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Not The Buddha’s Middle Way

Tuesday, Feb 1, 2011

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 —

(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.

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  • avatar Tenpa Gashi says:

    “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.”

  • avatar Christophe Besuchet says:

    This linguistic fraud had already struck me long ago and it is remarkable that no one raised this issue before. Maybe it was just too embarrassing…?

    Considering that in the Tibetan political context the middle way has nothing to do with the method but with the goal, a more appropriate expression would have been the “Middle End Approach” or simply the “Dead End Approach”. Of course, this wouldn’t have sold so well.

    In any case, it is painful to see how His Holiness compromised on his goal of achieving freedom for his people while naming his policy from such a bright philosophical concept. Allow me to quote these two paragraphs from his 10th March statements in order to illustrate my point:

    “Consequently we the Tibetans in the free world, keeping our stand in conformity with the thinking of the masses of Tibet will never stop our movement for the independence of Tibet.” (March 10, 1975)

    “Any failure in our duties would be a mockery to the memory of those who have sacrificed their lives for the cause of Tibet, while undergoing tremendous hardship, but who have remained steadfast to the ideals for which we have left our country.” (March 10, 1980)

    Would it be that Mara, the Lord of Death who failed to snare and delude the Buddha from his search for enlightenment, is back under the form of wicked and unscrupulous political advisers?

  • avatar Mila Rangzen says:

    it may not be exaggeration to say “without your n lhasang’s consistent substantial guiding effort, exile rangzen voice might have been dead long ago”. may you two live to see the days of 113 in age!

    it’s time for “TIBETAN RANGZEN ORGANIZATION” to take birth with unwavering leaders who will hold office for life. this thwarts the dilution of our struggle.

  • avatar jyht319 says:

    Well written and correct. You have my greatest respect. Thank you for speaking out.

  • avatar Christophe Besuchet says:

    For those who have any doubts about the past “Rangzen Approach” of His Holiness, below are a few more quotes from his 10th March Statements:

    “I appeal to the sponsors and to the U.N. Assembly to get the Chinese to vacate their aggression and to help restore the independence of Tibet. Any half measures will be of little avail.” (March 10, 1961)

    “It is only fitting that we in the free countries shoulder this responsibility as our duty. We, therefore, solemnly rededicate this day and earnestly renew our pledge for the cause of Tibet’s independence.” (March 10, 1970)

    “Our struggle for the independence of Tibet is compatible with the hopes and aspirations of 6,000,000 Tibetans. It is a fulfillment of our rights and duties, and a just cause. Therefore, in order to realize this goal in its entirety, every Tibetan must endeavor to work in unity, with resolve, courage and determination.” (March 10, 1977)

    (translation: Private Office)

  • avatar khampa1 says:

    My Rangzen.

    Tibetans in exile follow autonomy
    loose their identity, a communist to be

    Tibetans in our homeland cry for democracy
    Independence and to be free

    Tibetans are not Chinese under the communist rule
    no guarantee equality for we ain’t no (more) fools

    The 17 point agreement was exactly this
    y’all ain’t learned nothing, something is a missed

    Material comfort and technology
    compromise our freedom, that can’t be

    sell our Souls to the devil in disguise
    no matter how you see it, it ain’t wise

    wolf is a wolf, a sheep is a sheep
    y’all are gullible, acting meek

    stop appeasing the Chinese
    get off your knees

    wise-up! rise-up! make a stance
    in life’s struggle we must take a chance

    seek liberation in death yet a slave in life
    truth is my guide and it cuts like a knife.
    Tempa G. Westbrook

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