March 09, 2012

Buddha Buzz: Big Business Buddhism

China has finally broken its silence about the recent Tibetan immolations, releasing several official statements. But considering that these statements are by and large depressing—one made by a Communist Party secretary in the Miami Herald was that "public complaints about cultural repression do not exist. On the contrary, Tibetan culture is flourishing"—it seems like a better idea to ignore all of these "official" statements and instead enjoy this interesting interview with Ran Yunfei on the New York Review of Books blog. Yunfei is a Chinese intellectual and popular Tweeter who was released from house arrest last month after running afoul of the Chinese government. He also just wrote a book about a Buddhist temple down the street from him.

From the interview:

Why did you pick a Buddhist temple to write about? Are you a believer? Buddhism? Christianity?

No, no, no. but I do have ties with Christianity. My wife is a Christian. I’ve been influenced by Christian thought through her and a friend who is a pastor of a local church. I’m not a believer but nor am I an atheist; I know the value of spirituality. I don’t deny the value. The communists really destroyed religion. They don’t understand it at all. Look at Tibet. I told the guobao that, “you guys have gone too far. You don’t allow them to hang pictures of the Dalai Lama. You don’t have faith so you don’t understand. So the Tibetans get very angry and depressed. And then you go into temples and instead hang pictures of Mao and Jiang (Zemin) or Hu (Jintao). You’ve gone overboard! This isn’t right. Think about it. No wonder they set themselves on fire.”

So you’re not a person of faith but you seem to have a high view of religion.

If this country wants to develop well it needs faith. It also needs NGOs. I’ve said that Chinese intellectuals don’t get NGOs. They think it’s “good people doing good work.” But this is wrong. NGOs are necessary in the same way that Churches are. The unregistered churches are public spaces. They’re maybe the only real public space in China right now.

You’re working on a new book about education in China. What’s the link between belief and education?

You have a society where the educational materials are all about loving the party—of course it leads to a spiritual crisis.

Ran YunfeiHow?

Everything they teach you to admire is jiade (fake). Right now they’re pushing Lei Feng (the Communist hero who was a model of selflessness) again. But everyone knows that Lei Feng is made up. All of their model heroes are false: Wang Jie, Liu Wenxue, Lai Ning: fake fake fake. So when they teach morality their teaching tools are fake. Completely fake. After a while the students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. He existed but all the stories are made up. It’s destructive—it destroys everything you’ve been taught. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues? It’s impossible. The problem is they don’t have a bottom line. There is no bottom line in society. You find out that the things you’re supposed to admire the most are untrue. So it seems nothing is real. So the only way the party can succeed is by cheating you. That becomes their biggest success. That’s who you’re ruled by.

Another interview that caught my attention this week was with Bhutanese Rinpoche Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse with Kuensel Online. It is an especially poignant discussion about Bhutan in wake of the news this week on the Huffington Post that half of the Bhutanese population was rated as "not yet happy" by the country's Happiness Index. (The obvious good news to this is that the other half is happy! Or they are according to the government's criteria. Interestingly, 90% of the population self-reported themselves to be happy—who gets the final say?)

Here's a small highlight of the interview, but you can click here to read the rest:

Is the procedure that monks are subjected to from an early age inappropriate considering the Buddha only abdicated his normal life in pursuit of the truth at 26? Should we think of encouraging the  pursuit of truth only after realising the sufferings?

I will tend to agree with this. Actually, I have been asked by some mindless people and monasteries to look after their trulkus and Rinpoche’s. And my thinking is, they should work in MacDonald’s, fall in love, and they should be rejected bitterly. Then only [will they] know the first noble truth, the truth of suffering.

Last but not least on the Buddha Buzz roster this week is this curious article "What Big Business Can Learn From God" from the Wall Street Journal "Speakeasy" blog. As far as I can tell the piece argues that multinational corporations should learn something from religions (also multinational corporations, the author Alain de Botton says) and "seek to attend to the whole human being, especially the complex bit we might just as well, to follow religions, call the soul."

At first, that sounds nice. Who would object if Coca Cola started advocating for meditation? (Actually, scratch that. I think a lot of people—on this site, at least—might object to that.)

In the end I have some problems with Botton's suggestion that big business borrow from religion and religion borrow from big business:

At the same time, inertia or unnecessary modesty has to date prevented the most vigorous of modern companies from extending their brands across the full range of human requirements and, most cogently for the purposes of the present discussion, from applying their talents to the soul side of us. Corporations have instead chosen to make minor improvements to services and products designed to help us sleep, eat, be safe or move while leaving unaddressed our desire to self-actualize, learn, love and inwardly grow. It is a failing of historic proportions, for instance, that BMW’s concern for rigor and precision has ended so conclusively at the bumpers of its cars rather than stretching to the founding of a school or of a political party, or that Giorgio Armani’s eponymous corporation has determinedly skirted the possibility of running a therapy unit or a liberal arts college.

Intellectual movements have likewise, and just as regrettably, shunned attempts at brand extension. They have failed to imagine that their ideas could generate complementary, analogous services and products in the material realm, and become more vivid to us for having physical equivalents.

What makes religions so distinctive and inspiring is that they have dared to assert coherent brand identities across a diverse range of areas, from the strictly intellectual and theological to the aesthetic, sartorial and culinary. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism have all succeeded in relating larger ideas about the salvation of mankind to such subordinate material activities as managing weekend retreats, radio stations, restaurants, museums, lecture halls and clothing lines.

Because we are embodied creatures—sensory animals as well as rational beings—we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels. As religions seem alone in properly understanding, we cannot be adequately marked by ideas unless, in addition to being delivered through books, lectures, and newspapers, they are also echoed in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.

Forgive me for posting such a long excerpt, but I'm truly curious as to what other people think about this. Personally, I think in particular that last paragraph lands ridiculously way off the mark as to why religion is successful. Yes, religion affects many aspects of life. But isn't he missing the part where religion dispenses wisdom and uplifting messages to us miserable, suffering humans, and that's why we tend to decorate our homes with crosses or our bodies with robes? Thoughts, anyone?

Just one last thing before I stop assaulting you with Big Ideas To Ponder, a small update on the Karmapa's charges in India—he has recently sought to be exempt from appearing in court. Read the rest here.

Photo credit: Ran Yunfei, by Ian Johnson.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/07/2680344/chinese-officials-blame-dalai.html#storylink=cpy

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waltonf's picture

What de Botton gets right in that last quoted paragraph is that for many people "practice" precedes acceptance/belief of wisdom teaching. We know lots of scientific research that demonstrates that what we do affects how we feel and what we believe (mindfulness-based practices, or even jogging, can change us without expecting us to embrace any particular uplifting message; intentionally smiling can make you feel a bit more cheerful). Don't some versions of Buddha's final teachings report that he told us to "try it -- maybe you'll like it. If it doesn't work for you, try something else that works for you." And the whole 12-step mantra: one day at a time -- it's what you do today that matters, not what you espouse or believe.

This all suggests another chicken-or-egg dilemma my comment won't resolve: act or believe/accept -- which comes first?

Of course, de Botton is wrong if the corporations/organizations/religions do not act with Right Intent. That's the critical point. Spiritual organizations that extend their brand primarily for revenue generation . . . well, that's a bit problematic, no? Spiritual organizations, however, should extend their brand, because, de Botton is right, "we are embodied creatures --sensory animals as well as rational beings."

I was recently reminded: greed is a form of suffering and deserving of our compassion. Finding ways to bring practice and business closer together can't be bad.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Nazism took root long before goose-stepping, stiff-armed salutes and display of that distinctive logo. Belief comes first.