Here’s a an Easter Day change of pace for everyone: the interaction of Buddhism and Islam, and the fate of Tibetan Buddhists, as reported from Denmark.
The Buddha Meets Holger Danske
Almost all the harm inflicted upon Buddhism throughout history has been caused by Islam, says Ole Nydahl. He finds it embarrassing that Buddhists never defended themselves. Muslim extremists now threaten Buddhists with renewed violence.
By Lars Hedegaard
It is hard to hide the fact that Ole Nydahl is a Buddhist lama, i.e. a person authorized to convey the teachings carried on from teacher to pupil since the days of Buddha. He holds a prominent position within a special branch of Tibetan Buddhism known as the Kagyu tradition, and Sappho met him in one of the Kagyu Buddhists’ beautiful buildings on Svanemølle Road in the middle of Copenhagen’s embassy district. But with respect to relations with other religions, Nydahl refuses to describe himself as a lama. Buddha lived 2,450 years ago and accordingly didn’t express any opinion on religions such as Christendom and Islam; consequently Ole Nydahl — in his role as a Buddhist teacher — will not do so either. However, as a “responsible, thinking man” Ole Nydahl will happily speak out.
Muslims threaten Dalai Lama and “Buddhist pagans”
According to a report dated April 4th. 2007 from the internet portal Asia News the Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Toiba, located in the Pakistan-dominated part of Kashmir, issued threats against expatriate leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. Lashkar-e-Toiba is among the most powerful Islamic groups in Southeast Asia. It has been connected with several deadly onslaughts throughout India and is allegedly connected to Al-Qaeda.
The threats against the Dalai Lama were surprising because the prominent Buddhist leader on several occasions praised Islam as being a peaceful religion.
The Dharamsala Police in Northern India, where the Dalai Lama lives, take the threats seriously and have enhanced their security precautions.
Those threats are in accordance with the anti-Buddhist campaign mentioned by Osama bin Laden in his speech on the Arabic TV network Al-Jazeera on April 23, 2006. Besides the usual threats against “crusaders”, countries supporting Denmark in its conflict over the Mohammed cartoons, the United Nations, etc., his message contained a specific reference to Buddhists. It was delivered when he spoke about the UN Security Council which Osama bin Laden accused of excluding Islamic nations all the while granting the rights of veto to “Crusaders of the world and Buddhist pagans.”
Lashkar-e-Toiba — a.k.a. Jama’at-ud-Da’awa — was instrumental in the row over Jyllands-Posten’s Mohammed cartoons. The founder of that group, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was arrested by Pakistani Authorities in February 2006 in order to prevent further rage among anti-Danish demonstrators.
During our conversation with Ole Nydahl, his wife Hannah — his companion through good times and bad since they both converted to Buddhism during a visit to the Himalayas in the 1960s — was under intensive care in another room. Hannah Nydahl — who, together with Ole, founded 520 Buddhist centers all over the free world and traveled the world for more than thirty years — was terminally ill with cancer and unable to walk anymore.
Hannah Nydahl died on April 1st, 2007.
But Ole Nydahl did not see any reason to cancel the interview. The work — the battle — goes on in spite of all the grief of this world. And that’s the impression one gets when reading his books. In the book Riding the Tiger with the subtitle Twenty Years on the Road: The Risks and Joys of Bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West, soon to be published in Danish as Over alle grænser he tells about a 1974 visit to Denmark by a delegation of prominent Tibetan Buddhists headed by The 16th Karmapa. Nydahl arranged for his guests to be introduced to the old Nordic gods and the Saga heroes, whose ideals of courage and “the stiff upper lip” he finds more relevant than ever in a time of “empty sensitivity, lack of style, and profound confusion”.
Karmapa was given the opportunity to visit Holger Danske at Kronborg. Holger is — writes Ole Nydahl — “our national guardian and deserves the best only. He defeated the muslim Arabs in the Pyrenees and saved the freedom of Europe .”
Sappho is certainly visiting a religious leader with some “oomph”.
Potentials of the mind
Q: During a lecture you gave a few days ago here in Copenhagen, you expressed the idea that religious and cultural knowledge might be lost?
“Yes, several cultures with different views of the mind’s potential have disappeared in our time. The mind is without borders and sometimes varying circumstances can establish connections between certain characteristics. When the bearers of culture disappear, the knowledge associated with culture dies with them. Just look at our Greenlanders [Danish Inuit citizens — translator’s note].
– – – – – – – – – –
“We live in times characterized by incredible trivialization and forgetfulness about our values. Here in Scandinavia it’s a bit better than most places in the world, but it’s really a shame that people generally don’t exploit the potential of the mind.”
Q: Many of us can remember the time when we had neither Islam nor Buddhism in this country. Now we’ve experienced an influx of ideas, completely alien to our culture.
“The humanitarian and democratic parts of Buddhism were never strange to us. It’s in our constitution. As opposed to the teachings of the nature of mind. To realize that we can only see perfection outside ourselves because we already harbor that condition makes perfect sense. Meaning and purpose become evident, and we can work our way towards a consciousness that is beneficial to everyone. That option of evolution is open to everybody.”
Q: At the same time we’re witnessing the opposite development with the spread of the Islamic law-religion, founded on the idea that one has to volunteer into submission under strict rules dictating everything such as what to think, believe and do.
“To say it plainly, it’s really embarrassing that people — after 2,000 years of development towards freedom here in Europe — cannot comprehend their potential, don’t trust themselves, or are so badly disabled in childhood that they cast away their free will and enslave themselves under a totalitarian and fascist system. Surely, it’s pure fascism to subordinate oneself to other people in that way — no matter if it’s under a deity dictating what to do, a prophet, Hitler or Stalin. It’s always the same. Whenever you deny people their freedom of choice and self-determination, you reduce them to inferior beings.”
Q: But people do that to themselves?
“Yes, first they do it themselves. Then, the system forces them into permanent submission.”
Q: How to explain the human desire for submission?
“Aldous Huxley, whom I studied extensively at the university, called it ‘pack-poison’. If a lot of people do something it will attract others who want to belong or be a part of something. And if a start like this is sufficiently deviant it will always be attractive to certain unstable individuals. That is the reason why something originally in conflicting with human nature in the end can grow powerful, and accordingly very harmful.”
Q: What can we do to counter this?
“We must see to it that things are in the open. We must insist, at the least, that people who want to exploit their own humanity — and who therefore can turn dangerous to those who want to stay free — be humiliated, ridiculed and truly exposed. Which means that they can be dealt with just like anyone else. If you grant those people a hiding place and claim that they are protected from any banter in order avoid the ire of some prophet, then we’ve let go of the freedom of our future generations. We can very well describe it as a cancer, if you accept that people are not allowed to think and see things as they are. It’s something that conflicts with the general trend in society. This malignancy must be opposed by showing people who choose submission that there are other options — in case they develop an appetite for living.”
Destruction of Buddhism
Q: Can you describe in detail the relation of Buddhism vs. Islam?
“Almost all the destruction suffered by Buddhist culture has happened through Islam. In their persecution of polytheism they were unable to distinguish between the Brahmans and the Buddhists. They saw a lot of god-paintings and assumed that Buddhist worshipped them as exterior forces. Our paintings and statues don’t depict gods, however, but entities of energy enabling super-personal and liberating experiences.
“If we go Southward in Afghanistan from Mazar-i-Sharif and down to Kandahar and then East, we’ll find the old Buddhist core district destroyed by three Muslim invasions during the 900 to 1100 years. That was Ashoka’s old habitat where Buddhism originated. Thereafter Islam began to penetrate down through India. And, according to new Indian research, the Muslims killed some 80 million Indians from A.D. 1200 up until the English stopped it around 1700. We’re talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists and others. If you peruse Arabian sources the term “budh” — the root word of Buddha and Buddhism — is someone worshipping many gods and whom Mohammed says must be killed, no matter what. Can’t even get dhimmi-status. Furthermore, the original Buddhist ‘little road’ through Central Asia was destroyed by Muslims. So, it goes without saying that Islam has caused us many ‘blessings’ throughout time.”
Q: Why didn’t the Buddhists fight back?
“Having a waterproof, completely logical system is very dangerous. In that case you’ll have a tendency to bring all your friends with you into an ivory tower and forget all the ordinary people running around down below. What will people do if they worship a religion resembling a Swiss cheese — full of holes and stripped of logic and thus standing on feet of clay? — Well, the more porous a religion is the more you’ll try to convince others in order to convince yourself. That’s the old principle: billions of flies eat manure, billions of flies can’t be wrong.”
Ole Nydahl emphasizes that there is nothing wrong with Jesus encouraging his adherents to make all people his disciples. He himself tries to convince people of the blessings of Buddhism. What he rejects is the practice of convincing pagans with swords.
Q: No examples of Buddhists in arms? — They adhered to a radical pacifism?
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s so. I am not aware of any resistance toward aggression. And that’s really embarrassing when you see your wife, your children, your loved ones, your friends being butchered, and you haven’t armed yourself to protect them. Must be terrible.”
Q: Is that something being discussed among Buddhists today, that you should have done something?
“There are two factions. To the South we find the Therevada Buddhism opposing any sort of violence because suffering to them liberates people from bad karma. On the other hand, the Northern School claims that a bodhisattva must protect others — even if it brings suffering to the attacker. For example, we have a story about Buddha killing a man who tried to kill 500 others. The best choice, according to instinct. So, if you really feel compassion — and are yourself without confusing sentiments — then you must interfere. I know from personal experience that I react instinctively. I was a boxer for four years and I’m pretty strong. If someone small, a woman especially, gets bullied by someone bigger, I’m at it immediately.
Q: The question is : can you lose your tradition?
“My school of Buddhism — the diamond road — can very well be lost. It can survive only as long as one can find people with a rich inner life, who through meditation have achieved a certain level of insight, and lamas who can convey knowledge on the nature of mind. In 1959 — following the Chinese conquest of Tibet — some 85,000 people survived by escaping down the mountains into India. 5,000 were educated, had had inner experiences, and had preserved a variety of the Buddha’s teachings, and they died so rapidly from tuberculosis that the bonfires of incineration never extinguished. My wife and I arrived in 1968, just in time to get acquainted with the great teachers from the Kagyu line of meditation. A few years later — from around 1970 to mid-1980 — almost everyone was dead.”
Ole Nydahl emphasizes that as opposed to Southern Buddhism — which he thinks will survive as long its scriptures are conserved — the Northern Tibetan Buddhism — and especially the survival of the “diamond road” is dependant on the direct, verbatim delivery from teacher to pupil.
Q: When Westerners came to Tibet they quickly realized that it was a rather nasty place with slavery, oppression, poverty, class structure, draconian punishment etc.. How does that play with Buddhism?
“We don’t seek refuge in anything from Tibet. It was a medieval society — like Europe around 1450. The only thing of interest to us is the transference of those teachings Buddha gave his smartest students. That wisdom was preserved in India for 1,500 years, lived on thereafter for 900 years in Tibet until 1959 — and now it’s here. I really like the East Tibetans — the Kampas — proud, Viking-like warriors who kept the Chinese and other foes out all through that time.”
Q: We could use a bit of their spirit in contemporary Denmark.
“We have it. Several of my students have joined the National Guard. That’s a good place for young people if they feel that our country is in danger. If I were a bit more in Denmark — and if I were under 65 — I’d join, too.”