Not The Buddha’s Middle Way
You might not agree with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s decision to give up the fundamental national goal of Tibetan independence, but you have to admit that whoever was put in charge of branding and marketing this policy did a bang-up job.
Just the name “Middle Way” confers on this “approach” a deeply spiritual aura. It makes its proponents seem moderate, sensible and tolerant, and those opposing it extreme and radical. All this happens reflexively, as a matter of course, sometimes without even the need for any explanation, since Tibetans, and indeed, almost all those who have been raised Buddhist, are conditioned to accept the Middle Way as infallible and perfect. Naming the policy of surrendering Tibetan sovereignty to Communist China the “Middle Way” was a stroke of genius. It was also a deeply dishonest, perhaps even a sacrilegious act.
When the Buddha spoke of the Middle Way he was describing not his goal of achieving Enlightenment but the method he had worked out and ultimately used to achieve that goal. He explained it in the very first teaching he gave after his Enlightenment. In this teaching “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma” Buddha clearly described the Middle Way as a mid- point between extremities; between the extreme of self-mortification (which he had tried for six years) and the other extreme of sensual indulgence (which had been his lifestyle as a prince).
Though His method or “Way” had changed or evolved over time, we should note that the Buddha never compromised on his goal of achieving Enlightenment. That goal was immutable. It could never be changed. The Middle Way was only a method for attaining it. As mentioned before, the Buddha did try other means before deciding on the Middle Way. But once He had decided His commitment was total. Siddharta fixed his resolve on the goal with an unshakable resolution. A beautiful and dramatic verse is attributed to him by some early compilers of the sutras. “Let blood dry up, let flesh wither away, but I shall not stir from this spot till Enlightenment be attained.”
Other great Buddhist figures – Milarepa immediately comes to mind – have demonstrated such uncompromising and single-minded resolve in the pursuit of their spiritual goals. The Dalai Lama was as single-minded about the goal of Tibetan independence when he first arrived in India in 1959. I have offered relevant quotations from His Holiness in previous writings, but in all his early 10th March statements He is very clear that Tibetans should never compromise on the goal of freedom and independence, no matter how long it took and whatever the cost. He was also convinced that we would succeed. “Our way may be a long and hard one…” He said “…but I believe that truth and justice will ultimately prevail.” The only condition that His Holiness set himself and us was that the struggle had to be non-violent.
In 1960 His Holiness wrote the “The Prayer to the Word of Truth” (dentsig monlam) which is recited daily in Tibetan schools and in the prayers of most Tibetans. Tibetans also sing it at every 10th March rally, and in other demonstrations and marches as well. Lonely prisoners in cramped dark prison cells in Tibet may have sung or recited this prayer for strength and solace. They would certainly have been reassured by these two lines:
May the object of my most heartfelt yearning —
COMPLETE FREEDOM FOR ALL TIBET be soon realized.*
(Ring ne nying du nag pey dod pey don
Yong dzog bho jong rang wang tsang may pel)
The Dalai Lama was at the time not only inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, but also, it appears, by the Mahatma’s advice on why we should never compromise on our fundamental beliefs. “All compromise is based on give and take” Gandhi said, “but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”
Mādhyamaka, the philosophical system systemitized by Arya Nagarjuna, is also called the Middle Way. It is a rejection of two extreme views, and therefore represents the “middle way” between eternalism—the view that something has an objective existence (i.e., its existence does not depend on external objects)—and nihilism, or a denial of the existence of something that actually exists.
Whether we support or oppose the present policy of giving up Tibetan sovereignty to Communist China, we all have to accept, at least if we are not irredeemably dishonest or deluded, that it doesn’t have anything to do with Buddha’s Middle Way or Nagarjuna’s philosophy.
But does this policy have a connection, no matter how tenuous, to any other traditional Buddhist idea or practice? The only thing that comes to mind is the popular avadana story of the compassionate prince who gives away everything: his kingdom, his queen his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity. There are quite a few versions of the story of Prince Visvantara (Skt) or Vessantara (Pali), which is popular in most Buddhist countries, especially South East Asia where it is performed theatrically for the public, as it was done in old Tibet.
In the Tibetan version of the story Prince Drimekundan is the son of the king of Betha, a very wealthy and powerful king. The king possesses a magical wish granting jewel, which is the source of the kingdom’s fabulous wealth and power. From his earliest years the young Prince Drimekundan had given away his possession to the poor, so much so that his compassion was a household word. One day a wicked Brahmin, acting secretly for the king of another kingdom who hated and envied Betha, asks Drimekundan to give him the magic jewel. Drimekundan gives it to him, and of course the kingdom of Betha suffers all sorts of disasters and calamities.
When his father, the old king finds out, Drimekundan is banished into the wilderness with his wife and two children. During the course of the journey he gives away his elephants, then his horses and then his chariot to other Brahmins who ask him for charity. He even gives away his two children and also his wife, the queen, to various beggars who accost him on the way. Finally he meets a blind man who asks him for his eyes which he immediately plucks out and bestows on him. Then after many other trials the Supreme God Indra (literally the deus ex machina in this drama) resolves everything in the most miraculous way. Drimekundan gets back his eyes, his children, his wife and also his kingdom. He even gets the magic jewel back from the wicked king who, naturally, begs for forgiveness.
We never put on this play at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) when I was director. In Tibet it was performed by the monks of the Muru monastery and not by the popular Ache Lhamo companies. I was told that it was not a favorite of opera fans as the dialogue verses were chanted in a monotonous recitative and not sung in the musically dramatic namthar style. A year or so after I was removed from TIPA, the Private Office off His Holiness informed TIPA that it should perform the story of Prince Drimekundan. The private Office also arranged for an old monk of Muru monastery to develop the script for the play and also direct the performance. Finally, a special performance was arranged for His Holiness, kashag ministers, officials and members of the Tibetan parliament.
Of course the Drimekundan story must be regarded as a fable or allegory. All avadana and jataka stories are, in a sense, poetic and dramatic metaphors used to illustrate Buddha’s teachings. Many of the stories predate Buddhism and the period and setting of the Drimekundan legend is clearly pre-Buddhist and Vedic. We see this not only in the belief system of the characters and the appearance of the Supreme God Indra, but also in the extreme acts of charity, self-mortification and renunciation, which are conspicuous features of certain Hindu religious practices. In fact a similar legend, Raja Harishchandra, recounted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, is very popular in the Hindu world. The first full-length feature film (silent) ever made in India was Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchardra (1913).
The historical Buddha though renouncing power, wealth and family-life to seek Enlightenment, did not give away his kingdom to its enemies. Nor did he give away his queen and child to passing beggars, nor his eyes to the blind in the hope of divine intercession and salvation. In point of fact Buddha absolutely rejected the idea of divine salvation. But what I think is crucial for all Tibetans to grasp, even appreciate, is that the Buddha never claimed that his teachings could provide solutions to political and national problems.
The Drimekundan story may or may not have inspired or influenced the formulation of the TGIE policy of giving away Tibetan sovereignty to Communist China. But the underlying assumption in the story that extreme acts of piety and renunciation, no matter how absurd or self-destructive, will somehow be divinely rewarded and everything miraculously set right in the end, is too uncomfortably close to the imbecilic claims being made right now as to how the “Middle Way” will not only resolve the Tibet crisis, but China’s spiritual problems as well.
* A few years ago some members of the Tibetan community in Switzerland tried to get these two lines of the “Prayer For the Word of Truth” changed to fit with current “Middle Way” politics. They approached a Tibetan scholar to make the necessary changes but the scholar was horrified by the request and sent them away.