MAD. AVE. STRIKES AGAIN

 

From the PowerBook commercial.
From the PowerBook commercial.

How many Tibetan monks does it take to advertise PowerBook, the new laptop from Apple Computer, Inc.? According to a recent blitz of two-page ads, the correct answer is four—that’s not counting the cross-dresser in the center, a Caucasian in monastic robes with long white hair pulled back, holding an open computer which has, written on the screen, “The Tradition of Drepung Loseling … “

So Madison Avenue strikes again. At first glance the ad appears to be just one more example of commerce seeking to validate itself by association with “a higher truth,” which itself is further legitimized by omniscient male authority.

Yet, since the primary target remains selling the product, the image of higher truth functions only to serve the needs of capitalism; consequently, religion gets sold down the river.

But within the genre of ads that co-opt religious authority (and in which Tibetan monks appear to be in excellent favor these days), this one offers a uniquely disturbing slogan: “the power to be your best.” The association with the monks is not one of kindness or compassion, wisdom or selfless service, but one of power.

Real and mythologized associations with Tibetan monks have long attracted a Western interest in power. They can fly (maybe); they can raise their body temperature to dry sheets in mid-winter; they engage in mind-taming disciplines that provide a rare range of strengths and “powers.” But for what benefit?

Within a religious context, all that arduous endeavor is intended to displace the very powerful habits of erratic egocentricity so that one has the “power”—or the strength of mind—to practice altruism. If power in this sense is extracted from a religious context, then what is it good for? Selling computers—and, in the process, abusing the real or assumed authority of superior knowledge; unfortunately, the Apple Computer ad is not the first Western attempt to exploit the renowned powers of Tibetan monks. That ignoble distinction goes to the Third Reich’s inner circle, many members of which (including Hitler) turned to the East, and specifically Tibet. However perverted their motivations, they were drawn to the highest powers and the most arduous mental disciplines.

Of course, Apple and the Third Reich are not in the same league. The Tricycle staff continues to bang away happily at its Apple keyboards, and PowerBook remains everyone’s dream machine. Still, as Buddhist imagery increasingly enters the American marketplace as a creditable ploy for advertising, it seems none too soon to recall the traditional Buddhist warning that power divorced from wisdom and compassion warrants no credibility at all.

WHERE WERE THE THAI MONKS?

From May 17 to May 20, a horrified world witnessed the Thai military’s brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators. Enthusiastically promoted as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand’s image was suddenly shattered.

Thailand, however, has long known a vicious cycle of military dictatorship, corrupt civilian rule, and popular revolt. Last year’s coup toppled yet another democratically elected government, and clearly signaled that the military had no intention of surrendering its position of influence in Thai society. But by the time General Suchinda became the nineteenth prime minister of Thailand, a broad-based opposition was mounting. Demonstrations, rallies, and hunger fasts led by pro-democracy parties and public-interest groups repeatedly attracted tens, then hundreds of thousands of people this spring.

What was particularly noticeable throughout this campaign was the absence of monks. The sangha (ordained Buddhists) announced their position of neutrality, and monks were ordered to continue daily practices. Chanting sessions were organized to send metta (compassion) forth in an effort to bring peace.

Yet by refusing to condemn the violence, the sangha tacitly supported the military and failed to initiate any meaningful efforts toward peace and reconciliation. Several prominent monks went so far as to perform rituals absolving the military leaders of their “bad luck.”

In an unprecedented period of self-examination, many Thais are now struggling to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. At some point, perhaps, this criticism will be turned constructively towards the long-standing relationship between the sangha and the military.

NEW ARRIVALS

One thousand Tibetan refugees have begun arriving in the United States from India as part of a resettlement program which the Dalai Lama believes will benefit “the Tibetan people as a whole.” According to Ed Bednar, director of the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project, this immigration is particularly gratifying to the five hundred Tibetans already in residence (through student visas or marriage) who can foresee their community here strengthened and their culture in exile perpetuated.

Tibetans arriving at JFK airport. Courtesy of Nancy Jo Johnson.
Tibetans arriving at JFK airport. Courtesy of Nancy Jo Johnson.

No federal money is involved in this operation. It’s purely a private-sector enterprise, organized and financed by a national network of volunteers in the United States, and is the result of several years work to circumvent the U.S. government’s political sensitivity to China on the Tibet issue. To allow Tibetans into this country as “refugees” under existing immigration laws, the United States would have had to acknowledge that the Tibetans could have a “well-founded fear of persecution” from the Chinese. Despite overwhelming evidence to validate this claim, the Bush administration was unwilling to offend China. The current solution, proposed by Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, was a special provision to the 1990 Immigration Act which provided entry as “qualified displaced Tibetans.” The new arrivals are being resettled in nineteen cities across the country, including New York, Boston, Chicago, San Fransciso, and Seattle. According to Bednar, his small volunteer staff has been working around the clock to help facilitate this historic effort, but the recession has slowed the fund-raising efforts and both money and sponsors are still needed.

For further information contact:
Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project
c/o NANYA
17 Battery Place
New York, NY 10004

BORN AGAIN

The reincarnations of Kalu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and His Holiness the Karmapa have been found and recognized in accordance with traditional customs of Tibetan Buddhism. The predecessors of all three tulkus—or incarnated lamas—were major influences in the development of Tibetan Buddhism in North America.

In January of this year, His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche confirmed his recognition of the Twelfth Trungpa Tulku, a Tibetan child born in the Iron Horse Year (1990). His family lives about ten days by horse southeast of Surmang Monastery, the seat of the Trungpa tulkus in eastern Tibet.

The enthronment and installation of the Trungpa Tulku will take place later this year at Surmang Monastery. The news of the rebirth of Trungpa Rinpoche was received with great joy, especially by the people of Surmang since there has not been a tulku there for thirty-three years.

The young Trungpa Tulku is now residing at the monastery, where he will live and undergo the traditional training and education of an incarnate teacher. The previous Trungpa Tulku, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, came to North America in 1970 and was one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in the West until his death in 1987.

His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa has been found. The boy is eight years old, and was born in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. On June 17, he arrived at Tsurphu monastery in Central Tibet, and was greeted by thirty thousand celebrants who had traveled there to attend the welcoming ceremonies.

Tai Situ Rinpoche has also recognized the emanation of the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche. Now nineteen months old, he was born in Sonda, India, and lives in his predecessor’s monastery there. His parents are Kalu Rinpoche’s lifelong attendant and nephew, Gyaltsen Lama, and his wife Drolker.

PLUTONIUM-FREE

Monju is the Japanese name for Manjushri, a bodhisattva of wisdom, and Fugen for Samanrabhadra, a bodhisattva and protector of Buddhist practice. Monju and Fugen are also, ironically, the names of two of Japan’s most advanced nuclear reactors.

Recently, Mayumi Oda and Kazuaki Tanahashi, prominent artists and respected members of the California Buddhist community-at-Iarge, teamed up to form Plutonium-free Future, a public-service organization intended to call attention to the dangers of civilian plutonium use. Alarmed by the global dangers that plutonium poses to personal and environmental health, Oda and Tanahashi’s prime target is their native Japan.

Japan has made nuclear power the primary focus of its national energy policy. As most of the world cuts back on the development of nuclear power plants, Japan is expanding its plutonium-based energy programs.

Plutonium was discovered in the United States and used for the first time in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. It emits the most toxic radioactive substance known to humanity.

If fully implemented, Japan’s energy program will lead to the accumulation of more plutonium by 2020 than is now contained in the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union.

For more information contact:
Plutonium-free Future
2018 Shattuck Avenue, Box 140
Berkeley, CA 94704

HOLY SKIRMISH

The legendary Bo tree in Bodh-gaya has become the unlikely object of conflict between Indian Hindus and Buddhists. Considered a direct descendant of the tree that sheltered Shakyamuni Buddha during the weeks leading up to his great enlightenment twenty-five hundred years ago, the site has been a place of reverence and meditation for Buddhists around the world. But the grounds are managed by a temple committee dominated by a Hindu majority; and the Buddhists now charge that over the years, with the tacit consent of temple officials, Hindu idols have been crowding out Buddhist images, while Buddha statues, by being draped in the style of Hindu images, have been treated as members of the Hindu pantheon.

In May, a group of two thousand Buddhist pilgrims from the Indian state of Maharashtra became so agitated by the Hindu presence that they smashed several Hindu idols and roughed up members of the Hindu clergy. While this sorry incident was symptomatic of larger contemporary issues, it is also not without historical antecedents.

Upon his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha went forth from the Bo tree to begin a teaching mission. Part of that mission was a radical challenge to the dominant Brahamanic priesthood, for the revolutionary Shakyamuni embraced people regardless of caste. His work in Northern India catalyzed real threats to the Brahmanic monopolies of wealth and power.

But following the Muslim invasions in the Middle Ages, little to no Buddhism was left in India. And for centuries, the only pilgrims to pay homage to the Buddhist shrines were foreigners. Since the fifties, however, and influenced by one Dr. Ambhedkar, a former untouchable and social reformer, India has witnessed mass conversions among the untouchables. Although caste designation was outlawed when India gained its independence, old prejudices die hard, and the state of Maharahstra alone claims three million converts to the egalitarian teachings of the Buddha. The recent violence catalyzed the Buddhist clergy, who are now demanding complete control of the Bo tree area as an unequivocally Buddhist holy spot. But in India, where religion is politics, and the Muslim-Hindu conflict has hardly abated since the partition, the conservative Hindu stronghold experiences any departure from Hinduism as an irreverent threat to the very heart of India. And this response—despite an estimated population of five million Buddhists in a land of 850 million Hindus—has now come to include Buddhists. Hopefully, the heirs of the Diamond Seat will be as skillful as their predecessor in, once again, dealing with Hindu rule.

DISCRIMINATING MIND

We at Tricycle are happy to report that the Utne Reader has named us “Best New Title” in their 1992 Best of the Alternative Press Awards.

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