Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Dalai Lama and “the Opium of the People”

Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people” (in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).
It was particularly Christianity that Marx had in mind when he penned those oft-quoted words, for Christianity was clearly the dominant religion of Europe and Great Britain at the time. And to a certain degree Marx’s analysis was correct: most forms of popular Christianity at the time were individualistic and “other-worldly.” The focus of faith was on inner peace in the present and eternal bliss in the future.
Marx’s assertion about religion was also applicable to the religious tradition of India and Tibet (Hinduism and Buddhism). Through the centuries (millennia), those religions have stressed inner tranquility far, far more than social action.
In recent decades, there has been a new type of Buddhism, often referred to as engaged Buddhism (or sometimes socially-engaged Buddhism). This movement is particularly linked to the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But it is, clearly, a new form of Buddhism.
To a limited degree, the Dalai Lama has been linked with engaged Buddhism. But I did not get that impression from his public talk in D.C. on July 9 or from his essay titled “A Human Approach to World Peace” about which I wrote in my previous posting.
In fact, it seems that the Dalai Lama’s emphasis was much too individualistic, and his stress on inner happiness (regardless of the outward circumstances) was the kind of viewpoint that Marx was referring to when he called religion “the opium of the people.”
The emphasis on the individual and inner peace was long a feature of popular Christianity, to be sure. That was seen, for example, in Billy Graham’s Peace with God: The Secret Happiness (1953).
Perhaps that “fault” is even greater in Tibetan Buddhism, however. Meditation is its foundational practice. (The same is true for traditional Zen.) But here is the problem: meditation can be, and often is, an escape from the larger world rather than preparation for active engagement in seeking to solve the problems of society now.
There needs to be a two-way movement, such as Elizabeth O’Connor articulated well in her seminal book Journey Inward, Journey Outward (1968). Meditation or other means of cultivating the “inner” life, emphasis on what now is often called spirituality, is of great importance. But the “journey outward” is equally important.
Many Christians, doubtlessly, have not adequately implemented that needed two-way movement. But in his recent public talks as well in his previous essays, the Dalai Lama has not adequately dealt with the “nitty-gritty” of engagement with the problems of society either.
It is well and good for the Tibetan Buddhist leader to declare that “we must generate a good and kind heart, for without this, we can achieve neither universal happiness nor lasting world peace.” But to emphasize the development of a compassionate heart without a challenge to engage in societal change is, perhaps, to foster a mentality that proves largely to be “opium” for contemporary people.


  1. You make an important point, Leroy.

    Marx is, of course, largely right in his statement about the function of religion. However, I would respond that religion should be comforting for oppressed, repressed, suppressed, and depressed people! But certainly it should also be stimulus for engagement.

    The Dalai Lama's writings do tend to come down more on the side of the comfort of his faith. Thich Nhat Hanh's, on the other hand, seem to me to do a better job of holding together the "journey inward" and the "journey outward."

    Many Christians, too, have argued what the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and others have argued--that a just and peaceful world will require that we first find peace in ourselves. If pushed, I don't think I agree with that entirely. Certainly a just and peaceful world will require people at peace with themselves, but there's no logical reason why we can't have the just and peaceful world first.

    Perhaps the Marxian criticism that needs to be made today is that religious leaders find it too easy to preach that we need personal peace first, which surely serves their ministry and career well, and it's a hell of a lot easier to do pastoral ministry than prophetic.

  2. The Dalai Lama does speak with a genuine smile, which goes a long ways these days.

  3. Leroy:

    You are right on that we need both a journey inward and a journey outward. Meditation that does not send us into the world to work for justice can become useless. Active engagement in the world without personal rest and renewal can quickly learn to burnout.

    Be well and feel good - David

  4. My esteemed friend, who often sends short and significant comments, sent this important e-mail message a few minutes ago. He is an admirer of the Dalai Lama, so his comments need to be taken seriously.

    "I did not hear the Dalai Lama's recent presentations, Leroy, but I think he may have stressed a more individualistic piety for political reasons, namely, to temper Chinese fear of his influence. He sits in a delicate position at the moment. Nhat Hahn's perspectives probably come close to the Dalai Lama's own."

  5. Leroy, i really liked your presentation. i am glad that we see the world through the same lens. thank you for your thinking enlightenment. Ed

  6. Why should there be a one-size-fits-all religion? I see no problem with a wide range of sensibilities, from the ardent activist to the quiet contemplative. Each brings something to the table. Each has some limits.

    If the Dalai Lama had been other than what he is, could he have been such an effective leader for as long as he has? It is easy to forget how long ago and totally overwhelmingly the Chinese Communist forces overwhelmed Tibet and sent the Dalai Lama into exile. He has been active, to the extent that he is known around the world, and is still feared by the Chinese government. This is decades of accomplishment.

    There are those who take activism to an extreme that leads to terrorist attacks in various places and religions. What are we to say of the recent cold-blooded attack in Kansas that left Doctor George Tiller shot dead as he worshipped in his church, and other Christians trying to spin their distance from his killer, but not from the killer's message? What are we to say of the assassination of the Prime Minister of Israel a few years ago by a fellow Israeli who thought the Prime Minister had gone soft on Arabs? Or turn back the history pages a few years to John Brown, who helped end slavery, but in the process also helped catapult the United States into the Civil War. As our nation stands today on the brink of an amazing self-immolation by budget default, we clearly have not ended that war.

    As the Apostle Paul tells us, we are not all called to be an eye, or an ear. There are many gifts and callings. And there are dark sides to those callings. In making this whole process we call life work, we need all types. Even Abraham had that dark moment, when he stood with a drawn knife over his bound son Isaac, when that dark side was almost too much for him. Moses fled into the wilderness with blood upon his hands, and ended his career without entering the Promised Land, because he still had too quick a temper. Even Jesus had to confront temptation before he could start his ministry.

    Even in the secular world, we see a spectrum from basic research, to applied research, to technological invention, to manufacturing, to marketing, to sales. All play a part in the overall process. Why are we surprised to find a similar spectrum in faith? Or to find that there are successes and failures all along that spectrum?

    The opiate theory assumes that if we cannot see something happening, it is not happening. I believe the life of the soul is more mysterious than that. In the words of that great Beatles song, "Let it be!"