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Kyle Lovett: Misnomers about Buddhists – Oddly Enough, we are Human

by Kyle Lovett

Originally appeared on The Reformed Buddhist:

One of the biggest reasons I write this blog, for better or for worse, is to show, or at least try to show, that despite the pop cultural, shallow and trite view that many Westerners take of Buddhists and Buddhism, that in reality we aren’t actually some kind of magical creatures, roaming the peaceful plains of bliss, lacking faults, lacking emotion or passion. The recent hub-bub of “Buddhist reactions” to the death of Osama Bin Laden, and more importantly, the reaction that non-Buddhists had to what many Buddhists had to say, most prominently being the Dalai Lama’s recent remarks, is a great example of why this myth of the angelic, faultless and carefree wood nymph Buddhist, that many people still hold, continues to persist, especially and oddly enough, mostly from the political left and even many convert Buddhists. Strange thing it must be to find out that Buddhists can be pragmatic, non-idealistic, show great emotion and even express things like seeing a moral or practical justification in the death of such a repugnant person such as Osama Bin Laden. Oh yes, Buddhists are human beings too.

A couple of days ago, when speaking to an audience at the University of Southern California, the Dalai Lama caused a bit of a fire storm when his remarks seemed to agree to the justification of Bin Laden’s death;“forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened… If something is serious and it is necessary to take countermeasures, you have to take countermeasures.” Many politically left bloggers, and even some main stream columnists were stunned by these remarks. A post on the liberal blog ‘Moral Low Ground’ by Brett Wilkins, angrily questions the Dalai Lama’s statements and suggested his health had something to do with his remarks. He writes:

“WTF? Seems like the world’s most preeminent man of peace has been drinking the Kool Aid death punch lately.

According to the Los Angeles Times, he informed the USC audience that he was suffering from a sore throat and the side effects of medication that made him “very faint.”

Perhaps his brilliant mind wasn’t 100% on Tuesday. How else to explain the world’s most prominent Buddhist justifying the assassination of a fellow human being? Buddhists abhor all killing. There is no “us” vs. “them” in Buddhism, only us, all of us.”

He also quoted Barbara O’Brien, Susan Piver and myself in the article to compare how other “Buddhists” reacted, then linked to this Urban Dharma page suggesting that their is no room in Buddhism for anything besides 100% non-violent peace. I do not know Mr. Wilkin’s background, but it is apparent that he has zero comprehension of the history of Buddhism and Buddhists as it is practiced in many Asian countries, and only holds a rather pedantic and idealistic Western view of its practitioners.

Barbara O’Brien discussed
Zen teacher and author of the blog Monkey Mind James Ford’s initial reaction of gladness to the death of Bin Laden, and the subsequent outpouring of anger towards him from several people, including many Western convert Buddhists. In Barbara’s article, which I feel eloquently sums up this issue of misplaced idealism, she writes:

“This admission angered some of his readers. One even told him he should stop teaching the Buddhadharma. I think this accusation betrays a huge, and common, misunderstanding of Buddhist practice.

First, as far as emotions are concerned, forget what you (or anyone else) “should” feel. You feel what you feel. If you are being honest with yourself about what you feel, you may recognize that a particular emotion is coming from greed, hate, or ignorance. You acknowledge this, and practice letting go. But don’t pretend to yourself that you don’t feel what you feel because Buddhists aren’t supposed to feel things like that.”

Even Cathy Lynn Grossman of the USA Today’s Faith and Reason column, who I know has a fairly good grasp of Buddhist teachings, entitled her article about the Dalai Lama’s comments, “Forgive bin Laden? Dalai Lama’s surprising view.” Again, why does she use the words ‘surprising view’? Even a cursory glance at the relationship of Tibet and China from the mid 1400’s up until today will show many historical events of violence, including a short lived Tibetan insurgency during the 1950’s. Not to mention the many justified military actions by Buddhists in Buddhist countries, to protect life, sovereignty and property, including the current actions that the Thai government has taken against Islamic extremists in some rural parts of the country. Of course, just as any group of people bound together by a common thread, Buddhists have committed their fair share of ugly atrocities through-out history. The most recent of these has been the United Nations emerging allegations against the Sri Lankan government, stating gross violations of human rights and even possible war crimes against the now defeated Rebel Tamil Tigers, during it long civil war.

Even in the Western convert Buddhist communities, the reaction to Bin Laden’s death was as varied as it was in the rest of the global community. From my vantage point, these were more opinions based on political leanings or ideas and definitions of justice, rather than some reliance on an interpretation of Buddhism. I wonder when will this sugar coated, tissue paper thin romanticized and idealistic view of Buddhism, which grew from the counter-culture and anti-war movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, start to fade away to the realities of who Buddhists really are? Is Buddhism a religion of violence or revenge? No, of course not. Is Buddhism practiced by human beings, who share all the same emotions, traits and desires as every other person in the world? Yes, very much so.

A Buddhist path is a great way to see how these emotions and actions and feelings arise; a dedicated practice can very much be a mirror of the mind. But Buddhism itself, does not and can not dramatically transform someone into the most kind and altruistic person ever. Nor will it change who someone is and how they act, only the person seeking understanding and truth can do that. What is worrisome is how some convert Buddhists will take on the persona of what they feel is a “proper and correct Buddhist,” never fully understanding that this kind of external show, and more importantly internal lie, is not only besides the point, it very much misses the point of a Buddhist practice.

As I wrote to a friend of mine earlier today, Buddhism is not some magic bullet to global peace and eternal sunshine, but rather, that by following a Buddhist path, I feel that it is conversely the quintessential admission to being human; owning up to one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions and the nature of reality. Reflection on one’s own mind does not, and should not, attempt to stop the feelings, emotions and actions that arise, but rather allow us to see how these things arise, and what impact they have on ourselves and others. It is a challenge, it is a practice, but it is most definitely not an instant and laughable tonic to some misguided notion of mythical perfection. As many have said before, there is perfection in imperfection.

(Photo: The Reformed Buddhist)

Kyle Lovett, a student and practitioner of Zen Buddhism, is the editor and publisher of The Reformed Buddhist.

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One Comment

  1. John C. KimbroughFebruary 22, 2012 at 6:15 amReply

    Nice writing……..

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