Hangin’ with the Dalai Lama

Published December 1, 2010

The 14th Dalai Lama loves to laugh and does so frequently, with obvious delight. But while he may be full of child-like joy, he is nobody’s fool. He will meet with just about anyone who asks, but it takes only few short minutes for him to sort out the pretenders from genuine folk.

No matter how important you may be, if you are insincere, he will quickly signal the end of the conversation. He simply puts his palms together and bows slightly. “Thank you,” he will say, brightly, eyes twinkling mischieviously. And just like that, your time is up.

The Dalai Lama insists that he’s an ordinary mortal, no different from you or me. The people of Tibet and all his followers around the world, who believe him to be the reincarnation of Buddha, would disagree, I’m sure.

A simple Buddhist monk who, since 1953, has been living in exile in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama recently visited Toronto on one of his many speaking engagements. It was his fifth visit and I had the good fortune to see His Holiness up close and personal for the first time. (Well, if you can call sitting at the Rogers Centre with 30,000 Dalai Lama devotees personal. But I was sitting pretty close.)

My interest in the Dalai Lama deepened last year after I watched a documentary by U.S. journalist Rick Ray. Called 10 questions for the Dalai Lama, it tells the story of this tiny, unpretentious and humble man, and Ray asks him some pretty good questions, the kind of questions that you or I would ask if we had only had a bit more time to think about them. Some of the answers surprised me; all of them inspired.

The Dalai Lama leans neither right nor left but travels down the middle. This road allows him to move across polarized terrain with the sure-footedness of someone not committed to one side or the other. He may be the Switzerland of spiritual leaders, but make no mistake, he is a passionate ambassador for modern life. He is a pacifist with deeply held convictions. He is opinionated. His personal hero is Mahatma Ghandi, a man he never met. His modus operandi? Talking and listening. The Dalai Lama’s greatest inspiration? Every person that he meets, he tells Ray.

When Ray asks him why the happiest people in the world are often the poorest, the Dalai Lama says it is because of “limitless desire, too much greed.” The wealthy person driven by a bottomless feeling of “one more, one more, one more” will never be satisfied, right up to his or her last breath, says the Dalai Lama. Why? There is no contentment. “That person is very poor, very hungry,” he points out. Add drugs and alcohol to the mix, and now you’re got self-destruction on top of everything else. “In order to save [yourself] from self-destruction, you need some self-discipline,” he advises. “You need to analyze the value, the consequences.”

Ray makes it clear that one of themost urgent tasks of the Dalai Lama is to preserve the Tibetan culture, which has been systematically destroyed by the Chinese. The Tibetan culture is rich in creative arts-architecture, art, music and dance-but these can only be nourished outside Tibet.

On his visit to Toronto, which has a Tibetan population of about 7,000, the Dalai Lama visited the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre. He wholeheartedly supports their work to preserve the culture, but he is also pragmatic when it comes to which traditions continue to serve a purpose and which do not.

The tradition of caste is out of date, he tells Ray. So is thinking that a widow cannot remarry. Traditions worth keeping? Caring for the environment and all living creatures. The family and close relationships are important. So is religious harmony and respect for every major world religious tradition. Not only are these traditions worth keeping, they are also good examples for the world community and to humanity, the Dalai Lama tells Ray.

“Today, everything is inter-connected,” he points out. “So my interest is very much linked to your interest and your interest is linked to mine. Therefore, destruction of my neighbour, of my so-called enemy, is actually destruction of myself.”

It follows then, when the Dalai Lama calls the concept of war, “old-fashioned, out of date.” Violence is a sign of weakness, he says. The “power of the gun is short-term and only truth will stand the test of time, more powerful than ever.” The power of truth, he adds, comes out through openness and information. “Peace, smiling, warm, share. This is more powerful.”

All major world religions have the same potential to create harmony and peace of mind, he says. Each major religious leader is able to contribute to the well-being of his or her followers. The Dalai Lama recognizes that religions produce people who are spiritually evolved and who have a sense of understanding, compassion and tolerance, as emphasized in Buddhism. He points out to Ray that “if other religious traditions are able to do this and transform human beings, this is every reason to respect these traditions.”

The Dalai Lama models the patience and tolerance he urges others to seek. Despite decades of bloodshed, occupation and cultural genocide at the hands of the Chinese, he seeks a way forward for Tibet that is of benefit for both countries. Now, he’ll work to convince his fellow Tibetans to “forgive and move forward with optimism,” he tells Ray.

He offers food, shelter and a private audience to each Tibetan who survives the perilous 1,200-mile trek to Dharamsala, at the foot of the Himalayan mountain range in northern India. He lives in a modest Buddhist monastery overlooking the town, which is filled with hippies, writers, artists and musicians, many too young to remember Tibet.

At the end of his 90-minute Toronto talk, the Dalai Lama confesses he is ready to retire. “If there is a human right for just one human,” he tells the crowd, “then I think I have the right to retire.”

What does retirement look like for the Dalai Lama? Complete devotion to spiritual practice. “My real wish is to remain in a remote area like a wounded animal,” he tells Ray. “And all the energy, all the time, [I will] concentrate on spiritual practice and use my brain.” He pauses and adds, a twinkle in his eyes, his lips upturned in delight, “But without much expectation, so no regrets.” Ω

Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.


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