Sunday Sermon: Buddhism Sucks, Too.


When we’re arguing against religion, I suppose it’s tempting to try to identify a religion that is not a violent pack of lies, so we can point to other religions (that are) and tell them, “be more like those guys.”

At best, what you’re pointing out is that a particular religion is not a violent pack of lies; it’s merely an innocuous pack of lies. That’s the cue for “apologists with faint praises” like Alain De Botton to come out of the woodwork and argue that religion may still have some uses and value and therefore ought not be rubbished entirely. Here’s a test for that argument: see if the left-over bits of religion they describe are anywhere near as healthy for an individual as taking a bicycle ride on a pretty day or going bowling with friends. If you wish to lift the benefits of religion from the dross, it doesn’t take very long and you need a relatively small shovel to do it. Also make sure you have some tweezers, because usually you’re going to have to pick the itty bitty good bits out from a chunky stew of homophobia, tacit endorsement of racism, political authoritarianism, and tacit endorsement for all sorts of very secular massacres and politics.

Alan Watts. In it for the groupie-sex? Probably the founder of what many Americans think of as ‘Tibetan’ buddhism. Do you really know where your buddhism came from?

I was a kid in the 70s and I listened to a lot of Alan Watts’ radio show, which sounded pretty groovy (no, I was not high) and served as an introduction to a sort of philosophy. I say “sort of” philosophy because it’s not much of a world-view – even Watts’ approach was heavily authoritarian (ironic, right?) in that he was fond of asserting that things were true and moving past that assertion fairly quickly. It didn’t take kid-Marcus very long to realize that he was doing the same thing that the christians have been doing since christianity was invented; the nice thing about Watts was he wasn’t telling me “you’ll go to hell” or any of that sort of thing. Watts was engaged in one of the great religious traditions of all times, namely, picking out the parts of an older religion that were not covered in too much blood and shit, wiping them off carefully, and presenting them as nuggets of wisdom. The “new age” buddhisms are mostly American distillations from Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki and have as much to do with Tibetan buddhism as mormonism has with catholicism.

By the time you’ve picked out the non-toxic chunks, you’ve created a new sect. It’s OK: religious believers do that all the time. It doesn’t make their beliefs any more real, but it may make them less violent or less stupid. Other times, it makes them more stupid; you can’t win ’em all. If jesus ever existed, he supposedly did exactly that, and look how it worked out for everybody involved. They all had problems with groupies – deniable and undeniable. I’d bet that’s what they were there for, anyway. [am] Making the scene is great, especially when you are the scene.

The point of all of this: Alan Watts created a version of buddhism that was uniquely American, rooted in the values of counter-culture. It certainly was not rooted in the values of any of the various flavors of buddhism practiced around the world. Since the 1970s Americans have grown up and encountered this buddhism with added hippie-water, and thought “buddhism is pretty cool!” I’ve even encountered a number who’ll assert that “buddhism is not a religion!” To which you are enjoined to reply, “which buddhism?”

I’ve become fond of a sort of “many worlds” interpretation of religion, which is that since each of us understands a religion in our own individual way, and there is no absolute truth to any of them, it stands to reason that each person’s religion is unique to them – therefore there are as many religions as there are believers. Religionists, by the way, spill a great deal of blood over that question, because they don’t want there to be many interpretations, as that reveals the truth of religion – namely, that it’s all stuff that people made up, mostly on the spot.

If you’re one of those people who likes to collect logical fallacies, the fallacy that is in effect here is cherry picking. [wik]

Now, let’s have a look at some of the work of one of the modern masters of cherry picking: Sam Harris. He’s also a master of well-poisoning and no true scotsman. From Harris’ site, we have this:

Why is this cherry-picking?

Notice the injection of Tibetan in Sam’s meme? Because there are loads of plain old bog-stock buddhist suicide bombers. Here’s a picture of one crashing onto the deck of the <i>USS Essex</i> in WWII. The kamikaze – they were nichiren buddhists. Sam Harris carefully cherry-picks around them.

We can cherry-pick that by saying “but those were Nichiren buddhists or perhaps that was nationalism. Sure, but: that’s a buddhist suicide bomber, the rest is details. Sam Harris is either being ignorant or dishonest when he cherry-picks his buddhism trope to specifically favor a sect of buddhism that he, in his vast ignorance, assumes is peace-loving (because, they say so).

What Harris is doing is about as dishonest as this:

I didn’t raise the question of Amish suicide bombers because I’m not sure if they are allowed to use explosives or not – and, frankly, I don’t care. [Did you hear the one about the Amish terrorist that tried to blow up a bus? He couldn’t get everyone to close the windows so he could pump it up with his bicycle pump, so the dastardly plot was foiled.]

Lhasa looks like a castle, because: it is.

But there’s a deeper problem with the love of Tibetan buddhism, particularly. Anyone who understands a thing about how religions work ought to be able to predict that Tibetan buddhism has followed the usual trajectory of mostly-successful religions. As, it has: there have been schisms, repressions, alliance with political power, chicanery, etc.

The reason woo-dabbling Americans are OK with Tibetan buddhism is because they are ignorant of its history, and often confuse the glarp that American Tibetan buddhists spew for real down-home Tibetan buddhism, which is red in tooth and claw.

I don’t think that Sam Harris necessarily falls for that lovable con-man, the Dalai Lama, but (other than an awkward bit of homophobia and his ridiculous claim to self-recycle and be “enlightened”) the Dalai Lama is just another political leader in exile. Prior to China coming along and ruining his gig, he was the theocratic front-man for his own country. I can appreciate why he’s bummed; it’s got to suck seeing how his empire has been whittled down. “Empire?” you say? The Dalai Lama has had to look for a real job, now that the secular Chinese have booted him off his gold throne and have denied that his self-recycling claims to religious specialness mean that he has any business directing the politics of Tibet. Tibet, under the Dalai Lamas – by the way – was a typical theocracy, with palaces for the priesthood and everyone else pretty much lived a subsistance life-style. Oh, yeah, and the lamas had the power of life and death over the peasants – the peasants loved the lamas because the lamas would murder them if they didn’t. Basically, the Dalai Lama’s complaints that China has thrown him from power, are remarkably similar to the Monty Python sketch in Life of Brian where the Judeans are going “…. other than roads, libraries, running water, common, law, and peace, what did Rome ever do for us!?”

By the way, as I was writing the paragraphs above, I thought: “Maybe I should google and see if the Dalai Lama had a golden throne. Because these assholes always have a golden throne.” Sure enough. The jokes write themselves.

Imperial Tibet used to be quite a lot larger than it was, but it got cut down by Manchu encroachment and (drum-roll, please…) internal sectarian strife. Of course, the “sectarian” aspect of it was just a tactile interface for the rubes: the battle was really about secular power. That pretty fort at Lhasa? That’s a pretty nice pad; it’s the kind of pad that the winners of a long sectarian war build for themselves, isn’t it? Because that’s exactly what it is. Those curtain-walls heading down toward the valley? They’re totally not defensive works. Just kidding. Lhasa is a fortress, just like every autocratic seat of power, ever.

The various peace-loving schools of buddhism eradicated eachother for various peace-loving reasons. Finally, only one remained. And that peace-loving school, led by the Dalai Lama, is what American buddhists are so fond of, and sing paeans to the peacefulness-of. Guys, they’re peaceful because they’ve been disempowered by superior forces; there’s nothing peaceful in their past and if they found themselves on top of the power-pyramid they’d be raining down inquisitions left and right just like they used to.

Now, to be fair, I bought a book on the history of Tibet, because I wanted to understand the history of Tibetan buddhism in the context of the region’s history – but it’s boring and I didn’t finish it. Normally, I don’t have trouble with history books, and the text I chose is pretty well-written – it’s just that Tibetan history is pretty much warfare and sectarian strife and political allegiances with larger regional powers, leavened with a great big double-helping of religious bullshit, like that the political leader of one sect keeps getting born again, like the mullet or turned-up collars on polo shirts. As far as claims to moral superiority and religious leadership, “I am an enlightened being who keeps recycling himself and never dies” sounds more like that awful Underworld vampires-versus-werewolves series [with Kate Beckinsale in it!] than a justification for supreme executive power. Let alone moral authority.

I guess Tibetan religious history is exciting. But it sounds more like the purely secular doings of New York City gangs than something we should venerate for holiness:

But the court was becoming polarised, and Palgyi Yonten’s Buddhist agenda was about to backfire badly. The aristocrats who disliked this agenda or were out of favor formed a secret group of revolutionaries. Their first target was Palgyi Yonten himself. The conspirators spread a rumor that the monk was having an affair with one of the queens. Ralpachen, lacking judgement and filled with suspicion sent Palgyi Yonten into exile. The conspirators, leaving nothing to chance, then despatched assassins to kill the monk. According to one version of the story, Palgyi Yonten hid in an underground bunker, but was discovered there by a blind man and subsequently killed. But that was not enough to satisfy the discontented nobles; they flayed the corpse and stretched the skin across a frame to make a kind of dummy. Afterward Palgyi Yonten’s relatives burned his remains , and from the smoke his spirit is said to have emerged like a white light. When one of his sisters called out in grief, the light turned red, a great wind blew, up and Palgyi Yonten’s ghost sword vengeance on his killers.

The fact that Ralpachen allowed his most trusted minister to be treated like this showed how weak he had become. In the later years of his reign, his mental state declined so much that he was no longer fit to rule his kingdom: he remained in place as a figurehead while his ministers, and his brother Darma Wuduten, made the real decisions. Compared to Ralpachen, Darma cut a strikingly different figure. A tough guy who later earned the nickname Lang, “The Ox” he was fond of wine and hunting parties. He was an unlikely candidate for the position of tsenpo, but the conspirators started to gravitate around him. With Darma waiting in the wings, the leaders of the Ba and Chogro clans plotted the assassination of Ralpachen. They arranged to see the tsenpo alone, when he was staying in his castle outside of Lhasa, and came upon him drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine of the gardens. Suddenly, they grabbed him and twisted his head until his neck snapped. It was the beginning of the end for the Tibetan empire.

With little opposition, Darma the Ox was placed on the bloodstained throne of Greater Tibet. While the new tsenpo continued to enjoy his lifestyle of drinking, hunting and partying, the ministers who had brought him to power set about drastically cutting the spending on Buddhist projects. They shut down the college that trained translators, where thousands of Buddhist scriptures had been rendered into Tibetan in the past hundred years. That was the end of that. The last great temple that Ralpachen had commissioned, Onchangdo, was left without the performance of a final consecrating ritual, so remained an empty shell.

[Extract from Sam Van Schaik, Tibet, A Historywc]

See what I mean about pot-boiler politics? There are echoes of Rasputin and Trump in these tales, but the reason I quoted them at you is because they mark the transition from Greater Tibet as an imperial power to a theocracy. Basically, the politics of Tibet had been nasty, brutish, and short for a long time – and the reaction to those politics was in the form of religious asceticism. What you won’t find in these stories is a trace of peacefulness or holiness. How did the Dalai Lamas come to power?

Oh, that’s easy: they allied with the Mongols and were set up under the standard Mongol non-compete, which was “You do not compete with us, right? Or else.” [Trump’s lawyer probably wishes he could have used the standard Mongol non-disclosure, but times have changed]

I’m not trying to engage in the “genetic fallacy” here – I’m not saying that Tibetan buddhism is bullshit because it springs from a well of political intrigue and bullshit (but one could say that!) it’s just that I want to emphasize that this is and always was a secular process and that it never was peaceful. People who seek gold thrones usually do not seek them in Cracker Jack boxes – gold thrones are acquired the hard way.

I’m not saying “none of this is true” but anyone who thinks that all the mystical bullshit around the Dalai Lamas, the central-stone of Tibetan buddhism, is not convenient political mythology – well, they’re extremely credulous. Given that the belief system of Tibetan buddhism as a whole is the red-fisted survivor of a thousand years of political turmoil, what kind of idiot does someone have to be to think it’s anything but political propaganda?

And, Tibetan buddhism has always been political propaganda. The Dalai Lamas came to power by throwing the monarchy under the bus and negotiating to run the place as satraps for the Mongols. The Mongols, naturally, were thrilled to have found a local power-structure that meant they did not need to march up into an inaccessible pain in the ass, kill a few thousand people, and march back. They were thrilled to have the Dalai Lamas do that for them. And the Dalai Lamas were thrilled to have that arrangement, too – it beat getting a real job.

The young man who was to become the Dalai Lama sat in his saddle, waiting for the Mongols to arrive. Though only fifteen, he had been invited by a Mongol prince to Tibet’s northern borderlands. This was Amdo, a rolling grassland under vast skies, swept by wild and biting winds. It was quite different from the steep hills and valleys of his homeland in Central Tibet. The people were different, too. While Central Tibet was studded with castles and monasteries, here he saw only great nomad self-tent encampments, with hundreds of horses and sheep grazing on the plains. Once the Mongols had been Buddhists, so it was said, converted by the Sakya lamas. Now they seemed to have forgotten their religion, and the old Mongol rituals, including animal sacrifice, were all that was known.

The Mongols, like the Dalai Lamas, understood that power comes from a drawn bow. Thus began a lengthy relationship between the Dalai Lamas as political satraps for ${whoever was in power} as they attempted to maintain their position and power – and their aura of holiness – usually with the Mongols. There are other funny acounts of the Mongols, after they had occupied what is now China, and were becoming the Manchu Empire – sending troops up to grab a Dalai Lama and bring him down “for a little chat.” It must be frustrating for today’s Dalai Lama to be trapped in the same Groundhog Day-style script, having to constantly balance the obvious ineffectiveness of their pleas for divine intercession with the political reality of naked force. Surely, though, they understood and appreciated the political reality of naked force, because that was the origin of Tibetan buddhism.

I don’t particularly recommend studying the history of Tibet, unless you want to absorb another story of bullshit religion used to shore up politics and to justify force and repression. What you won’t find, if you study the history of Tibet, is non-violence (except for after the Chinese took their power away and told them “sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up.”) there’s nothing that’s going to trigger a bout of peace-lovin’ like a dose of powerlessness.

Sam Harris sure likes to promote some weird people as the good guys. It’s like he’s too lazy to read a history book or something.

------ divider ------

Sam Harris and logical fallacies: he is also pretty good at picking his targets, which is an essential strategy for the skeptic. On the occasions where Harris chooses someone more knowledgeable than him, he endures a thrashing with bad grace and worse faith, then complains at length once his opponent has left the field. [schneier] [chomsky] Opponent-picking as a form of cherry-picking is a skill Sam Harris’ ego does not allow him to hone.

Harris refers to wanting to promote “Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions.” That’s the problem: if you remove all the miracles and irrational assumptions – what’s left? Some platitudes? If you want some miracle-free platitudes based on thoughtful assertion, read Tao Te Ching or Epicurus.

There is a remaining argument, which is “my version of buddhism doesn’t suck.” Yes, that’s true. Because the cherries you picked always taste yummier than the ones you passed up.

China “sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up” – has not been playing splendidly in Uighur-land. China’s interested in making China for the Han people, though, so I wonder if they’re going to steal a riff from the USA and put the Uighurs on reservations? Basically, that’s what the Uighurs expect.

By the way, when someone is engaging in cherry-picking, as Harris does in that poster, they are admitting that they have to manipulate or “spin” their argument just so. After all, if all buddhists were wonderfully peaceful, Harris wouldn’t have had to specify the Tibetan variety. Unfortunately for Sam, he’s ignorant of Tibetan buddhism, as well.

Sometimes when you poke at Buddhism for being another load of bullshit in the service of authority, someone steps up and says “but … what about the philosophy?” If you’re thinking of doing that, be prepared to explain what philosophy, because I’ve studied buddhism closely in search of a philosophy that is not just a bunch of argument from authority: “the buddha says this because he’s enlightened.” OK, “enlightened” being short hand for “right all the time”? The times I have tried to study buddhism – more than you might expect – I have failed to find any philosophy of substance there, at all. And, by the way, the “proof because our founder is ‘enlightened'” move is a fail-move that puts buddism’s epistemology soundly in the camp of “as good as the christians'” and that’s not a camp any philosopher wants to defend.

Comments

  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    A nitpick: “the Mongols, after they had occupied what is now China, and were becoming the Manchu Empire” is a sentence that skips over about three hundred years and a whole Chinese dynasty, and has one steppe nomad people magically becoming an entirely different steppe nomad people. Your anecdote does sound like something they all would be likely to do though.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Decades ago I read a book on the history of Tibet, written by the Dalai Lama’s older brother. I found it mostly blandly boring – if that phrase can be used for a recounting of invasions and coups – but leavened with occasional laugh-out-loud moments.

    The one of those I remember best was a description of the ravening bands of outlaws under which Tibet usually suffered, whom, it turns out, were not really so bad after all – because they always shared a part of their loot with the priests. How many of the innumerable hells and demons inhabiting Tibetan Buddhism such generosity spared them from, he did not enumerate.

  3. says

    I perceive some religions as worse than others. My criterion for judging the badness of a religion is the amount of harm a religion causes for me. From best to worst:
    – Believers practice their beliefs at home and without involving others. Prayers, specific sexual practices, religious rituals, etc., are done within the community and don’t interfere with my life as an outsider in any way. I don’t care much about these kinds of religions exactly because they don’t disturb me in any way. It’s none of my business whether somebody prays to some god before meals or not.
    – Believers become obnoxious in their attempts to convert others to their faith. They knock on other people’s doors without an invitation; they talk about their religion in public all the time. These kinds of religions start getting annoying. If a religious coworker invites me to their church, I will politely say “no.” If they repeat this invitation again and again, if they constantly tell me about how I’m committing a sin by being promiscuous, if they cannot shut up about their god, I will get annoyed.
    – Believers attempt to influence legislature. They put words “God, bless Latvia” on euro coins, they ban gay marriage, they attempt to teach their religion in public state schools, they make laws that don’t let me legally use whichever toilet I want to use, they make it harder to access abortions and surgical sterilization. Now I’m really getting pissed off.
    – Believers enforce discriminatory practices, making it hard for a nonbeliever to get a job, buy a house, etc.
    – Believers enforce prison sentences for blasphemy, homosexuality, lack of belief, etc.
    – Believers become suicide bombers and kill whoever happens to not believe their religious crap.

    So far I have only looked at how various religions influence my daily life. But I have to admit that I have been extremely lucky to be born in a family of nonbelievers. My mother is agnostic, my aunt was an atheist, my uncle was totally oblivious about religions and didn’t even consider them worth talking about. Only my grandmother was Catholic, but she died when I was two years old, so I experienced absolutely no childhood religious indoctrination. Because of how lucky I have been, I could also apply Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” while analyzing how harmful any religion is. If I couldn’t choose my conditions of birth and my family, how comfortable I would be being born in a world where the given religion exists? This makes me also look at how any religion treats kids born in a family that practices this religion. Again, from best to worst:
    – Believers teach their children false ideas, they discourage critical thinking. They put a silly mythology with gods and angels and flying horses in their children’s minds. I perceive this as a really bad thing, but, unfortunately, every single religion does this, and some go much further than this in their nastiness.
    – Believers brainwash their children about sins, chastity, they instill in them a fear of hell, etc. This can have very traumatizing consequences, for example, such indoctrinated children can grow up being unable to have a healthy sex life.
    – Religion promotes spanking (“spare the rod, spoil the child”), which can be traumatizing and result in long lasting emotional scars for children.
    – Believers instill in their children misogynistic, homophobic, etc. ideas. Girls are taught that they are worth less and they ought to obey their husbands, gay sons are taught that there’s something wrong with them and that they are sick.
    – Religion promotes suicide among homosexual or trans teens.
    – Religion bans women from driving a car, being independent, having a life, making their own choices.
    – Religion promotes outright abuse, for example, teenage girls are forced into arranged marriages, which is, basically, religiously endorsed child molestation and rape.

    Personally, I perceive all religions as bad; it’s just that some are far worse than others.

    When we’re arguing against religion, I suppose it’s tempting to try to identify a religion that is not a violent pack of lies, so we can point to other religions (that are) and tell them, “be more like those guys.”

    Tempting? Really? Why? I certainly have never been tempted to do so. Just because some religions are less awful than others, doesn’t mean that they are good or should be treated as role models. Every single religion makes supernatural claims that are nothing but lies. Sure, some religions are worse than others, but they are all bad.

    That’s the cue for “apologists with faint praises” like Alain De Botton to come out of the woodwork and argue that religion may still have some uses and value and therefore ought not be rubbished entirely.

    I have only watched Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0” TED talk. If he has said anything stupid somewhere else, then I’m not aware of that. At least some of the things he said in that “Atheism 2.0” talk seemed reasonable for me. For example, he said that it’s a good idea to use repetition when trying to teach people something. OK, I’ll accept that, people do tend to forget whatever they have heard only once. People need communities and events where they can gather, socialize, make friends (like they do in church gatherings)? OK, I’m fine accepting that people do need these things, which is why we need secular alternatives for socializing, some secular events, secular places where nonbelievers can get together. Good oratory is useful if you are attempting to educate others? I definitely agree here, lecturers who are decent orators and don’t speak in sleepy and monotonous voice are nicer to listen to. Moral guidance, answers about how we should live? I’m not sure about this one, but I did find secular moral philosophy books interesting to read. Artworks that aren’t just pretty pictures, but also try to convey some idea, some “lesson”? Well, I actually like artworks that are “just pretty pictures,” but I can also enjoy artworks that offer social critiques, convey ideas, make political statements. I’m perfectly happy if artists make these kinds of artworks that express various ideas and have messages in them. I didn’t agree with everything Alain de Botton said in that talk though; for example, I definitely don’t want sermons instead of lectures, I hate feeling like I’m getting indoctrinated.

    Yet, overall, I do think that religions have no value and they should be rubbished entirely. When you throw out all the supernatural claims, all the mythology and fairy tales about gods, there’s hardly anything left. Actually, I’d say there’s nothing left. Pleasant and enjoyable rituals and community gatherings? It’s not like you need a religion for those, there are also plenty of secular options for this. Ethics and morality? Hell, no! Religions tend to usurp morality and the very act of being a good and a nice person. I have spoken with Christians who actually claimed that Christianity invented love and you cannot love other people and care for them without being a Christian. WTF? Religions have the tendency to take universally accepted human values (love, honesty, politeness, peace) and make the absolutely ridiculous claim that these values aren’t human, that instead these values belong exclusively to the religion, and without the religion people would instead go on a roaring murderous rampage. Hell, no, that’s not how it works!

    Tibetan buddhism has followed the usual trajectory of mostly-successful religions.

    Historically, how did religions spread? By converting others. Generally people are unwilling to convert just because somebody politely suggests them to do so. How were they converted then? With swords and blood spilling—“convert now or I will cut off your head.” Given the nature of how religions spread, it’s only reasonable for the bloodiest religions to win and spread and replace the more peaceful ones. The other way how religions spread was when some monarch converted to whatever religion and ordered his citizens to convert as well. Will an emperor ever endorse an egalitarian religion, which preaches that all humans are equal? Of course no, the emperor wants a religion, which tells that he’s the god’s chosen ruler. The same qualities that made it likely for some religion to spread are also the same qualities that are plain nasty.

    Sam Harris and logical fallacies: he is also pretty good at picking his targets, which is an essential strategy for the skeptic. On the occasions where Harris chooses someone more knowledgeable than him, he endures a thrashing with bad grace and worse faith, then complains at length once his opponent has left the field.

    It’s smarter to start by picking positions that are easy to defend. Defending racial profiling and American atrocities? WTF? Why would any sane person decide to defend those in a debate? If you choose to defend bad positions in a debate, you’ll just end up getting totally humiliated.

    That’s the problem: if you remove all the miracles and irrational assumptions – what’s left? Some platitudes? If you want some miracle-free platitudes based on thoughtful assertion, read Tao Te Ching or Epicurus.

    Once you strip down a religion of all its supernatural claims, what’s left is some pretty bad “philosophy.” This is why it’s better to trash the religion altogether and simply get a philosophy book instead—unlike religions, philosophy books actually contain some good or at least interesting philosophy.

  4. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#2:
    A nitpick: “the Mongols, after they had occupied what is now China, and were becoming the Manchu Empire” is a sentence that skips over about three hundred years and a whole Chinese dynasty, and has one steppe nomad people magically becoming an entirely different steppe nomad people. Your anecdote does sound like something they all would be likely to do though.

    I really blew that. I was trying to allude to the many times that the Dalai Lamas made political accomodations with whoever was in power in China – from the Mongol era up to the present. (And I know that the present government is not the Manchu dynasty and the Manchus were not the Mongols) The broader point being that the Dalai Lamas’ strategy of accomodating superior regional powers finally seems to have failed them. I guess they thought that the ride was going to last forever.

  5. says

    Someone needs to ask the Dalai Lama why he’s such a big fan of democracy in his 14th enlightened respawn, and he never had any interest in it before. It’s like the idea of a popular referendum didn’t occur to him until after the Chinese threw him out.

    Mao, who was a cynic’s cynic, must have seen right through him.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#3:
    Decades ago I read a book on the history of Tibet, written by the Dalai Lama’s older brother. I found it mostly blandly boring – if that phrase can be used for a recounting of invasions and coups – but leavened with occasional laugh-out-loud moments.

    The one of those I remember best was a description of the ravening bands of outlaws under which Tibet usually suffered, whom, it turns out, were not really so bad after all – because they always shared a part of their loot with the priests. How many of the innumerable hells and demons inhabiting Tibetan Buddhism such generosity spared them from, he did not enumerate.

    Surely they still sing the praises of the Mongols, who put them in power in the first place. Because democracy is great.

  7. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#4:
    I have only watched Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0” TED talk. If he has said anything stupid somewhere else, then I’m not aware of that. At least some of the things he said in that “Atheism 2.0” talk seemed reasonable for me. For example, he said that it’s a good idea to use repetition when trying to teach people something.

    I was obliquely referring to this: [wc] which I skimmed. I thought it was pretty bad – basically he’s making Seneca’s argument:
    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
    He’s saying that atheists should stop arguing so much against the lies of religion and enjoy the bling and the hats, and the ceremonies and whatnot – all of which confer some nebulous benefits otherwise the faithful wouldn’t do them. Never mind that the rather obvious answer is “because they are compelled to.

    His suggestion that religion’s beautiful and consoling rituals might be useful for the unbeliever, as well – that was specifically what I was referring to with my quip about bowling leagues and bike rides. I felt that De Botton was being a bit of an elitist, frankly – nudging the atheist and whispering “look at the cute stupid believers, maybe we should steal some of their ideas and play along and it’ll make us feel good like it makes them feel good.” The whole idea is a bit absurd given that religious believers around the world are rather obviously not engaging in harmless fun; that leaves De Botton saying, basically, “… it would be nice.”

    De Botton is a mixed bag; he’s done some good stuff (his series on Epicureanism doesn’t suck, but it’s not great either) and some cringe-worthy stuff. Perhaps he should have spent more time thinking things over while enjoying a nice mass somewhere.

    By the way, I do not want to fall into the trap of saying that “religion makes people do bad things” and all that yadda yadda. Because, that simply sets the stage up for someone like Sam Harris to come along and say “there’s something wrong with those muslims.” Actually, I believe that all this religion stuff is mostly window-dressing that many people use to contextualize their politics and to manipulate their less cynical fellows. If you look at religion through that lens, I think it’s a lot clearer what is going on. You can see the method at work in my description of the Dalai Lamas’ actions and negotiations in the context of their being a hereditary aristocracy that uses religion to maintain their grip on power by fooling their local equivalent of Trump voters.

  8. says

    Ieva Skrebele:
    Defending racial profiling and American atrocities? WTF? Why would any sane person decide to defend those in a debate? If you choose to defend bad positions in a debate, you’ll just end up getting totally humiliated.

    It’s part of being “edgy” and “provocative” to pick semi-cringeworthy causes and carry them forward to victory using your brilliant rhetoric, or something.

    I assume that’s what’s going on in the background of Sam Harris’ mind. He has staked out a pretty good gig by being a sort of contrarian about religion, but religion is such an easy target that he had to hunt a few other sacred cows. You’ll notice that he says he’s not sticking up for scientific racism, he’s just, uh, something something provocateur trying to get people to think something something broader context. His problem is that the easy pickings (kicking religion while it’s down) don’t have people who think long and hard about the topic or who have deep expertise. I mean, religion: “OK, it’s bullshit. Next?” Where Harris blunders is when he takes on people who actually have thought about the problems, like Bruce Schneier or Noam Chomsky – any topic that’s more complicated and requires deeper thought than coming up with a contrived scenario and yelling “I win!”

    Hitch went a few rounds with Chomsky, too, by the way, and came out looking much worse for wear. To the point where all he could do was say silly stuff about Chomsky behind his back. But by then Hitch was slowly revealing himself to be a supporter of anti-muslim war, and didn’t have much credibility left to burn anyway.

  9. says

    There’s Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult in Japan. They didn’t do suicide bombing, but there were chemical attacks in the 90s. Apparently it was a syncretist religion that drew in part from Tibetan Buddhism. And that’s just one item in the very long and dense Wikipedia article on Buddhism and violence.

    I feel like you could only make the confident, sweeping generalizations that Sam Harris does, if a) you couldn’t be bothered to do a google, and b) you completely fail to understand that Asia is a really big place with a really long history.

  10. says

    Siggy@#10:
    There’s Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult in Japan. They didn’t do suicide bombing, but there were chemical attacks in the 90s. Apparently it was a syncretist religion that drew in part from Tibetan Buddhism.

    I’m pretty sure they’re not “true scotsmen” or something like that. Just as the buddhist suicide bombers in the, uh, bombers the Japanese kamikazes flew – they were some perverted form of buddhism, or something like that. Because proper buddhists are all peacy and lovey. QED!

    I feel like you could only make the confident, sweeping generalizations that Sam Harris does, if a) you couldn’t be bothered to do a google, and b) you completely fail to understand that Asia is a really big place with a really long history.

    Pretty much.

    I will admit that I did a bit of dodging in the beginning of the posting. We cannot say for certain that when an American buddhist is getting his woo on, that they’re most likely pursuing the religion/philosophy of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki , not some actual buddhism from the wilds of Tibet or wherever. I would like to be able to assert that, but there are lots and lots of buddhist ashrams all over the place and they appear to be preaching various things. I can’t fairly tar them all with the same brush, but wading through mountains of philosophy and religion and sorting through their doctrinal differences: no thank you. I’ve done a bit of that, actually, and it’s head-bangingly boring trying to tell if I’m just being trolled with bullshit, or if it really is a religion.

    We don’t need to take Tibetan buddhism, specifically, seriously since they declared Steven Seagal. Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Keanu Reeves to be some kind of avatar-on-a-long-respawn or other. But anyone who claims to believe “Tibetan buddhism” – well, when the Dalai Lama takes a big donation and makes someone a saint: they’re your saint.

    Someone ought to ask Sam Harris, “So, Sam, you seem to be pretty favorable toward Tibetan buddhism. What do you think of the Dalai Lama declaring washed-up Hollywood tough-guy actors to be saints?”
    Oh, oops, I was just doing some well-poisoning, wasn’t I?

  11. polishsalami says

    I’m not sure if he was referencing the Dalai Lama, but Christopher Hitchens put this reverence for gurus away in one sentence:

    I’ve never met a “holy man” who wasn’t also a primate.

  12. bmiller says

    Other Buddhist “problems”: Myanmar and its little ethnic cleansing project going on right now.

    Sri Lanka-a truly brutal civil war/war of religion/ethnic battle. Worse than Cypress, actually.

    Bhutan, the holy enlightened kingdom, expelled 1/3 of its population for not being Bhutanese enough. 1/3. In the 1990s.

  13. bmiller says

    Reginald:

    There was a weird late 1960s/1970s cult in the United States called The Process Church of the Final Judgment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Process_Church_of_The_Final_Judgment

    They came out of Scientology but derived a fascinating dualist/trilogist???? religion in which Jehovah, Satan, and Lucifer were equal deities brought together by Jesus. :) They eventually fell apart, with a faint remnant remaining as an animal welfare group!

    They also inspired the amazing musical project Sabbath Assembly. https://www.sabbathassembly.com/

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