Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dao of Violence

I've been thinking a lot about violence lately.

I read two books by Gwynne Dyer: War, and, The Mess They Made, and saw a "docu-drama" titled "The Baader Meinhof Complex" about the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists that terrorized Germany during the 1970s.

Dyer has an encyclopedic understanding of all things related to war and the military. And as a result, IMHO, he's an indispensible resource when it comes to understanding why it is that states do what they do. His suggestions have that "ring of truth" to them that I always hear whenever someone says something that manages to be not quite "Left" nor "Right" in orientation.

For example, he says that the invasion of Iraq was not in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction or because Saddam Hussein was aiding and abetting terrorists who were bent on attacking the USA (the rightwing line.) Nor does he think that it is "all about oil" (the standard leftwing assumption.) Instead, he thinks that a group of neoconservatives in the upper reaches of the Bush administration believed that if the USA had some sort of spectacular military victory, it would push its military prestige to the point where no other state would even attempt to challenge it. This would extend the period where the USA is the world only remaining "super power" indefinitely.

This strategy blew up in the neocon's faces. The US army was shown to be a bit of a "paper tiger" that simply couldn't deal with a mass, popular insurgency that wages a "asymetrical war". Moreover, the government of George W. Bush behaved so erratically that it alienated just about every other government on earth, which dramatically weakened its influence. (Dyer quotes an anonymous Japanese diplomat who said the USA was acting like a "six year old with a loaded shotgun". I've also read quotes from Vladmir Putin of Russia that say much the same thing in that the "USA is running around like a lunatic with a straight razor".) As a result, America will be leaving both Iraq and Afganistan a much, much weaker nation than it was when it went into them.

The point that strikes me as a Daoist about all of this is that reading Dyer, I cannot see how any of this could have been avoided. As I see it, there is a huge strain of American thinking that is really grotesquely out of step with reality. Not all Americans, but enough to have a huge influence, really do think that their nation is somehow "different" from all others, and doesn't have to play by the same rules. This is the doctrine of "American exceptionalism". This belief is that the USA is uniquely chosen by God and/or history to be inevitable leader in human progress for all of history. And as long as this naive type of hubris exists, it will be impossible for the USA to deal with the systemic problems that plague the nation.

If you think about this "exceptionalist" worldview, a lot of the country's behaviour becomes easier to understand. America refuses to take global warming seriously because "the American standard of living is not negotiable". It refuses to sign onto any global convention that would limit its ability to do as it pleases on the world stage, such as the landmine treaty and the International Criminal Court. And it went totally insane when a group of terrorists attacked it and instead of seeing the problem as one of law enforcement---like any other nation on earth does---blundered around trying to re-enact WWII.

(Lest this last point seem insensitive, consider the fact that Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India flight from Canada in 1985 and that killed 325 people---most of them Canadian. Since the population of Canada is one tenth of the USA, this is equivalent to 3,250 Americans. Only 2,996 people died on "9/11". Yet Canada didn't decide to invade the Punjab or declare war on Sikhism---it sent out the police to try and find those responsible and bring them to trial. Why couldn't the USA do the same thing after 9/11?)

I don't blame any individual person for this assumption. After all, it has been part of the American psyche since the founding of New England and the American Revolution. Indeed, I suspect that in some sense just about every nation on the earth has people who think that they are "exceptional" in the same sense. (Adolph Hitler surely seemed to think that the German people were equally "exceptional".) But the extreme power that America has held in world affairs since the end of both WWII and the Cold War has shielded it from the "wake up calls" that most people suffer when their self-assessment collides with reality.

Well, the wake up calls are now marching down the pipeline.

These include things like 9/11, two wars that it cannot win, the destruction of New Orleans and the financial collapse. But if my read of the American media is right, most of the supporters of the exceptionalist point of view are looking for scape-goats instead of changing their behaviour. What what I've seen of Sara Palin and the Tea-Baggers, they blame Barak Obama and "socialism" more than they do a series of really dumb decisions by George Bush and company. Once those damn "socialists" and "Europe-lovers" get out of office, then things will be able to "right themselves".

As a Daoist I don't get mad at these people. They are simply working through the cultural implications of living in a nation that has been very rich and very powerful for a very long time. Now that the inevitable "crack up" has arrived, it is going to be a very painful process whereby people adjust to the new reality. The same thing happened to Britain when its Empire drained away. And before that, it also happened to France when its hegemony over Europe was ripped away by Germany.

Dyer is a good writer and he has a good grasp of history, but this point came home to me when I watched the film about the Red Army Faction terrorists in 1970s Germany. Watching the movie, it occurred to me that their actions were almost inevitable because of German history. The terrorists had been born during the Third Reich and most of their parent's generation had been either passive or active participants. As the most idealistic of an inherently idealistic stage of life, these people lived in the ultimate "generation clash". They were obsessed by the Vietnam War and oppression in the Third World; and absolutely fixated on the issue of why their parents had done nothing to fight against the Nazi regime. When you understand the emotional bind that they found themselves in, the ideal of armed "direct action" seems almost inescapable.

In effect, the Red Army Faction was a sort of "cultural fever nightmare" that Germany had to get through in order to come to terms with the Third Reich. I suspect that the Tea Party is going to turn into something similar in the USA. In both cases it is hard to not see all the waste and be upset, but I think that a "man of Dao" should remind him or herself that this is just a necessary stage in the development of the nation.

Sometimes we breath in, and sometimes we breath out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Post-Biblical Christianity

Last night I was doing some research on the internet about liberal Christianity and I came across the most amazing podcast by a fellow by the name of Michael Dowd.
Dowd Espouses what he calls "post-Biblical Christianity" and has written a best-selling book titled "Thank God for Evolution". (I haven't read the book yet, but I did order it from my library.)

From what I can see from his websites, Dowd argues that Christianity needs to drop any sort of pretence that the Bible has any sort of "grip" on ultimate truth. It is a common place amongst Liberals to assume that people's understanding of the natural world has advanced to the point where people know that animals evolved instead of being created by some sort of miraculous event. But Dowd goes one step further and points out that our moral understanding has advanced as well. The old Testament is filled with statements that support genocide, racism, sexism, etc, etc. As Dowd points out, the God of the Bible could be defined as a "terrorist" according the rules laid down by the FBI.

What Dowd suggests is to simply accept the fact that people's understanding changes and that when we figure out something new we just have to accept the new truth and move on. If the Bible contradicts the new truth, so much the worse for the Bible. It's clear that Dowd isn't tossing out religion, because he sees a very important role for it in our society. He just thinks that it needs to be governed by the same sorts of processes that everything else in our society follows.

I find this really refreshing. If I'd met any religious group that followed this formula (and also had some sort of prophetic vision---which, unfortunately, the Unitarians don't seem to have), I'd have joined them in a flash. I think it is pretty indicative of the state of Christianity that Dowd only started teaching this specific vision after he'd been fired as a Protestant Minister for having an affair with one of this parishioners. (I don't blame him for this, I don't know the specifics and who hasn't been tempted?) If he hadn't been bumped out of the pulpit, he might never have had the courage to say what he really thinks about stuff. That's the real problem with Christianity---"the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity".

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Modern Daoist Stories: Duke

I worked with a fellow I'll call "Duke" for a long time. Since it was the sort of job that had lots of opportunities for long conversations, I got to know him significantly more than I would have liked.

Duke was an auto mechanic who, to hear him talk, had made a great deal of money before he'd gotten polio and ended up with a bad back. As a result, he wound up at the same job that I had, even though to hear him talk it was designed to do not much more than cause him a life of living Hell.

As I got to know Duke, it came out that he had grown up in not much more than a tar paper shack with a father who had come back from WWII with significant physical and emotional problems. At an early age he'd left home and dropped out of school to live in a rooming house and work at a service station pumping gas and changing oil. The owner of the station had taken him under his wing and convinced/forced him to take on an automotice apprenticeship that resulted in his getting a trade.

Duke had a strange blind spot. He would never see contradictions between what he said he believed and the actions that he personally took. So at the same time that he spoke gratefully about this boss who had taken great pains to make sure that he actually finished his apprenticeship, he bragged that later on in life when he was a Master, he was so hard on his apprentices that none of them ever got their papers.

He also used to complain bitterly about nepotism at work, yet when one of his sons needed a job, he and his wife pulled all sorts of strings to get him one. And his son turned out to be a collossal problem to our workplace---one long time employees actually quit rather than have to work with him. Junior was eventually "shown the door".

Another time Duke was pontificating to me about how much money taxpayers waste on the salaries of politicians. I pointed out to him that I knew for a fact that the mayor actually made slightly less money than he did. Within a heart-beat, Duke replied that that was why our politicians were so worthless "You get what you pay for!"

Shortly after I started work I decided to time Duke to see how long he would talk without my offering a single word to the conversation. He talked 40 minutes straight without my saying a peep. Towards the end of this experiment, a voice in the back of my head told me "I hope this guy never gets into a position of authority!"

I got so sick of hearing this fellow pontificate that at one time I simply attempted to avoid him whenever possible. (I literally had a dream once where I strangled Duke. When I woke up my hands were rapped around the pillow and I was squeezing like my life depended on it.) This lasted two weeks and then Duke complained to my boss, who ordered me to socialize with him again.

Duke retired last year, so he is finally out of my hair. But I suspect it will take me years to get him out of my system.

I could go on and on about this fellow, but I think you get the flavour. The reason I'm writing about him is because I never met fellows like him in the spiritual books that I read. I have copies of translations of Zen Flesh and Zen Bones, The Gateless Gate, The Blue Cliff Records, The Record of the Transmission of the Light---even Zen Comics. I've read stories in Zhuangzi, Liezi and other Daoist books. I've also got all the Idris Shah books of Sufi teaching stories. Just once I'd like to read a teaching story where a Master is confronted by an angry, nasty, stupid person who is totally and complete impervious to logic---yet whom he simply cannot avoid because of the circumstances that he finds himself in.

How would a spiritual master deal with having to work with a guy like Duke? Or a crazy sadistic drill seargant after being drafted into the army? Or the mob when it wanted to extort money from you?

I once lived in a building that rumour had it had been built by money made from extortion rackets. I didn't pay much attention to this until one day I had a conversation with one of the elderly owners about some noise complaints. In his gravelly voice he said something like this "Yeah, he wants me to get involved. I don't like this sort of thing. People yell at each other, they get angry, and the next thing you know someone has their kneecaps broken with a baseball bat. I just don't like to get involved---." This guy wasn't a bad landlord, but I suspect I would never have wanted to get on his bad side when he was younger.

This is one aspect of spirituality where Christianity does have some significant insights to offer. Sometimes all we can do is "endure". And the myth of Jesus on his cross crying out "My God why have you forsaken me?" is something that really does resonate with the day-to-day misery that people inflict upon each other. We live our lives the best we can and eventually something happens to end it. And when that does, even though we may personally be gone, the universe continues. The best we can hope for is to really savour the bits and pieces of joy that life does offer us when it can, and not let the bad taste of the ugliness of the other bits leave such a sour taste in our mouths that we waste these scraps of grace.

Environmental Vow: Part Fourteen

I've raised the idea of restorative justice not to solve the problems of our criminal justice system, but instead as a bit of a “thought experiment” to illustrate the different ways in which the concept of “freedom” can be understood. My suggestion is that the ideal encapsulated in the ethic of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” (at least as popularly conceived) is based on a flawed definition of freedom, one that is specifically centred on the individual. As I've suggested, as people naively express this ideal in their personal lives, it boils down to “do your own thing”. And, as I've pointed out, the ethic of “doing your own thing” has no real answer to the question “Why not become a crack whore? Couch potato? Greedhead? Sex Maniac? etc.” Adherence to this ideal has not only discredited so-called “progressives” in the eyes of the Right, it means that they have no moral grounds for suggesting that there is an imperative (moral, religious or patriotic) for people mobilize in order to deal with our climate catastrophe.

At this point, I'd like to introduce a more sophisticated definition of “freedom”, one that can go a long way, I believe, in answering the problems that have arisen from the “do your own thing” worldview. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the ancient Roman, once wrote that “Freedom is participation in power.” This definition will probably sound startling to some readers, so it might be helpful to mention that I first heard this quote mentioned by the consumer advocate and community organizer Ralph Nader. What he was saying was that “freedom”, in the political sense, does not flow from the absense of the Gestapo or the Inquisition, but instead from how engaged the citizenry is in the daily life of their society. It is possible to consider an enlightened dictatorship with complete freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc. But insofar as the people who live in that state do not have feel that they have any control over who is making the big decisions in their life, they still live in a dictatorship and they are not “free”. As a result of this reasoning, Nader was saying that if you want to be politically free you have to be actively engaged in the political process.

I believe that this new definition also works when we go beyond the realm of politics. “Power” is more than just government. Engineers and scientists, for example, gain power by learning more about the physical world that surrounds us. Even ordinary people who know how to fix a leaking toilet or change the operating system on their computer insofar as they can do so participate in the power of modern technology. It is certainly the case that when people are confronted by something that they don't know how to repair or even operate they feel especially powerless and unfree.

I would further suggest that the fundamental issue is not the specific knowledge that a person gains from learning about the machinery that surrounds them. Just because I can change the operating system on my computer doesn't mean that I know how it works or could even write a very simple program. The “mastery” I feel is ultimately pretty shallow and inconsequential. But the process of learning how to download open source software and install Linux on my laptop has resulted in my becoming personally “engaged” with the technology in a way that cannot happen by going into a store and buying a new computer pre-loaded with a MS Windows package.

In much the same way, the “freedom” that Cicero and Nader are talking about comes not from having all that much real control over the political process (even citizen groups have to have leaders and followers, after all.) Instead, the relevant issue is how much the person has invested their own personal well-being into the group project. This means that when we think about the phrase “freedom comes from participation in power”, the emphasis should be upon participation, not power.

At this point we can see where the value of restorative justice comes into play. It sees the key issue in criminal activity as being that of an individuals's alienation from society instead of their personal “evil”. The solution, therefore, is to reintegrate the offender into the community instead of merely punishing him. The Lakota elders reintegrated the murderer by making him responsible for supporting the wife and children of the man he killed. The modern example I gave teaches the offender that there really are individual human beings who are harmed by property crimes like burglary, which thereby deflates the comforting illusion that their offenses are only against impersonal, inhuman insurance companies. Insofar as this initiative is successful, it means that if the would-be criminal contemplates committing similar crimes in the future, the crime will have to be understood specifically as an act that is done to specific human beings who will suffer as a result. This makes the crime “real” in a way that it wasn't before, which is to say that the criminal has been brought back into the community of man.

Once we start seeing freedom in this way, we can see how religious people like the Benedictines and soldiers like General Wolf could see themselves as being “free”. Insofar as they felt that they were emotionally “participating” or “engaging” in enterprises much bigger than themselves---the monastery or regiment---they felt “free” in the same sense as understood by Cicero and Nader. Obviously the individual soldier driven into the army by poverty or oblate given to the Benedictines while still a young child, did not initially “participate” very much in the “power” that compelled them. But even so, many of these people no doubt did end up identifying with the community that they found themselves in, accepted its ideals, and ended up finding satisfaction in the life. Proof of this fact exists around us insofar as many people still find enormous personal satisfaction from living in religious communities. Similarly, a great many veterans of the Armed Forces are tenatiously loyal to their branch of the service even many years after being discharged.

The important point to understand in using Cicero's definition is to change the emphasis from that of being free from constraint to that of engagement in something bigger than one's self. The “free” man is not one that is free from coercion---a necessary, but not sufficient state of affairs---but rather one that is engaged with something that fulfills him. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre pointed out much the same thing when he suggested that there is a difference between what he called “freedom from” and “freedom for”. Many people seek freedom from constraints of one form or another (work, rules, etc), whereas the truly free man seeks freedom to follow some sort of higher idea (art, justice, etc.) This is where the difference lies between the crack whore and a great man like Martin Luther King Jr. comes into play. The former never set out to become enslaved to cocaine, it was just the result of a series of bad choices and/or consistently bad luck. The latter, on the other hand, devoted himself to the ideal of civil rights and did what was necessary to pursue it. Both came to a bad end, but the former is a sad tragedy whereas the latter was heroic martyrdom.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

One Dao or Another

I just got finished watching an interview with Gwynne Dyer on Democracy Now. For the last bit of the show, they brought in Vandana Shiva to have a little debate between the two.

Dyer was saying, as part of his Climate Wars thesis, that the human race simply isn't going to get its act together fast enough to prevent significant climate change. As a result, there will be significant starvation in the global South, which will have serious military consequences in terms of mass migrations, failed states and war over dwindling water supplies. He said that as a result of this catastrophic failure to control greenhouse gas emissions the scientific community is now seriously looking at geoengineering solutions to manage the global temperature---such as seeding clouds with sulphur dioxide.

Mr. Gonzales kept trying to suggest to Mr. Dyer that "the corporations" and the military would use this sort of engineering to exploit the poor. He was also trying to suggest that even with global warming there wouldn't be any absolute scarcity of food once inequality was taken from the face of the earth.

When Ms. Shiva came on, she suggested that if people totally changed the food system to one based on organic agriculture and local food supplies, that there would be so much carbon sequestered in the soil that a large part of the problem would disappear.

Dyer agreed with Shiva about the solutions she offered. But he said that there simply wouldn't be enough time to institute all the social changes her prescription would need to actually happen. Her response was to say that the change is already happening and if people didn't live in the mindset of engineers and soldiers they would recognize that it is already happening around them.

I work at a top flight agricultural university and I haven't seen any of the big changes that Shiva seems to be talking about. I do hang with scientists, though, and all of them are deeply worried about the future. I also hang with politicians. Many of them are stupid as a sack of rocks and most of these don't think that climate change is an issue. The others feel their hands are tied because of the stupidity of the other politicians and the general public----and the enormous lethargy and torpor that our incredibly complex economic, legal and political system impose on social change.

What really struck me about the exchange was how totally and completely Shiva and Juan Gonzalez were refusing to listen to what Dyer was saying. They have a vision of why there are problems in the world and any argument or evidence that doesn't fit nicely into that paradigm simply gets trimmed to fit it---like people laying on a Procrustean bed.

I attempt to understand the world around me. I look at the flow of complex interactions and give it a name: "the Dao". And that name is how I identify myself as a religious person to the people I meet. When I watched that interchange between Dyer, Gonzalez and Shiva, I couldn't help but feel like Gonzalez and Shiva had become totally unglued from the Dao and were following some sort of delusion or mirage. It underscores what is probably one of the most important virtues that I honour: the ability to look the truth full on and without bias. I don't suppose this would be considered a Christian virtue, I'm not even sure that it is a traditional Daoist one. But it seems very important to me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Daily Grind

One of the things that I don't think many people understand about the spiritual life is how incredibly busy it can be.

This came home to me the other day. I got a phone call early Sunday morning from my neighbour, whom I have given free internet service in exchange for helping with some work on my house. She found that her email wasn't working anymore. I went upstairs and fixed the problem fairly quickly.

She didn't just call me, though. She got all flustered and phoned my internet provider, who then got involved and started harassing me about upgrading my service. So I agreed to the upgrade. So I got the new router. Of course, it didn't just work "out of the box". So I had to go through a bit of a "snipe hunt" to figure out how to make it work on my laptop. About 15 minutes after I got my laptop going, my neighbour phoned me to tell me her computer wasn't connecting to the internet. A couple days later and a lot of research, and I still haven't got her computer to work for her.

I've gotten a bit grumpy about this, because the experience has shown me how incredibly time poor I have become. I work at a full time job and try to meditate and do taijiquan every day. I also walk back and forth to work, which comes down to an hour and a half commute every day. Add in trying to cook at least one meal a day, dealing with the demands of being a fairly involved member of a political party, writing a book, this blog plus the normal stuff---laundry, etc, and I am really busy. The fact that my neighbour is getting upset because of a few days without internet---but has no interest in actually learning anything about computers---isn't helping with my equanimity.

I was reading the autobiography of a zen master, Sheng-yen, a couple days ago and something struck me. He describes his life as the disciple of another master:
My stay with him turned out to be one of the most difficult periods of my life. He constantly harassed me. It reminded me of the treatment that Milarepa received from his guru Marpa. For example, after telling me to move my things into one room, he would later tell me to move to another room. Then he would tell me to move back in again. Once, he told me to seal off a door and to open a new one in another wall. I had to haul the bricks by foot from a distant kiln up to the monastery. We normally used a gas stove, but my master often sent me to the mountains to gather a special kind of firewood that he liked to brew his tea over. I would constantly be scolded for cutting the wood too small or too large. I had many experiences of this kind.

In my practice it was much the same. When I asked him how to practice, he would tell me to meditate. But after a few days he would quote a famous master, saying, "You can't make a mirror by polishing a brick, and you can't become a Buddha by sitting." So he ordered me to do prostrations. Then, after several days, he would say "This is nothing but a dog eating shit off the ground. Read the sutras!" After I read for a couple of weeks, he would scold me again, saying that the patriarchs thought the sutras good only for cleaning sores. He would say, "You're smart. Write an essay." When I showed him an essay he would tear it up saying, "These are all stolen ideas." Then he would challenge me to use my own wisdom and say original things.

When I lived with him he forbade me to keep a blanket, because monks were supposed to meditate at night. When tired, we could nap, but were not to rely on the comfort of a bed or blanket. All these arbitrary things were actually his way of training me. Whatever I did was wrong even if he had just told me to do it. Although it was hard to think of this treatment as compassionate, it really was. If I hadn't been trained with this kind of discipline, I would not have accomplished much. I also realized from him that learning the Buddha Dharma was a very vigorous activity, and that one should be self-reliant in practice.

I can understand how Sheng must have felt when he was studying under the master who harassed him. I feel like that a great deal of the time. The thing is, however, I suspect that the only way to gain the great equanimity that I seek, is to be able to survive in the wild maelstrom that my life has become. When I do get those moments of quiet, like writing this blog during my lunch hour, I find that peace of mind returns. Hopefully some day I will "graduate" and be able to live up the Zen ideal of being able to sit peacefully even though a mountain collapses right next to me.

I hope that this doesn't arrive about 15 minutes before I drop dead, though.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Treading the Razor's Edge

In the Katha Upanishad, the following statement occurs: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path (to the Self) is hard" (pt 3, verse 14.) The image is of walking on the edge of a razor the way a circus performer walks on a tight-rope.

It's common for people to read this sort of thing and think it only refers to fairly mundane types of temptation. It is true that people with religious vocations routinely do "fall by the wayside" because they cannot control their desires for wealth, power, etc. (Certainly the scandals that routinely come from the Catholic Church and evangelical clergy give us lots of examples.) But I think that a much, much more common problem is the way religious people fall prey to a sort of willful blindness that keeps them from seeing the inherent limitations of their tradition.

I was struck by this point while reading an essay by Michael Parenti, titled Friendly Feudalism, that deconstructs Western assumptions about what Tibet was like before the Chinese invasion. In a nutshell, it points out that idyllic image that we have of a happy Buddhist Tibet overseen by a benevolent Dalai Lama is about as real as Hinton's Shangri-La from Lost Horizon.

One of the more trenchant historical nuggets that Parenti offers include the fact that the office of Dalai Lama itself is a Chinese invention---one that was imposed upon the Tibetans by an invading Chinese army in order to unify the different schools of Buddhism. He also mentions how incredibly brutal and exploitative the feudal economy was to those who were born on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

I don't think it would be fair to blame Buddhism for the problems that beset old Tibet. But then again, I don't think that Buddhism did very much to try and change the social order either. Indeed, as Parenti points out the idea of "karma" was used to justify the status quo. In effect the rich and powerful were so because of good deeds done in a past life. Similarly, the poor and oppressed must have done bad in lives past.

And this is an important point that almost all religious people miss. If we are not going to blame religion for all the iniquities of the society that purports to be informed by it, by the same token we shouldn't be able to suggest that religion is some sort of panacea that can solve all of these iniquities either. Using the information that Parenti has provided, I can argue that whatever insight Buddhism can offer, it simply hasn't proved sufficient to deal with all the problems that Tibetan society faced. This isn't to suggest that the invasion by Maoist China was the treatment that Tibet needed, but if nothing else, the decrepit state of feudal Tibet certainly didn't do much to fend it off, either.

So what is it that Buddhism lacked that Tibet needs? A great many things, I would suggest.

Perhaps something that could be called "the dharma of Socrates", or, a culture that respects rational analysis and critical thinking. This way of looking at the world has several beneficial effects. First, it sweeps away the considerable damage that is caused in a society by superstition. Secondly, it's spirit of free and open inquiry invariably leads to the critical thinking about absolutely every element of society. (Indeed, according to Plato's Apology, this is why Socrates seems to have been executed by the Athenian state.)

Beyond that, Tibet probably could have used the idea of human progress, which would encourage its citizens to want to go out and make the world a better place for their children. The idea that there are inalienable human "rights" that can only be trampled upon by committing profound moral sin could be another. It could probably also benefit from the idea that rulers shouldn't have any arbitrary power but instead should rule through a legal code. (I understand that China's rulers understand their lack in that regard and have been trying to create a legal system pretty much from scratch.) A cultural infrastructure of scientific inquiry might also be useful. As would a "civil society" of activists and charities to help the poor and oppressed. Even a fringe of radicals---like Michael Parenti---would provide a counter-balance to whatever passed as "common sense" during feudal times.

I'm no expert on Tibetan history or culture. So all the suggestions that I have made above have pretty much been "shots in the dark". But I do know that each and every one of them---and quite a few more---were ideas that people had to fight for in Europe in order to make them part of our collective world-view. Moreover, I also know for a fact that none of them are either intrinsic to any religion's message nor were they propagated by any ecclesiastic power structure. They came from the secular society and not only were never supported by religion, they very often had to fight against it in order to become established parts of the way people think. (Think of the current fights with religious authorities over gender and sexual orientation as the latest in a long history of battles.)

The over-arching point I am trying to make is that while many people, myself included, believe that a spiritual or religious element is essential to the well-lived life, I do not believe that it is, or ever has been, sufficient. Religion is not enough, people of good will also need to be engaged in the development of secular society. And I think that if there is a "sin" that religious believers fall prey to more than any other, it is shirking their responsibilities as citizens. For every priest who gets caught abusing children or Evangelical preacher stealing from the poor box, there are thousands, if not millions, who fail to live up their their secular responsibilities as citizens in the greater human community.

Walking the razor's edge would be a picnic if the only pitfalls were sex and money!