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Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

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Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.


In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

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The astonishing story of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet reads like equal parts history, fantasy, and spy thriller, and extraordinary developments lie just around the corner.

Wheel of Life, by MarenYumi

A crisis has been brewing for years and is set to erupt when the 76-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, passes away. A struggle over succession will follow, in which monks allied to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India will use traditional methods to locate and identify his reincarnation, whom they will enthrone as the Fifteenth Dalai Lama. The Chinese government will use its own methods to identify a different candidate for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama, and will attempt to force the captive Tibetan populace to accept their selection. The result will be a politico-religious schism.

Under the existing Tibetan system of succession, many important teachers and heads of state are believed to be tulkus (= Skt. nirmanakaya) , or reincarnating lamas, who have achieved a degree of yogic realization that allows them to partially determine their next rebirth. Motivated by compassion, these great meditators direct their consciousness at the time of death into the form in which they can most benefit others.

Although different incarnations are held to be manifestations of the same mental continuum, they are regarded as different persons, and their characters may differ substantially. Geshe Lam Rim describes reincarnation as akin to “a flame transferred from one lamp to a second; this being analogous to a migrator who in the passage of taking rebirth is neither annihilated nor unchanging.” (1)

For centuries, this system has been used in the Tibetan cultural sphere to control political and economic inheritance, with important positions passing from one incarnation to the next. While most Buddhist schools teach the doctrine of reincarnation, the Tibetan Buddhists are unique in employing this system of succession. Many important figures in Tibetan history have been tulkus, including the Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and the Karmapas, leaders of the Karma Kagyu school.

The Dalai Lamas are the best known and most important of the thousands of Tibetan tulkus, having occupied a central position in Tibetan political and religious culture for centuries. Prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibetan culture was conceptually organized around interlocking religious and political symbols based on the Tantric mandala, a ritual circle-complex in Buddhist iconography and meditation, which depicts an elaborate circular mansion or temple with a deity or Buddha at its center. (2) In the tenth century CE, the Tibetans self-consciously recreated their civic and religious infrastructure on this model, which defines an organized space of interaction constructed around a central figure who exemplifies the ultimate end of all social life: the propagation and realization of Buddhist teachings of liberation. Since the seventeenth century the figure who has occupied the center of that ideology-space has been the Dalai Lama.

Kalachakra Mandala

Kalachakra Mandala

Since the Chinese invasion and subsequent Tibetan diapsora, the unifying role of the Dalai Lama as a historical reference point for national identity has been more important than ever. The Tibetans have been fortunate in the character and qualities of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has proven to be a brilliant, tireless, and charismatic advocate for the Tibetan cause. His efforts have helped bring the Tibetan plight from obscurity to a familiar issue of international significance.

The Dalai Lama is the de facto head of the Gelukpa reformist church. which was founded in the fourteenth century by the great scholar-yogi Je Tsong Khapa. The first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, was Je Tsong Khapa’s disciple. The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, solidified the Gelukpa order’s political ties with the warrior-chiefs of Mongolia. The title “Dalai,” a Mongolian word meaning “ocean,” was bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso by Altan Khan, a decedent of Kubla Khan, and he was henceforth known as the Third Dalai Lama. His two predecessors were retroactively designated the First and the Second in the line.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso won political control over Tibet with the aid of his Mongol patrons. After consolidating a ruling coalition of monastic authorities and powerful clans, the Fifth Dalai Lama established Gelukpa control over Tibet, creating a ruling ecclesiastical administration that remained in power until the Chinese invasion in 1949.

As with all recognized reincarnating lamas, the Dalai Lama’s succession is determined by visionary rites. Typically, before dying, a tulku leaves some indication in poem or prophesy of the area in which they will take rebirth. A few years after the lama’s death, a search committee travels to the prophesied region to look for young children. Promising candidates are tested in a traditional manner.

In his autobiography, the present Dalai Lama recalls his own identification, made by a search committee sent from Lhasa. He was born a mere peasant boy, and found living in a rude, mud-floored house in the province of Amdo:

[R]ather than reveal the purpose of their visit [to my parents], the group asked only to stay the night. The leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoché, then pretended to be the servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house.

The child recognized him and called out ‘Sera Lama, Sera Lama.’ Sera was Kewtsang Rinpoché’s monastery. Next day they left – only to return a few days later as a formal deputation. This time they brought with them a number of things that belonged to my predecessor, together with several similar items that did not. In every case, the infant correctly identified those belonging to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, ‘It’s mine. It’s mine.’ This more or less convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation. However, there was another candidate to be seen before a final decision could be reached. But it was not long before the boy from Taktser was acknowledged to be the new Dalai Lama. I was that child. (3)

The identification of candidates has often been a matter of dispute. For example, there are currently two monks living in India who have both been identified by different factions as the Seventeenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu order. This is no trivial dispute, for the Karmapa not only occupies an important leadership position, he controls assets valued at many millions of dollars.

In February 2011, Indian police searched the home of one of the Karmapas, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, froze three-quarters of a million dollars in assets, and announced suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. Dorje’s identification has been vetted by the Dalai Lama, but was also approved and supported by the Chinese government, who regarded him as a sympathetic prominent figure in Tibetan culture for many years, before he made a sudden and surprising defection to India in 2000. According to Asia Times:

Former Indian intelligence official B Raman said the allegation that the Karmapa was a Chinese spy was aimed at dividing the Tibetan community in exile before the 75-year-old Dalai Lama passes away. “He was selected according to Tibetan tradition but the Chinese approved his selection. They hope they will be able to use him to influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama. I’m suspicious. I’ve always suspected it’s a Chinese intelligence operation. They think long term” he said. (4)

The Indian accusations shocked the Tibetan community and threatened to create a rift between the Government-in-Exile and their country of refuge. The charges have been widely greeted with disbelief by observers, and are emphatically denied by the Chinese government. India has subsequently back-pedaled on their accusations for now.

The Dalai Lama line itself has been a point of contention in the past. One prominent case involves the Fifth Dalai Lama, who, as noted above, unified Tibet under its modern borders and established the Gelukpa order as the dominant religious authority in the land. When he died in 1682, his regent Desi Sangye Gyatso kept his death a secret for an incredible 15 years, ruling in his stead, and claiming that the Great Fifth was in religious seclusion. K. Dhondup describes this astonishing intrigue:

On important occasions, the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial gown was placed on the throne in the audience hall and all officials followed the routine as though the Dalai Lama was physically present. However, when important Mongol devotees and princes arrived from Mongolia to pay their respects to the Dalai Lama, the [regent] Desi could not refuse them audience outright. At such critical times, an elderly monk named Tasrab from Namgyal Dratsang, who slightly resembled the Fifth Dalai Lama in physical appearance, was made to receive the guests in ceremonial robes, an eye-shade and a hat, most probably to conceal the fact that the monk-impostor lacked the baldness and piercing round eyes of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Placed in such extraordinary circumstances, it required the ruthless genius of one of the most intelligent Tibetans to keep such an important secret for so long. When sometimes the monk from Namgyal Dratsang, bored with his forced imprisonment and scared of his unusual role, tried to escape from the Potala [Palace, seat of the Dalai Lamas], Desi Sangay entreated, beat and most often bribed the monk to stay to fulfil [sic] his unusual role of acting as the Fifth Dalai Lama. In his frenzied determination to maintain the secret, Desi Sangay is said to have murdered both the medium of the Nechung oracle Tseang Palbar and the latter’s mother for getting wind of the secret during Desi’s frequent consultations with the oracle in the nerve-wracking suspense of running the Tibetan administrative show without the presence of the Dalai Lama. (5)

During the period of intrigue, Desi secretly organized a search for the next Dalai Lama, and when word finally got out that the Great Fifth had long since passed away, Desi’s candidate for successor, Tsangyang Gyatso, was waiting in the wings. However, the Sixth Dalai Lama did not take to his expected role, refusing to take monastic ordination and spending his days drinking wine and writing love poetry instead, like this:

Longing for the landlord’s daughter
Blossoming in youthful beauty
Is like pining for peaches
Ripening on high peach trees. (6)

Today, the Sixth Dalai Lama is regarded by many Tibetans as a Tantric master. Such figures often confound expectations with their unorthodox behavior. But in his own time, many doubted that the true Dalai Lama would eschew monasticism. Questions over his status became a battleground for political disputes, with various sides pursuing their respective interests in the guise of supporting or opposing the legitimacy of Tsangyang Gyatso. An alternate candidate for the role of Sixth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, was installed in parallel, creating a circumstance not unlike the Great Papal Schism in the Middle Ages. Tsangyang Gyatso died under highly suspicious circumstances, most likely at Chinese hands.

These disputes carried over into the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama, who is generally identified today as Kelsang Gyatso. This candidate was identified as the reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso by no less an authority than the Nechung oracle, the primary state oracle of the Tibetan government.

However, because of lingering uncertainties, Kelsang Gyatso had to fight to establish his own legitimacy while simultaneously resisting Chinese attempts to exploit instability to impose control over Tibet through its agents, particularly through the powerful office of the regent, which was formally occupied by the grand conspirator Desi. The Chinese capitalized on uncertainty while the Tibetan loyalists in turn leveraged the ideological power of the office of the Dalai Lama to assert independence. Eventually the Chinese candidate was rejected, which effectively served as a Tibetan mandate rejecting Chinese claims of authority over the region.


Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama, by Jan Michael Ihl

Nearly three centuries later, a similar drama is now unfolding before our eyes. When the present Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and the Chinese government will both present candidates for the Fifteenth. Both sides have been preparing for the showdown for many years. The current Dalai Lama has publicly declared on several occasions that his reincarnation will not be born in any land under Chinese rule. The Chinese response has been characteristically heavy-handed.

Prior to the Chinese invasion, another line of tulkus, the Panchen Lamas, wielded considerable political authority, and were instrumental in identifying new Dalai Lamas. After the tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989, a boy named of Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named his successor, a decision that was confirmed by the present Dalai Lama. In 1995, the Chinese government declared this choice invalid and took the boy into custody. Despite considerable outcry from humanitarian groups and foreign governments, he has not been heard from since. The Chinese have proffered their own candidate, Gyancain Norbu, shortly thereafter. This identification is rejected by the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhists. (7)

It is widely believed that the Chinese government prefers to maintain a Panchen Lama under their own control in order to eventually designate their own candidate for the office of Dalai Lama.

In a strategem that would leave Kafka shaking his head in disbelief, the Chinese government followed by issuing State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, which requires all tulkus in Tibet to register with the Chinese government, which claims final authority over reincarnation. According to the official Chinese state newspaper, Xinhua, this mandate “aids religious freedom.” (8)

The Dalai Lama has responded with his own statement, concluding with this sentiment:

[R]eincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it.

When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China. (9)


The dense symbolic field of Tibetan Buddhism has served as a cultural language for articulating and delineating political and economic battles in Tibet for centuries. One often senses that parochial disputes are being expressed in symbolic form, and the subtext is often obvious. One illustration of this phenomenon is the recent controversy among Tibetan Buddhists over the propitiation of Dorje Shugden, otherwise known as Dolgyal. Dorje Shugden is either a demon or a Buddha, depending on who you ask. The Dalai Lama, who once maintained a practice of propitiating this figure, now considers Dorje Shugden to be a harmful spirit and has forbidden his propitiation in monasteries under his control. He arrived at this determination through spiritual introspection and consultation with oracles, and describes one striking episode in his deliberation as follows:

Later, on another occasion, we were performing a ritual of Hayagriva. It was not particularly aimed at Dolgyal. The aim was to destroy anything, be it human, non-human, a lama, a deity or a ghost. That harms the Dharma and the just cause of Tibet. Whatever it is, it should be eliminated. It can’t be helped. One night during the period when we were conducting this ritual, I dreamt that I was sitting on my bed. Beside my bed was a small boy, about seven or eight years old, whom I took to be Dolgyal. This boy was holding my right hand. When I looked again, I saw that where he held my hand the boy’s fingernails were changing into claws and he was extending them. I was annoyed, grabbed the child by the neck and strangled him. My visualisation of myself as Hayagriva and my sense of divine pride were very clear. While still maintaining this clear vision and divine pride, I took the child in my hands, rubbed it between my palms and swallowed it. It was a very clear dream. Then I awoke. And as I awoke I was still in the process of swallowing. (10)

The Dorje Shugden practice has a small but vocal following, and the Dalai Lama’s prohibition led to an ugly public dispute in which its advocates decried what they considered religious persecution. In 1997, the controversy took a shocking turn when supporters of the Shugden practice murdered an outspoken critic, Lobsang Gyatso, head of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharmasala, along with some of his students.

Although the practice under dispute involves the ritual propitiation of a supernatural being, those familiar with the events can readily perceive the underlying subtext. The lore surrounding Dorje Shugden describes him as a jealous protector of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, to the point where he is said to have murdered Gelukpa monks who studied other traditions.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has been a staunch ecumenical advocate of harmony among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and this position has put him in conflict with orthodox members of his own clergy, who would prefer the Gelukpas to continue to politically dominate the other schools as they did in Tibet. Some of those factions are strongly associated with the small group propitiating Dorje Shugden, and it is difficult not to see the underlying struggle as really being about Gelukpa hegemony in the Government-in-Exile. This issue is described at length in the magisterial article by the scholar Georges Dreyfus (11), which I recommend to anyone interested in these matters.

The problems inherent in interpreting these political disputes are significant and complex. As the Dalai Lama pointed out in his statement above, it is odd to see the Chinese Government simultaneously participate in the reincarnation process of the Dalai Lama while rejecting belief in reincarnation as a primitive superstition. However, it is perhaps not less odd to see those who understand the political subtext of these disputes also affirm the literal content of the argument over reincarnation, even when such views fit poorly with their general outlook. For me this is particularly true for some westerners sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, who may participate in some of these debates in a surprisingly uncritical way, often accepting arguments about the status of Dorje Shugden or the validity of various tulkus at face value.

Some of the greatest minds in Tibetan history have themselves been critical of these disputes, including some who were centrally involved in them. So I would like to close with the possibly-controversial suggestion it might be better for western sympathizers of the Tibetan cause to withhold from acceding to the literal terms of these debates. The facts of the matter are not even clear for ardent proponents of the tradition, and as we have seen, the consequences of these disputes can be extremely serious.

I will end by returning to the the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, who is not only one of the single most important figures in the political history of Tibet, but a great scholar and religious figure as well. When the Great Fifth was identified, he was a boy from a well-positioned family of great prominence, living in a time when control of the country was hotly contested by rival sects. Gaining the alliance of the boy’s family would be considered a significant political victory by any sect.

Samten Karmay describes his selection:

The Fifth Dalai Lama retained bitter memories of his childhood during which the philosophical and religious precepts relative to the notion of reincarnation served political purposes. In his writings he would often recall with irony the political manipulations of his own school which involved the Mongols in all its affairs. Thus he wrote in his autobiography, the Dukula:

Since there was a large Mongol army in the country and the Tibetan leaders were forced to yield much of their land to them, it became customary to recognize the sons of Mongol leaders as reincarnations. It was said that I too was one (even though I was not a Mongol)!

As for his success at passing the traditional ‘tests,’ he is equally as straightforward:

The official Tsha-ba bka’-bcu of dGa’-ldan pho-brang showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other people), but I was unable to distinguish between them! When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests. Later, when he became my tutor, he would often admonish me and say: ‘You must work hard, since you were unable to recognize the objects.’ (12)

Update: In May, 2012, the Dalai Lama made a joking statement to the Globe and Mail about this issue: “It is quite strange – as non-believers, totally non-believers, atheists – showing interest about reincarnation. I jokingly tell them: In order to be involved in my reincarnation, firstly, they should accept Buddhism. Or religion. Or Buddhism. Then they should recognize Chairman Mao Zedong’s reincarnation. Deng Xiaopeng’s reincarnation. Then, they have reason to show some interest about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Otherwise, nonsense!” (via BoingBoing)


(1) Lam Rim. A Necklace of Good Fortune. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1997. pg. 7

(2) Davidon, Ronald. Tibetan Renaissance; Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press. 2005.

(3) Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile; The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. HarperPrennial. 1991. pg. 12

(4) Sehgal Saransh. ‘Chinese spy’ allegations rock Tibetans. Asia Times Online. Feb 2, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(5) Dhondup K. Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1996. 12-13

(6) ibid., 47

(7) Gearing Julian. “Tibetan tale of two rival teenage lamas.” Asia Times Online. April 22, 2004. Retreived 11/12/2011.

(8) Xinhua. “Rule on living Buddhas aids religious freedom.” Xinua. Dec 27, 2007. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(9) Dalai Lama. “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation. Sept. 24, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(10) Dalai Lama. “Concerning Dolgyal with Reference to the Views of Past Masters and other Related Matters.” October 1997. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(11) Dreyfus George. “The Shugden Affair: Origins of a Controversy.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol., 21, no. 2 [1998]: 227-270.

(12) Karmay Samten G. “The Fifth Dalai Lama and his Reunification of Tibet.” from The Arrow and the Spindle; Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet. Mandala Book Point. 507-8

Written by Mesocosm

November 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Medieval Castles and Occupy Wall Street

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I was recently challenged by a thoughtful friend on my general support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. I hope I don’t do violence to his perspective in approximating his position in my own words.

If the last few years have shown us anything, he argues, it’s that the government is an unreliable guardian of the public good.

What happened with the 2008 bailouts is horrible – banks were able to privatize their profits and socialize their losses. The world would probably have been better off if we had simply let the big banks fail.

It may be true that the government has been co-opted by special interests; that’s what happens to governments, by and large. The answer cannot be to demand the government fix things, because it can’t be trusted with regulatory power. The answer is less federal regulation of markets.

The attitude of the protesters, he continues, is that the government should be called upon to fix everything, and to guarantee a certain minimum level of social welfare. That is a childish perspective. All you are guaranteed in life is a chance to succeed, and you should focus on working to improve your lot, rather than asking the government to fix it for you. Asking the government to ensure social prosperity is asking it to do something it has neither the competence nor the mandate to do.

I won’t try to address every point of this position – I’d like to focus on what I found the most provocative assertion – that the government is an incompetent custodian of social welfare, and it should be deprived of authority rather than reformed.


Image by Johannes Robalotoff, licensed under Creative Commons

In formulating my reply I’d like start with a story. While I was traveling by train from Heidelberg to Cologne I passed through a gorgeous area of Germany called the Oberes Mittelrheintal, a river valley that stretches some 65 kilometers along the Rhine, crowded with beautiful medieval castles. They are so dense that by train you pass one every ninety seconds or so for perhaps half an hour.

Why are there so many castles along the Middle Rhine Valley, and what does it have to do with federal regulation?

During the period between the tenth century and the introduction of gunpowder artillery into Europe, a well-built castle was essentially impregnable. The creation of castles under the Holy Roman Empire was carefully monitored and strictly controlled by the central government, because once a castle went up it was almost impossible to force a local ruler to do anything. For a period of centuries a pattern emerged – during times of a strong federal government, castle building was slow. If you built an unauthorized castle during the reign of Charlemagne, for example, an army would come and stop you before it was completed, and your lands would be seized. During times of weak central government – when succession was being contested, or the monarch was in his minority – local nobles would seize the chance, and build castles as quickly as they could, granting them local autonomy and weakening central control.

The castles along the Rhine were built by nobles who were little more than gangsters, the infamous robber barons, who would use fortified positions on the Rhine to gouge river merchants for “tolls.” As a river merchant traveled down the Rhine, he would encounter a heavy chain barricade at each castle, and pay a toll in order to proceed. The practice of extorting tolls from merchants, who had depended on the river for trade for many centuries, was so lucrative that many castles were built in a crowded region.

Eventually the castles fell into ruin, and remained in poor condition until the nineteenth century, when Germany experienced a love affair with the middle ages, and the Prussian government poured money into restoring them to their former glory.

Incidentally, it occurred to me as I was traveling through the Rhine Valley that the Gibichungs in the great German Romance Nibelungenlied, which Wagner took as the basis for his Götterdämmerung, would certainly have been robber barons of this type. We can see what a thick gloss of romantic nostalgia does to transform the basic facts of history.

But I digress. What is important for this discussion is that the merchant sailing down the Rhine, when confronted by a castle, has two options. He can pay the toll, or give up being a river merchant.

This simple example illustrates two tendencies in the social, political, military, and economic history of Europe that inevitably confront the student of history: 1) transactions do not occur in a vacuum, they occur in the context of power relationships which help determine their outcome. When there is little symmetry or parity in the degree of power brought to the table by the various parties, the more powerful party will generally extract favorable terms. 2) In the absence of counter-balancing forces, there is a historical tendency for the accumulation of power and resources to form a positive feedback loop, whereby the wealthy and the powerful use their wealth and power to become more wealthy and more powerful.

As a psychological aside, it seems that people who are at a disadvantage due to power asymmetries are much more likely to be aware of them. The reasons for this are obvious, I think, and are clearly projected by some of the dismissive responses we’ve seen to the Occupy Wall Street movement by economic elites, who often seem prepared to believe that their massively disproportionate accumulation of wealth is just and proper, and due to their hard work and merit alone. Or, of course, they may simply not care who suffers.

One might say to the river merchant, you should just find some other river, or travel overland. We must first ask if this constitutes a morally-acceptable reply to the situation, since the exorbitant tolls are essentially a form a robbery. In addition, one generally finds that every river eventually has its castles.

Coming back round to the case of Occupy Wall Street, we find that in modern capitalist societies one of the primary functions of an elected government, if political economists like Jürgen Habermas are to be believed, is to counter-balance the asymmetries inevitably implied by capitalist markets, so that the rich and powerful do not simply screw over the vast majority of people.

Now, as a historical matter, I think it’s important to take sufficient stock of an elementary fact that doesn’t seem to inform contemporary political discussions as much as it should. Since the emergence of cities in Sumer in the fourth millennium BCE, a great many people for a great deal of history have been in thrall to a tiny ruling class. Many centuries have rolled by in which most of the people on the earth were near-slaves to political and military elites. For example, nearly everyone living in an urbanized society between around 1500 and 1000 BCE (with the notable exception of Bronze Age Crete) was a virtual slave of royal rulers, who formed a unified ideological transnational cohort. Their priority in mutually protecting their privileged status is clearly shown in extant treaties, which emphasize matters such as putting down insurrections and returning escaped slaves.

Egyptian Slaves

Egyptian Prisoners of War Working as Slaves

Clearly the positive feedback loop of capital accumulation is the basic engine that drives this phenomenon. An instructive example of this is the collapse of Rome’s agrarian economy between the fifth and the first centuries BCE, as farmers were driven off their lands by moneyed elites, who were able to manipulate the law and the economic conditions of the Roman empire in their own favor, allowing them to buy up farm land into massive super-estates that were worked by slaves captured in war. This, in turn, drove the Roman Empire into ever-more-bellicose expansionism.

The farm economy was driven to extinction by a handful of wealthy senators and owners of massive agricultural estates, and the cities became swollen with the resulting influx of farmers, who had to find work, generally in conditions far less favorable to those they had previously known. The ultimate ultimate outcome of this is well-known: bread and circuses.

In democratic societies, weak federal governments with weak regulation offer the most favorable conditions for the powerful and the wealthy to leverage their resources. That seems obvious to me, but if we need evidence to this effect, I suggest examining the correlation between deregulation and income disparity in the last 30 years in the United States. I daresay the fact that the powerful and wealthy tend to favor ideologies opposed to regulation is another indication. Economic conditions that find, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, 400 individuals in the possession of more wealth than the poorest 150 million people, do not just happen.

An important theoretical consequence to the principle that transactions are shaped by power asymmetries is this: in the actual world, there are no level playing fields. That is, in every zone of transaction or competition, power may be brought to bear to change the conditions of transaction or competition, in ways that favor the powerful and disadvantage those who lack power. Parties come to transactions in the context of their circumstances. The belief that unregulated markets are in some sense neutral strikes me as theoretically naive and dangerous.

The function of proper market regulation is to limit the effect of power asymmetries insofar as they act against the public good, which they frequently do. Otherwise, the market is simply a bellum omni contra omnes, a war of all against all, which is a deplorable and primitive condition.

I do not see any way for the staunch laissez faire market advocate to deal with the problem of castles. The castellans have no legitimate right to extract tolls, and telling the merchant that he should simply find another river is inadequate in nearly every way, not least because such a position guarantees more and more castles. And again, with history as our guide, it is rather common for massive and oppressive accumulations of power and capital to endure for centuries. This is neither an unprecedented nor unlikely outcome.

I see no effective mechanism in the world today for constraining power asymmetries outside of a democratic government. If the government abdicates this responsibility, or is sufficiently co-opted by elites that it remains unable to perform that function, I do not think it will take long for the increasing economic disparities to reach medieval levels or worse.

Written by Mesocosm

October 31, 2011 at 12:06 am


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