Can meditation really make the world a better place?
“The Four Immeasurables” (traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer)
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.
Meditation does not make one more compassionate. I wish dearly that it were otherwise, but wishing won’t make it so.
The practice of meditation is very old. It has existed in cultures around the world in the form of chants, mantras, repeated prayer and affirmation, stilling one’s mind, a silencing of thoughts and an effort to be aware of the presence of some universal being or force. The goals of such practices are usually referred to as enlightenment, satori, communion with God, spiritual growth or something similar.
Hinduism has many sects with long traditions of meditation. Indian ascetics combine intense meditation and often extreme physical privation in their effort to achieve some union or merging with a cosmic consciousness or to reach the blissful mental state of nirvana. Sometime between 400 and 500 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama, a Brahmin prince from the highest caste of Indian society, left his wealth behind and joined the ranks of ascetics looking for spiritual truth. After six years of this practice, he was dissatisfied with the results and vowed to do nothing but meditate until he had achieved his goal.
Legend says that after a period of time he had the penultimate ah-ha moment and in an instant was aware of all his previous lives, the spiritual physics underlying the causes of suffering and rebirth, and a way that this endless cycle could be escaped. He became, at that moment, the Enlightened One: the Buddha.
Legend says that he soon began teaching others what he had learned. He taught a way to escape from the endless wheel of birth and death. His basic formula for avoiding the effects of the karma that keeps us on the endless cycle of birth and death is a moral code called the five precepts: Avoid harming any sentient being, stealing, adultery, lying and intoxication. Other practices are needed to achieve enlightenment, but without adherence to the precepts, an endless cycle of rebirth and the resulting suffering is inevitable.
About 100 years after his death, a schism developed among the Buddha’s followers and two main branches developed that are today known as Theravada and Mahayana. Early Mahayanists began worshiping the Buddha as a deity while Theravadins continued to see him as a man who had had an insight of the highest importance. Over the centuries, Mahayana with its many sects has become the most popular and largest branch of Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism was carried to the Tibetan plateau sometime in the 8th century. The version that reached the region was Tantric Buddhism, a Buddhism that incorporated yoga and ritual sex practices. As traditional Tibetan beliefs were assimilated, the resulting belief system became known as Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism incorporated many of the traditional folk beliefs into its philosophy and practice; even today, native Tibetan Buddhists commonly maintain what are thought of by Westerners as superstitions about magic and demonic beings in the spirit world.
Over time, a theocracy took control of what is now Tibet. Based on the dual beliefs of the transmigration of souls and the power of divination to identify the soul of a recently dead Lama in the body of a child, the Lamas have remained in control of the society for about 800 years. Often living in opulent palaces, Lama’s and monks are free from the concerns of the average person and able to pursue a more spiritual existence as they seek to achieve enlightenment.
Geographically remote, rumors of a timeless mystical land high in the Himalayas fueled myths and wild claims about the abilities of the Lamas in the monasteries. Stories about their ability to fly, to travel in the spirit world, of telepathy and prescience led to a mythos that sunk deep roots into the Western view of Tibet.
Today, the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetan people is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion. He is essentially a god king to most Tibetans. Whenever the Dalai Lama speaks in public people flock to hear him, hoping or believing that they will hear sage advice from this living embodiment of a character out of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.”
But the myth that surrounds Tenzin Gyatso is not a close match to the reality of who he actually is. For instance, in spite of the straightforward first precept that tells Buddhists not to intentionally hurt any sentient being and the Buddhist belief that we have lived countless lives as animals, the Dalai Lama supports the experimental use of animals, even highly invasive brain experiments on monkeys intended to elucidate the biology of fear. He eats animals too. A lifetime of presumably intense meditative practice has not seemed to imbue him with much compassion for the animals he eats or for the animals experimented on in the laboratories around the world — animals animated by souls that have presumably been and will yet be in an infinitude of humans and other animals.
If meditation actually does make one more compassionate, it stands to reason that someone intimately involved with promoting this idea would be a living example. In Madison, the person most often associated with the Dalai Lama and meditation is Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His long relationship with the Dalai Lama seems to have led people in Madison to think he is nearly as exalted; he draws large crowds when he speaks and regularly shows pictures of himself rubbing elbows with His Holiness. But Davidson’s publishing history is anything but a demonstration of increasing compassion. In conjunction with his UW-Madison colleagues Dr. Ned Kalin, chair of the department of psychiatry, also photographed with the Dalai Lama, and Steve Shelton, Davidson has been reporting on changes in fearfulness of abnormally anxious young monkeys following the ablation with acid, electrocautery, or suction of various parts of their brains as they detailed in their paper “Orbitofrontal cortex lesions alter anxiety-related activity in the primate bed nucleus of stria terminalis,” (Fox AS, Shelton SE, Oakes TR, Converse AK, Davidson RJ, Kalin NH. J Neurosci. 2010). These experiments have been ongoing for over 20 years, and the degree of invasiveness has, if anything, increased. There is no indication of any growing compassion for the animals.
In Madison, where each of the Dalai Lama’s nine visits since 1979 have received public fanfare, not much concern for animals’ well-being was heard when the university had itself exempted from the state’s Crimes Against Animals statutes. When the Vilas Zoo recently announced its plan to buy polar bears to amuse people while they snack on chicken sandwiches in the new Arctic exhibit, a local paper seemed thrilled with the idea. There isn’t much said when molting geese with their babies are rounded up under cover of darkness and killed because their droppings annoy a tiny number of people. When outdoorsmen pushed through laws giving them the right to hunt and trap in state parks, the main criticism was that park visitors might be accidentally shot.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that meditation by local practitioners, the presence of a Tibetan Buddhist community, or even regular visits and public teachings by Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, have led to an increase in compassion among most of us living here in Madison.
Rick Bogle stopped eating animals in 1972. He has been advocating on their behalf since 1997, when he ended his personal meditation practice. He lives in Madison and works for the Alliance for Animals. www.allanimals.org
Rick Bogle: Madison’s love affair with Dalai Lama hasn’t benefited its animals : Ct.