ISSUE #006 - Sep 12, 2018

The Importance of Preserving Tibetan Buddhism’s Contribution to Humanity

Robert Thurman

We are at a moment of great significance for humanity, at the beginning of this new century, which could be either a horrendous time of natural and man-made mega-disasters or the greatest century yet of environmental restoration and peaceful global community.

Now more than ever, because of the global economic slowdown, all governments must face social unrest and leadership will be tested as to their morality and creativity or their panic and oppressiveness.

Of all world leaders at this time, the Dalai Lama most convincingly provides spiritual, intellectual, and ethical leadership, exemplifying and elucidating the most reasonable path to peace and happiness. This is the secret of his worldwide popularity. His person and teaching really do matter, to the Tibetans, to the Chinese, and to all of us and our future generations.

If there ever was a social and political movement based on spirituality, it is the 50-year campaign of the Dalai Lama for the freedom of his people, and the continuous spontaneous and mostly nonviolent uprisings of the Tibetan people who want to be free to restore their spiritual life in the closer presence of their spiritual and political leader. These acts of truth—the Dalai Lama’s long insistence on nonviolence and dialogue in responding to the genocidal acts of one of the world’s largest military powers, and the Tibetan people’s resistance in the face of overwhelming odds—may yet produce miraculous results, as one of the world’s greatest “lost causes” becomes a possible success.

Tibetan civilization is a civilization that feels itself touched by buddhas, marked by having experienced the living impact of real buddhas, even coming to take for granted the constant presence of many buddhas around the country and the universe. Tibetan Buddhism is thus a reorientation of individual and social life to account for the reality of buddhas, the possibility of becoming one oneself and the actuality of an educational process for doing so. This is the characteristic that distinguishes Buddhism in Tibet from the Buddhisms in other civilizations, though Indian civilization in its classical heyday of ca. 500 B.Ch.E. to 1000 C.E. enshrined in its core the human possibility of Buddhahood more and more openly, as did the Mongolians, and do the Chan, Son, and Zen subcultures of East Asia.

Tibetan Buddhism took the form of a religious, educational, and social movement that gave access to ever larger numbers of people to the higher reality in which they could consciously evolve and make their human life spans more enjoyable and meaningful. Over the generations this movement turned some of the most powerful and warlike people on earth into relatively peaceful and gentle spiritual practitioners. The Mongolian empire had been the most extensive land empire in history. The Ottoman empire ruled five centuries over a huge expanse of territory. The Manchus controlled China and central Asia for several centuries. Had the central Asian Turkic, Mongolian, Manchurian, and Tibetan peoples maintained their warlike cultures into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of industrial imperialism and technological war, in parallel to the Japanese who became major players in the imperialism game in less than a century, the world would look very different today than it does, and danger to the planet from technological militarism would be far greater than it is.

From 1398-1419, an amazing energy was released in central Tibet, when Lama Tsong Khapa and his followers leapt from the shoulders of centuries of illuminated forebears and broke through their entrapment in ordinary time—the long predicted degenerative time of the Dharma when humans act desperate because they feel they have lost the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha for the more than two thousand years since his parinirvana. What they achieved and shared with their nation the next twenty-one years radiated around the world and created a transformative experience of the timelessness of the buddha-presence. Others around the world who didn’t know about the Buddha experienced a renaissance of self-confidence. The Tibetans’ direct awareness made their own unfolding of buddha-consciousness and even embodiment immediately possible, and they chose to devote as many moments of their lifetimes as possible to just such a culmination of the evolutionary pursuit of happiness. If a concrete, stable, durable, blissful and supremely competent evolutionary condition seemed very close to reach from your free human condition, your human body and mind, would it not seem logical that you should make the effort to realize far preferable conditions the highest priority of your living? Would you not choose as your life’s purpose to work at evolving your mind toward complete knowledge of the universe and your heart toward perfect empathy with other beings, and blissful enjoyment of a boundless, death-transcending life force? This is just what Tibetans were inspired to do during these seminal twenty-one years at the turn of the fifteenth century.  

In ever increasing majority they achieved a “millennial consciousness,” which is a sense of the possibility of maximal evolutionary fulfillment being achieved within their human lifetime. They felt they lived in a social and historical time when all buddhas are offering full empowerment of any individual who chooses to focus on her or his evolutionary destiny. For example, Christians have long been awaiting the second coming of Christ, believing that when it happens, God will be all-in-all, and the chosen elect will feel completely saved from all danger of suffering forever. That will be the time of millennium, and the notion of that time being only present in the future, makes the present time seem an agonizing period of a frustrating wait in suspense. Tibet also had such a frustrated feeling about the absence of the enlightenment opportunity from the time when Buddhism was introduced in the seventh century—as a tradition fleeing a declining situation in its holy land of India—until the turning point in the fifteenth century. Individuals of great ability and achievement emerged, and gradually inspired the larger population.  The mainstream preoccupation, however, as with most nations, was the pursuit of economic and military power, the loss of empire, the regional power struggles of the feudal aristocratic family dynasties, and so on. But the nation went through a change around 1400 where the millennium was felt to have arrived for Tibetans. Thus, they naturally, moved to create a society, economy, and lifestyle where as many as possible could take advantage of the precious opportunity of the fully endowed human embodiment.

The economy of Tibet adapted to support these hordes of scholars and yogins, and military expenditures fell as educational endowments grew. Aristocratic families whose power rested on their feudal mobilized armed forces viewed this nationwide charismatic movement from militarism to monasticism with alarm. They would have intervened to prevent it, except for the fact that many of the most capable members of those families were themselves swept up in the popular enthusiasm for the study, practice, and realization of the Dharma. Some did try when it was almost too late, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, but their attempt to impose an anti-monastic expropriation of monastic growth (such as happened during the Protestant reformation in Europe at that time) failed for complex reasons. The success of the Buddha movement in Tibet over the five and a half centuries after 1400 came ultimately from the fact that hundreds of thousands of individuals felt their lives immeasurably improved, their sense of wellbeing enormously satisfied, their liberation achieved, and their appreciation of their fellow humans and other living beings radically increased.

This was a powerful, sustained wave of enlightenment that not only comprised reason and insight, but also transcendent experience, bliss, happiness, and the love of life that flowed from such an opening of minds and hearts. And it resonated morphically as well as educationally, literarily, and culturally all over the high plateau and began to make itself felt around the world. Tsong Khapa himself was invited in 1407 by the Yongle Ming emperor to honor China with his presence, to receive honors and awards for his realization and his Dharma works, but he was disinclined to make the difficult journey, being too intensely engaged in teaching crowds of eager students. So he sent some senior colleagues, who returned with resources to build the infrastructure that was required for the growing numbers of disciples. The Ming rulers were impressed by the Ganden Renaissance energies and set up extensive workshops to produce great works of art. Individual Chinese Buddhists themselves had their own forms of Dharmically inspired renaissance, Buddhism having somewhat languished in China due to the Mongol domination of the Yuan and the oppressive trends left over from the Song Dynasty generated by the anti-monastic, anti-Buddhist Neo-Confucians. Tibetan Buddhism also soon became seminal in pacifying central Asia as a whole, inspiring and incorporating the Mongolians, Tuvans and other Turkic peoples, and even the Manchurians into the enlightenment orientation and lifestyle.

Contemporary China has the opportunity to draw upon what previous dynasties adopted rather than trying to obliterate the past, rewriting history to fit the dramatic aberrations of the last fifty years’ time. The Chinese people as a whole do want to embrace what the Tibetan civilization has to offer, as they do wholeheartedly now in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Americas, where Tibetan Buddhism has become more and more integrated with traditional Chinese Buddhism. Likewise, Western nations can compare their renaissance with the Ganden Renaissance for insight into what the higher potential of humans can mean.

The tragedy for the Europeans of the Enlightenment (and then the Euro-Americans) was: the partial success achieved in the development of human consciousness from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was followed by a short-circuiting of the monastic institution itself, a shutdown of its inner revolution approach. Although on one level this was compensated by the development of the secular university model, on another it left the social space open for militarism to dominate everything. Society channeled its new self-confidence one-sidedly toward materialistic mastery of the physical world. When people felt their energy flow into channels seeking immediate inner satisfaction, they became afraid. So they channeled the millennial power of confidence and activism outwardly into progressive materialism, industrial productivity, and militarism. The very existence of the spirit was eventually denied, and matter became the sole immediacy within a spiritually nihilistic cosmos.

Yet at its foundation, our secularized modern world is built on an apocalyptic consciousness. The end of history is constantly being announced, due to this or that relatively short-term trend. We want to live for the now, we want total personal power and energy, we want fruition now.

We, the entire official world, the American government and those of the Europeans, the Indians, and the East Asian free countries have allowed the Tibetan genocide to continue (along with those in North Korea, Cambodia, Burma, and Darfur) out of our greed to profit from China, either as an ally in the cold war against Russia—forgetting in the process that the Chinese government is itself a totalitarian communist dictatorship—or as a huge pool of cheap labor and a mythical market for our goods and commodities. Out of our obsession with ruthless short-term business, we have rationalized our neglect of the basic humanity and justice that is the necessary foundation of a prosperous globalizing world. Acting imperialistic ourselves, we have encouraged by example the Chinese to behave imperialistically. Clinging to our own excessive militarism, we have pushed the Chinese to militarize excessively. Ignoring our own destruction of the natural environment, we have seduced the Chinese into following our model of recklessly toxic industrialization. And now that we have allowed the unrestrained greed of our financial elite to abuse our democracy and destroy our own prosperity and turn us back into an under-developed country, there is a danger that we will imitate the Chinese and turn authoritarian ourselves, thus reinforcing the Chinese fear of democratization and entrenching them further in their unrelenting totalitarianism.

We should also deeply reflect how we can do our part not to stand by in silent acquiescence. We must stand up for Tibet by correcting our own misunderstandings and inappropriate behaviors, and so set an example for the Chinese leadership to abandon their sixty years of failed genocidal policies and practices. Tin Their own self-interest, they must extend a hand of true respect and friendship to the Tibetan people and their chosen leader and let the Tibetan and the Chinese people enjoy their natural freedoms and join together to restore their lands and cultures and societies.

The apocalyptic world picture allows for a very high level of individual self-confidence and energy fulfillment. The millennial consciousness, the consciousness of living in a sacred realm brought to us from the great adepts in Tibet, allows so many to manifest their full energy into the present moment and life, moving them toward personal development and fulfillment. Now is the time for us to rise to the occasion and enjoy this kind of immeasurable lifestyle, naturally expanding the joy by sharing it with others.

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ISSUE #006

On Tibetan Buddhism for an Awakening World
Image: On Tibetan Buddhism for an Awakening World

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