Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Does the Dalai Lama condone human sacrifice?

Disclaimer: After extensive research on this claim I have found no evidence of human sacrifice practiced or condoned by the current Dalai Lama. However, this claim was used in an attempt to convince me that Tibet is better off because of Chinese rule. The image to the right appeared in this week's issue of Nature, and reminded me of a debate I once had and all the memories of this most grueling disagreement came flooding back.

This article speaks of the Dalai Lama's desire and enthusiasm for interaction between Buddhists and scientists. Proponents of this type of scientific/spiritual collaboration make the point that, unlike western religions, Buddhism is unencumbered by an anthropomorphic deity in the sky and actually embraces empiricism over blind faith. An argument is made; in order to accomplish the "greatest good" an alleviation of human suffering is needed, a goal which Buddhism and science share.

The argument that I had surrounding the motives of the current Dalai Lama, the content of his character, and the nature of his religion began in part because of my blindly fervent defense of this man and the religion for which he stands. This argument is pertinent to the Dalai Lama's apparent interest in science because it took place inside a laboratory. My antagonist consistently claimed that the people of Tibet are wholly better off because of the occupation and that Chinese rule had made the more barbaric practices of “lamaism” (as he called Tibetan Buddhism) illegal. He went so far as to claim that the lamas (the high priests that surround the Dali Lama) had practiced human sacrifice up until the 1950’s.

Before I begin the explanation of the conclusions that followed I would like to preface the discussion with the introduction to Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason.

"I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall."

-Thomas Paine

Understanding why my friend held the opinion he did about the Dalai Lama required that I listen intensely to what he had to say precisely because it was so different than my own. The argument between he and I remained civil but lasted for 3 months after he had sent me an e-mail (I found the text on the web here) with the claims of human sacrifice backed by scholarly references. One such claim specifically accuses one of the high priests of Tibetan Buddhism or Gelug lama of making a large loaf of bread called a "torma" out of the following ingredients.

Torma (cake) made of buckwheat and blood;
1.) Five different sorts of meat, including human flesh;
2.) The skull of a child of an incestuous relationship, filled with blood and mustard seeds;
3.) The skin of a boy;
4.) A bowl of human brain in blood;
5.) A lamp filled with human fat with a wick made of human hair;
6.) And a dough like mixture of gall, brain, blood and human entrails.
In the same text it accuses the lamas of sacrificing their own subjects as recently as 1950.

"In AD1950 summer the Gelug lama made a huge torma of roughly three-yard high, claiming that the powerful demon Kshetrapala was invocated and sealed in it. They burnt it outside Lhasa town and bluffed Tibetans into believing that the demon as well as his accomplices was released to destroy the deity behind PLA, which was claimed to be a 'nine-headed Chinese demon'."

My initial instinct was to laugh at these accusations as Chinese propaganda, but I wanted to be as thorough as possible in the investigation. I inter-library loaned these references. Some came from obscure private libraries at Harvard. The only evidence I could find in all my research was reference to ancient Tibetan texts describing human sacrifice as part of the old "bon" mongolian traditions that mixed with Buddhism in the 1300s (de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene: Oracles and demons of Tibet, the cult and Iconography of the Tibetan protective deities, Katmandu 1993). I found no modern evidence for human sacrifice in Tibetan Buddhism anytime close to 1950. My mentor stuck to his ideas though and we agreed to disagree, but I did learn that Tibet was not the Shangri-La that it is normally portrayed as in western media. However, the Dalai Lama has demonstrated that he is setting an example for the other religious leaders of the world both by appearing in this week's issue of Nature with a pipette in his hand and by being quoted as saying "Should science prove some Buddhist concept wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." Reestablishing the tarnished reputation of science will help our world emerge from the land of make-believe it seems to be now inhabiting.

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