About a year ago, I was commissioned by the Times to interview the happiest man in the world. The happiest man in the world, a man by the name of Matthieu Ricard, is a French-born, middle-aged, Tibetan Buddhist monk. He lives in a Himalayan hermitage and is a close associate of the Dalai Lama.
The reason that Ricard became known as the happiest man in the world was that he took part in a series of neuro-scientific experiments which studied the effects of meditation on the human brain. The results were extraordinary. Through years of meditation, Ricard has developed a brain that has an abnormal propensity for happiness. The areas responsible for feelings of wellbeing and joy are massively overdeveloped and overactive, whereas the areas linked to negative emotions have all but wasted away. The conclusion of the research was clear: Matthieu Ricard experiences a level of happiness that is inaccessible to pretty much everyone else on the planet.
So we started the interview, and he was very nice, and we were speaking about his new book, the Art of Meditation, which attempts to share the Buddhist secrets of happiness with stressed-out Westerners like you and me, to enable us to develop brains like his. These secrets are more or less what you would expect from a Buddhist monk; meditate, be more compassionate and altruistic, be less materialistic and so on. But then I was prompted to ask a more challenging question. I said, your book contains all that is good about Buddhism. But what about the dark side? Is it really possible, to borrow from Richard Nixon, to have the highest mountaintops without the deepest valleys?
What I hadn’t told the happiest man in the world is that although I now live a secular life and don’t do anything spiritual from one day to the next, for nine or ten years I myself was a Tibetan Buddhist. I wasn’t a monk, but I took it pretty seriously; I meditated daily, went on regular retreats, and during the period when I was writing my first novel, I even lived in a Buddhist centre.
My journey into and out of Tibetan Buddhism went something like this. To begin with I had been greatly moved by the principles of compassion and wisdom, and the sublime peace of meditation. I really felt that I had found something special. But before long, I caught my first glimpse of the darker side. I discovered that a year or two before I became a Buddhist, in 1996, the organisation that I had stumbled into, the New Kadampa Tradition, had staged widespread protests against the Dalai Lama. That’s right — protests against the Dalai Lama. I saw photographs of the people that I knew and trusted as peaceful Buddhists waving placards that read, Dalai Lama, your smiles charm, your actions harm. This was the Dalai Lama they were talking about, the Nobel Prize Winning emblem of peace and reconciliation.
I was deeply shocked. Not because I had any particular affinity for the Dalai Lama, but because it seemed that despite the emphasis on tolerance, harmony and respect, at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism lay a great deal of acrimony. I almost left then and there. But a Buddhist nun who I greatly respected persuaded me to stay. She said, you must try to separate the pure parts of Buddhism from the negativity. Just focus on what resonates for you, your own meditation and forget about the politics.
For several years, I took her advice. I suppose, deep down, I didn’t want to accept the possibility that the high-minded principles of wisdom and compassion could be sullied. But as time went by, I found myself becoming disillusioned for different reasons. I noticed that the organisation I was involved with, the New Kadampa Tradition, was expanding exponentially around the world. And it seemed to me that they were more concerned with expansion than the welfare of their members, who they were relying on for their expansion.
And then, in 2008, another wave of protests were announced. This time, they were set to be more vociferous than ever before. The new slogan was “Dalai Lama, stop lying,” and it was going to be chanted with a raised fist, like the 1920′s communists. When I heard this, my disillusionment was complete. I gave away my Buddha statues and my Buddhist books, and I left — not just Tibetan Buddhism, and not just Buddhism, but the world of religion as a whole. I lost many friends, I lost a community, and I lost a sense of moral certainty. But what I gained was moral honesty, which is rather more complicated.
After I left, I wanted to find out exactly what I had been involved with. I began looking into the origins of the dispute, and what I found can only be described as a can of worms. The conflict between the New Kadampa Tradition and the Dalai Lama stretches back more than three and a half centuries to the mid sixteen hundreds, when Cromwell was Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, and the pendulum clock was invented by a Dutch mathematician called Christiaan Heygens. That’s a long time, and like all ancient, intractable conflicts all the facts are contested by both sides. Nevertheless, I was able to piece together the bare bones of the story, and it went something like this.
In the mid sixteen hundreds, there were two rival Tibetan Lamas. One was the fifth Dalai Lama — our present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth — and the other was a chap by the name of Dragpa Gyaltsen. Their rivalry was resolved, after a fashion, when followers of the Dalai Lama stuffed a ceremonial scarf down Dragpa Gyaltsen’s throat, causing him to suffocate. After his death, according to Tibetan folklore, his disembodied spirit became a deity called Dorje Shugdan. This deity is depicted in a fearsome manner, holding a sword and a blood-soaked human heart, riding a lion trampling human corpses, in a sea of fire. This, however, does not necessarily indicate that he is evil; many Buddhas are portrayed in what for Westerners is a similarly offputting manner, but to Tibetans this represents good qualities, like the fierceness of their compassion
(You might have noticed by now that it is almost impossible to talk about Tibetan Buddhism in any depth without referring to deities as if they really existed. I can feel myself steadily falling into that trap.)
Tibetan opinion was split with regard to this new deity. Some factions thought he was an evil spirit, or a malevolent ghost, bent on troublemaking and mischief. Others believed he was a Buddha, the most benevolent and compassionate force in existence. Clearly these were two very incompatible views.
Dorje Shugdan became associated with a particular sect known as the Yellow Hats, and he became known for his dim view of followers who mixed with other sects. This, I suppose, was understandable considering that he had been murdered by a spiritual rival. So he became quite a controversial figure.
In the ’70s, the present Dalai Lama abandoned his worship of Dorje Shugdan and encouraged his followers to do the same. Over the next two decades, his condemnation of the deity became more and more severe until in 1996 it came to a head. Elements within the Tibetan Government in Exile threatened to withdraw their support unless Dorje Shugdan followers were expelled. Around that time, the Dalai Lama’s personal oracle, Nechung, went into a trance and prophesised that if Dorje Shugdan worship continued, his life would be in danger and the cause of Tibetan freedom would be compromised. Shortly afterwards, the Tibetan Government in Exile passed a resolution that banned Dorje Shugdan worship from all government institutions and monasteries. They started going house to house, demanding that people sign a document condemning Dorje Shugdan and inform on people who were still worshipping him.
You can probably predict what happened next. Among Tibetan citizens it became a demonstration of loyalty to the Dalai Lama to try to stamp out Dorje Shugdan worship among one’s peers. Discrimination soon followed. According to some reports, Dorje Shugdan followers lost their jobs and livelihoods, they were attacked and stoned in the streets, they had their property firebombed and received death threats. Above certain hospitals and shops signs appeared saying “no Dorje Shugdan followers.”
How much exaggeration is involved in these reports, and how much the Dalai Lama knew of them, is not known. Either way, it was this that prompted the New Kadampa Tradition and their supporters to take to the streets in protest. To date, the conflict remains unresolved.
So I said to the happiest man in the world, your book contains everything that is pure and wholesome about Tibetan Buddhism. But what about the darker side? What about the shamanistic practices, the superstition, the factional infighting, the oracles? The demonstrations? And he looked me in the eye and said, “you should separate what is good and pure in Buddhism from the negativity and politics. Trust the Dalai Lama, and focus on developing compassion.” This, of course, was almost exactly the same advice as I had received from that Buddhist nun thirteen or fourteen years before.
When the interview finished, I holed myself up in a cafe and ruminated. It may be, I thought, that Matthieu Ricard experiences a level of happiness that is beyond my imagination. But that cannot be the whole story. Tibetan Buddhism, like all other religions, contains beautiful mountain peaks and deep, gloomy valleys. The reason for that is simple: both are inside us. History has demonstrated again and again that — to borrow from Disraeli — man may be part angel, but also he is part ape. And it seems to me that the beauty — and tragedy — of being human is that the two can never be separated.