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!


Anonymous said...

In other words, Tibet would be great if it were exactly like the West?

There are a whole host of Orientalist assumptions in your post that I find deeply disturbing, since they are not all that different from the rhetoric that was used to justify the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Certainly medieval Tibet was not the Shangra-La which many Westerners envision it to be, but your prescription of a good healthy dose of Western Civilization is both simplistic and condescending.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

The problem is, alas, that I wasn't writing about medieval Tibet, but modern Tibet. There is something to be said in favour of not judging another culture by the standards of our own. But poverty, slavery and oppression are universal concepts. It was baloney to say that the black slaves were happy in the antebellum Southern USA, and it is baloney to say that Tibetan peasants were happy in their poverty and oppression.

My specific suggestions were European in origin. As I wrote, they were "shots in the dark". If the Tibetans want to come up with something different that also deals with their problems, good for them. The Chinese make that argument about the problems that bedevil their society, and I probably have more sympathy for them that the overwhelming majority of Western commentators.

But the sauce exists for the goose as well as the gander. If you want to dismiss my concerns about Tibetan oppression based on my understanding of universal values, then to be consistent you should also dismiss any concerns about what the Chinese are doing in Tibet.

Indeed, both Buddhism and Marxism believe in universal truths----which means that the followers of either system would reject your cultural relativism argument.

But all of this is besides the point that I was trying to make. I was merely pointing out that religious systems are not sufficient unto themselves to deal with all the ills in a society. The ills that Parenti describes in old Tibet also existed in old Europe. They were removed not by religion, but by the secular forces that I listed off. Christianity didn't end widespread poverty and oppression in Europe, and it looks like Buddhism didn't do it in Tibet either. That is why I suggest it is wrong for religious believers---like myself---to see it as a universal panacea.

I hope this makes my position a little clearer.