Monday, April 23, 2018

The real Tibetan Buddhism you don't know

Mark Hay (, Pam Weintraub (ed.); Ashley Wells, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly

Tibetan Buddhism, in the pop-cultural psyche of the United States, is the Dalai Lama’s face grinning from a cover in the self-help section of your nearest bookstore.

It’s a monk in a maroon robe sitting calmly in a full-skull electrode cap as researchers probe his brain to learn how meditation plays into his unique serenity [absorptions].

It’s that over-the-top scene from the film Seven Years in Tibet (1997) in which Brad Pitt is trying to build a movie theater for the young Dalai Lama in Tibet's capital Lhasa in the 1940s when he realizes that his local crew has such a strong reverence for life and abiding patience that none is willing to harm a worm while digging ditches.
Earth-witnessing mudra in Tibetan Buddhism
Which is to say that Tibetan Buddhism in the US pop-cultural psyche is a monolithic and benign spiritual tradition built around simple wisdom, loving kindness, and unflinching non-violence.

This belief in an uncomplicated, compassionate, and progressive Tibetan Buddhism is what allows us to reliably portray Tibetan Buddhists as sympathetic victims in the media.

It’s what powers headlines in The Onion such as "Buddhist Extremist Cell Vows to Unleash Tranquility on the West" -- and what at one point created an unprecedented market for Tibetan nannies in cities such as New York.

However pervasive the stereotype, though, the US vision of Tibetan Buddhism is anemic, to say the least.
Sure, compassion is central to the tradition, but there’s room for violence as well. Medieval Tibetan tales describe religious teachers breaking students’ bones, then healing them magically to bring them insight. They tell of monks assassinating corrupt kings to save Buddhism in Tibet.

Modern history brings us the stories, often neglected in the West, of the CIA-backed violent insurgency that Tibetan Buddhists waged against the Chinese occupation from the 1950s to the mid-1970s -- and of an all-Tibetan refugee unit formed in India to fight the Chinese in a 1962 war.
Far from being easy to grasp and anodyne, Tibetan Buddhism is complex with tantric practices, the impenetrably esoteric ideas and techniques used to try to slingshot spiritual seekers directly towards the enlightenment they seek to attain within this lifetime to best help others.

It is difficult to succinctly sum up the diverse tantric traditions and sub-traditions, each of which contains a trove of doctrines and practices, some of which monks intentionally obscure from lay audiences, for fear that they will be misused or misunderstood by non-initiates.
Perhaps the best-known esoteric tradition in the West is the Kalachakra Initiation, the ceremony in which the Dalai Lama or other high-ranking monks slowly construct beautifully intricate mandalas out of colored sand, and then wipe them away. Laypeople in the West usually... More
MARK HAY is a writer on culture, faith, identity politics, and sexuality. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Economist, Foreign Service Journal, Slate and VICE, among others. He is based in Brooklyn, New York.

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