Good Faith, Bad Faith

| April 22, 2012 | 36 Comments

While watching the Dalai Lama on YouTube the other day I was struck by a strange sensation.

I was bored.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like this ‘simple monk’ as Tenzin Gyatso likes to call himself. I had a long private audience with him years ago in Dharamsala that left me flying high for weeks afterwards, and met him again on several occasions. He’s warm, friendly and chuckles a lot. Audiences invariably chuckle along with him, not because he’s mastered the art of comedy but simply because his mood is infectious.

But there’s more to it than that. In a video of a Mind and Life Institute conference, packed with academic brains like Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, I noticed without surprise that all eyes were on His Holiness. Every one was primed to smile instantly at his magical touch, to erupt in indulgent laughter at the corniest joke. It’s amazing how many scientists jump to less than critical conclusions about the insightfulness of his remarks.

This isn’t the Dalai Lama’s doing. To paraphrase a familiar saying, magic is in the eye of the beholder.

From the very beginnings of my encounter with Tibetan Buddhism almost forty years ago I learned that the teacher is not only there to impart information, or even blessings. He is to be revered. Unlike their brethren from other Buddhist cultures, Tibetans favor the tantric method, said to be the highest, most secret and most sublime of the Buddha’s teachings. In theory, it’s accessible only to those who have already mastered both the narrow path of personal awakening and the broad way of the bodhisattva. However, judging from the way that Tibetan Buddhism is transmitted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tantra is not the pinnacle of all practices but their very foundation. The lama is everything.

Tantric initiates are required to see the lama’s behavior as ‘fully enlightened.’ What that means is unclear, though all texts agree that it’s indescribable. Many insiders, especially younger ones, presume it to include telepathic powers, perfect virtue and inscrutable intentions.

I know. I did once. There was a certain amount of work involved. I maintained a view of the infinitely wise teacher through ongoing conversations with others of like mind. My belief was reinforced by constant reminders that others believed the same. We put our hands together reverentially when mentioning a teacher by name, never criticized any of their decisions and shut doubt resolutely out of our hearts.

It is a fragile view though. Even after years of practice it withers quickly away without the consensus of the faithful. When I disrobed and drifted back to the material world, I found myself thinking of people like the Dalai Lama as ‘just’ human. When he made questionable remarks about homosexuals, inexperienced judgments on marital relations and fuzzy statements about science, I noticed that many of his Western believers leaped into the breach to quickly rationalize his words.

By now however, I felt no such compulsion. I was out of the loop.

To his credit, the Dalai Lama has learned from his gaffes. There have been short-lived furors, but the media soon leaves him again in peace. Despite that, and although he’s widely reviled in China, his image in the West is stellar. Even the extraordinary Dorje Shugden affair, in which a murderous schism followed his remarks about an invisible demon, was quickly ignored by the press. Seventeen years later wounds still run deep within Tibetan society and clearly will do so for years to come.

The Dalai Lama is today exceptionally open to non-Tibetan traditions. He is one of the world’s elite few whose primary job is to promote world peace in the most warm and fuzzy, non-specific ways. Considering he’s the product of a medieval monastic system he’s made great strides, widely outpacing his Tibetan contemporaries. The oldest of those, with whom I studied years ago, exhibited levels of chauvinism and intransigence that surprised me and hastened my withdrawal from formal Buddhism.

Since then my Buddhist studies have focused especially on these early teachings. In them I discern a flesh-and-blood Buddha who questioned life’s purpose with the angst familiar to thoughtful human beings of every time and place. His frailty and humanness are precisely what make him accessible to me. That’s how, when I don’t understand him fully, I think he might have been on to something, and don’t just dismiss it. The usefulness of faith it that it gives you time to gain your own experience and come to personal conclusions. Leaning on it blindly without trying to understand is one of those unfortunate human failings that give religion a bad name.

I can live with this sort of pragmatic faith. I’m just a faulty and insecure product of the modern age. I don’t have to bend my credulity or rationalize plain wrongs into twisted rights. I don’t have to insist the Dalai Lama is a fully Enlightened Buddha in order to like him. And, if he rambles on before getting to the point of his lecture, I don’t feel guilty about changing channels. Perhaps he was having an off day. Who doesn’t?

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Stephen Schettini is The Naked Monk — writer, blogger and teacher of Mindful Reflection. After eight years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition he decided that ritual, tradition and belief were an unnecessary burden, and returned to secular life. He remains an admirer and student of the historical Buddha without any Buddhist affiliations.

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  1. Good Faith Bad Faith | The Naked Monk | April 25, 2012
  1. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    I really enjoyed this piece, Stephen!

    The Dalai Lama makes me giggle because he laughs at his own jokes. I admire how open he is to western thought, other religions, and how easily he says Buddhism is not the path for everyone and his religion is Friendliness.

    But the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism has always really bothered me, as it seems more Catholic than Buddhist. I can’t imagine someone like the Buddha being ok with how the teachers sit above the students, how lamas are revered and thought to have magical powers, the ability to bless.

    Like you I find the Dalai Lama admirable and enjoyable, but I no longer hang on to his every word. Like you I can change the channel, uninterested in his every word. But when he’s on roll with his own jokes, I can count on getting a moment of true delight. As my mom says, “He such a little imp!”

  2. Darlene Darlene says:

    Nice! No, don’t think you’re alone there. I recently downloaded some Dalai Lama talks about the Four Noble Truths and only made it to the end of the first one. Probably says more about me than it does about the Dalai Lama, however, as I managed to watch four hours straight of The Voice on the weekend.

    Perhaps the enjoyment and interest of the Dalai Lama’s talks are lost in the regular need for translation and their rambling nature. He’s a good guy and is to be admired but his stature is perhaps increased by who he’s not (e.g. he’s not a Westerner, he’s not the Pope and he’s not the head of the Anglican Church).

    You mention the Dorje Shugden controversy and I was wondering why you think the NKT has thus far been so successful. The NKT day events I attended were accessible (intellectually and location-wise) and lots of people attended (170 at one of them). They do seem savvy in the marketing department. Must be more to it than that, though.

    The Novice is a good read, by the way : )

    • Hi Darlene: I have no direct experience with the NKT, but I agree their marketing seems pretty savvy. I knew Gen Kelsang Gyatso in his pre-NKT days. He comes from a long tradition of Gelugpas who understand what people are looking for. However, I distrust religions based on what people want. A teacher’s responsibility is to undermine students’ fantasies and trigger counter-intuitive reflections.

  3. RalphChidiac says:

    I sooo understand your perspective, same feeling I had once meeting my teacher from grade 2 when in my 40’s.
    The adult in me sees him for what he is, yet my experience of him as a child cannot but emerge, confounding the actual encounter.
    The DL is not funny (comedian funny) he is full of contagious JOY and contentment, he definitely is overwhelmed by all the Science around him and the celebrity status enforced on him….
    After all this is enough to overwhelm any ONE specific person , no matter how grounded.
    In these days of oodles of information on all aspects of human studies, no one person COULD – even with all credentials and experience – advance one approach to any one facet of Life, be it the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Jesus, or the Buddha himself.

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for the post, Stephen! I have ambivalent feelings about Tenzin Gyatso myself. He is treated as if he is the Buddhist Pope, which contributes to the public image of a homogenized Buddhism that is essentially Tibetan in character. I also find disingenuous his famous claim that if science disproves some aspect of Buddhist doctrine, Buddhists should abandon that doctrine. I think he’s smart enough to know that the metaphysical claims of Tibetan Buddhism (reincarnated lamas, for instance) are unfalsifiable by nature, so he’ll never have to cover that bet. I would find it more interesting to hear him say that, if something cannot be confirmed by evidence, we should be cautious about believing it. He does seem to be a sincere man and a tireless advocate of peace. I just wish people would stop killing themselves and each other over him.

  5. Mark: Me too! I’d love to hear him say we should be cautious about what we believe, but let’s not hold our breath. The fact is, he’s not just a Buddhist monk but also a religious leader.

  6. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    Hello. I believe you do not understand. This is precisely the reason advanced practices are not suggested for those who do not yet comprehend, Tibetan Buddhism, or the Mahayana path. It is like math. You cannot understand calculus without mastery of what comes before. I have studied for over 8 years now, and to date, i can find no flaw in this logic. The few things that troubled me and i was skeptical about, i found, i could not understand without a proper foundation. The fact that i sense a negative, judgmental behaviour, signifies to me you clearly do not understand. I suggest going back to the beginning and leaving advanced practices until you are ready.

    As for the Dalai Lama not being bold as a Western TV program-i understand. It is something that must be refined, i believe, if the West is to have a chance to understand how to achieve Peaceful states quickly. Aside from that, it has been my experience, that with practice and the attainment of enlightenment, which comes in stages, one’s mind becomes intent on reaching ever more mindful states of consciousness and powers due instinctively. Rushing ahead of yourself will teach you patience, but it will take longer, as you can attest to. 😉

    Tibetan Buddhists are great scholars, not dogma lovers. But, as with exercise, you cannot simply read books to realize physical changes; so to is the mind.

    Do you see all of the harmful judgments passed just here in this thread? This is not the Mahayana. It is the harmful attitude and belief systems you came with. Buddhism is the study of Reality, and the eradication of delusion. It is the study of the truth. The truth is pure; there is no corruption. It is the only case for Peace. I wish you well on your journeys. The reason it is possible to trust a guru is because the logic is pristine. Courage grows only from truth. Best to practice it. As for myself, i only get stronger and stronger.

    Please remember, First Principle: Do no harm.

    Please respect His Holiness the Dalai Lama for he is our best hope of attaining Peace.

    I wish you success on your journeys to happiness~without dependency on drugs, but instead naturally, by your own mental discipline.


    • Dopelotus: You’re an original thinker to compare Mahayana with math. And yet you perfectly illustrate the error which this piece is about: taking Tibetan personality cults and ‘higher’ teachings as primary, abandoning the basics of epistemology and justifying magical thinking in the name of hidden, exclusive knowledge. Like you, I once rationalized it as logical. Today, I am free to explore the Buddha’s teachings without such preconceptions.

      Kudos to you for entering the lion’s den of secularism armed only with belief; and for spelling reality with a capital R!

  7. Darlene Darlene says:

    All power to you on your path, dopelotus, and your comments about patience and practice are appreciated.

    Speaking for myself, I’m not on the Mahayana path. I’m not a Tibetan, nor am I a Tibetan Buddhist.

    There’s some dogmatism in the idea that there’s a capital “T” truth and a “best hope” of achieving peace (simply not realistic in this politically and religiously complex and diverse world anyway). Different opinions aren’t necessarily “harmful judgments”, they’re just different opinions.

    Not sure about the reference to “dependency on drugs”. Actually it made me laugh : )

    All the best.

    • dopelotus dopelotus says:

      Thank you and Hello!
      There is no dogma involved. Like i said, to date i can find no flaw in this logic. It is Universal. The invitation to Western science to prove it wrong is real and still stands.

      Glad to make you laugh! When you train the mind, unless it is a special case or an emergency or accident (and there are those, of course), mental illness disappears and health improves naturally, hence the elimination of much of the dependency on drugs which we currently experience.

      One does not have to be Tibetan to study and practice the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle. And there is great reason as to why it is the true path. There are other perfect systems, many indigenous, the Tao, and etcetera, and should be studied for further understanding. One does not feign higher maths and remain ignorant if able. So is Tibetan Buddhism. The problem with the Mahayana is that it is the most complete and so the most difficult to teach to others. It’s genius is it’s inclusion of compassion. Without it, happiness can not exist-impossible!

      The late great scholar Joseph Campbell came also to these conclusions. You can review his conclusions, a great history of world religions, in the movie, “Sukhavati”, on Netflix. Much love to you and once again, i thank you for this experience!

      Peace, friends <3

  8. Marty McCorkle says:

    So many people gush when seeing the Dalai Lama on television but he alienated me from Buddhism by his dim views on homosexuality over the last fifteen years.

    For a long time I shelved Dalai Lama with other religious leaders taking spiritual pot shots at me and my family for being gay while they justify doing so with sacred texts of their tradition.

    Not fun for a gay Buddhist like me. (Sorry, I don’t do sad faces these days.) Whopper mistakes like that can delay good folks from meeting dharma.

    Yes, he’s human, I know, and learning. Maybe he’s coming around to a kinder, more human view these days.

    I don’t follow what he says these days because I don’t feel bad about turning the channel either.

  9. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    Thank you, Marty, for sharing. I am sorry to hear of your suffering. I am trying to find what you are talking about but have not been able to find anything legitimate. Can you please post a link to a source? Compassion is at the heart of the Mahayana so it does not make sense to me. What sacred text do you refer to? I hope you are on the upswing. I look forward to understanding better. 🙂

  10. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    Can’t find anything to support these claims, Marty. Here’s a link to his book, BEYOND DOGMA from 1996, but, it does not discriminate.

  11. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    That was not on the Dalai Lama’s position. All I see is hearsay and interpretation. Do you not think it wise to first understand the belief system and then to think critically and review legitimacy? I do not think you understand the hierarchy of the system. All the studies i have seen resemble the telephone game in second grade-not so good for analysis. You can read for yourself his own words in his own book. But, even then, denial and anger. This is troubling. I am not saying mistakes are impossible, but, honestly, these things do not make sense. Let us move forward instead towards healing. And, dude, i just read all that stuff and all i can say is, “Check you facts, Man.” Wikipedia? Hate on someone your own size. This is nonsense. 1997 article with no comments and ” ” “” “” ” ” all over the page? Submit. Submit. Equality for all living things!

    • Marty McCorkle says:

      I love a substantial discussion and with this were one.

      Whatever your denials on the subject, over the last fifteen years the Dalai Lama has a history of expressing his belief that a gay person can’t be a Buddhist.

      And I think he’s wrong to do so.

      • In all fairness Marty, I don’t think the DL’s remarks express his personal opinion. He’s just reciting the ancient rules of vinaya. Bottom line: his position leaves him little scope for personal speculation. He’s been straightjacketed for so long I don’t see how he could openly explore it. The Office of the Dalai Lama is much bigger than him alone.

        • Marty McCorkle says:

          Yes, religious institutions have their own momentum, even when heading toward ice bergs.

          And they have their books. My library is meager, containing a book of human experience, of fair play.

          Mark Twain, reminiscing of his youth before the American civil war, wrote of how Missouri preachers pointed to holy texts to prove that slavery was a settled issue of Christian doctrine.

          Of course, we look back at this doctrinal assertion as hog wash.

          So, whichever one of the two Dalai Lamas, office or person, that presents the idea that gays can’t be good Buddhists, then, is on flimsy ground these days, if not in doctrine, then in dharma.

          If one’s hands are tied by bad ideas, the rope binding them falls apart. Over time, one must actually make effort to appear to stay bound.

  12. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    Let us move forward together in PEACE <3

  13. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    And, one more thing, by the pure nature of the title of this article, there is no way the author gets Tibetan Buddhism-no possible way. How can you claim to be a monk of 8 years and not know this stuff? Impossible. There is not good or bad, no judgment whatsoever. Welcome to Hokeytowne!

    • Now-now, Dopelotus. Please don’t get mean just because others think differently.

      As for the interpretation of this article, you’ll find it entirely compatible with the definition of faith ( as set forth in the Abidharma and as taught by my preceptor Geshe Rabten from the Sera Jey blo.rig textbooks that have been an integral part of Gelugpa basic training for centuries.

  14. dopelotus dopelotus says:

    Now-now, dear Stephen, you ought nought corrupt what is pure and talk story. It is not fair to the rest. I bid you Peace and fare thee well, but beg you consider wrong action. False prophets violate first principle. Do no harm.

    • Actually, “false prophet” misses the point. The closest English term for me is apostate: One who abjures or forsakes his religious faith. I’m perfectly clear on what I’m expected to believe. I simply choose not to.

      • Marty McCorkle says:

        One sure touches a wasps nest when suggesting that a religious leader is learning as he or she goes, as we all do.

        You may have withdrawn from ‘formal’ Buddhism, Stephen, only to be drawn into some deeper stream of the dharma.

        Thanks for your openness and sharing.

        • Thanks to you Marty for the moral support. I admit that dialogue like this does tend to leave me with twinges of self-doubt. I have an irrational fear that the mere act of engaging with such zealotry might infect me with my interlocutor’s certainty and sense of purity — a fate worse than death.

          • Marty McCorkle says:

            If everyone agreed with me, I’d be suspicious that no one was really listening. Heated discussion is oh-so Buddhist, at least judging from stories in the Pali canon and from Tibetan monks debating among themselves in school.

            The central dharma — specifically the four noble truths and their immediate offshoots such as anicha— offer a set of skills for a super life.

            These teachings belong to all of us.

  15. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    When I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, and was in my second year, we were studying a text where it said, if one turns away from Mahayana Buddhism, then one will suffer through many rebirths in hells. That did it for me. I never went back. That statement was no different than my grandmother telling me I would go to hell for rejecting the Christian god. And no one can possibly know that! It’s not just a belief. It’s a made up story.

    Tibetan Buddhism got me interested in Buddhism. There was just a pinch of Buddhism in there, enough to make me think they were on to something, but had dumped a heap of religion on top.

    I’m very content now to pull out of the text what I can practice in my own life, and pass over anything that would require beliefs. I need not follow just because Buddha said it, or because it was written down. But there is great wisdom in the “practice” itself.

    Stephen, thank you for having the bravery to tell it like you see it. Many of us feel relieved when we come across others who had managed to leave the brain washings for the goodness that is to hold.

    • You had a poor teacher Dana. Much of the Mahayana compassion literature is actually very good. What you should have been taught is that, after having genuinely found a means to live empathically, turning back to self-absorption is painful.

      My main problem with the Tibetan Buddhism isn’t the content so much as the hyperbole. Wait ’til you hear about the tantric hells!

  16. Darlene Darlene says:

    Zealotry wants non-zealotry to go away, and it often succeeds. When a zealot wants everybody to go forward in peace (or PEACE), it’s their way or the highway. Perhaps for some people embracing any belief system can never be done with a certain lightness. The use of language is interesting, however.

    It all feels a lot like “Hallelujah, I’ve been born again.”

    Good post, good responses and thanks for your answer to my query about the NKT. It rings true from my brief experience. I’m a bit intrigued about how they’re represented on the Internet. An ex-colleague of mine is ordained in the Triratna Order and note that both groups are subject to a bit of animosity. Presumed, in part, that this is to do with relative newcomers offering people a chance to become involved in groups that aren’t the dominant ones.

    Can’t stress enough how important this site and other voices of Secular Buddhism are to those who otherwise wouldn’t get involved.

    • Each time I recall my days as a monk it becomes increasingly clear to me that we were all damaged in one way or another, hanging on for dear life. It was literally so for me; I was drugged out, with no moral compass and bursting with anger. My time with the Tibetans got me back on my feet and I’m eternally grateful for that crutch when I couldn’t walk.

      However, discarding the crutch is an ordeal all of its own. On the surface I’d been open to other ways of thinking but underneath was sure I was on the One True Way. My crutch had become a part of my sinew and bone. Cutting away the certainty was painful beyond belief (’scuse the pun).

      After having gloried in all that colorful Tibetan ritual and philosophy, sanity was bleak. I credit the Pali Canon for taking me through my salvation to the other side, but not all my old colleagues made it. Either their immersion in Buddhist religion led to a grotesque entanglement of beliefs and rationalizations (e.g. Alan Wallace) or they were left with no foundation at all, plus a sense of bitter disappointment. I personally know two ex-monks who spent time in jail since returning to lay life, and many who just don’t know how to relate to their own past.

      All that counts is human motivation, and the plain good luck of finding oneself among others of like mind. Darlene, you are so right about the importance of sharing our secular experience. Everyone needs a support system.

      None of this has anything in particular to do with Buddhism. It’s about fear, security, belonging and the high price of thinking for yourself. Poor dopelotus. Hopefully he’s at least in a better place than he would have been without the Tibetans.

      You’re a great bunch. If you have time, please visit my blog and add comments there from time to time. Yes, you too dopelotus! (Man, you have no idea how much self-control it took to not use your name against you!)

      Greetz to all….

  17. jonckher says:

    A bit belated I know but I think I have something to contribute.

    I love HH the Dalai Lama.

    I have only seen him from afar once in McLeod Ganj at his temple, been to one of his talks in Melbourne which took place in a frickin stadium and had lots of hippies and all (plus me), read a couple of his books (which were only so-so to be honest) and watched a documentary about him. I might also have seen a movie about him but that was a long time ago before I became a buddhist and I remember being really bored.

    I love HH the Dalai Lama.

    I know that he is only a man (and a monk), I know that he’s got some pretty outdated views of this and that and am glad that he has modified his views on homosexuality as I have many gay friends. Also, having spent some time in India amongst the Tibetan exile community and up in Ladakh, I don’t have many ideals about the Tibetan monastic system – all those grown men sitting in the gompas being fed and looked after by their people (who are not the richest in the world by far) – surely a better and more materially productive use could be found for them! But then, I feel the same way about tax-funded humanities lecturer/researchers in the west – especially marxists and post-modernists.

    Anyway, I love HH the Dalai Lama.

    I tear up when I see him on TV and even sometimes when I visualise his smiling face. I carried a photo of him in my journal when I was travelling around India. The reason why I love HH the Dalai Lama is because from what I have seen and heard from him, he represents the kind of person I would like to be – warm, emotional, naturally expressive and very human. I have seen him sad, happy and mildly irritated all in the space of a couple of seconds. And then, he would laugh.

    I would like to laugh like HH the Dalai Lama. I would like to be able to cry and hurt and get angry and still come back and truly smile like he does. I would like to be able to smile like he does to the people I dislike (yes, even Post-modern Marxist Professors). I would like to see them as old friends who happen to be very annoying and a bit dense but still old and valued friends.

    That is why I love HH the Dalai Lama. I have no idea if he is actually like that but he represents what I would like to be one day.

  18. Darlene Darlene says:

    Was that the footy stadium near Coburg? If it was, I was at said event and just remember how huge and impersonal it all seemed. It was difficult to understand a word he said (due to the distance more than anything).

    Nobody should smile at post-modern Marxist professors, unless they are marking your work, of course.

    “I would like to see them as old friends who happen to be very annoying and a bit dense but still old and valued friends.”

    Such a challenge. Suspect we learn the most from the people who annoy us the most.

    • jonckher says:

      hi Darlene,

      No, it was at Optus Oval. And HH’s smiling jovial face was projected all around us. It was a sunny day. I had a great time. I may or may not have snuck a beer in with me. I think some people brought incense, wore those yellow om fabrics and sat in the lotus pose all the way through looking very very holy indeed.

      I like to think I had a much better time than they did. But then, I would be competing and judging in a very unskilful way, wouldn’t I?

  19. Darlene Darlene says:

    I think there might be a special hell realm for people who sneak beers in while going to see the Dalai Lama. A realm in which people who sneak beers, Secular Buddhists and Speculative Non-Buddhists go after they die for all eternity. With the Secular Buddhists and Speculative Non-Buddhists together forever we are going to need those beers.

    Can’t do the lotus pose because I have a dodgy knee courtesy of falling over during an office party (now that’s unskilful). Ahhh, never to look holy indeed.

    Yellow om fabrics can be purchased on Sydney Road.

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