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The Philosopher's Kingdom, or: why religion doesn't matter 03.X.2007 21:15
To Westerners, Tibet has an undeniable mystique. Not only does its location in the most inaccessible parts of the Himalayas make it seem like a forbidden land, but it is the home of one of today's most fashionable religions: Tibetan Buddhism. This is the land where people not only understand Zen koans, but live their lives by them. People here know that desire is suffering and, like the well-respected Dalai Lama, wish only goodwill to 'all sentient beings.' Moreover, the Tibetan flavour of Buddhism, with its complex rituals and endless incantations, is by far the most esoteric, and therefore most exotic. This inaccessibility makes us think that the Tibetans have glimpsed some great mystic truth, and live lives that are diametrically opposed to our materialistic, Western ones. I can't count the number of times I heard comments to the effect that other travellers 'had never experienced a culture so different from their own.'

Unfortunately, it isn't true. All the differences are superficial. We see the ritual kora - the circumambulation of holy places that is central to religious life - and, seeing no parallel in our own culture, endow it with a depth and mystique that it simply does not possess. The commonplaces of Tibetan life, however, tell a different story; desire may be suffering, but most locals have a very strong desire for any money you might have in your pocket. There's nothing wrong with this - they are poor people with few economic opportunities doing their best to survive. The point, though, is that they are just like those you'd meet in any other poor region. They make the most of what opportunities they do get - in this case, gullible tourists, both Western and Chinese - and they have what material possessions they can afford, and they remain, by and large, quite joyful (I can't stand when people comment they can't believe how happy people in these poor areas are - why shouldn't they be?). The fact is, the average Tibetan merchant has more in common with a fruit-seller in Nairobi or Bangkok than to our celebrity Buddhists Richard Gere or Leonard Cohen. They don't live their lives pondering paradoxical statements, but trying to provide the best lives they can for themselves and those they love.

None of this is to say that Tibetans and Westerners don't have significant cultural differences, but they're just that - cultural. They don't stem from religion or mysticism, but from the natural differences in the development of human societies. They are far more open to guests, for example - but because they have not developed the fear of strangers that pervades the West, and because the incredibly rugged land made reliance on others a necessity, not because of Dalai Lama-esque comments about goodwill towards all. One aspect of the culture - the sheer proportion of monks and nuns (initiates, as it were) within society - is striking, but even this isn't indicative of some sort of deeper spirituality; simply, monasteries offer the best prospects for education (without surrendering to the perceived hegemony of the PRC), and provide economically for their members. Of course, they do receive religious education, and some monks truly are incredibly serene, but then so are many Catholic priests, Muslim imams and even atheists, who find peace in the tenets of secular humanism. On the other hand there is no shortage of monks with iPods, fine suits and gold watches - the desire for which was suffering, no doubt, only until they went out and bought the things. In fact, despite Tibet's immense amount of beggars (it has a long tradition of alms-giving), only the monks will ever be pushy, grabbing your arm and demanding donations - although one can't help but wonder if some aren't just regular people who have bought monk's robes.

In fact, Vajrayana - the usual name for the Tibetan vehicle of Buddhism - has the most in common not with with the highly abstract philosophy associated with our stereotypes of Buddhism (look, if anywhere, to Theravada for that), but with Roman Catholicism. Both are heavily reliant on ritual and incantation - Tibetans recite 'aum mani padme hum', and Catholics 'hail Mary, full of grace,' and both view the priestly class as the gateway to paradise - and one can't help but see the parallel between the wheel of rebirth en route to eventual nirvana with the Catholic concept of purgatory, even if one is Earthly and the other not. Moreover, both are essentially polytheistic religions in monotheistic garb - Tibetans pray to a variety of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Gurus and other entities, each with a specific domain such as longevity or prosperity, and Catholics similarly have a pantheon of Saints to whom to pray to address their specific needs. Tibetans make pilgrimages to Potala, Trashilhünpo and Mt. Kailash, and Catholics make them to Lourdes, Fatima and Međugorje, and though Tibetans circumambulate and prostrate while Catholics kneel and cross themselves, the differences are strictly superficial. Vajrayana is esoteric Buddhism and Catholicism is esoteric Christianity, but the differences in the particular ritual incantations to which they devote substantial parts of their lives don't make substantial differences in the kinds of people they are.

People tend to self-identify very strongly with their religions and, in many cases, religion is intertwined with notions of family and ancestry - to reject one is to betray the others; Judaism struggles with this especially. Moreover, no matter one's material circumstances, the rituals of a religion can generally be honoured, and it's thus a portion of the identity that circumstance or oppression cannot take away. Nevertheless, those rituals are superficialities - a Muslim in Canada may identify strongly with a Muslim in Indonesia, but almost certainly has much more in common with a Canadian Christian (or Buddhist or Zoroastrian). In fact, the superficial nature of religious differences is readily apparent in China - you can identify Hui Muslims by their skullcaps, Tibetan Buddhists by their prayer wheels, etc., etc. But the Muslim quarter of Lhasa differs from the Tibetan one mostly in the food it serves and the architecture of its shrines - not the lifestyle of its people; nothing would serve to identify the Hui merchant from the Tibetan one were it not for his clothing. Moreover, it is difficult to fight the (reprehensible) feeling that the younger generation aren't 'real' Tibetans - that the fact that they don't wear folk costume means that they've lost touch with their heritage and, by extension, their religion. Why? Because we associate the notion of a different culture - which is to us, of course, a tourist attraction - with superficialities such as clothing. Even if the yung Tibetans walk the same koras and say the same mantras as their parents, it's tough not to feel as though they've lost that mystic connection we associate with Tibetan Buddhism. For us, it must contain a total rejection of our modern, material world, as though a North Face jacket were an impediment on the path to nirvana - maybe seeing people with iPods deprives us of that superior feeling of 'experiencing other cultures' and 'broadening our horizons.'

Perhaps we cling to the notion that different religious habits translate to spiritual depth because we are so insecure about the shallowness of our own culture. Yet human society, in all its forms, always shows remarkable depth, and this is no less true of Wall Street than the Barkhor circuit. We approach Tibetan Buddhism the same way as the blind men describing the elephant: we see a small part, say a paradoxical mantra, or prayer flags being carried on the wind to the abode of the Gods, and project it onto the whole of society; we take the mystic statements of the Dalai lama and assume they're also echoed by the lowliest peasant. The fact, though, is that peope everywhere share the same basic experiences, both good and bad - of love and of loss, of concern and of greed, of peace and of anger and of fear - and this is what gives richness to all human societies. To presume that this is eclipsed by superstitions, rituals and incantations - that the form of the Tibetan kora makes a difference greater than our similarities - is to devalue both our culture and theirs. Anyone who finds a philosopher's kingdom in Tibe has simply clung to one of his own preconceptions.
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