous if not viewed from this view point.

    Vajrayana is still a work in progress.

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