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The Triumph of Tibetan Buddhism

July 12, 2010

On the Dalai Lama's 75th birthday, Tibetan
Buddhism continues to spread, despite myth-making and scandals
Mary Finnigan
Guardian (UK)
July 6, 2010

In the spring of 1970 I was granted an interview
with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence
in Mcleod Ganj in the Indian Himalayas. He was 35
at the time and had not yet visited the West. He
greeted me with a huge smile and warm handshake ­
forestalling my attempt at traditional Tibetan prostrations.

In the conversation that followed, he seemed
almost naively keen to hear about my life, my
interests and why I had decided to study Tibetan
Buddhism in India and Nepal. He was enthusiastic,
bordering on boisterous and showed no sign of the
gravitas that developed later ­ when he matured
into his present status as an elder statesman and
custodian of the moral high ground.

I fell under the spell of his charm at my first
and later meetings and became a pioneer member of
the Dalai Lama fan club. I was also inspired by
the lamas I met in Kathmandu and the ones who
welcomed me into the fold in McLeod Ganj.

Accounts of the magic and mystery of pre-Chinese
Tibet by authors like Alexandra David Neel, Lama
Govinda and W.Y Evans Wentz were essential
reading on the 60s and 70s hippie trail and I was
one of many travellers from the developed world
who were enchanted by stories about the
yogi-lamas. We learned that they could walk at
superhuman speeds over huge distances, for
example, or survive at sub-zero temperatures by
generating inner heat or at the moment of death,
direct their consciousness out through the fontanelle.

We learned about the wonders of Tibetan culture
-- the songs, poetry and exquisite visual art --
all of it rooted in an ancient Buddhist
tradition. We studied the scriptures, the history
books and the lives of the great sages. We
realised that an entire society was organised to
enable as many people as possible to live as dedicated spiritual practitioners.

We took the stories home with us and told them to
our friends, relatives -- anyone who would
listen. Tibetan whispers spread across the globe.
In San Francisco, Sydney, Auckland and all over
Europe, small pockets of interest in all things
Tibetan started to extend into the wider
population. People set up Tibetan centres and
invited lamas to come to live and teach in them.

In parallel with a fascination with the myths and
legends of old Tibet, I was learning, very
slowly, to meditate. Samye Ling, in the Scottish
borders, was the first Tibetan meditation centre
in the West and for several years I spent my free
time there ­ commuting by overnight train from
London to Lockerbie. It was hard work.

I soon discovered that Tibetan Buddhism is not
all deities floating on lotus blossoms, tinkling
bells and cedarwood incense. On the meditation
cushion, I endured knee agony, extreme boredom
and oscillations between elation and despair
until I finally understood why Buddhism is known
as a "science of the mind." As my struggles gave
way to what the lama Trungpa Rinpoche describes
as "cool boredom" ­ the depth and breadth of
Tibetan Buddhist experience opened up for me and
practice became a firm commitment.

In the early 1970s there were roughly a dozen
Tibetan meditation centres worldwide. Today there
is hardly a city or a medium-size town in the
developed world that does not have at least one.
A Google search on Tibetan Buddhism shows
1,600,000 results. This popularity pivots partly
on show business chic, with outspoken enthusiasm
from celebrities like Richard Gere, Harrison
Ford, John Cleese and Joanna Lumley. It also
resides in the saintly image of the Dalai Lama
and his steadfast refusal to endorse violence
against the Chinese occupation of his homeland.
But I believe the primary factor is that most
Tibetan lamas are very good at teaching meditation.

The bubble burst in 1994 when the lama Sogyal
Rinpoche was sued for sexual harassment by an
American woman known as Janice Doe. The lawsuit
was settled out of court, but it triggered an
avalanche of revelations on the internet about
sexual and financial misconduct by Tibetan lamas.
Some of them were lunatic fringe, but many were
intelligent, reflective and soberly factual.

I followed these developments with a growing
sense of disillusionment. My Shangri-La version
of old Tibet crumbled with the realisation that
alongside the focus on spirituality, the Tibetan
social order was top-down hierarchical,
xenophobic, feudal and in many instances ruthless
and cruel. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th in
a line of reincarnations. Several of his
predecessors were murdered while still young, by
regents determined to hang on to power. It also
became clear to me that the lamas I respected as
Buddhist teachers were medieval in their attitudes towards women.

So has this awareness of the dark side driven me
away from Tibetan Buddhism? I went through a
period of doubt and re-appraisal, took up Hatha
Yoga and became an enthusiastic practitioner. But
I see no contradiction between Buddhism and
acknowledgement of an imperfect world ­ so I now
benefit from two effective mind-body disciplines.

I wish The Dalai Lama many more years of healthy
life. He has acquired unique status on the world
stage as the man who loves everyone ­ and many
people nowadays accept that the joy on his face
originates from a genuinely open heart.

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