September 22, 2009

Do liberals give Buddhism a pass?

I listen to discussions of Christianity from time to time on NPR and it seems that it's simply required in such conversations to take the "magic" out of the Judeo-Christian narratives. But when the religion in question is Buddhism, it's apparently fine to suspend one's rationalist mind.

–Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

Jonah Goldberg seems to think that liberals give the Dalai Lama—and Buddhism—a pass when it comes to claims of the miraculous. Pico Iyer, for instance, discusses the Dalai Lama's most recent incarnation as Goldberg "would expect a believing Buddhist to tell it"—that is, without skepticism.

We can't blame Goldberg for thinking that Pico Iyer is a Buddhist (he isn't), since Iyer has written plenty about all things Buddhist, including articles in Tricycle, and has been quite close to the Dalai Lama. But are "liberals" generally easier on Buddhism than, say, Christianity, as Goldberg contends?

Not always. In spite of my deep respect for the Dalai Lama, I've blogged with some chagrin about  his negative take on same-sex relationships, most recently on the Huffington Post. And although Goldberg suggests that the Dalai Lama "downplays his views on homosexuality and abortion when he's raising money in the West," this simply isn't true. In fact, the Dalai Lama has spoken strongly against same-sex relationships among Buddhists, most recently, on Canadian television. (Still, it doesn't seem to be the pressing issue for him that it is for the religious right.)

Regarding an uncritical acceptance of things we might consider "quite simply a miracle": Tricycle, for its part, has published articles by writers who are, to say the least, skeptical.

But I do think Goldberg has a point. When the Dalai Lama speaks counter to the liberal platform, there's never much of a hue and cry. (Compare, for instance, opposition to the Pope.) I don't know if the comparison's fair, but it certainly comes to mind.

You can read Jonah Goldberg's post here.

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moo's picture

I don't think anybody gives Buddhism a pass. In my opinion, The reason why there was nobody jumps on HH Dalai Lama for his miraculous memory that granted him the stature of Dalai Lama for tibetians is because he never emphasize those thing at all when he preach dhamma and his righteous for everything to anybody. In fact, he rarely mention those miracle things that Goldberg try to make his point on in his article.

I don't know much about the concept of miracles in other religion, but being a native born Asian and a Buddhist myself, I believe that, our only miracle that we should emphasize on, or the one that Buddha try to make his point, is our mind and our action causes from it afterward.

I believe that.

Alan's picture

It's an interesting question (liberals vis a vis Buddhism), but I think all of the previous commentators have overlooked the real intent of Mr. Goldberg's post: he just wants to score some points with his Christian friends in the Religious Right. If he was really concerned about the attitudes of liberals re: religion, he would have asked whether liberals give Jews a pass, whether liberals give Moslems a pass, and whether liberals give Hindus a pass. Interestingly, when I was living in Israel 25 years ago, I found that agnostic Israelis of all political stripes (from ultra-conservative to flaming liberal) routinely gave fundamentalist conservative American Christians a pass whenever the latter spoke about the "end times" and "rapture" because giving a friend a pass is what friends do for each other.

BlindRob's picture

My reading of Mr G is, rather, that he says that Naziism (and Communism) was of a piece with liberalism, which is close but not quite the same thing. But if one is a Buddhist how does it follow, as is so often stated, that one must also be a Liberal? Liberals and Liberalism are as evil and messed up as anyone or anything else and Buddhism is surely about liberation and lasting freedom from all such illusions. You Libs are kidding yourselves if you think otherwise.

Opinion's picture

Agree with Dean above.

Goldberg, the author of a book that portrays western liberalism as of a piece with Naziism, is not an honest broker of fact or opinion.

He's best ignored.

benjhutchison's picture

I think that goldberg makes a valid point from an all too solid opinion. You can genuinely feel that he has strong opinions which leave little room for debate. That is a problem that seems to surface more with the right but can be found on the left as well. He doesn't stray far from his point to take into consideration time (Tibetan Buddhist still either experience or try to experience mystic occurances while the judeo christian miracles happened so long ago) or the fact that to most people eastern religion is still foreign. I think people are less likely to bash someone's religion if they don't really know what its about. I think that within western buddhist communities there is skepticism about the mystical experiences of Buddhism (the buddha asked us to question everything, right?) but most times we're not on the main stage where we talk about or are asked about our skepticism. I think that James is right in writing that buddhist media does focus on these issues because I've read about it myself. But buddhist news media in America is pretty much Tricycle and Shambhala Sun and I don't expect your average American will pick those up at Barnes & Noble. Goldberg is right about the Dalai Lama. He has conservative views about sex and probably abortion. But like most Buddhist, he doesn't have a hard line in the sand or rules that he wants to enforce on anyone. Each of us has our own Karma we must deal with and because we have that freedom we can make the decisions that will impact our footsteps on the path of life. My hope is that Mr. Goldberg can use his Caddyshack fascination with Buddhism to keep a somewhat open mind.

Mark's picture

Goldberg's point is the same old conservative neologism -- you can't complain about our core venality because one of you once did something similar. But his piece is evidence of a very real problem. When we excuse someone's irrational pronouncements on human behavior, we end up sanctioning all public irrationalism, and we have no grounds to say that Sarah Palin's anti-gay rhetoric is any less wrong than HH's. The Western Buddhist tradition is important precisely because it offers us a way to confront and accept our life without needing recourse to superstition and without extinguishing our rational faculties. This is what could bring peace and hope to our screwed up little planet -- not replacing European irrationalism with Asian irrationalism.

Pema's picture

The Dalai Lama and his private office aparatchiks appear to be incapable of a coherent perspective when it comes to sexual matters. Not suprising from HH himself, considering that he's a celibate monk, but his entourage is mostly lay. A recent example of this is HHDL's endorsement of the sexual predator Sogyal Lakar aka Rinpoche -- coupled with anodyne messages of regret when letters from people who have been abused by Sogyal pour into the private office. They assure us that HHDL abhorrs promiscuity and sexual abuse -- yet he legitimises Sogyal. Double standards or what?

PositiveEnerG's picture

The interesting (and informative for me) dialogue above demonstrates (for me) why I am drawn to the practice (and its being the essence), rather than any beliefs. I think the "beliefs" can be part of religious historical bureaucracy ... and distract from the practice which is fundamental. But I'm hardly anything approaching an expert.

Mujaku's picture

Buddhism has never needed a free pass--least of all from the liberal side of the political equation. Anyone who is a Buddhist knows that Buddhists are often their own worst critics. Yes, Buddhists debate with each other--almost tooth and nail--over many issues such as self vs. no-self, or intrinsic emptiness vs. extrinsic emptiness. I think this level of self-criticism has helped Buddhism survive for as long as it has.

Jan Tarlin's picture

To the best of my limited knowledge, the Dalai Lama has *never* "spoken strongly against same-sex relationships among Buddhists". Indeed, he has taken great pains to stress that he has absolutely no problem with loving, primary relationships between people of the same sex. The issue on which he has taken a "conservative" stand is what orifices should be used for sexual intercourse by *anybody*.
Though many of us may find his ideas on this subject problematic, they are a far cry from the loathing of any form of love other than the heterosexual form that is spewed by the reactionary element in Western monotheism. Also, H.H. the Dalai Lama has at least once (in an interview with the New York Times) publicly wondered aloud if the whole notion of appropriate and inappropriate orifices might not be a Tibetan cultural prejudice that should be jettisoned, rather than a Buddhist doctrine that should be preserved.
While the Dalai Lama's ideas about sex are certainly quite different from those of most progressive Westerners, the should not be distorted so as to fit more neatly into our local ideological conflicts.
And speaking of ideology, I find the assumption that political progressives must be ideological rationalists who would dismiss the possibility of "miracles" out of hand to be rather odd. Perhaps I'm an anomaly, but here's one political progressive who has absolutely no trouble with the idea that realized beings in any religious tradition are able to do things that would be termed "miraculous" in the religious language of the West.

alan's picture

They sure do. And another valid question would be "Do Buddhists give Buddhism a pass?", as the Tibetan tradition has so little in common with the actual teachings of the historic Buddha.

Dean Pajevic's picture

Goldberg may have a (small) point. But his tit-for-tat mentality misses many of the larger concepts about religion in general where the Dalai Lama has stated that you can follow Buddhist ideas and still keep your religion of origin. (I'd love to hear some other religious heads agree to that one!) Or where he has stated that Buddhism is more a technology of the mind than a religion in the traditional sense.

The issue I have with Goldberg, and many far right commentators, is that they use rhetoric to find some small wedge in something and then just dig on that without addressing larger concerns. And yes, while Shaheen has brought out some real concerns about the Dalai Lama in this post, I feel like he bends over backwards to respond to Goldberg's comment in the NRO.

I'd like to see Goldberg do the same if the shoe was on the other foot.

Jack Daw's picture

Whomever said this needs to hang out with Buddhists more often. We talk about contentions quite a bit (sometimes too much). However, we don't have the lobbying power that many other religions have so we are regulated to the back of the line where we can talk all we want but noone really cares.