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October 03, 2004

The Middle Way

Otto Kerner
Jeet, I request more entries about hippie spirituality, if you've got it in you. I can't really sink my teeth into this one, because almost anyone would agree that the behavior described here is destructive.

Ask and ye shall receive!

Originally printed here

No, this is not a post about social democracy or the New Democrats/New Labour; it's about how Buddhism in the West differs from its Asian forebears. Let's start by taking a look at how the Dalai Lama's positions on abortion and homosexuality differ from those of the "right on" liberals who tend to be Buddhism's most eager proselytes in the West.

[T]he Dalai Lama has denounced abortion as a sin against "non-violence to all sentient beings," opposed contraception and criticized proponents of euthanasia - much as the pope has done. Although he has affirmed the dignity and rights of gays and lesbians, he has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to Buddhist ethics.
On abortion and homosexuality, which have deeply divided other religious faiths, the Dalai Lama said he believed life is sacred and abortion is wrong - though there may be special circumstances, such as saving the life of the mother, when it might be an option. He said nature arranged male and female organs "in such a manner that is very suitable... Same-sex organs cannot manage well." But he stopped short of condemning homosexual relationships altogether, saying if two people agree to enter a relationship that is not sexually abusive, "then I don't know. It's difficult to say."
Hear that, Richard Gere and the Beasties? Gay rights are still OK, but you're going to have to refine your position on a woman's right to choose. I said refine, not switch; read on, and you'll learn how you can have your cake and eat it too (and I don't mean that in a disparaging way, for once).
Unlike the strident and wrenching issue it is in the West, abortion in Korea is uneventful and performed as a matter of course without second thought (except among the very religious) despite its illegality. The operation can be gotten very easily anywhere in the country at most private gynecological clinics (small hospitals) or at larger institutions. A few personal questions are asked very perfunctorily. When pregnancy is positively determined the operation can be performed hygienically and efficiently at relatively low cost even on the first visit....Japan has thousands of temples where aborted fetuses are memorialized....temples or cemeteries like Hase-dera or Purple Cloud Temple described by William LaFleur in Liquid Life where services for aborted fetuses are a major or sole focus of religious activity....Cho Myong-nyol, a Japan-educated faculty member of Seoul's Central Sangha College, writes that "the Japanese acknowledge abortion as an evil misdeed yet mizuko offerings allow the Japanese to dignify and revere life. The rituals provide an opportunity for people who committed abortion (all family members, sympathizers and doctors included) to rise above their suffering rather than be stigmatized as criminals. This practice is both rational and worldly-wise." She notes that "it seems that all religious groups in Korea except the Catholics are publicly silent on abortion. Rather than relying on government policy, the role of religion is to try to provide opportunity for people to raise above the problems of their daily lives through religious belief and to awaken them to an authentic ethics of life."
The politically active (on both sides) have a terrible habit of equating "tolerance" with "approval" or even "celebration" (and of equating "disapproval" with "prohibition"). The treatment of abortion in South Korea and Japan demonstrates tolerance of the regrettable necessity of abortion, even though it is still disapproved of and certainly not celebrated as a "freedom." The Dalai Lama's position on homosexuality reflects the same delicate balance: disapproval, but tolerance. Liberty for all requires that each of us tolerate things that we disapprove of. Like dirty hippies bowdlerizing and bastardizing the faith of one's fathers. (If you sense my equanimity being disturbed there, you're right. I know my chances of permanent release from attachment and suffering aren't good.)
Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart. It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation. For example, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore. His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, "Ethics for the New Millennium," for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.
The Dalai Lama was unusually straightforward, however, in a recent conference in Madrid. He had just met again with Pope John Paul II and was asked whether they discussed creating some kind of synthesis between Christianity and Buddhism. Nothing of the sort, he said. “People from different traditions should keep their own, rather than change. However, some Tibetan may prefer Islam, so he can follow it. Some Spanish prefer Buddhism; so follow it. But think about it carefully. Don’t do it for fashion. Some people start Christian, follow Islam, then Buddhism, then nothing. In the United States I have seen people who embrace Buddhism like they change their clothes. Like the New Age. They take something Hindu, something Buddhist, something, something. . . . That is not healthy. Having one truth, one religion, is very important. Several truths, several religions, is contradictory.”
Though shapeless, desultory religious syncretism provokes the same disapproval in me as it does the Dalai Lama, I still tolerate it1 (as does he). It's a small price to pay for freedom of religion. However, I do find His Holiness excessively sanguine about the extent to which other religions share his easygoing attitude on apostasy. *cough*Islam*cough* Stop that giggling, Christians! Until recently, you weren't much better.

And that's why I'm a lapsed Buddhist. Much of central and south Asia used to be Buddhist. There were even a couple of reminders of that heritage until someone blew them up.
'We have prepared for the unbelievers a humiliating punishment.' The Qur'an, Sura 4, Verse 151So why did much of central and south Asia only used to be Buddhist? The answer is that peaceful coexistence with a violent antagonist is possible only in the long run. (And "in the long run we are all dead."2) In the short run, we have only two real choices: victory or subjugation. In the pursuit of victory we must resist the temptation to engage in indiscriminate retaliation *cough*Iraq*cough* yet at the same time never hesitate to do whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of our way of life.

set off on this tangent by Beliefnet

1See how this works?
2Dismal science, indeed.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Percy Bysse Shelley, Ozymandias

To forgo this fight for righteousness is to forgo thy duty and honour: is to fall into transgression....
Prepare for war with peace in thy soul.
- Krishna, The Bhagavad Gita

We've made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here!
- Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: First Contact

UPDATE: The Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani knows how to distinguish between disapproval and prohibition, at least on some issues.

Question:I am really sorry that I have to ask this type of Question. But Since I grew up in a western country; I rally don't much about our religion. And I can't ask this Question to my parents due to subject matter. Brother my question is, can we have an oral sex before or after the sexual intercourse or can we have oral sex at all? Is it haram?

Answer:Oral sex act is permissible with the consent of both husband and wife provided that no liquid gets into the mouth.

Question: Is anal intercourse permissible.?

Answer:Anal intercourse is permissible if wife is consenting but it is strongly undesirable (makrooh).

Sez you.

Posted by jeet at 01:06 PM