Trimondi Online Magazine





New Opium for Intellectuals:

Tibetan Buddhist Chic in the West


By Andrei Znamenski – The University of Memphis


The Dalai Lama is a worldwide traveler, constantly visiting Western Europe and North America, where he has been building support for the Tibetan cause and promoting Tibetan Buddhism as the doctrine of non-violence, human rights, and respect for the environment. According to the Dalai Lama and his numerous acolytes, Tibetan Buddhism is capable of resolving ecological problems, alleviating individual stresses and anxieties, eradicating problems of corporate culture, improving education and gender equality, and, ultimately, will bring about peace. The Tibetan Buddhist religion is frequently billed as a spiritual wisdom for the twenty-first century, which resonates well with Western intelligentsia that, since the nineteenth century, has never held its indigenous Christianity in high esteem and that, at the same time, has craved for spiritual fulfillment. In just the United States alone, the official number of known participants in Tibetan Buddhism has reached 3 million people.  One can observe similar developments in other Western countries. The prestige of Tibetan Buddhism on the Western cultural scene has reached its highest peak.


In the public eye, Tibetan Buddhism acquired a status of uncorrupted high spiritual wisdom to be emulated and disseminated. If you ask the average educated person about his or her impression of Tibetan Buddhism, a standard answer would be filled with such key words as "reverence for all life," "eternal peace," "harmony," "meditation," "non-violence," and "ecological wisdom."


Recently, during His Holiness's May visit to Austria, when he was awarded a gold medal by a local government in Corinthia, he reminded people that the Buddha instructed not to take his words of wisdom for granted, but to explore, investigate, and verify them.  Let's follow the Dalai Lama's suggestion and explore if the image of Tibetan Buddhism as a totally peaceful, healthful, and serene religion matches reality.


Let us start with the famous and widely repeated statement that Tibetan Buddhism has been preaching the doctrine of non-violence from the time immemorial.  After September 11, 2001, “Der Spiegel,” a German popular weekly, published an article about the presence of religious fundamentalism in world religions -- a neat Multikulti attempt to extend to other major religions what is now mostly perpetrated by militant Islam. Sure enough, the magazine found abundant evidence of religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Judaism. What is interesting here is that Tibetan Buddhism was totally excluded from this list. It is time to change this false perception.


The stereotype of Tibetan Buddhism as a historically non-violent tradition is simply not true. Many predecessors of the present-day Dalai Lama were engaged in military campaigns against Tibet's neighbors. Professor Robert Thurman, one of the deans of American Buddhist studies and the personal representative of the Dalai Lama in North America, has insisted that the 5th Dalai Lama, the one who built up Tibet as a unified country in the early modern age, was a very peaceful and benign politician. In reality, in 1660, this great state builder ordered the ruthless suppression of a popular revolt, sanctioning the execution of men, women, and children [Lydia Aran, "Inventing Tibet," Commentary 1 (2009): 40-41]. In fact, in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a group of the "elect," so-called Bodhisattvas (individuals who reached sainthood but decided to stay in this world to assist the ordinary people), were allowed to transgress common principals of morality and commit a murder if it benefitted the Tibetan Buddhist religion. Professor David Gray, an expert in Tibetan tantras, informs us that such a moral license issued to this group of the "elect" created tension for Tibetan Buddhists who originally, like the rest of Buddhists, had subscribed to the notion of compassion and respect for living beings. Eventually, this double standard resulted in the emergence of a practice of so-called “compassion killing.” As applied to practical life, a Buddhist, who for various reasons must commit a murder, has to have a good intention when resorting to this act of violence [David A. Gray, "Compassionate Violence? On the Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 14 (2007): 240-271].


The present-day Dalai Lama -- who constantly talks about ecumenical peace and harmony -- insists that, from early on, non-violence has been part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. There is no doubt that Tibetan Buddhism shines if compared to current Islam, which is still heavily loaded with militant ethics. Still, this current stance propagated by the spiritual leader of Tibet has nothing to do with Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In fact, Lydia Aran and Elliot Sperling, two other experts on Tibetan Buddhism, stress that before the present Dalai Lama picked up the concept of non-violence (ahimsa) from the famous Hindu philosopher-politician Mahatma Gandhi, neither of his predecessors preached or practiced non-violence [Aran, "Inventing Tibet," p. 40; Elliot Sperling, " 'Orientalism' and Aspects of Violence in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition,"]. Incidentally, Sperling has related an interesting anecdote about Gandhi -- who did not know too much about Buddhism and who wrote to the 13th Dalai Lama somewhere in the 1920s -- expressing confidence that Tibetan people steadfastly clung to the noble Buddha's doctrine of ahimsa. In his reply, the Lhasa ruler noted that he did not know what Gandhi was talking about!


Throughout history, like any other religions, Tibetan Buddhism had to confront alien beliefs. Thus, in the early middle ages, when aggressive Islam made deep inroads in Afghanistan and Northern India, phasing out local Buddhist communities, the latter came up with the doctrine of a holy war -- a mirror-image of an Islamic Jihad customized for the spiritual consumption of Northern Buddhists who had to confront the Muslim invaders.  Hence the presence in Tibetan Buddhism of the famous Shambhala prophecy that predicted the bloody Armageddon battle between the Buddhists and infidels. This battle was to eventually result in the global triumph of Buddhists and arrival of the Shambhala Kingdom, a Buddhist paradise, where the faithful would live rich and happy lives unmolested by infidels.


The apocalyptic Shambhala prophecy is part of the so-called Kalachakra Tantra teaching -- a collection of legends and practices that represent the core of Tibetan Buddhism.  An important element of that teaching is the Kalachakra initiations performed by the Dalai Lama and other top lamas. For the past thirty years, His Holiness has been traveling around offering these initiations to thousands of Europeans and Americans. College professors, students, bohemian intellectuals, and all kinds of spiritual seekers flock to partake of this event.  The most recent one took place last summer in Washington, DC. According to the Dalai Lama, Kalachakra is a noble ceremony that builds up peace, harmony, and friendship.  At the same time, not many of the Western participants are familiar with true nature of this initiation.


Kalachakra is divided into two levels. The first one consists of seven stages, which are available to all the interested public.  During these first seven stages, an initiate is invited to cleanse his mind and to surrender his individuality to the will-power of the lama guru, who turns the adept's mind into an "empty vessel" to be filled with the power of a Buddhist deity -- a guideline that is very questionable from the viewpoint of present-day Humanism. Thousands of laymen in Tibet and Mongolia have viewed these mass initiations as rituals of empowerment, which superficially might be compared with the public blessings performed by the Roman Pope for Christian pilgrims. Historically, supreme lamas also performed the first seven Kalachakra initiations in times of conflict, inducting initiates into the ranks of Shambhala warriors.  The faithful expected that, in case of death, they would get access to the Shambhala kingdom, the mythological Buddhist paradise that was expected to arrive after the Armageddon battle between the Buddhists and infidels.


The eight highest initiations of the second level are available only to the elect monks. During these top initiations, the select few are empowered by being exposed to various forbidden substances and activities, for example, meat, alcohol, and sexuality.  Here, a chosen male initiate (women were not even considered candidates for the initiation) is taught to disregard common diets and moral principles, which turns the participant into a super-human being who is capable to go beyond good and evil.


Thus, old Kalachakra texts both directly and indirectly stress that the highest initiations of Kalachakra tantra cannot be completed without having intercourse with female consorts. According to the Kalachakra tradition, during a symbolic or actual intercourse performed during the highest initiations, male participants use women as energy “donors,” mixing male and female fluids, which produces spiritual power that helps these male initiates to acquire super-human qualities. The ritual use of sexuality in tantras, including Kalachaka, is not a secret. In fact, in his famous Harvard lectures, the Dalai Lama himself noted that "sex is used as a technique in the tantric path" [The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace (1988), p. 177].


Last but not least, it is stressed that both in the public and the secret Kalachakra initiations, and, in fact, in the entire Tibetan Buddhist tradition, individual empowerment cannot be accomplished without extinguishing an individual's mind and its complete subordination to the will of a spiritual guru, an "enlightened master," who is expected to navigate the initiate to the "true path."  In their life-long research Victor and Victoria Trimondi, cultural philosophers and writers, have documented and posted on their on-line "Critical Forum Kalachakra" the archaic elements of Kalachakra-tantra that should raise the eyebrows of any humanist [].


Like any other religion, various brands of current Buddhism have not been immune to religious fundamentalism and harbor traditions that are questionable from the viewpoint of Western humanism. However, I was utterly shocked by the reluctance of the educated public to explore the uncomfortable legacy of Tibetan Buddhism. The view of Tibetan Buddhism as both a helpful therapeutic technique and a serene non-violent religion has become so entrenched in our intellectual culture that any attempt to question this established view is immediately assailed as a dirty slander or Chinese Communist propaganda.


I personally encountered this last summer when, during the Dalai Lama visit to Washington, His Holiness performed grand Kalachakra initiation, I posted a comment on the Huffington Post website trying to explain to its readers that the traditional Kalachakra ceremony had nothing to do with peace and tolerance and explained why.  Giving credit to the Dalai Lama for making several steps toward adjusting Tibetan Buddhism to the modern world and to Western humanist values, I suggested that he should publicly dissociate himself from the medieval misogynist rituals of Kalachakra.  In response, furious “true believers” attacked, not the substance of my arguments, but me personally. I was called a Chinese Communist agent and an insensitive person. One critic was appalled by the fact that I was writing about Kalachakra without being initiated into this noble tradition; according to this logic, if tomorrow I decide to explore the Catholic Church, I will have to become a Catholic.  To another critic, it was simply mind-blowing how a person criticizing Tibetan Buddhism could possibly be teaching in an American college. The most "rational" argument came from a lady who, instead of addressing the raised issue, shot at me with hysterical rants about American imperialism being responsible for genocide against Native Americans and for keeping blacks in slavery for 200 years. I felt almost like being back in the good old Soviet Union, where, in response to Western criticism for violation of human rights, Soviet leaders routinely shot back by using the same rants.


What I attempted to do in my heavily-criticized comment was to simply draw attention to the fact that traditional Kalachakra (along with other Tibetan Buddhist practices) was based on subduing ones' individual conscience to the will-power of a spiritual guru.  I also pointed out that Kalachakra rituals were focused on the exploitation of spiritual energy of women and on ethical nihilism.


What we have to remember is that the version of Tibetan Buddhism propagated by the Dalai Lama and his associates in the West little resembles the indigenous Tibetan Buddhism, because it builds on the popular Western concepts of human rights, feminism, humanism, and environmentalism, which is perfectly fine because all religions are constantly changing and never stay "traditional."  Like any religion, Tibetan Buddhism contains elements that might be misused by inside and outside forces. For example, in its original rendition, the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of compassion does not mean non-violence.  It simply encourages the faithful to work on behalf of people by bringing them to the true faith -- Tibetan Buddhism. One can argue that it is potentially easy to build a bridge between the religious compassion and humanistic values by muting the message of proselytizing and putting more emphasis on humane compassion in general. Let us hope that the present Dalai Lama moves in this direction. Trying to meet the aspirations of Europeans and Americans sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhism, he indeed has been downplaying some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that do not fit the tradition of Western humanism and individualism. See, for example, his recent talks about gender equality and the necessity to raise the status of women.  In this case, what prevents him from making another step in the same direction by openly casting aside the medieval obscurantist Kalachakra tradition?


Attempts to smuggle such practices as Kalachakra into present-day Western spirituality are very disturbing. I seriously doubt that the misogynistic ceremonies of empowerment that infest the high Kalachakra initiations can serve as a spiritual blueprint for building up harmony, compassion, and gender equality. I also want to question the guru  principal ingrained in Kalachakra and other Tibetan Buddhist practices, which simply invites spiritual and ideological abuse. Attempts to issue a clean bill of trust to Tibetan Buddhism as a model spirituality of the 21st Century is historically unwarranted. For example, in the hands of shrewd management, a popular practice of using Buddhist and Taoist spiritual consultants to reduce employees' stress and anxiety easily turns into a tool of pacifying discontent workers who complain about overwork and administrative abuse. What a wonderful spiritual technique that is truly customized for a post-modern therapeutic welfare state! Leon Wieselter, who writes for The New Republic  and who had analyzed this practice as employed by Google, resorts to uncivil language by simply calling it a “corporate mind-fuck” [Leon Wieselter, "Tao Jones Index," The New Republic,  May 24 (2012)].


The last thing I am trying  to do is to create an impression that there is some other religious doctrine or ideology out there that is better than Tibetan Buddhism.  In such an irrational field as the realm of the spiritual, where everything is taken at faith value, I honestly do not see any difference among American Southern Baptists, Tibetan Buddhists, Sufis, Wiccans, Catholics, Mormons, or even Sun Dancing Lakota Indians.  When dealing with these and other spirituality groups, we may want to exercise a healthy skepticism instead of singling one of them out as the only "true path" and creating a new cultural fad designated to fix our social and spiritual problems.


Following the age-old Tibetan practice of seeking for a powerful political sponsor, the Dalai Lama and his associates grasped well that for Western society Tibetan Buddhism became an important part of a cultural and spiritual self-critique and carved for themselves a good ideological niche in Europe and North America.  The roots of the mass fascination in the West with Oriental religions, including Tibetan Buddhism, go back to the 1960s, when a large part of the European and American educated elite became frustrated with Western Civilization, turned their eyes to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Native American and other non-Western cultures and spiritualities, which, in their eyes, were good antidotes to the European culture infested with materialism and individualism. These new spiritual, environmental, and cultural utopias tinged with irrationalism partially filled the ideological gap created by the decline of the old socialist/communist utopias, which were grounded in science worship and rationalism. Originally a part of this counter-cultural movement, Tibetan Buddhism acquired life of its own in the West, and eventually became a part of the spiritual mainstream.  Spearheading Tibetan Buddhism to the West, the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetan exiles successfully capitalized simultaneously on the status of Tibet as a victim of Chinese oppression and on its image as an exotic non-Western country endowed with high spiritual wisdom.


There is no doubt that, by now, Tibetan Buddhism has become a part of the mainstream religious landscape in the West.  Yet, for those numerous representatives of educated Western elite who tend to smirk (and rightly so) at archaic elements in Christianity and Judaism but who at the same time flirt (the grass is always greener on the other side of the road) with such medieval rituals as Kalachakra, it might be useful at least to ask themselves if these rituals are helpful for a spiritual renewal of our society or do they serve as mere publicity stunts to keep going the interest of Westerners in the Tibetan cause, or, still worse, simply harbor a vehicle for a totalitarian "mind-fuck" control. Incidentally, shopping around for an additional life support, the partially decomposed communist dictatorship in China might have realized the potentialities of the latter.  In an unusual ideological twist, the Chinese elite has recently made an attempt to highjack the Kalachakra ceremony from the Dalai Lama by allowing for a puppet Tibetan guru to hold Kalachakra in Tibet as a grand religious show for thousands of Buddhist pilgrims ["Panchen Lama's Guru Offers Grand Buddhist Ritual," China Daily June 3, 2012].