“The peaceful ethos of the Ladakhis has much to teach modern Americans, whose comparatively violent way of life is morally suspect,” Uwe Gielen writes in a recent paper. “The comparison between the Ladakhi and the American ethos suggests that the American ethos is inherently flawed” (p.181). These forceful statements conclude a paper that describes the basis of Ladakhi peacefulness and the roots of American aggressiveness.
The paper examines Ladakhi beliefs, culture, social structure, and psychological patterns to see how that society might fit in with the generalizations set forth by Erich Fromm in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, particularly Fromm’s category of “life-affirmative” societies. The second objective of Gielen’s paper is a comparison of Ladakhi and American societies. He finds that the forms of aggressive individualism of the US “stand in stark contrast” to the cooperative, synergistic social forms of Ladakh.
Despite rhetoric that expresses his opinions and conclusions quite forcefully, the author builds his arguments with meticulous care. He begins by describing his research in Ladakh in 1980-81, when he sampled, in and around the capital, Leh, 72 Buddhist Ladakhis—boys, girls, men, women, and monks. His very detailed questionnaire solicited reactions to fictional stories, with Ladakhi settings, wherein adults and children had to deal with challenging problems. The responses allowed him to find out how Ladakhis made moral decisions, reasoned out social dilemmas, and dealt with complex issues such as guilt, punishment, interpersonal relationships, anger, friendship, the value of life, and so on.
Based on that research and his other work in Ladakh, Gielen, a psychology professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY, believes that the Ladakhi worldview can best be summarized by the image of the Wheel of Life. Ordinary Ladakhis, he says, are taken by the Wheel of Life images displayed near the doors of the monasteries, which symbolize their Tibetan Buddhist view of existence. The images confirm the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that hate, greed, and egotistical attachments can be overcome by striving for the liberation of self and other from the wheel of birth, death, and reincarnation.
Gielen effectively summarizes how enlightenment liberates Tibetan Buddhists in Ladakh from the tyranny of self-focus. They believe that life is transitory and attachment to material goods chains the individual to the Wheel of Life. The Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Ladakh thus undermines natural tendencies toward acquisitiveness, selfishness, and self-assertion. The goals of the individual seem to merge with the goals of others as people feel they are interconnected by a web of life that reduces interpersonal conflicts. Selfishness, he says, “is not abolished; rather, it is fused with altruism” (p.173). He argues that Ladakhi society is held firmly together both by religious beliefs and firm reciprocal relationships.
As a result of their beliefs and social patterns, he argues, their society is remarkably peaceful. People are generally very good-humored and cheerful, despite the harsh living conditions of their natural environment, and aggressive behavior “is extremely rare and confined to the occasional, usually harmless, fights between young men under the influence of the local beer” (p.174). Because their religious beliefs de-emphasize the self, Gielen’s research subjects had a hard time even understanding the concept of self esteem. They tended to equate it with selfishness and pride—undesirable traits. Gielen enriches his article with details about the society that result from their beliefs: the noncompetitive, peaceful way they raise their children, the relatively high status of women, and the near absence of competition.
The heart of the article is a detailed, five-page table that provides a point by point comparison of the worldviews, personality characteristics, and ethos of traditional Ladakh and contemporary America. For instance, morality for the Ladakhis is a system of revealed prescriptions, while for Americans it consists of personal choices for competing values. Feelings of guilt are rarely found in Ladakh while they are strongly felt in America. Ladakhis focus very little on the self, in contrast to Americans who emphasize their extreme individualism. Gielen summarizes in his table the Ladakhi and American perspectives on 17 different issues: life goals, emotionality, self-esteem, sense of conscience, personal drives, happiness, faith, and so on.
The author’s description of American beliefs, social patterns, and psychological structures are based on his reading of various sources, such as the 1985 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by R. N. Bellah et al. He distinguishes various strains of individualism in America and shows how they influence other major facets of American beliefs such as competition, success, and self-control. He argues that these beliefs in America lead to ambivalence about “mental poisons” such as pride, jealousy, envy, lust, greed, hate, and aggression, all of which foster weak family systems, problems with drugs, child abuse, and high rates of violence.
“Violence has always been close to the center of the American way of life,” he concludes, “but in recent decades it has grown malignant because it feeds on the forces set free by the weakening of family life.” Some Americans may not agree completely with his assessment of the US, but the stark contrast he describes between the peacefulness of traditional Ladakh and the self-centered violence of contemporary America should startle and provoke all readers—all of us—into examining our own beliefs and values.
How strongly do our worldviews emphasize peacefulness? Do our self-conceptions really foster interpersonal harmony? How do we reconcile our beliefs in cooperation with our urges to compete? Thoughtful readers should be inspired to go beyond Gielen’s examination of Ladakhi values, and the contrasting ones in America that he so effectively describes, to reflect on personal beliefs and their connections with peacefulness. This excellent chapter, and the book it is in, should be on top the reading pile of anyone concerned about peace and violence.
Gielen, Uwe P. 2004. “Peace and Violence: A comparison of Buddhist Ladakh and the United States.” In International Perspectives on Violence, edited by Leonore Loeb Adler and Florence L. Denmark, 161-184. Westport, CT: Praeger.