Did he get off easily? (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

April 13, 2023   5 mins

Why does Buddhism get a free pass among religion’s cultured despisers? With the notable exception of the great Christopher Hitchens, who dished it out to all, most of the Western media hold Buddhism generally, and the Dalai Lama in particular, in a curious kind of uncritical respect that the Enlightenment was supposed to have freed us from. Or as Hitchens called it: “The widely and lazily held belief that ‘oriental’ religion is different from other faiths: less dogmatic, more contemplative, more… transcendental.”

So, when the Dalai Lama invites a young child to suck his tongue, defenders leap in to insist that this is just an unusual cultural practice that has become lost in translation. Westerners have a very different understanding of the erogenous: sticking out one’s tongue has a totally different meaning in Tibet than it does for us. It’s all a misunderstanding. And his holiness has a rather quirky sense of honour. He was “misguided” rather than “sleazy”, as one columnist in The Times put it. Hm.

Any other religion would have been hammered for such behaviour by its glorious leader — decried as yet another example of clerical perverts believing themselves free to molest the vulnerable. Admittedly, the Dalai Lama hasn’t tried to defend his actions; rather, he has apologised to the child and his family “for the hurt his words may have caused”. But it was a politician’s apology. “His holiness often teases people he meets in an innocent and playful way,” his PR machine added.

And he hasn’t resigned, of course. He can’t. This 87-year-old monk — with his 19 million Twitter followers (more than the Pope) — has been recognised as the reincarnation of one of the Buddhas since he was two. Former guest editor of French Vogue and Nobel Laureate, the Dalai Lama is feted wherever he goes. He is, along with Bill Gates and Bono, the first person of the Davos Holy Trinity. And yet when His Holiness says that refugees should return to their own home countries and that “Europe belongs to the Europeans”, his remarks get chalked up to cultural differences. Other famous Buddhists include the current Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose views on refugees are not wholly dissimilar. Likewise, when violent Buddhist nationalists attack Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka or the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, the association between Buddhism and peace and harmony is rarely dented.

There is little new about our peculiar infatuation with Eastern religions. Since the 19th century, as Christianity was defending itself against Darwinism, philosophers such as Schopenhauer were lauding the wisdom of the Buddhist philosophy of the self. This was the beginning of the idea that one could be spiritual without being religious. Frauds such as Madame Blavatsky, one of the earliest converts to Buddhism in the US, drew upon her time in India to found the Theosophical Society, a strange kind of synthesis of cod science, Western philosophy and half-digested Eastern mysticism. Fabians such as Annie Besant, former member of the National Secular Society, were taken in. The appeal to increasingly sceptical Westerners was that you could have all the richness of the inner life offered by religion without all the doctrinal baggage of believing in God.

From California hippies turned tech moguls, to sunrise worship on the Tel Aviv beach, Buddhism came to be stripped of its rootedness in specific forms of life and native theological rigour. It was transformed into a kind of stale mindfulness that does little to challenge the injustices of the world. The original big idea of Buddhism was that suffering could be avoided if one were to renounce the material world and the nagging call of worldly desire. Extinguishing the ego is a demanding spiritual practice and one that doesn’t sit comfortably alongside the desire amplifying mechanisms of capitalism. The Buddha found nirvana after many years of praying, meditating and fasting, finally gaining enlightenment after meditating for days under a fig tree. Whatever the processes involved here, there are clearly no short cuts or cheat codes.

It shows how much Buddhism has been gutted for Western consumption that it is now the ambient spirituality of Silicon Valley. Corporate Buddhism serves to untangle the frayed nerves and soothe the troubled consciences of those who exercise great power in the world. The Buddha believed in the interconnectedness of all things; content-lite corporate Buddhism believes in the Internet. It is hardly surprising that the Dalai Lama has been used as the face of an advertising campaign for Apple Computers. Steve Jobs was himself a Buddhist. For years, he held weekly meetings with monks in his office. Spirituality is religion that has been mugged by capitalism.

Of course, Christianity experienced its own corporate capture by the Roman empire centuries ago. Last week, Christians commemorated the death of Jesus on a Roman instrument of terror. Within a few centuries, Rome had become the global headquarters of a religion founded in His name. Yet the only possible way for religious institutions to survive is to have an extremely well-developed sense of self-critical vigilance. It helps if our religions do not have a morally upstanding history, because it takes a leap of faith to believe in them. Henry VIII and Anglicanism: how could anyone worship in an organisation with an origin story so poisonous and ridiculous? That is one of the things I value most about my religious tradition: I cannot imagine ever committing the sin of falling in love with it.

It may well be that the Buddha’s insistence that he should not be seen as some sort of divinity was a clever attempt to sabotage a belief in Buddhism itself. But this is widely seen today as a positive feature of Buddhism, something that fits neatly beside modern scepticism. The problem is, it robs Buddhism of precisely that self-critical vigilance. It makes people believe that this religion can be good and safe. And that’s a very dangerous thing. Modern Western Buddhism — and I suspect it is very different in its original form — thinks of itself too highly, different from the “bad” religions of Christianity and Islam, and so has let its guard down. Which may be why Buddhism is the latest religion to experience a take-over by the forces of secular power.

The greatest failure of the Dalai Lama is his failure to understand this transformation, which has been taking place in his name. Or perhaps he doesn’t care, concerned far more by the future of Tibet and the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party who annexed his homeland in 1951. When the current Dalai Lama dies — at 113, according to one of his visions — the Chinese have said they will nominate his successor. Whether by corporate California or Communist China, the Dalai Lama’s own brand of Buddhism is being stripped for its parts.

It’s true: I don’t see the attraction of modern Western Buddhism. Its defenders will say that I just don’t get it, which is fair enough. But I do get that it’s too often used as a bit of spiritual fluff to sit uncritically alongside whatever path one has chosen in life. Christianity is rightly called out for when it does this, as is Islam and Judaism. Why does Buddhism get off so lightly?

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.