21 September 2006

The Dalai Lama’s Nuggets of... Wisdom?

The Dalai Lama's Nuggets of... Wisdom?
The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

I just can't seem to join in with the latest round of lamamania. Don't get me wrong--I like this little monk with the silly giggle. Who doesn't like people who smile that much? Further, his intentions are manifestly good, and he seems to be a lover of humanity. He says agreeable things about tolerance, peace, understanding, sympathy, and self-control. He’s a living symbol of resilience and strength in the face of communist brutality and oppression. What's not to like?

Let's review some recent statements by His Holiness. "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Now, since we’re all big fans of kindness, I guess we're all coreligionists with the Dalai Lama. Hey, wait a second--he's a Tibetan Buddhist. And most of us don't believe, like Tibetan Buddhists, in reincarnation, the efficacy of prayer wheels, or the Five Celestial Buddhas. So what he said wasn't true. At best, it was a fancy way of saying "I endorse the general policy of kindness." Well, who doesn't?

Recently he's been saying that "war is outdated." This is not something that anyone actually believes, including the Dalai Lama. Sounds good, though. In a similar vein, he preaches "non-violence," but when pressed about it, he'll concede that actually, he thinks that sometimes violence is warranted, at least in cases of self-defense. So he's totally against violence and war... except in special circumstances, when they're really necessary. In other words, he's a just war theorist, like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, and countless more recent western thinkers. But he calls it "non-violence," and he isn't too precise about exactly what conditions warrant war.

Then, there's this old chestnut: "Destruction of your neighbor is actually destruction of yourself." Interpreting this literally doesn't yield something believable, unless you hold, with traditional Hinduism or certain strands of Buddhism, that all our bodies are inhabited by one divine Self (Hindus call this "atman", Buddhists call it "the Buddha nature"). Even then, it probably doesn't make sense, as this one universal Self is supposed to be everlasting and indestructible. If his point is people in one country have a collective interest in people in other countries living and thriving, that is of course true and uncontroversial. No one wants to go around killing willy-nilly, as these people we've never met may directly or indirectly benefit us in countless ways; they are, after all, valuable human beings. But suppose, during wartime, that a soldier kills an opposing soldier on the battlefield. Or suppose that a CIA agent manages to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. Has either man thereby "destroyed himself"? It's hard to see how.

Now why go and spoil all the fun--why analyze or critically evaluate the Dalai Lama's statements? Here are two good reasons: we all want to believe what is true, and avoid believing what is false. The important thing to see is that often, His Holiness isn’t even trying to say something true, but only to create certain effects in his hearers. The assumption is that this particular kind of positive talking will actually help to bring about world peace. I wish it were so! When we see a cancer patient throw away her medicine, declaring it "outdated," we all hope that this move actually helps her to get better. But we fear, with good reason, that she's probably thereby hurting her chances of recovery. Just willing to be healthy is one strategy, but in general it seems better to base one's efforts on the all the facts one can obtain, soberly considered. Everyone, Klingons excepted, wants peace; the question is how to obtain it, and what sort of violence this does or doesn’t require.

Senior philosopher Harry Frankfurt, of Princeton University, has written a short book dealing with this phenomenon of speaking merely for effect, the title of which can't be printed here, but it has to do with bovine excrement. Let's call someone who speaks in the way Frankfurt discusses a "bs-er." A bs-er is one who makes assertions to achieve some goal, all the while not caring whether or not those assertions are true. Frankfurt makes the important point that, oddly enough, this practice harms the cause of truth more than intentional lying does.

"Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that [bs-ing] tends to. ...The [bs-er] ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, [bs] is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

Recent commentators have gleefully discussed examples of this in statements from the Bush administration. Although the Dalai Lama is a seasoned practitioner of this art, unlike Bush and his crew, he hasn't been publicly called out for such talk. Why? Probably because Bush's intentions are seen as bad, while his are seen as good. But whatever one's intentions, bs-ing is what it is--both a symptom and a cause of lack of concern for the truth. For now, it seems a harmless indulgence for the Dalai Lama to say "war is outdated," and for us to nod in agreement, congratulating ourselves on how very peace-loving and compassionate we are. But some day, we'll probably look back on this as an embarrassing lapse of reason.


Rob said...

I'm no expert on the Dalai Lama or Buddism (most of what I know Buddism comes from a handful of episodes of Dharma Drum Mountain) but it is my understanding that the contradictions inherant in Buddist teachings are intentional.

The Buddist message is always tailored to it's audience, so when a sermon is preached to the masses it's greatly simplified and the Dalai Lama says he preaches non-vilence... most people don't understand the complexities of Buddism, and don't need to- a simple understanding is sufficient for their daily lives.

But when the Dalai Lama speaks to Buddist monks or academics who've studied Buddism for many years I'd expect him to be more specific and pay attention to dialectics.

Also, the Dalai Lama saying his religion = kindness makes sense if he's preaching to Christians or Muslims who would otherwise be open to Buddist ideas but need to cling to their religion in name for the sake of a jealous god.

Buddism is a philosophy that is best understood on multiple levels, and the "BS" you hear aren't lies, but you shouldn't expect them to give you a complete understanding of a complex philosphy.

The Theist said...

The BS-er is, by definition, not lying. Thus, the column doesn't accuse him of lying - only of speaking without concern whether what he says is true or false. Lying is when you say something you reasonably believe to be false.

The Theist said...

If I were to write this again, I would need to say something about the Mahayana doctrine of "expedient means" - this is what the commenter was referring to.