FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Let us agree that Buddhism is not vegetarianism. It is not “virtue” either, or “peace,” or “gratitude,” or any other word or concept. To identify it with anything at all is to reduce what in essence is illimitable. In fact, Buddhism isn’t even Buddhism. But now let us leave the pure and safe world of negation and consider living practice.
Those of us living in the industrialized countries of North America, Europe, and Asia are blessed with a vast array of food choices. With such variety, who would choose to support the slaughter mills and the boundless misery involved in “factory farming” and other mass livestock-rearing industries? It may be those who fear that without meat or fish their health would suffer (the irony!); or those who are unaware of how the meat industry contributes to the misuse and waste of global resources. But for most carnivores, I suspect, eating animals is simply too pleasurable to give up. Whether it’s simply the taste they’re attached to, or associations from the past, or the image, it’s too important to them.
Vegetarianism has its share of fussy and rigid purists and those of humorless moral zeal. When vegetarianism is not just a way of eating but a dogma to which we cling, and which gives rise to self-righteousness and judgmentalism, then it obstructs the Way.
To assert the obvious, that eating meat unnecessarily is a violation of the first precept (not to kill) and of our bodhisattvic vows to liberate all sentient beings, is not to make an absolute out of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is not an essential part of Buddhism, and an attachment to it corrupts the freedom of our true nature. But one can also cling to the notion of “freedom,” and that is an attachment that can cause a lot more harm to other sentient beings.
In practice, the issue of vegetarianism comes down to a question of need. If you need to eat flesh foods to sustain your life, or, in extreme cases, your health, do so with awareness and gratitude. But if you don’t, why contribute to unnecessary suffering?
Abbot, Zen Center,
Rochester, New York
RIGHT TO CHOOSE
Your Spring Issue opens with two letters from the anti-choice forces seeking to co-opt the dharma into their camp.
First, a doctor argues for the infliction of prolonged suffering on the terminally ill by denying a human being’s right to voluntarily end his own life—with the help if necessary of his physician, someone after all whom he employs to do his will, not to be his torturer. Nothing in the dharma forbids that. We are not adherents of the soul superstition nor do we believe in God, gods, or a deified nature that will decide for us in a “natural” way when the end has come.
Second, two anti-choicers from a university philosophy department boldly proclaim, “Buddhism is pro-life.” Wrong. We respect life but oppose absolutisms. There is no living without killing. The operation of our immune systems takes lives by the millions every second. It is always a matter of making choices. In a world where the number one unsolved problem is population, objection to abortion means a vote in favor of war, famine, and pestilence.
The essence of Buddhism is the minimization of suffering through self-knowledge. That makes the dharma solidly pro-choice.
Los Angeles, California
Responding to Judith Crane and Jim Stone, whose letter ended with the flat assertion that “Buddhism is pro-life,” I would say that, in my experience, it is all more complicated than that. Even if we grant that Buddhism tends to disapprove of abortion, this doesn’t necessarily put Buddhism in the same camp as the American “Pro-life” movement. The “Pro-life” movement, grounded in a particular set of Christian ethics, tends to be absolutist, declarative, confrontational; most Buddhist ethics seem to be more situational, relativistic, and reconciliatory. Christian ethics are based on commandments; Buddhist ethics are based on precepts. Break the commandments and God will get you, down the line. Keep or break the precepts and it works out in your karma, but no one is keeping track, there is no punishment. Even when the Buddha “fought” for the end of animal sacrifices, he didn’t blockade temples, assault priests and worshipers, or promote laws to rain down governmental punishment on transgressors.
Putting Buddhism in the position of being pro or con any ethical issue both creates duality and misses the chance to use the specific, personal experience as a teaching, and the teaching as a healing of the individual and the society.
I was on one of what you might call “the front lines” of the L.A. civil unrest, a resident of the neighborhood at the intersection of Western and Washington. Like Michael O’Keefe (“An Avalanche in L.A.,” Vol II, No.3), I saw people of all colors looting what they didn’t need, and in some cases what they did. As much as his statement unsettled me, I too must admit a gratefulness (but certainly not a love) for my experience. Among many lessons, it wasn’t my fear of death that affected me, but the discovery of my profound fear of death at the hands of another. Compassion is hard to nurture in such circumstances; not because of hate from within, but because of hate driven by despair from without. For me, it was the first time I faced the possibility that I would not be given the opportunity to express my compassion before my potential aggressor ended my physical life. The realization that this possibility is deeply rooted in the psyches of people of different ethnicities, sexual preferences, and spiritual beliefs throughout the world overwhelms me. The lesson is twofold: 1) express compassion while you have the opportunity; 2) try to find your compassion before you’re forced to walk in someone else’s shoes.
I was pleased to read Christopher Queen’s article on Dr. Ambedkar. I have often wondered why the New Buddhist Movement in India had not evoked a greater interest among American Buddhists, particularly since it incorporates a very clear and revolutionary social dimension. Why this should be so is a matter of some conjecture. Could it be that the extreme poverty, the socially degraded position, and the low profile of the Indian untouchables are unattractive to our socially engaged Buddhists?
Dr. Queen provides an excellent introduction to Dr. Ambedkar’s work and the New Buddhist Movement up to the mass conversion ceremonies in Nagpur in 1956. Although Dr. Queen indicates that the movement is still alive and active, particularly in Maharashtra, he does not explore its subsequent development. Thirty-six years after the conversions, we find a bewildering array of political, social, educational, and religious organizations affiliated with Ambedkar’s movement. I hope that this will be but one step toward a greater awareness of these developments in the land of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Newmarket, New Hampshire
I am really tired of reading about so-called Buddhists like Allen Ginsberg, who admits he has never meditated regularly or studied Buddhism, and Jack Kerouac, whose most striking characteristic was chronic (and eventually fatal) alcoholism, and Chogyam Trungpa, misogynist, sexual pervert, abuser of power, and fatal alcoholic.
These men are not Buddhists. They may represent what the populace you are pandering to thinks of as hip or cool. They do not represent Buddhism in any way, shape, or form. If every time you wanted to mention them you instead looked a little further and investigated someone or something more sincere in action and intent, you would have my respect.
Aki Sann Chay
After reading the article on Nichiren Shoshu in your Winter Issue (Vol. II, No.2), I want to caution those Westerners who choose to chant Na Mu Myo Ho Renge Kyo that it is an extremely powerful mantra that is neither, like everything Buddhist, bad nor good. It simply will help manifest whatever lies in one’s deepest heart. It can help one gather wealth and prestige, but understand there are severe karmic consequences for greed; or it can help bring about a spiritual blossoming.
There are those who teach that this chant is a fast path to spiritual awakening or enlightenment. I am not sure that faster is necessarily better. I myself experienced psychological problems while chanting it, and I watched other Westerners go through similar struggles. Sometimes it may be better to choose a slow, deep current rather than the roaring rocky rapids.
Sandy Mcintosh’s article on Nichiren Shoshu (Vol II , No.2) brought out two points often missed in the legitimate my-dharma ‘s-better-than-your-discourse surrounding NSA.
First, few Western-born Buddhists begin the path with realization of ultimate reality as their motive. It’s easy for economically privileged individuals to put down the acquisition of material goods that they or their families already possess. However, they, and myself, are often caught in the desire to heal their bodies, be relieved of their neuroses, experience harmony in relationships, be a “serious” dharnla practitioner, or even hdp achievt: world peace. Loftier than getting a BMW, perhaps, but still very samsaric and understandable, given our present relative awareness. A little compassion for all of us would be useful.
Second, Mcintosh mentioned how large numbers of African-Americans (and others for whom exploring Eastern spirituality is not considered chic) were exposed to Buddhism through NSA. This was the case for me. Though I quickly realized that the sect was not for me, contact with it ignited three questions for which I will be eternally grateful—Who was this Shakyamuni? What did he really teach? Where can I learn more?
Los Angeles, California
THE SHADOW OF SHANGRI-LA
As a Tibetan I was deeply disturbed to read Keith Dowman’s article “Himalayan Intrigue” (Vol. II, No.2) concerning the rebirth and recognition of the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa. While the author appears to accept the recognition, his article, with an abundance of misinformation and the omission of important material, does more to obscure than to clarify the situation.
Unlike Mr. Dowman, I was present at Rumtek monastery, the seat of the Karmapas, on June 12 and was witness to events described by him. He is misinformed when he describes Rumtek as being at risk from “two busloads of Khampas, known for their ferocity.” There were, in fact, a dozen or so Khampas, of whom I myself am one, present in peace and good faith, attending the Forty-nine Day services of our late beloved Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.
What actually occurred at Rumtek was an illegal deployment of the Indian army. The force with legal jurisdiction in Sikkim is the Sikkimese Armed Police. The central government of Sikkim was reportedly livid when the invasion of Rumtek by the Indian army became known and effected its immediate withdrawal. The population of the state of Sikkim went on strike for two days to protest the use of the army against the persons of Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, and all those present.
The resistance which the soldiers, armed with loaded automatic weapons, met was that of desperate Tibetans trying with their bare hands to protect the lives of their great lamas and others. They were also attempting to bar the sacrilege of guns in the very shrine of the Karmapas. Believe me when I tell you that this was not an “attack” by “disaffected monastery employees and Tibetans” but actually the unarmed facing unprovoked armed aggression on harmless beings and a sacred place.
Mr. Dowman also asserts that Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche “claimed Kagyu unanimity in order to obtain the Dalai Lama’s verification of their candidate.” It is interesting that he chose such a disrespectful and prejudicial characterization of communication among three of Tibet’s highest lamas. He then strangely fails to mention that His Holiness the Dalai Lama experienced a vision of his own which confirmed for him the authenticity of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s letter.
One distortion surpasses the rest in its lack of understanding of Tibetan culture and its potential for confusion to the minds of the unwary. Mr. Dowman claims that “there is not one single Karmapa reborn in this world, but a multiplicity of Karmapas.” This statement is wholly and entirely inaccurate.
His Holiness Karmapa’s statement that he would “manifest eight hundred incarnations” is not in any way the same as saying that he would manifest in eight hundred emanations. Anyone with an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism should know the difference between these two very different ideas.
This error lays a spurious foundation of understanding in those without a background in Tibetan culture or access to accurate information. All one has to do is look at a list of the Karmapas through history to see that there has been only one Karmapa at a time, succeeding one by one through the generations. That there have been multiple candidates from time to time is true. But in an American presidential election, does a multiplicity of candidates result in a multiplicity of presidents?
Tibet and its people, religion, and culture have been ravaged over tbe last forty years by Chinese Communists. As we and our tradition have sought refuge and hope of new life in the West, we face another, far more subtle threat. When “experts” with limited understanding take it upon themselves to define our culture and experience for us, to intrude their beliefs and agendas where ours should be, then they have ravaged us as surely as those with guns.
Los Angeles, California
(Tenzing Thinlay was a translator for the late Karmapa.)
Leaving aside Keith Dowman’s doubts about the letter of prediction as a means for recognizing the Karmapa, he reveals a significant misunderstanding of reincarnation itself in his question, “Was it wise to recognize a Karmapa born in a Chinese-controlled area?” If you believe in reincarnation according to the Tibetan tradition, then you accept that a reincarnate lama consciously chooses rebirth.
Dowman also misconstrues the Dalai Lama’s recognition of the Karmapa. It was not only on the basis of information that Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche offered him during their contact in early June 1992, that the Dalai Lama confirmed the recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa, but also on the basis of his own experience. Prior to June 1992, His Holiness had a vision where he saw mountains without trees and covered with meadows, which rose from a valley where two streams flowed down either side. In the air resounded the name “Karmapa.” The nomad community of Bakor, homeland of the Karmapa predicted in his letter, is situated in a valley that exactly fits this description. In confirming the reincarnation of the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama was not only responding to the current situation, but was following his own inner wisdom.
In addition to the above, Dowman presents as fact highly disputed events without noting that they are controversial. At least two of the three regents deny the existence of any letter previous to the one presented by Situ Rinpoche in the spring of 1992, yet Dowman accepts as fact a first letter consisting of a verse on meditation, which he claims was opened in 1985.
In March of 1992, the four regents agreed that Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche would make inquiries in secret about the Karmapa during his visit to Tsurphu Monastery, the main seat of the Karmapas in Tibet, where he had planned to give a series of initiations and teachings. This would be possible because Jamgon Rinpoche had planned this journey long before and all the documents were ready, but Jamgon Rinpoche’s tragic death prevented him from carrying out his intention. The actual search was then carried out by a delegation from Tsurphu Monastery, not by the one Jamgon Rinpoche was going to lead to Tibet, as Dowman states. This is a fundamental mistake in that the initial search party consisted of Tibetans residing in Tibet. It was led by Lama Tomo of Tsurphu and fully supported by Drupon Dechen Rinpoche, appointed as the head ofTsurphu by the Sixteenth Karmapa.
There are other significant errors. The Shamarpa was not met by violent opposition when he brought the army into the compound of the monastery in Rumtek; the crowd parted peacefully to let him pass. Dowman states, “In March 1992, Situ Rinpoche requested a meeting of the regents in Rumtek.” This date is about two years too late. Following the passing of the Sixteenth Karmapa in 1981, the dominant influence in Rumtek was not Shamarpa, as Dowman states, but Jamgon Rinpoche, who built the new Karma Shri Nanlanda Institute and a primary school, raised the majority of funds for building the new monks’ quarters, provided scholarships and sponsors for many monks, and spent a good part of the year in Rumtek offering advice and support to members of both the lay and monastic communities.
Other smaller errors are numerous. The mother had a single dream (not two) of cranes (not Guru Rinpoche) who presented her with yogurt on top of which was a letter in golden script. There were three suns (not four) in the sky when the Karmapa left for Tsurphu. It was Kalek (not Kaleb) Monastery where the Karmapa spent time during his early years as a monk. He arrived at Tsurphu on June 15 (not 17), and this was merely his arrival at Tsurphu, not his installation as the Karmapa; this actually occurred with his enthronement on September 27. And so forth.
It is unfortunate that an article of such importance should be full of mistakes on so many levels (not to mention the tone of the article). It seems that Mr. Dowman was more interested in promoting personal arguments than in a careful investigation. I do agree that it is vital for everyone touched by these events to focus on the practice of meditation and study. It is through nourishing the strengths of the tradition that it will prosper and move beyond the present difficulties.
It is a pity that Mr. Dowman should rely on hearsay instead of research. By accepting inaccuracies gleaned from the rumor mill of Boudanath as fact, he contributes to the unfortunate confusion surrounding the recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa.
His assertion that the “rift” between Shamarpa and Tai Situpa originated in school days is a bit off the mark, even if only chronology is considered—none of the tulkus went to school, as it happens. Distance between them began after the deaths of the Sixteenth Karmapa and the late Rumtek General Secretary, when the Shamarpa’s and/or Topga Yugyal’s handling of the default stewardship of the property and other aspects of the Gyalwa Karmapa raised questions. When disturbing doubts arose, everyone was naturally more cautious, though they also, naturally, did not advertise the fact. Doubts occurred not only to Tai Situpa, but also to Jamgon Kongtrul and Goshir Gyaltsapa. They all wished to settle this in-house, and they held to this policy until Shamarpa, upon returning to Rumtek five weeks after Jamgon Kongtrul’s death, began to discuss at public meetings issues previously kept to themselves. When Tai Situpa and Tsurphu Goshir Gyaltsapa returned to Rumtek after receiving the confirmation of the Dalai Lama, they announced the recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa and clarified the main points of the recognition process. The solidarity of the four had included indications for locating the Seventeenth Karmapa. This may seem a strange way to handle things to many Westerners, but it is normal Tibetan procedure for dealing with internal problems. Public dialogue about such matters is an alien concept to most Tibetans.
Another error is the statement that Tai Situpa, “intent on having his candidate recognized,” published the contents of the predictive letter of the Sixteenth Karmapa after the meeting in Rumtek on March 12. The lamas concerned with locating the Karmapa in Tibet were, of course, notified, as agreed at the March 12 meeting, but the contents of the letter were not made public until after the announcement of the recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa on June 12, 1992. It was this meeting that the Shamarpa inexplicably disrupted with a contingent of Indian army soldiers—who were, incidentally, not sent by the government. The Chief Minister of Sikkim, Nur Bahadur Bhandari, was furious at this interference in a peaceful meeting, and he took it up with New Delhi. The Indian army command and the government denied all knowledge of orders to send troops to Rumtek. Though there was rumored meddling by the Bhutanese, it was widely assumed that the soldiers were bribed—a common enough practice on the Indian subcontinent. Documentation of this can be readily supplied: it was covered rather fully by the Indian media.
In any statement Tai Situpa has made about the situation he has refrained from criticism of Shamarpa or anyone else, encouraging people not to dwell on inauspicious events, but to be glad that the Karmapa has finally been found. The contrary may be said about the Shamarpa, whose insinuations—and I am very sorry to say it, fabrications—about the history of the problem as well as the veracity and motivation of Tai Situpa and Goshir Gyaltsapa have been publicized by some of his supporters in Europe—the chief propagandists being Ole and Hannah Nydahl. These are sad observations to make, but his actions invite them. The Shamarpa’s request for analysis of the Sixteenth Karmapa’s letter might be seen as a nice piece of manipulation, since he knows well that graphological examination would appeal to Westerners but would horrify the Tibetans, who consider the letter a sacred relic. Tai Situpa is not in a position to submit the letter for examination. Only the Karmapa himself would have the brief to do this, and that would be over the objections of the tulkus, lamas, and monks, who have sent letters from Tibet, Nepal, and Sikkim asking the senior tulkus to do no such thing.
Mr. Dowman’s glib remarks about the Seventeenth Karmapa being Tai Situpa’s candidate deserve scrutiny, along with the impression he gives that the choosing of the Karmapa might be a matter of opinion. None of this has any relevance for anyone who accepts the premise of the mystical aspect—and power—of a tulku as significant as the Seventeenth Karmapa, considered to be at the highest level of bodhisattva manifestation. Besides putting his own credibility into question, his article does a disservice to readers who might like to get some clarity rather than more claptrap.
New Delhi, India
It was a treat to read Mr. Dowman’s well written, fairly balanced article. However, it confused me on one of the main points that it attempted to clarify. Mr. Dowman says that the disputed second letter—the one the Tai Situ Rinpoche showed to Shamar Rinpoche indicating the precise name and location of the child—was presented to Shamar Rinpoche in the summer of 1992. If this were the case—and not a typographical error—it means that this letter was presented after Tai Situ Rinpoche visited the tulkus-elect on his trip to Kham in 1991, following the visit of Jamgon Rinpoche. I met Tai Situ Rinpoche in Beijing after he returned. Tai Situ Rinpoche recognized the Seventeenth Trungpa Tulku at this time and I guess that since he was in the Derge region he also visited the candidate for the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, whose family is from there. So, the question is: was Mr. Dowman aware of this? Also, does Mr. Dowman have any knowledge of what Jamgon Rinpoche said about the Seventeenth Karmapa after he returned from Kham? Please clarify.
THE AUTHOR RESPONDS
I was aware when writing the article on the search for the Karmapa that it would not satisfy those with political involvement. Without joining any side, but with a detached look at the entire process of intrigue, my article was an attempt to define a middle ground to which devotees of the Karmapa could relate, and at the same time provide a space in which issues of substance could be addressed. I regret the lack of space that forced me to abbreviate the account of events. The first three correspondents have indicated where I erred in that respect from their ideal standpoint. It seems to me that the entire issue should be depoliticized and that the politicians need to lighten up.
In response to Tenzing Thinlay:
Beru Khyentse Rinpoche relates that the Sixteenth Karmapa taught that he would return in numerous emanations in this one lifetime. This does not imply that there should be more than one Karmapa enthroned. In general, it should be evident to Mr. Tenzing Thinlay, a resident of California, that now that the dharma has been transmitted to the West it is no longer an exclusive Tibetan domain; that the activity of the tulkus is under an international spotlight; that it is unrealistic to expect Western initiates to remain mute observers—however limited their understanding may be; and that Tibetan culture may sometimes benefit from outside input.
In response to Michele Martin:
Ms. Martin’s letter shows that my account of events is not accepted by everyone as fact. For an account of events from the Shamarpa’s partisans, The Karmapa Papers—an extensive document by the Shamarpa’s followers in Europe—gives a diary of political events accompanied by a prejudiced commentary.
In the first place, it is one thing for a bodhisattva to consciously take rebirth for the sake of all beings; it is another for politically self-interested parties, and just ignorant sentient beings, to be able to recognize that infant bodhisattva as a particular tulku. (2) Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s decision to recognize Ugyen Thinley as the Seventeenth Karmapa was supported by a dream in which he saw a geomantically significant landscape and heard “Karmapa!” resounding. Such landscapes are not unusual in Tibet. (3) Concerning the first Letter of Intimation, to be more precise, two regents retracted their acceptance of it after it had been superseded by the second letter (Tai Situ in Rumtek, June 12, 1992). It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this essential communication on meditation practice from the last Karmapa is the key to the situation. (4) The party that searched for the Karmapa in Kham was indeed led by the Tsurphu Lamas. (5) It was the Shamarpa’s party that was greeted with violent opposition. The Shamarpa himself was not attacked. (6) Tai Situ’s March 1992 request for a meeting of the regents in Rumtek was the final one and the most important. (7) Jamgon Kongtrul’s beneficient influence at Rumtek is not in doubt; whether it was stronger than the Shamarpa’s is a moot point. (8) I apologize for the picture editor’s error of identification in the caption. (9) I make the distinction between the Karmapa’s installation on June 17 and his enthronement on September 27.
In response to Lea Terhune:
Certainly Kathmandu was rife with rumor of the Karmapa’s succession during 1992, particularly after the Rumtek fracas, and undeniably there was difficulty sustaining a clear view. In this climate it was all the more important to eliminate unsubstantiated statements from my article, and this I rigorously attempted to do. Ms. Terhune adds some privileged information to the controversy from Tai Situ’s inner circle and a cogent mystical plea for support of the tulku system, but she is shamelessly prone to the interpretive bias that informs her entire letter. By taking sides, identifying the Shamarpa as the villain of the piece, inevitably she enters the fray—which by implication she has characterized as deplorable. In this way devotees become victims of Lamaist politics. I would stress that, like Ms. Terhune, I am delighted that the Seventeenth Karmapa has been enthroned and that there is a consensus of support behind him.
In response to Lee Weingrad:
It appears that Jamgon Kongrrul did not visit Kalec [sic] Gompa or meet Ugyen Thinley on his 1991 journey to Kham. If, as I suggest, he was aware of the candidate, or was informed of his existence, no information about the report that he brought back was made public. I am informed that Tai Situ did meet Ugyen Thinley on his Kham trip of summer 1991 and this preceded his sharing the Second Letter with the Shamarpa.
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