Hero Child

Christopher Hitchens
back to Spirituality cements childhood blindness


Christopher Hitchens

writes in his book "god is not Great"


about the Dalai Lama, the workings of Buddhism and the role of Japanese Buddhism as a loyal servant -- even an advocate -- of imperialism and mass murder:


The human species is an animal species without very much variation in it, and it is idle and futile to imagine that a voyage to Tibet, say, will discover an entirely different harmony with nature or eternity. The Dalai Lama, for example, is entirely and easily recognizable to a secularist. In exactly the same way as a medieval princeling, he makes the claim not just that Tibet should be independent of Chinese hegemony -- a perfectly good demand, if I may render it into English -- but that he himself is a hereditary king appointed by heaven itself. How convenient! Dissenting sects within his faith are persecuted; his one-man rule in an Indian enclave is absolute; he makes absurd pronouncements about sex and diet and, when on his trips to Hollywood fund-raisers, anoints major donors like Steven Segal and Richard Gere as holy. . . I will indeed admit that the current "Dalai" or supreme lama is a man of some charm and presence, as I will admit that the present queen of England is a person of more integrity than most of her predecessors, but this does not invalidate the critique of hereditary monarchy, and the first visitors to Tibet were downright appalled at the feudal domination, and hideous punishments, that kept the population in permanent serfdom to a parasitic monastic elite.

How might one easily prove that "Eastern" faith was identical with the unverifiable assumptions of "Western" religion? Here is a decided statement by "Gudo," a very celebrated Japanese Buddhist of the first part of the twentieth century:

As a propagator of Buddhism I teach that "all sentient beings have the Buddha nature" and that "within the Dharma there is equality with neither superior nor inferior." Furthermore, I teach that "all sentient beings are my children." Having taken these golden words as the basis of my faith, I discovered that they are in complete agreement with the principles of socialism. It was thus that I became a believer in socialism."

There you have it again: a baseless assumption that some external "force" has a mind of its own, and the faint but menacing suggestion that anyone who disagrees is in some fashion opposed to the holy or paternal will. I excerpt this passage from Brian Victoria's exemplary book Zen at War, which describes the way the majority of Japanese Buddhists decided that Gudo was right in general but wrong in particular. People were indeed to be considered children, as they are by all faiths, but it was actually fascism and not socialism that the Buddha and the dharma required of them.

Mr. Victoria is a Buddhist and adept and claims -- I leave this to him -- to be a priest as well. He certainly takes his faith seriously, and knows a great deal about Japan and the Japanese. His study of the question shows that Japanese Buddhism became a loyal servant -- even an advocate -- of imperialism and mass murder, and that it did so, not so much because it was Japanese, but because it was Buddhist. In 1938, leading members of the Nichiren sect founded a group devoted to "Imperial-Way Buddhism." It declared as follows:

Imperial-Way Buddhism utilizes the exquisite truth of the Lotus Sutra to reveal the majestic essence of the national polity. Exalting the true spirit of Mahayana Buddhism is a teaching which reverently supports the emperor's work. This is what the great founder of our sect, Saint Nichiren, meant when he referred to the divine unity of sovereign and Buddha. . . .For this reason the principal image of adoration in Imperial-Way Buddhism is not Buddha Shakyamuni who appeared in India, but his majesty the emperor, whose lineage extends over thousands of generations.

Effusions like this are -- however wicked they may be -- almost beyond criticism. They consist, like most professions of faith, in merely assuming what has to be proved. Thus, a bold assertion is then followed with the words "for this reason," as if all the logical work had been done by making that assertion. (All of the statements of the Dalai Lama, who happens not to advocate imperialist slaughter but who did loudly welcome the Indian government's nuclear tests, are also of this non-sequitur type.) Scientists have an expression for hypotheses that are utterly useless even for learning from mistakes. They refer to them as being "not even wrong." Most so-called spiritual discourse is of this type.

You will notice, further, that in the view of this school of Buddhism there are other schools of Buddhism, every bit as "contemplative," that are in error. This is just what an anthropologist of religion would expect to find of something that was, having been manufactured, doomed to be schismatic. But on what basis could a devotee of Buddha Shakyamuni argue that his Japanese co-thinkers were in error themselves? Certainly not by using reasoning or evidence, which are quite alien to those who talk of the "exquisite truth of the Lotus Sutra."

Things went from bad to worse once Japanese generals had mobilized their Zen-obedient zombies into complete obedience. The mainland of China became a killing field, and all the major sects of Japanese Buddhism united to issue the following proclamation:

Revering the imperial policy of preserving the Orient, the subjects of imperial Japan bear the humanitarian destiny of one billion people of color. . . . We believe it is time to effect a major change in the course of human history, which has been centered on Caucasians.

This echoes the line taken by the Shinto -- another quasi-religion enjoying state support -- that Japanese soldiers really fell for the cause of Asian independence. Every year, there is a famous controversy about whether Japan's civil and spiritual leaders should visit the Yasukuni shrine, which officially ennobles Hirohito's army.  Every year, millions of Chinese and Koreans and Burmese protest that Japan was not the enemy of imperialism in the Orient but a newer and more vicious form of it, however to not that Japanese Buddhists of the time regarded their country's membership of the Nazi/Fascist Axis as a manifestation of liberation theology. Or, as the united Buddhist leadership phrased it at the time:

In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of "killing one in order that many may live" (issatsu tasho). This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest seriousness.

No "holy war" or "Crusade" advocate could have put it better. The "eternal peace" bit is particularly excellent. By then end of the dreadful conflict that Japan had started, it was Buddhist and Shinto priests who were recruiting and training the suicide bombers, or Kamikaze ("Divine Wind"), fanatics, assuring them the emperor was a "Golden Wheel-Turning Sacred King," one indeed of the four manifestations of the ideal Buddhist monarch and a Tathagata, or "fully enlightened being," of the material world. And since "Zen treats life and death indifferently," why not abandon the cares of this world and adopt a policy of prostration at the feet of a homicidal dictator?

This grisly case also helps to undergird my general case for considering "faith" as a threat. It ought to be possible for me to pursue my studies and researches in one house, and for the Buddhist to spin his wheel in another. But contempt for the intellect has a strange way of not being passive. One of two things may happen: those who are innocently credulous may become easy prey for those who are less scrupulous and who seek to "lead" and "inspire" them. Or those whose credulity has led their own society into stagnation may seek a solution, not in true self-examination, but in blaming others for their backwardness. Both these things happened in the most consecratedly "spiritual" society of them all.

Although many Buddhists now regret that deplorable attempt to prove their own superiority, no Buddhist since then has been able to demonstrate that Buddhism was wrong in its own terms. A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism. Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.

[Page 200 - 204, "god is not Great;" Publisher: Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group (May 1, 2007); "god is not Great" at amazon]


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