Sunday, April 15, 2007

My Enlightening Meeting with Lama Lhundub Sopa

The Four Immeasurables

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, is coming to town, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to generate some news coverage of the 2000 hidden monkeys suffering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison since his Holiness is a big supporter of the labs.

Upon hearing that His Holiness is an admirer of scientists who burn monkeys’ brains with acid and then try to frighten them with snakes, scientists, and bigger monkeys, most people express either disbelief or shock. After all, he is the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, a theocracy based on a set of profound teachings that urge us to harm no sentient being, to dispel all the misery in the world, to recognize that all beings are as precious as our mothers, and to embrace the ideas captured in the Four Immeasurables.

Here are some photos of the Buddha of Compassion being wooed by Richard Davidson and hob-knobbing with Ned Kalin.

So, since he’s coming to town to bless a new temple being built by one of his old Lama friends and to speak on campus, I thought that this might be an opportunity to call attention to his true nature and get the monkeys some press coverage.

The new temple is being built at local Buddhist monastery named Deer Park, after the park where Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, taught his first lessons sometime between 500 BCE and 400 CE.

The monastery is under the control of one of the Dalai Lama’s contemporaries, Lama Lhundub Sopa, or Geshe Sopa, to use his Buddhist academic title. The Deer Park website says:

Geshe Sopa is recognized worldwide as one of the great living spiritual masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is particularly renowned for maintaining the high standards of scholarly learning while personally embodying the qualities of humility, tolerance and compassion.

Though trained in his youth in one of the most rigorous Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, Geshe Sopa’s life work has been centered in the heartland of America. Here, Geshe Sopa has spent forty years inspiring all those he meets—as a Buddhist monk, a university professor, a committed peacemaker, a consummate teacher and as an extraordinary human being.

So I thought, maybe, just maybe, that Geshe Sopa, personally embodying the quality of compassion, might not know that the Dalai Lama was speaking out in support of vivisection. I thought that, maybe, he would be concerned for the animals suffering in the labs, and that before standing in front of his gate with a protest sign calling attention to the Buddha of Compassion’s dispassion for the monkeys, that I ought to go see him.
So, I called and made an appointment.

First, I spoke with a woman named Ani Jampa – an American by her East Coast accent, but I never met her in person. I think she was cooking something as we spoke on the phone; I thought I heard dishes clinking and she seemed a bit distracted.

I explained to her who I was and the reason I wanted to speak with Geshe Sopa. I didn’t discuss my possible protest, but was clear about my concern over the Dalai Lama’s support of vivisection and particularly the Dalai Lama’s relationship with UW monkey vivisectors. She argued a bit in his defense, and explained that His Holiness didn’t have a strong association with Deer Park and that Geshe Sopa wouldn’t voice an opinion about the Dalai Lama’s opinions. She agreed to set up an appointment for me.

Later I got a call from the Venerable George C. Churinoff who asked me to send him some substantiation of my concerns. He also wanted to argue with me a bit about the Dalai Lama’s position and, as Ani Jampa had done, told me not to get my hopes up. He also recommended that I bring a gift for Geshe Sopa.

So, I sent Venerable George this email.

I had some apprehension before my meeting with Geshe Sopa. Though I’ve read a goodly number of books on Buddhism and had a personal practice for a few years, I surfed the World Wide Web and read many pages discussing the role of compassion. There is near uniform lip service regarding the fundamental idea that we should have genuine and meaningful concern for all beings.

I hoped that Venerable George and Ani Jampa’s typically human-centered compassion were just expressions of some lingering attachment to the duality of human/animal suffering, and that Geshe Sopa, embodying compassion, would have a more enlightened view.

Venerable George met me in the driveway wearing his maroon and orange Tibetan robes, and escorted me into Geshe Sopa’s home, a nice ranch furnished in a tasteful Eastern décor. It was pretty much what one might expect. I removed my shoes and followed George to Geshe Sopa’s room. This seems to be his Tibetan retreat from the real world. The walls are covered with thangkas, a photo of the Dalai Lama, there was a scent of incense in the room. Geshe Sopa held his audience with me from his daybed. I sat on a chair at the foot of the bed, and venerable George sat on the floor beside the bed and occasionally helped him find his glasses or an underlined quotation in a book, marked apparently, in anticipation of my visit.

I expressed my appreciation for his willingness to talk to me. I gave him a copy of Compassionate Action, a book edited by a dear friend, and explained its personal significance to me. He and George seemed familiar with the author Chatral Rinpoche, which I thought might be a good thing since he is a well-known animal supporter.

I explained the situation with the monkeys and why it seems contrary to the basic tenets of Buddha’s teachings to promote the careers of scientists experimenting on animals. I talked a little about Davidson and Kalin’s work, the Dalai Lama’s support of Davidson and Deer Park’s support of Davidson. Of all the documentation I had sent to George, he had passed none on to Geshe Sopa.

After listening to me, and to George, who had obviously read some of the details in the papers I had sent him, Geshe Sopa began talking about the difference between "Hinayana" and Mahayana Buddhism. I was never clear to me why he was so intent on explaining the differences, but he made it clear that he feels that "Hinayana" is selfish and that Mahayana is compassionate.

Hinayana means inferior vehicle; Mahayana means great vehicle. Hinayana is considered a pejorative term, coined by Mahayanists (like Tibetan and Zen) to disparage Theravadan Buddhism, considered by some scholars to be the earlier more orthodox form of Buddhism.

Geshe Sopa told me some stories that he must have felt were germane to my concerns and would be enlightening to me. Two of these, George had told me during our earlier phone conversation, but I listened to them again with an open mind and heart, thinking that Geshe Sopa’s retelling might be more illuminating than George’s had been.

The first story had to do with someone who was bitten on the finger by a venomous snake. In order to save his life, to stop the poison from spreading, a doctor had to chop off his finger. Thus, doing harm is sometimes appropriate.

Then he told the story of five or six rich merchants on a boat. One of them conceives of a plan to kill all the others and steal their riches. Someone else on the boat happens to be the Buddha in an earlier life, not yet fully enlightened, but very adept. He sees into the plotter’s mind and knows that the only way to save everyone else on the boat is to kill the one bad man, and does. Geshe Sopa thought that the negative effect of doing this was probably outweighed by the positive effect so, in the final weighing, Buddha was not harmed by murdering the bad man.

He told me another story, essentially the same as the one above, but this time with one hundred or so people at risk, and again, claimed that the murder of one who plotted the murder of the rest was a justified act and would probably not condemn one to eons of hell.

He repeatedly pointed out the fact that we do not allow everyone to do all the things that they believe would make them happy, especially in the case of rapists, murderers, and thieves, and that we even take away their freedom and lock them away, and yet we don’t think poorly of the police who do these things on our behalf.

His point in all of these stories, which he repeated many times, was that when we see someone doing something that appears to be bad, that it might not be. We might not fully understand the situation. The Buddhist corollary, he explained, is that, from the perspective of how this affects the person committing the act, it is primarily the intent that matters.

Geshe Sopa also said that one human is worth a thousand animals. If thousands of animals are harmed, and only a few humans receive some benefit, then that’s ok.

I had to struggle to get any questions in during Geshe Sopa’s discourse, and even George seemed a little unsatisfied with some of his answers. He asked Geshe Sopa whether it would be right for the Chinese government to experiment on Tibetans in order to study some disease. I’m not sure we got a straight answer to this question.

Geshe Sopa raised his voice and became pretty agitated a few times, especially when I tried to tell him a little more about what was going on at the university. “Don’t tell me about universities! I know all about universities!”

The way I understood him, and I asked him whether my understanding was right, and he said it was, we can never judge someone else’s actions. When I asked him about the university destroying the 628 primate experimentation videotapes in an apparent effort to stop the public from learning what is going on in the labs, he said that it was probably necessary because the public wouldn’t understand what they were seeing.

When I asked him about J. Marion Sims, the father of American gynecology, who experimented on enslaved women, he said he thought that it was justified because more women were helped.

As I was leaving, I left two brochures and a copy of Masserman on the foot of his bed. He said, “Take those with you. I won’t read them.” I refused, but George picked them up.

On the way out, as I was putting my shoes back on, I heard some birds. “George, do I hear birds?”

“Oh yes. I think they are parakeets. There is also a tank of fish.”

George walked me to my car. We talked a bit more. When I mentioned the growing body of scientific literature concerning animal mind and the implications for the monkeys living for years in a stainless steel cubical, he said, regarding the notion that animals have minds anything like humans, "This is not the Buddhist position," or something to that effect. He seemed to take refuge in the Dogma.

I think I'll go buy some poster board.


Amy C. said...

"When I asked him about the university destroying the 628 primate experimentation videotapes in an apparent effort to stop the public from learning what is going on in the labs, he said that it was probably necessary because the public wouldn’t understand what they were seeing."

A man of peace embracing ignorance. There's something terribly wrong with that. Thank you for trying to talk to him.

Anonymous said...

This is a letter from HH Dalai Lama's private office

Rick Bogle, Founder
Primate Freedom Project
2251-A Refugio Rd.
Goleta, CA 93117
805 968 4531

Date: Thu, 06 Sep 2001 04:19:09 +0530 From: Office of His Holiness the Dalai To:

Dear Rick Bogle,

Thank you for your e-mail letter of August 25 addressed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness appreciates your bringing to His attention about work of Dr. Ned Kalin. His Holiness was not aware that Dr. Kalin was involved in conducting tests on animals that were painful and extremely cruel.

His Holiness has always been against such tests on animals. In fact, when His Holiness offered to make a contribution to a research work by Dr. Paul Ekman on the subject of CULTIVATING EMOTIONAL BALANCE. His Holiness specifically pointed out that the research work should not involve experiments on animals.

With best wishes,

Tenzin Geyche Tethong

As for the other comments by Geshe Sopa. These opinions are not the teachings of the Buddha. When in doubt, always go to the source - the founder - Shakyamuni Buddha. Any comment which advocates harm or killing of *any* sentient being for "the greater good" or for whatever reason, this opinion is not the teaching of the Buddha. Furthermore, this opinion is against the Bodhisattva vows of non harm. It is also against one of the basic five refuge vows of not killing. An opinion which advocates harm and killing is a misrepresentation & misinterpretation of the Buddha's teachings and sadly brings Buddhism into disrepute. said...


When we got the letter from Tenzin Geyche Tethong we were very pleased and felt that we had helped rectify a misunderstanding. The problem, of course, is that afterwards, HH has continued to speak publicly in favor of using animals in studies like Davidson's and Kalin's.

Moreover, I was taught by one of the monks at Deer Park that the western view of mind as a product of the brain, or an emergent phenomena of some properties of the brain, is not the Buddhist view. In the Buddhist view, mind exists apart from the physical world. This makes HH's support of invasive brain research on monkeys all the more troubling since, apparently, taking their brains apart cell by cell is unlikely to inform us about the nature of mind.

omgoleus said...

Regarding anonymous's claim to know the truest Buddhism:

As for the other comments by Geshe Sopa. These opinions are not the teachings of the Buddha... Any comment which advocates harm or killing of *any* sentient being for "the greater good" or for whatever reason, this opinion is not the teaching of the Buddha.

It's an incontrovertible and obvious fact that this claim defines the opinion of one subset of Buddhist sects, not all. Apart from that, though, it is problematic because it outlaws self-defense, or any other form of defense, no matter what you're defending! You may respond that just because such absolutist pacifism is challenging doesn't mean it's not the truest spiritual path. However, a moment's reflection should reveal that such an attitude is escapist with respect to the present reality.

None of what I've said is intended to justify animal research, but someone who presents his/her own highly controversial interpretation as the only truth of Buddhism (or the only truth of anything, for that matter) is not doing anyone a service. Hardly anything is more intoxicating than your own extreme beliefs!

Anonymous said...

Lama Lhundub Sopa's claim is that it is appropriate and proper to harm and kill for the greater good.

This is based on the notion that good intent justifies essentially any harm. This is what the Dalai Lama has said and teaches, and what UW's Richard Davidson always repeats when asked about his invasive brain experiments on monkeys.

The easiest way to understand all of this is to recognize that the Dalai Lama isn't enlightened. He is a victim of a medieval religious system that is a corruption of the fundamental teachings; his "spiritual" views should be seen as such.

A good litmus test here is the fact that vivisectionists are rallying to his grotesque opinions and using them to claim that they command the high moral ground.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the Dalai Lama has lost his way.
Anyone who offers any form of any
kind of support for any mode of animal abuse is not worth listening to.
Thank you Rick for what you tried to do. I suppose this is further evidence that genuine goodness transcends religion and religious belief.