As an atheist, Buddhism held some promise of being able to salvage a modicum of respect for mainstream religions worldwide; unfortunately I was to be bitterly disappointed. Buddhism, in the West has a carefully cultivated image of respect for life, personal growth and peaceful coexistence with your fellow man. This isn’t anything new; Abrahamic based religions like our own Christianity and Islam are based on similar tenets—The Ten Commandments being an excellent example.
In my travels I have visited The Vatican, The Blue Mosque, Agia Sophia and many of Greece’s Byzantium era monasteries and the one image that has burned itself in my mind from most of these sites is the crass display of wealth disguised as a spiritual experience. In Christian centres of worship like The Vatican and Orthodox monasteries, the veneration of long dead Popes and sacred artefacts like vials of blood, knucklebones and locks of hair from so called saints and martyrs give me cause to think my own Christian background is nothing more than a cult of death. Having now added Tibet and its most famous monasteries to the list, the Potala Palace the most famous of these, it did not take me long to come to the conclusion that Buddhism and its gentle meditative spiritual message is just as greedy and spiritually bankrupt as its Western counterparts. I have no issue with the message of religion; there is nothing wrong with telling people not to steal or seduce your best friends wife, it is the machine behind it all that I find offensive.
There are differences that set Buddhism apart from Western religious practice, the major one being Christians believe in and worship a single God entity while Buddhism is non-theistic and concentrates on practice over belief by encouraging its flock to realise truth for themselves, and assists in this by setting out a methodology for attaining this truthful enlightenment via disciplined enquiry into the teachings of the Buddha. To my surprise there are three—the Buddha of Past, the Buddha of Present and the Future Buddha—that devotees can offer prayers and gifts to. Of course one visit to Tibet doesn’t make one an expert on Buddhism, however it did serve to destroy the image that, rightly or wrongly was in my head.
The alarm bells rang when all the monasteries I visited seemed to be awash with cash, mountains of it, lying about in front of idols and monks unashamedly counting and sorting it in full view of tourists and pilgrims. It was a bizarre and surreal sight to see devotees, some of whom had made a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Lhasa from the more remote and poverty stricken regions, praying while nearby monks were behaving more like bankers and croupiers with wads of cash.
While the standard of living and education has improved since 1959, primarily due to massive infrastructure spending by the Chinese, I was taken aback by our guide (who spoke three languages, and was learning Russian) pointing out scriptures that were hundreds of years old and informing our group, with a straight face, that they contained the instructions for the manufacture of computers and nuclear weaponry. When one of our party respectfully quizzed her about this, she told us the reason Buddhism had kept the technology secret was because it would be damaging to mankind. The fact she was holding an iPhone was an irony completely lost on her. I’d like to think we misunderstood her or she had misunderstood her religious teachers.
On our last night in Lhasa, and after a gruelling (and dangerous) trip to Everest Base Camp, we booked ourselves into the Shangri-La for some luxury and invited our guide for dinner as a thank you for the excellent work she had done looking after us. At the dinner she was shocked to see quite a few monks enjoying the buffet, and struggled for a moment or two before coming up with a narrative that Chinese tourists were paying the bill; we silently concurred because we did not want to upset her. It seems that the monks were making a literal interpretation of the Shangri-La’s claim that it was Heaven on Earth.Author’s Note: I would like to point out that there could be many legitimate reasons for the monks there. It is the reaction of shock from our guide that got my attention and the importance to our guide to explain their presence. Originally published at: Beyond the Blue Divide – Observations from Tibet. Part 1 Buddhism
- Lhasa, Tibet named happiest city in China? (chinadailymail.com)
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- China to build £3bn theme park in Tibet (chinadailymail.com)
- October 5 1989 Dalai Lama wins Nobel Peace Prize (craighill.net)
- Geography in the News: China’s Fast Train to Tibet (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- What the Dalai Lama has to say (idealisticrebel.wordpress.com)
- Monk continues quest for knowledge (chinawatch.washingtonpost.com)
- The Immortal Bodhi Tree: Tibet and the Chinese Occupation (fairobserver.com)
- A strong foundation for the roof of the world (thehindu.com)