Tibetan Buddhism

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

I love perusing through the South China Morning Post, surely the world’s most exotic mainline news outlet. A glance at their web site reveals everything from a journey through southern Tajikstan and a list of the best cities on the Silk Road to a piece on minimalist Japanese design and Chinese rice entrepreneurs.

Put “religion” in its search bar and you’ll get wonderful literary morsels about a monastery in remote Sichuan where wine-colored-robed Buddhist nuns must spend 100 days outside in unheated huts during the winter; how the actress who inspired India’s MeToo movement felt “inspired by God” and how a second ethnic Chinese politician, who is also a Protestant, is facing blasphemy charges in Indonesia.

The Indonesian piece is fascinating in how it openly wonders if religious freedom is at all possible in Muslim-majority Indonesia these days. And then there’s another piece on rampaging Hindu mobs angry with anyone who transports cows to slaughter houses or sells beef.

I wanted to draw attention to the Buddhist nuns piece, by freelance photographer Douglas Hook, because it’s related to other news on how China oppresses its religious minorities. We’ve all heard about the criminal behavior the Chinese government is showing toward its Uiygar minority in western China.

High in the mountains of Sichuan province, more than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns live in the austere surroundings of the Yarchen Gar monastery. Here, they follow the teachings of leader Asong Tulku, who counsels meditation and atonement for his disciples, and is revered as a living Buddha.

Established in 1985 by Lama Achuk Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar – officially known as Yaqing Orgyan – is located in Baiyu county, in western Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 4,000 metres above sea level the difficult-to-reach monastery boasts one of the largest congrega­tions of monks and nuns in the world.

Because most of the devout here are women, Yarchen Gar has been called the “city of nuns”.

One reason this monastery has been growing is because Communist cadres have been taking over a larger monastery to the north.

Numbers at Yarchen Gar are rising once again due to evictions of Tibetans from a larger monastery, Larung Gar, to the north, where author­ities are acting to reduce the 40,000-strong congregation. Preparations are ongoing in Yarchen Gar to accommodate this influx of devotees. Roads are being built and sewers installed, and a massive temple is being erected in the eastern section, near the monks’ quarters.

Read this piece to find out how the Chinese government is borrowing from its Uighur Muslim playbook in terms of weakening religious groups by forcing them into jails or by installing atheist leaders as administrators.

Despite the use of smartphones along with other modern conveniences,

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

It’s no where near as widespread as the vicious attacks against Buddhist Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but a similar inter-religious clash is currently roiling Sri Lanka.

If you're not current with the breaking situation, this Reuters news piece will help. So will this analysis from Britain’s The Independent.

There are two takeaways here that journalists need to understand.

First, some majority Buddhist nations -- all of them in Asia -- are reacting to the growth of Islam in their midst in similar fashion to the reaction of some European countries, not to mention a large number of American Christians (religious and cultural) and others.

That is to say, with much alarm; fear of Islamic terrorism being a prime motivator. A second motivator is cultural in nature; the fear of losing one’s historical national dominance as global demographics shift. Call this the tribal component.

This New York Times analysis explains what I mean in far greater detail. Its’s headlined: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” Here’s a taste of it.

Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?

I know this is on the longish side, but allow me to also quote this part of the Times essay. It's illuminating, as is the entire article.

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Washington Post hints at big changes afoot for Tibetan Buddhism. Is there a local story in that?

Washington Post hints at big changes afoot for Tibetan Buddhism. Is there a local story in that?

Tibet ceased to be an independent nation nearly six decades ago. Moreover, the likelihood is that Tibet — birthplace of the Dalai Lama and home to a unique and dramatic form of Buddhist practice — will remain under Chinese domination for the foreseeable future.

In short, the Dalai Lama’s immense international popularity (primarily in Western democracies) and the good deal of advocacy on behalf of Tibet by Western supporters over the decades has, politically speaking, achieved virtually nothing.

Why’s that? Because China’s massive economic and military power trumps, on the international stage, any sympathy for Tibet in Western capitals.

If that’s not enough, there’s now a new -- and surprising -- threat to Tibetan nationalism. The Washington Post wrote about it last month.

That threat is Indian citizenship.

India, home to some 122,000 Tibetan exiles, earlier this year decided to grant many of them Indian citizenship. Until now officially stateless, the Tibetans who accept Indian citizenship will gain a slew of government perks withheld from non-citizens. That includes an Indian passport, allowing them to leave India and travel the world with far greater ease than previously.

That raises at least three questions. One’s political, one’s religious and one’s journalistic. As usual, the three are interrelated. To begin:

* What does accepting Indian citizenship mean for the Tibetan national movement?

* What impact will this have on Tibetan Buddhism?

* Three, why did the Post story not address question two -- given how central Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is to Tibetan cultural and political identity?

Yes, we're talking about the possibility of a slow but eventual assimilation into Indian cultural identity.

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A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  

Paul Simon included that line in his emotionally moving song, "The Boxer." The words have long rung true for me.

These days, I find them particularly relevant when thinking about religious freedom issues -- both domestic and international -- and much of what journalists write about them.

Which is to say that too often, respect for religious freedom comes down to whose ox is being gored.

On the domestic front, Simon's words spring to mind when reading many of the stories written about the successful -- for the moment, at least -- Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

His words also seem blindingly appropriate when considering these two international stories, one from Indonesia and one from China's ethnic Tibetan region, both published by The New York Times.

Please read both stories to better understand this post and to keep me from having to stuff this column with critical but wordy explanatory background -- as might have been necessary in the long-ago world of pre-links journalism. It's a new world. Make use of the links. The photos accompanying both stories alone are worth your time.

Click here for the Indonesia story. And click here for the China story.

Notice how sympathetic both stories are toward the religious and social views of the indigenous tribe, in the Indonesian case, and toward Tibetan Buddhism, in the China story.

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