Okay, “Enlightenment or bust” might be a bit dramatic, but…

"Dang Zang" is an empty name. The blog has to do with the dharma; material related to Buddhist teachings (Tibetan style in particular, Kagyu in even more particular), meditation, gurus and lamas be they genuine or flaky, books and events. I do have a more personal blog, Pica Pica, and a site for my work.

Oh yes, it's by Alex Wilding

Archive

  • Untitled 27/02/2017
    https://www.theguardian.com/…/grandmother-deported-from-uk-… How is this fair? How is this not vindictive? How is this not a failure to use discretion? How is this not a failure of compassion? How is this not a failure of common sense? How is this not narrow-minded? How is this not mean-spirited? How is this not pig-headed? Sorry, pigs, it’s just […]
  • Donny, Theresa and the Brexit effect 29/01/2017
    In her attempt to pretend that there is enough other “free trade” out there in the world to compensate for the financial hit to the UK (lower wages and higher prices, to you and me) that Wrexit will cause, we have seen Theresa May cosying up to a variety of questionable characters, most notably the […]
  • When spin approaches lie 26/01/2017
    When is that? In Theresa May’s  speech to Republicans she is expected to say that “… as we end our membership of the European Union – as the British people voted with determination and quiet resolve to do last year – we have …” (The sentence goes on with more waffle-words like ” sovereign and global Britain”.) […]
  • Fight for me, Teresa 01/01/2017
    Theresa May seems to be revealing herself as a Class One “say-whatever-you-think-people-will-like-to-hear-at-the-time,-and-preferably-in-words-that-are-vague-enough-not-to-be-falsifiable-later” merchant. After “Brexit means Brexit” (eh?) and “I want a red, white and blue Brexit” (uh?), she claims in her New Year’s message that she will fight the remainers’ case in Europe too. Now, I am a remainer, or I would have voted […]
Tuesday May 22nd, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

Should names be named?

The sorry story of the death in a cave in the Arizona desert at the Diamond Mountain centre (on which I don’t see any point in commenting) may give us cause to wonder how easy it is to tell when a Dharma group, for instance, is heading for la-la land. Following a discussion on the “Kagyu” mailing list at Yahoo, the following points seemed to emerge:

1) We should do lots of research. This is so easy, these days, using Internet search engines.

2) We should take everything with a pinch of salt. Anybody who puts their head above the parapet in any field is likely to find some enemies. The motivation of those enemies may be nothing more than a mixture of stupidity and jealousy.
So just because somebody is attacked on the Internet does not itself mean there is anything wrong with them. Equally, just because somebody is widely praised and has glowing descriptions on Wikipedia doesn’t mean they are okay.

Anybody can contribute to Wikipedia. It seems to be one of Wikipedia’s problems that the entries for prominent people, politicians for instance, are carefully tended by lackeys in order to present a positive view and minimise criticism. The clever lackeys don’t remove the criticism altogether, of course, in order to create an impression of honesty.

3) A proper lineage is vital. But a proper lineage is not a final guarantee
– people, both teachers and students, go off the rails. Some break with their lineage but don’t admit it to the outside world; some people fake their lineage. I have seen one site, for instance, where “Lineage” is a prominently featured heading. Clicking the link opens up an attractive page or two, but on close reading it turns out to contain nothing substantial at all. Just a vague reference to the 84 Mahasiddhas. No reference to any actual teachers. An inspiration, perhaps, but not a lineage.

4) We mustn’t be fooled by charisma. We can sometimes be so desperate for a connection to a genuine source of spiritual inspiration that we are entirely taken in by somebody with an energetic personality and a lot of enthusiasm.
If we then invest our time and devotion in their movement, the process of realising how flaky it is can be slow and painful. In some cases it can also be expensive!

5) We shouldn’t assume that a large number of followers means that the leader must be okay.

6) Exclusivity, and a lack of reference to other recognised teachers is a bad sign, recognition from other prominent lamas is a good one.

We must remember, however, that Tibetans, if I may say so, are often two-faced to an extent that would be quite appalling in, say, a Western politician. (I don’t say unusual, just appalling!) The last thing most Tibetans want to do is rock the boat.

So if a teacher has been seriously misbehaving, the almost instinctive reaction of many Tibetans will be to hush it up, close ranks, and hope that the problem goes away. The idea of saying something like “Lama XXX, Nth Somethingorother Rinpoche, whose activity I used to approve of, has gone bad. I made a mistake supporting him, I no longer do so, and I will no longer visit his centres” would be utterly mortifying to almost any Tibetan. They would be much more likely to say “Yes, there have been a few slight criticisms of Lama XXX resulting from karmic obstacles, but he is a very great Lama nevertheless”.

(I do fear that this attitude could be a problem for Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the monastic institutions, if they fail to be honest when cases of sexual abuse come to light. Think of the Catholic Church, and how disastrous its failure to recognise this problem has been, both for victims and for itself.)

7) This is life. There is no single, infallible test. There is no substitute for using our own intelligence.

That, however, is all run-of-the-mill preamble. I do in fact take strong issue with one view that was strongly expressed by some contributors: that names should not be named.

What are we supposed to do? Are we to darkly whisper that there are “lamas” who have gone off the rails in one way or another, be it drunkenness, be it drug abuse, be it sexual abuse, be it financial exploitation, be it physical or mental cruelty or be it simply fakery, or be it the kind of case where somebody with no extensive knowledge or experience has manoeuvred themselves to a position where they can parade up and down as a recipient of respect? But are we then not to say who we are talking about, or what we actually know?

Are we still going to leave newcomers in the dark? Or are we going to leave it to others to do the dirty work of actually saying what the accusations are against certain people, and what the evidence is? Or are we going to compromise, and say things like “Well I can’t say anything, but if you Google the name of Lama XXX together with the word ‘scandal’ you’ll find out”?

There is a lot, an awful lot, we have to learn from Tibetans, as I’m sure most followers of Tibetan styles of Buddhism will agree. But the tendency to simply be silent about problems, smile in public, and hope that they’ll go away is not, I believe, something we want to adopt. On the other hand, of course, there is a shrill style of scandal-grubbing, popular amongst second-rate journalists, that we also want to avoid. But surely the middle way is the solution, not the adoption of “ignore it and it will go away”.

Many contributors to that mailing list, and readers of this blog for that matter too, are westerners, and in the West we have traditions, admittedly often ignored or perverted, of openness, truth and honest enquiry. If we, the Buddhists, don’t live up to the better parts of our Western traditions, Buddhism will not thrive here. It is therefore my view that we actually have a positive, sometimes painful, duty to name names.

When we do so, we must also be honest about our sources. Presenting an accusation as a fact or a rumour as a truth will not help at all. We must always be clear about what is a mere story, what we have witnessed ourselves, and what we may not have witnessed but for which there is good evidence. Yes, there are dangers. There is a risk of getting carried away by sectarianism or by a desire to demonstrate that our own “group” is better than another. But surely the dangers of half-truth and half-secrets muttered behind dusty lace curtains are greater. Aren’t they?

So that is my plea: let us be yogis and bodhisattvas, not mice. If we know something is wrong, let’s say so, and not leave newcomers to walk into the same old traps just because we were too precious to get our hands dirty.

Sunday March 11th, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

It really is great if it works for you

Writing in the Guardian, Julian Baggini referred recently to the tendency of religious people to be critical of political or social wrongs, but to be jolly nice to the representatives of other religions. He repeats an anecdote (from Simon Blackburn) in which the representatives of various faiths react to each other’s presentations, saying, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great” to each other. Even when the Catholic priest argues that it’s not a question of whether it works for him, and that if they don’t believe they are damned to hell, they give the same response.

Baggini then argues that what may be going on is a matter of self-interest, along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, where the enemy is those who give up on religion altogether. There are a number of problems with this suggestion.
I don’t know whether it was in Blackburn’s original anecdote or only in Baggini’s retelling that the representatives are listed as “Buddhist, Hindu and so on”. Telling the story that way makes it easier for the reader to swallow the idea that almost all of them would adopt the “great if it works for you” attitude. It would perhaps be less believable (and therefore make the story less funny) if the Muslims, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and Calvinists had been included.

It is therefore not really clear that “great if it works for you” is really a widespread attitude. What is also not clear is that, when it is adopted, it is based on a self-interested wilful blindness. No Buddhists that I know of, for instance, believe that because someone is a Christian they are incapable of achieving liberation. We believe that they are wrong in their belief, and that at some stage it could be a spiritual obstacle. But if it works for them now, especially if it helps them to be compassionate and tolerant – then, yes, well, great! And we have no problem recognising that they think we are wrong. All that we need to agree on is how to treat others with kindness, and that has only a limited relationship to any particular belief system.

“Great if it works for you” is therefore not a mealy-mouthed copout. It is an intelligent, mature and kind response to the varieties of human culture.

Baggini also suggests that it is a symptom of what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”. The video linked here shows Dennett arguing that people who say they believe in God don’t really do so, they only believe that belief is a good thing. We can know this, he says, because those who say that they believe don’t, for instance, typically put their lives on the line for God.
This is a piece of shallow sleight-of-hand. Dennett pretends, and invites us to imagine, that people are primarily driven by logic and intellect. Dennett suggests that because somebody believes in God – which I don’t, let me say – they would not be mortally afraid of dying. This is either merely rhetorical or shows a startling lack of insight into the human condition. Look, I believe firmly that the safety systems at the Sydney Skywalk are quite adequate, but that does not stop me being too afraid to enjoy the experience. How much more hardwired are we to be afraid of dying?

Dennett, however, has a history of sleight of hand. Enjoyable and insightful as I felt his Consciousness Explained to be, I felt that the title lacked a third word: “Consciousness Explained Away” would have been more fitting. (I now see that this mock title has since been adopted by greater luminaries of the thinking world than me, but I do claim that I thought of it myself!) The “hard problem” of consciousness refers, simply put, to the question of why we are aware of our experiences. Questions such as why we react to sense impressions, why we talk about them and so on are, at least relatively, easy problems. Dennett claims to get around the “hard problem” of consciousness essentially by saying, “Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist – now look, the problem doesn’t exist.”

So where Baggini asks why religious people insist on presenting a united front, the answer is that they don’t. Some of them, perhaps many, disagree in very unpleasant ways. Some, being human, may adopt their position, whether admirable or not, out of self-interest. But surely some say “great if it works for you” out of genuine respect and tolerance.

Wednesday February 22nd, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

Benchen and Back – digital edition

It is now 20 years since, as the book itself explains, I was among the students taken by Lama Chime Rinpoche on a pilgrimage to his home monastery in Kham, eastern Tibet. We were the first group of westerners ever to have permission to enter that region. From Beijing via Xining and on to Jyekundo (Yushu) the first leg took us through to his former monastery, Benchen.

(Benchen in the last few years – I’m sorry, I forget who gave me this)

The party then went on to Lhasa and to Tsurphu, where the young 17th Karmapa was preparing for his enthronement. On the way back, Chime Rinpoche suggested that I write a book about the trip, and so I did. It is short, and I am the first to admit that the writing style could be improved. But that’s the person I was at the time, and the book is a journal of the trip.

Lorenz Dobrot put up the money to print the book, as well as a version in German, translated by Rosi Fuchs, which is included in this edition. Although there are only a few copies left, I’m still occasionally asked what happened to it. I had even quite forgotten that the text was still in an obscure corner of my hard drive! But a few weeks ago I noticed the old WordPerfect files, and now that we are in the era of e-books it seemed to be a good idea to bring out the “20-years-on digital edition”.

 

You can get it from Amazon.com here. If you’re in the UK you might prefer to get it from Amazon.co.uk here. If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t forget that you can download a (free) reader from Amazon, which gives you the advantage of seeing the book’s pictures in colour.

Today is losar (Tibetan new year’s day). As a result of the severely worsening repression in Tibet, as is evinced by the self-immolations (22 in the last three years, according to the International Campaign for Tibet) it has been widely suggested that this is not the year for the traditional jollity. Nevertheless, perhaps this is an auspicious day for this edition to be released, offering, as it does, a unique insight into a remarkable time and a special place.

Saturday February 18th, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

Religions need secularism

Baroness Warsi has claimed that “intolerant secularisation has to be held back by reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built”, while the Pope is reported to have recently attacked “atheist extremism” and “aggressive secularism”. I’m not at all sure that I would recognise “intolerant secularisation” if I came across it. “Intolerant atheism”, yes, but secularism is essentially tolerant. All it says is, “Look, believe what you like, but civic life is aimed at the common good, regardless of religion.”

The Pope’s comments suggest that atheism and secularism are related, perhaps even the same. He also said that the United Kingdom should “not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms”. Would that be, I wonder, the Christian foundation that handed over Catholic priests as traitors to be hung, drawn and quartered? Or did the foundation get laid when we stopped doing that? Warsi and Benedict both seem to think that we need Christianity to tell us the difference between right and wrong. The evidence is not convincing.

In perhaps typically British style we bumble along, not worrying too much that church and state are still connected. The head of the Church of England is the country’s monarch, and must be a descendant of Sophia of Hanover but does not have to be interested or trained in religious matters of any sort. Oh, except for not being Catholic. It would be hard to make this up, wouldn’t it? Yet although some naive, extreme expressions of multiculturalism have lately come in for criticism, the fact is that Britain is home to multiple cultures. Along with the separation of parliament, government and the judiciary, a grown-up modern society needs a separation of church and state. It needs to be secular.

Now although I myself happen to be about as English as you can get, and was lucky enough to be educated in one of England’s finest schools and one of her finest universities, I am also a Buddhist. How did that happen? I don’t know where the original motive came from, but England’s traditions of free enquiry, free education, freedom of thought and free, well-stocked libraries certainly helped. Thank you, England!

So let there be no mistake – if you count yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew, then your god is absolutely not my god. I do not believe in him, and I could not respect him if I did. But that’s perfectly fine, isn’t it? We don’t need to agree on such matters, do we? We do, however, need to be kind to each other, we need to strive for wisdom, we need to develop compassion. We have to live together in the same society, to work together and enjoy each other’s company. That is why we need a secular society. We need a society that recognises people’s religious freedoms, acknowledges their differences, and that does not award status on the basis of any particular faith.

Freedom of religion must have a high priority in any decent society. True, religion must never be allowed to trump the standards of common goodness, or indeed the laws with which society tries to protect itself. In our secular society we are, I hope, quite clear that female genital mutilation is a crime. We do not want to cut off the hands of thieves, or behead anyone, not even for murder, let alone for failing to hold particular religious views. Some extreme forms of belief may demand those punishments, but a secular society ruled by common goodness will say “no”. Freedom of religion necessarily implies that no one religion should have a special place in schools, council chambers or indeed in parliament.

If British society is, while flawed, not really a bad one at all, what possible reason is there for thinking that this is due to Christian influence? Why can it not be due to the goodness of British people? The British are, after all, human, and it is humans who create goodness and beauty as well as horror. Cataloguing the evils that have been carried out in the name of Christianity is popular, but perhaps cheap. More interesting is the question of why we now reject those evils. Is it because we have a Christian society, or because, as humans, we are capable of compassion? Why do we now reject the idea of slaughtering all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but accept the principle of “Do as you would be done by”? After all, Christianity has held out both of these as admirable. As humans, whether Christian or not, we can judge which of these approaches is worthy.

As a Buddhist, I want to live in a decent society. I do not want to live in a “Buddhist” society, whatever that is, and I certainly don’t want to live in a society dominated by the rules of any of the Abrahamic religions. Without secularism the state cannot help favouring one religion over another, and that would be a recipe for disaster.

Friday February 3rd, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

To be a card-carrying Buddhist?

My contribution to the discussion in the Guardian:

Thursday January 19th, 2012. Posted by Alex W:

Books and more books

At last the catalogue project that I began so long ago has reached a sort of completion. Improvement will always be possible, through more detail and ironing out mistakes. But at least I now know what I’ve got, and will avoid that embarrassing moment when you start reading a wonderful text that you ordered from Snow Lion or from Wisdom only to realise that it is already somewhere on your shelves and that you first read it two or three years ago.

In the course of this work I stumbled across a surprise. If you like you can look at it directly at Amazon Books, but because these things change all the time, I also provide a screenshot here.


(Click to open a new window and see it the proper size.)


A number of misleading things should be cleared up. First of all, on some of the pages related to this book, you will even see that it is “by” Tenga Rinpoche and Alex Wilding. That is tosh. Even the statement that it is “by” Tenga Rinpoche and translated by Alex Wilding is a misleading exaggeration. Tenga Rinpoche was translated by Susanne Schefczyk, into German. What I did was translate Susanne’s German into English. That was when I was first finding my feet as a translator, and I did it for free, partly as an act of support to the Dharma, and partly to keep myself occupied and in practice in the trade that I was trying to develop. I seem to recall that Susanne herself took the self-effacing Buddhist line. I think she would almost have preferred her name not to be on it at all, but utmost to be in small print and an obscure corner. Since, however, I was effectively donating more than £1000 and was also trying to get myself established. My one condition was that my name, as the translator out of German, should be clearly visible. I must stress again, however, that my significance is way, way below that of either Tenga Rinpoche or of Susanne.

The astonishing thing, as you might have guessed, is the price! £60 to be sent the cheapest copy, a new one. £84 and no less than £175 to get hold of either of the used copies, while the more expensive new copy in exchange for no less than £185! Bear in mind that the book was small and not particularly well printed, and that the contents don’t include much that is not available in many other works from, for instance, Snow Lion Publishing.

I cannot say whether the explanation lies in the illustrations, which are colour plates of some moderately rare paintings of Bardo deities, but that is the only thing I can think of. Again, though, I must say that the colour balance in my copies (I have both the German and English versions) is really quite poor.

185 quid – wow!

Friday December 30th, 2011. Posted by Alex W:

Happiness is Overvalued

Happiness is booming: its stock is riding high. In 2012 you will be able, for a mere thousand Australian dollars, to take part in a conference on “Happiness and its causes” in Sydney. Unless, that is, you happen to want to join the additional workshops, which take another 700 dollars or more out of your wallet. As a Buddhist I am well aware of books and DVDs credited to the Dalai Lama and featuring “Happiness” in the title. I wanted to count them, but with more than 700 hits for “Dalai Lama happiness” at my favourite online bookstore, I gave up. There is a bubble in the happiness market, and Buddhism has taken a big share.

I have no doubt at all that giving high priority to the pursuit of happiness is no bad thing. This surely be reinforced if we don’t limit our target to our own happiness. Aiming to be happy must surely be wiser than aiming at maintaining an endless stream of pleasure, becoming exceptionally famous, madly popular, wildly wealthy or seriously powerful. Success is also a tad more credible.

At first sight this makes perfect sense. We feel that we need, let’s say, a new sound system before we can be happy. It is delivered. Our eyes shine as we open the boxes, plug it in and configure the bluetooth. It’s great. Of course. And how long does the glow last? Days – or minutes? Probably not weeks. We weren’t really after a gadget – we were after a state of mind, and we thought that the sound system would give us happiness. But the credit card repayments are likely to last longer than the glow. This much is elementary.

The next step in the argument goes: if it’s the state of mind we are after, not the gadget, why don’t we just go straight for the state of mind? This is where a circus of therapists and life coaches including, I have to admit, Buddhist meditation teachers, come in. Fine – up to a point. I’m sure it works – up to a point. But are there not a couple of problems? One with the goal of happiness, the other with the place of happiness in Buddhism.

Unexamined, happiness is slippery as a haddock. Suppose we pay the fee, do the course, practise the meditation and invest heavily in the pursuit of spiritual happiness. We begin with a picture of ourselves endlessly glowing with happiness, smiling, laughing, radiating warmth and love. But is that really likely? Not only are we sometimes unhappy – naturally – but, our unhappiness is now compounded by a sense of failure. Have we wasted our money? Are we hopelessly unspiritual? This could just be a learning experience. Yet what of those of us who take up this chase out of depression, grasping for a lifeline, perhaps even looking for a cure for self-loathing? It is easy to imagine that the failure to sparkle with happiness could push us even further into misery. Isn’t it enough just to cope, without the added pressure of being happy?

Nor is happiness as central to Buddhism as some literature suggests. True, the first step towards Buddhist practice is to recognise that we are not happy. The path to curing our unhappiness and achieving “nirvana” – the extinction of the poisons that make us suffer – is then described. Altogether less is said about the positive side of this experience. Wishing others to be happy, to be free from suffering, is a regular feature of Buddhist practice. But as far as we ourselves are concerned, the emphasis is more on insight into how our minds work than on making ourselves happy.

There are even some Buddhist traditions who teach that “great bliss” is at the core of our being. The trick is, they say, to remove whatever obscures it. The word “bliss” here is the same as what is often translated as “happiness”. However, if we look more closely we find that “great bliss” is described as “the union of bliss and emptiness”. What are we to make of that? The very words should warn us that whatever this is about – and the meaning is far from obvious – is not quite the same as the happiness that comes with a new sound system.

Although happiness is surely a better and healthier target than power, wealth or fame, it is unlikely that it can be bought like a conference ticket. My unease is not about happiness, but about the way it is being marketed, almost as if, provided you pay to take part in the conference with the Dalai Lama, then at last you will know how to be happy. The happiness of others is an inspiring goal, perhaps even a moral compass. But when it comes to ourselves, might it not be better to aim at knowledge and understanding? Growth may be slow, but the final dividends might be higher than those of buying up shares on the happiness market.