Is it the religion that’s important or the things fostered by practicing that religion that really count? More specifically what is the importance of an esoteric Tibetan Buddhist practice to a 21st-century American female like myself? I’ve been pondering these things since having the opportunity recently to attend [w:Chenrezig] and [w:Chöd] [http://www.maitripa.org/photogalleries/09_lamazoparinpoche/lamazopa/lamazopa.html|Initiations] given by [w:Lama Zopa Rinpoche]. To be clear, I have deep respect and love for the practices of [w:Tibetan Buddhism] and for the great work and teachings of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Even so, I wonder how several hours of unintelligible chanting, incense and bell ringing are relevant and meaningful to a Western life — fair questions for someone who is still relatively new to the religion.
Three books I’ve read recently — The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by [w:Pico Iyer]; Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment by [w:Vicki Mackenzie]; and Ethics for the New Millennium by [w:His Holiness the Dalai Lama] — have provided much food for thought as I’ve turned the above questions over in my head. The intention of my summer reading is to look at how people write about Buddhists and the Buddhist experience, with a strong eye toward Tibetan Buddhism. I’m grateful to the Multnomah County Library for having so many of the titles that interest me. The timing of my library holds becoming available explains how these three books ended up being written about together. But as these things go, I think these readings compliment each other well.
All three books are written for a general interest audience. Iyer’s delightful book, published in 2008, contemplates more than profiles the Dalai Lama as an important player on the world stage. Mackenzie’s book, from 1998, gives us the heroic personal biography of an extraordinary British woman, known to the world by her Buddhist name Tenzin Palmo. The Dalai Lama, in his book from 1999, lays out a vision for a non-religious code of ethics, which he sees as necessary for a peaceful world.
Iyer [http://media.nypl.org/pico_iyer_4_11_08/pico_iyer_4_11_08.mp3|explained in an interview] that his book is really more about the ideas associated with the Dalai Lama than the man himself. With plenty of up-close and personal moments, Iyer explores how the Dalai Lama plays many roles — religious leader, statesman, philosopher, monk, pop icon — and how ideas created by different peoples’ projections and expectations are attached to these roles. “‘Newsmen, reporters,’ [Dalai Lama] went on, maybe because he was speaking to one at the time, ‘always ask [about his meetings with politicians]. They consider whether I meet the prime minister or not the most important issue! At some point, I get quite fed up. I am Buddhist monk, I'm a follower of Buddha. From that viewpoint, it’s nothing important. It’s much more important, one simple, innocent, sincere spiritual seeker — that’s more important than a politician or a prime minister,’” Iyer writes. “‘So,’ he said, of newsmen, ‘I feel it is a reflection of their own mental attitude.’”
As I read this I realize I may be learning much more about what Iyer thinks and values than about what His Holiness thinks and values. Yes, Iyer is filtering the Dalai Lama for me. I decide I’m comfortable with that and think that it’s actually not a bad way to get the Dalai Lama. Iyer’s experience as an international journalist, as someone who’s been familiar with the Dalai Lama for decades, and as a man deeply committed to ideas and letters allows him to deliver a very thoughtful and compelling picture of the Dalai Lama — one that has much to offer our troubled world. The version of the Dalai Lama who seems to most connect with Iyer is the everyday ethicist. Iyer ends his book with an anecdote of a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Santa Barbara just after the announcement that he’d been awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
“Then as we were walking out of the room, he went back and turned off the light. It’s such a small thing, he said, it hardly makes a difference as all. And yet nothing is lost in the doing of it, and maybe a little good can come of it, if more and more people remember this small gesture in more and more rooms,” Iyer writes. Over a decade later, when meeting the Dalai Lama in Japan, Iyer thinks of that moment in Santa Barbara. “[Since then] I had had some revelation, encountered some wisdom, scribbled down sentences I’d read or come up with myself about the meaning of the universe, the way to lead a better life, the essence of the soul, the unreality of the soul. ... And yet now, on this bright autumn morning, I could remember not a one of them, except the simple, practical task of turning off the light. Not enlightenment, not universal charity, not the Golden Rule or the wisdom of the ages: just something I could do several times a day.”
In Vicki Mackenzie’s Cave in the Snow, we learn how [w:Tenzin Palmo] came to live for years without a light switch to turn on or off. There is no doubt that Tenzin Palmo’s story is amazing. In 1964, 21-year-old London-born Diane Perry, already living in India, meets her guru and becomes a Buddhist nun. In 1976, she begins living in a cave in the Himalayas at 13,200 feet, where she stays until 1988. She then embarks on a worldwide, fund-raising speaking tour that lasts years, carried out in order to establish an abbey to support other women devoted to Dharma. This is also when Mackenzie meets with Tenzin Palmo in order to write her story.
Mackenzie’s background as a newspaper feature writer both helps and hinders her book. She is able to carry Tenzin Palmo’s words on to the page in a way that feels personal and intimate. But Mackenzie spends too many words inserting extraneous foreshadowing, sentimentalizing, summations, and speculations regarding Tenzin Palmo’s actions and emotions. It gets to feeling rather cheesy. For example, Mackenzie writes about Tenzin Palmo’s relationship with her guru [w:Khamtrul Rinpoche], “What exactly was going on in those unspoken exchanges about previous identities no one with ordinary perception could possibly tell, especially the average Westerner, to whom reincarnation remains largely an enigma.” Mackenzie, herself, has had a very active interested in reincarnation, having written several books on the topic.
Indeed, reincarnation does seem to be key to understanding Tenzin Palmo’s journey. She explains that she recognized her guru from the moment she saw him and had immediate and deep trust in him. According to the telling, there was a shared belief among Khamtrul Rinpoche and others close to him that this wasn’t Tenzin Palmo first lifetime spent as his student. Tenzin Palmo said that she feels as if she has spent many many lives as a monastic, both Buddhist and Christian, but she says she has never felt at home in London.
I think the emphasis here is that Tenzin Palmo’s path is very much her own. She felt compelled to dive into a very intense Buddhist practice and to become enlightened as soon as possible, but I don’t get the sense that she would prescribe that for any and all Westerners. In the chapter “Is a cave necessary?” Mackenzie explores with Tenzin Palmo the question of whether motherhood or career is a disadvantage to spiritual practices.
“We do different things in different lifetimes,” she tells Mackenzie. “We should look and see what in this lifetime we are called to do. It’s ridiculous to become a nun or a hermit because of some ideal when all the time we would be learning more within a close relationship or a family situation. You can develop all sorts of qualities through motherhood which you could not by leading a monastic life. It’s not that by being a mother one is cutting off the path. Far from it! There are many approaches, many ways. What is unrealistic, however, is to become a mother or businesswoman and at the same time expect to be able to do the same kind of practices designed for hermits. If women have made the choice to have children then they should develop a practice which makes the family the dharma path. Otherwise they’ll end up being very frustrated.”
There are places in Mackenzie’s book where the questions she poses about the development of Buddhism in the West (in light of all kinds of inappropriate behaviors) and about the role of woman in Buddhism feel rather dated. It’s not that these issues have been resolved, but her approach to them does not feel current to me. It could be because much has changed over the last ten years in terms of the maturation of dharma centers in the West and the visibility and success of many female teachers. While there is a long way to go, I believe there is a shared sense of progress in these areas, which Mackenzie must not have felt in 1998. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the New Millennium, published just one year later, feels very timely and relevant to today’s global crises.
The Dalai Lama’s premise is simple: an ethical code should not be grounded in a religion or notion of absolute truths, but in a belief that all people want happiness and to avoid suffering and that our actions should reflect that. He is calling for a “spiritual revolution,” which he describes as a “radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn towards the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.” He goes on to carefully articulate how this can work in practice.
I think I share with Pico Iyer a belief that the Dalai Lama’s vision and work on ethics may, in time, becomes his greatest contribution to world piece. I find it thrilling that he can so clearly communicate a solidly ecumenical idea of what it means to be a good person. I see great advantage in having a clear set of universal values that are accessible to all and can be used to critique other less tolerant values.
But back to my the questions that I’ve been pondering over the past two weeks. How important is the religion? Do we need the smells and bells? Can one be a good person without them? I think there are different levels on which these questions can be answered. On the most basic level I’d say the answers are: Not that important; No; and Yes. But that doesn’t acknowledge that different things work (or don’t work) for different people and that religion can have a transformative role in the development of a person. Also the question comes to mind, do we want to be a generally good person or do we want to be a profoundly beneficial person?
Tenzin Palmo wants to be the latter and given her disposition, a deep commitment to Tibetan Buddhist practice is what works for her. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, while still the religious leader of Tibet, doesn’t actually recommend becoming Buddhist to non-Buddhists nor does he recommend religion to the non-religious. Instead, he believes it is most important to value and practice a universal ethical code. For an internationalists and non-Buddhist like Pico Iyer, this messages is very important.
For me, the answer lies somewhere in between Tenzin Palmo’s years as a hermit in a cave and Iyer’s non-Buddhist appreciation of the Dalai Lama’s ethics. It’s a question I’ll no doubt work on for years to come. But I must admit, I’ve certainly felt some relief upon realizing I can still be a good person on a Buddhist path without presently engaging in highest yoga tantra practice. This is not to say I don’t think that tantrayana is important and effective. Quite the contrary, I can someday see myself pursuing that very transformative path. But to observe the middle way that is Buddhism, I need to find the balance for my present self in a more secular space. But I will do it with all the mindfulness, kindness, compassion and wisdom that I can muster.