Sunday, July 26, 2015
Why the Dalai Lama's Teachings Probably Shouldn't Be Taken Too Seriously
I often see quotes from the Dalai Lama on social media and in various places, and I get the sense that many people consider his teachings to be inspirational. Certainly, messages about love, kindness, forgiveness and so on are generally good things, and I'm not going to criticize that. The point I want to raise here, though, is that to western audiences, a lot of these aspects of the Dalai Lama's beliefs get presented and people take inspiration from them, but I notice that his other beliefs, the stuff about karma and reincarnation, tend to be downplayed somewhat.
This isn't at all surprising. To a largely Christian audience and a strongly Christian influenced culture, karma and reincarnation isn't going to resonate very well, while concepts like love and forgiveness are much more universal and things that more or less everyone aspires to. But what worries me is that people end up taking just a subset of his beliefs and as a result, elevating him to a position of respect and reverence that he doesn't really deserve.
Don't get me wrong, he's not a bad person and certainly if more people in the world were like him (in some ways, at least), the world would almost certainly be a better place. But if you want real answers to peace and love in this world, he's not the guy for the job. Take his quotes as your feelgood morning buzz if you want, but don't make the mistake of thinking that he preaches a path worth following.
Okay, what the hell am I talking about? What's so bad about the Dalai Lama?
Well, nothing, really. At least nothing that isn't also bad about other Buddhists, other Christians, and in general, most religious people.
The problem is the karma and reincarnation.
While you might read wonderful quotes about being full of love, the Dalai Lama's belief system is based around karmic justice, the idea that good deeds are eventually rewarded and bad deeds are eventually punished. Because we can empirically see that this kind of karmic justice generally doesn't happen in our lifetimes (sometimes people "get what's coming to them"; plenty of times they thrive their whole lives just fine), this concept is usually also tied together with reincarnation. So if karma doesn't get the bad guy in this life, don't worry, it will get him in the next.
This kind of belief system is obviously more or less impervious to proof. The Dalai Lama loves to make statements that make him appear scientifically minded, such as that he would readily give up his belief in reincarnation if science could prove it false. Now, of course, this isn't how science works, the burden of proof is on him to show that a fantastic concept like reincarnation is real, and it's basically impossible to disprove a vague supernatural claim like reincarnation, especially when no one even agrees on what it really means (different schools of Buddhism all have different ideas on what gets reincarnated and what does not; do you keep your memories, some vague concept of soul, etc). Given that his position as Dalai Lama itself requires reincarnation to be true, it's hardly surprising that he would cling to it, though I don't know if his stance on science having the burden to disprove it is one of ignorance of the scientific method, or a deliberate attempt to appear reasonable and open to change while really believing nothing of the sort.
So the point here is, just like other religions such as Christianity that comfort people by telling them that the good will be rewarded in heaven while the bad will be punished in hell, the Dalai Lama's teachings on love and kindness are also based on his belief that justice will be served eventually, in this life or the next. He has made it quite clear that he sees this kind of karmic justice necessary for a fair and just world, and he clearly believes it to be true.
The Dalai Lama can afford to love and forgive because he believes justice will come to everyone eventually anyway.
Where does this leave us? You don't really forgive someone if you're counting on them getting karmic justice eventually. You're not showing compassion if that compassion relies on a trust that some supernatural justice will eventually sort things out. If you want to believe in that kind of justice to help make sense of the world, then great, pick Buddhism, pick Christianity, pick any of the religions that give you this promise. Just don't be fooled into thinking that the Dalai Lama is preaching something different.
Now, on the other hand, if you can hear his teachings, and take away from that a genuine ability to love, to forgive, to show kindness, and to not want those who harm you to be harmed in return, then guess what? You're a better person than he is. Don't try to learn from him, because he should be trying to learn from you.