Looking at the Prisoners of Shangri-La

When I entered graduate school some years ago at a well-known university out west I was assigned a desk in an office shared by other graduate students. Upon entering the office for the first time my field of vision was immediately smothered by a gigantic six foot poster on the opposite wall of one of history’s most brutal dictators: Mao Tse Tung. After recovering from some initial alarm I noticed what I took to be a graduate student sitting at a desk to the lower left of the ominous poster. A slight young man about my age, he acknowledged me with a smile, but before we could exchange introductions I asked him what a picture of Mao was doing on the wall. The man had killed fifty million people — at least four times as many as Hitler. Why wasn’t Hitler on the wall instead? After catching his breath at the mention of Hitler he replied: “Mao did it for the people, man.”  

Now imagine this: fast forward twenty years and you might find him rallying for Tibetan liberation, for Obama, and, if Catholic, for “liberation theology.” Does it matter that Mao destroyed Tibet, or that Obama has shown contempt for the “masses,” or that the Dalai Lama, like the Pope, opposes abortion and same-sex relationships? Unraveling this confusing puzzle can tell us much about an ideology that has completely lost its moorings. More importantly it can help us uncover an aspect of the liberal mentality carefully guarded and hidden from our view.  

Tibet — like Obama — performs a unique function for many of our friends on the Left: they both represent a mythical and utopian paradise known as “Shangri-La” into which they pour their deepest longings in the hope of obtaining absolution from what some have called “post-imperial guilt.” And the beauty of “Shangri-La,” immortalized by James Hilton in his 1939 novel Lost Horizon, is that one can construct these imaginary hideaways without bothering about the nasty contradictions.  

To be sure, both the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama benefit greatly from multitudes of true believers. The Dalai Lama keeps the Tibetan cause alive by remaining a vessel for disaffected westerners who desperately seek an antidote to a nagging sense of emptiness. Barack Obama on the other hand continues to improve his chances in the coming election by attracting legions of young voters who are products of liberal educators who have, for decades, used our schools to induce students’ suspicions of traditional American roots. And while tapping into a massive, decades-long identity crisis can provide a sustainable and ever renewable source of energy for both men, an association with this ideological dance partner can be toxic. Just ask the Catholic Church what “liberation theology” is doing to its traditions, its priorities, and its future membership.

In his book Prisoners of Shangri-La the well-known Buddhist scholar Donald Lopez notes for example that there has been “a continuing European romance in which the West perceives some lack within itself and fantasizes that the answer, through a process of projection, is to be found somewhere in the East.” In fact, says Lopez,

To the growing number of Western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism “traditional Tibet” has come to mean something from which strength and  identity are to bederived. 

The problem, according to Lopez, is that Tibetan culture was never the “Shangri-La” that currently serves as the panacea for the identity starved westerner. Lopez shows how respected scholars in the West continue to distort the culture of Tibet in this regard. For example, noteworthy western scholars of Tibet have continued to argue that Tibet has been a bastion of women’s equality, but according to Lopez, this is completely false:

The educational opportunities and chances for social advancement open to monks were generally absent for nuns . . .Among the some three thousand incarnate Lamas in Tibet, only a few were women, and women did not hold government office in Tibet.

Perhaps most interesting is something not addressed in Lopez’s book: the Dalai Lama’s position on abortion and same-sex issues. In numerous interviews and venues over the years the Dalai Lama has been unwavering in his defense of traditional Buddhist scriptures relating to natural law. For example, in the fall of 2005 at a meeting with religious leaders in Idaho the Dalai Lama said the following in reference to these “same-sex” issues:

On same-sex [issues], I think [for the] believer and non-believer, we have to make a distinction. To a believer, according to one’s own teaching, you should follow. So [in] the Buddhist [tradition], man-to-man, woman-to-woman same sort of sex, that is considered sexual misconduct. So, [it] should [be] avoided.
[by believing Buddhists].

On abortion the Dalai Lama added:

So then, abortion. Abortion is basically a death, a killing. . . Again, similarly,
just as in the case of homosexuality with relation to abortion, one needs to take into account the religious faith of the individuals involved. So, from a religion point of view, particularly the Buddhist context, abortion is an act of killing.

It’s very clearly stated in the precepts. (my bold)

The danger however is that the closer the Dalai Lama embraces his western progressive supporters, the more likely it is that Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism will be reshaped into something different, and in the end, like in the case of American Catholicism, more open to “choice” and less connected to natural law or Scripture. For example, leaders of the “socially engaged” Buddhist movement in America have been for years defending the same practices, like abortion, that the Dalai Lama has condemned in the name of Buddhist Scripture. Once detached from these sources of truth life may very well be full of contradictions.

“Socially engaged” Buddhism is a mirror image of “liberation theology” now raging through many Christian denominations and college campuses here in America. This is why a Catholic defender of partial birth abortion rights like Nancy Pelosi can be invited to give a commencement speech at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. Progressive true believers at universities like this who have championed “diversity” over the years were in many cases simply out to overcome the “post-imperial guilt” associated with being European or Christian. This is why historical European writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the crucial place that “small town America” had in preserving American democracy, rarely made it to the class reading list. This is also why Barack Obama will not be adversely affected by his recent patronizing remarks about this slice of American life: students have been hearing the same contempt since their schooling began.

What are the chances however of our new century being “a century without progress?” Not too good. Back in the early 1970s Eric Hoffer wrote that “the vague feeling that the educated segment of the American population is becoming un-American is not based on illusion.” Much of this elite disdain for America, according to Hoffer, is rooted in the “phenomenal increase of the student population” which is “shaping the attitudes and aspirations of the young.” There are now, says Hoffer, “more students in America than farmers.”  

When combined with a “phenomenal increase” in the number of liberal educrats at all levels in academia, we should be attentive, according to Hoffer, to what might be finally coming home to roost here in America:

But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.

But Americans don’t like being ridden. In this year’s election, the elites may find that the resentment of Congress now rampant in the electorate will cause a backlash that reaches into the White House.