Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Is he even Buddhist?"

An acquaintance of mine recently sent me a message after a confrontation with one of my close friends. My friend, who I'll call 'Max,' is a long term Tibet supporter, and a fluent Tibetan speaker. This acquaintance, who I'll call 'Joe,' had gotten into an argument with Max about ways of supporting Tibet. When he contacted me to rant, one of his questions was: "Is Max even Buddhist?"

He's not the first to ask this question either. In fact, I find this question a common way for alleged Tibet supporters to put down or delegitimize other Tibet supporters with whom they disagree.

To me, this is a symptom of a far greater problem: the belief that in order to support Tibet, you have to be Buddhist.

This is a problem for many reasons.

First of all, it isolates non-Buddhist supporters. Darfur receives support from Christian groups and especially Jewish ones! Do you think that support would still exist if Darfur supporters asked about other Darfur supporters "Are they even Muslim?" If these supporters felt that they were being judged not only as to their religion but as to their level of religiosity, I doubt that they would stay with the cause. Yet, this pressure is seen as acceptable from Tibet supporters.

Now, this sentiment does not come from Tibetans, in my experience. The Dalai Lama himself has discouraged Tibet supporters from converting to Buddhism, instead encouraging them to understand and appreciate their own faith and culture.

This claim also delegitimizes the motives of those who wish to work for altruistic purposes. It says simply: "The reason to support Tibet is because I am Buddhist, and I want to preserve Buddhism." instead of saying "We should support Tibet because it is the right thing to do, it is an issue of human rights."

The irony, of course, being that Buddhism is supposed to encourage altruistic values, and yet, in judging this way, they are discouraging altruistic intention.

Secondly, the issue of Tibet is an issue of human rights. Not all Tibetans are Buddhist, neither are all Tibet supporters. His assumption that 99% of supporters (another statement he made in the same e-mail) came to Tibet via the Dharma is thus not only problematic, but inaccurate. I remember at a meeting of about a hundred members of Students for a Free Tibet, people were asked what brought them to Tibetan issues. Less than half answered Buddhism.

Let's go back to that earlier point: not all Tibetans are Buddhists. There are Tibetan Muslims, Bonpos and even Catholics (I passed two century-old Tibetan catholic churches in Dartsedo.). When we assume that Tibetan issues are solely Buddhist issues, what are we saying about Tibetans who are not Buddhist?

To Joe, I simply responded "Max's religion and practice is no one's business but his own. It's unfair to judge how a person is as an activist and supporter based on whether or not he is the same religion as you."

Although I do consider myself Buddhist, I also find it personally insulting when someone looks at me and asks, judgmentally, about my faith. If I answer that I consider religion a personal thing (my usual way of saying "None of your damned business") I'm usually met with judging stares or comments about the superiority of (western style) Buddhist practice. If I say I am Buddhist, this is followed by an interrogation of how much I meditate, practice, etc.

This judgmental interrogation creates two major problems. The first of which being it forces away many well intentioned, sincere individuals who's experience could be extraordinarily valuable to the Tibetan cause. If Tibetans were to choose for some reason or another, not to accept help from a certain group, this would be their prerogative. However, this instead is foreign 'supporters' forcing away potentially excellent supporters solely due to their faith. One major goal in the Tibetan movement is to make it a household name and get support from all over the world. How will this support come if people are ostracized due to not being Buddhist?

Secondly, this is a group of people trying to hijack the Tibetan cause and turn it into a crusade for their own evangelical form of Buddhism. Despite their claims of being Tibet supporters, by rejecting or isolating all supporters who are not (as they deem) Buddhist, they are clearly taking potential support away from the Tibetan cause. What, then, are they trying to do? Under the guise of "Tibetan Support" they are attempting to gather and create a group that represents their own evangelical view of Buddhism.

The irony is that these same people will criticize the way China judges Tibetans religious practice, and how Chinese employers will frequently disregard a Tibetan who shows overt Buddhist faith, or how Chinese security is more likely to frisk a Tibetan wearing prayer beads. They fail to see that their actions of judging the worth and quality of a fellow supporter by their faith is, in essence, the same.

I think we need to realize that this isn't appropriate. I have decided, henceforth, when asked this question, my new response will be "I don't see how my religious affiliation relates to my work." I'm bound to make some new enemies (something which actually started less than one hour after launching this blog,) but I also think it will give me a clearer sense of who I should be working with, and who is only in this from a religiously judgmental standpoint.

I would really like to hear what readers, especially any Tibetans in the audience, think about this issue and what we can do about it.


  1. Evangelical view of Buddhism? Yikes! Why must *some* people must force their beliefs unto others via methods akin to brain washing?

    This is pretty accurate. I've never heard this kind of sentiment from Tibetans, but mostly from the group of whites who believe Tibetan Buddhism has made them morally superior somehow (it's another form of "white expert-ism", only in the area of moral authority).

    About their views on China - it's pretty sad because they really don't know how deeply Chinese people are connected with Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism which has been the Official State Religion in the Yuan (Mongols), Ming, and Qing Dynasties. So many Chinese students risk their careers and sometimes their lives to be a student. Yet these great folks coming from cultures with next to zero Buddhist ties think they are "better" than them. Good grief.

  2. Tivome, please be careful not to imply coming from a culture with “Buddhist ties” bestows entitlement. I don't think that's what you intended, but it somewhat sounds that way. I believe what you say about many Chinese students, but I've also witnessed (in Tibet) Chinese students/followers who obviously have a good deal of money and clout and behave as if being a 'patron' entitles them to have a closer relationship/access to teachers than the vast majority of local Tibetans have.

  3. "trying to hijack the Tibetan cause and turn it into a crusade for their own evangelical form of Buddhism."

    "I've never heard this kind of sentiment from Tibetans, but mostly from the group of whites who believe Tibetan Buddhism has made them morally superior somehow (it's another form of "white expert-ism", only in the area of moral authority)"

    I would agree as well. These examples involve both individual egotism and expressions of collective white privilege.

    The point in comments about the emergence of new forms of classism in China is one that few take notice of. The ties between classism and the propensity for the elite classes to invoke a racial basis for either exploiting or marginalizing an underclassed group is important. The underclass being set up either as invisible or as somehow "precious" yet still marginalized. Nice call.


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