Mark Vernon has provided some reflections on the Dalai Lama after his recent talk in the Royal Albert Hall and I have just come from the five days of teachings in Nottingham completed yesterday so I thought I would add some of my own.
It was amusing listening to the area announcers, accustomed as they are to making announcing the Boyzone and ice dancing, tripping over ‘His Holiness’ (but by the end they had it). While the Dalai Lama is famous for the formalities on going into exile he has contrived that a deference-averse secular people use this title. Any publicity agent would likely have wet dreams at the prospect of being able to pull this off, and bear in mind that this Buddhist monk has nothing other than his own personal qualities and his Buddhist tradition to reccomend him—no navy, not even a country). This is quite a neat trick and I really do have to laugh at the likes of Nicholas Kristof dispensing advice to the inept representative of the Tibetan people and his fight against one of the most populous and powerful nations on earth, known for habitually throwing its weight around on the issue.
I confess it wouldn’t feel quite right to drop the customary honorifics, so I will resort to the common expedient of referring to His Holiness as H. H.
The Nottingham Arena is apparently good for 10,000 but for the public talks it was configured for a bit over 8,000, and despite being seemingly about half a kilometer away from H. H. near the top tier at the back for the public talks I felt surprisingly comfortable, cosy and intimate. I marveled at the engineering that kept the physical climate so well regulated and the engineering behind the piece of work at the centre of attention on the stage, with his ability to consistently create this kind of atmosphere wherever he goes, and seemingly no matter how large the venue (though this was vintage). The venue and the organization have every right to be proud of their contribution that delivered such an professional and affordable event (£99 for all five days with concessions available).
H. H. opened the proceedings by making it clear that while some people may expect him to work miracles and such nonsense, he was a very ordinary human being. True, there was no levitation in evidence, yet this ordinary septuagenarian was able to sustain three 2-hour public talks to 8,000 people with everyone’s attention quite intact throughout (he agreed it was unusually good lacking even the final round of coughing from a tired and distracted audience). His posture is striking, as is anyone who sits in the full-lotus position, providing a flat base and perfectly supported and balanced back. He didn’t seem to tire throughout. I have lectured to about 150 students for 50 minutes and it wasn’t like this for me. He taught two two-hour session for each of the five days.
His day apparently starts at about 3:30am with practice and study. He says the practice is essential as he would collapse quickly without it. The study is also important as he wouldn’t be able to teach without studying, and the Dalai Lama is constantly engaged whether at home or on the road (see his schedule). When I met Kevin Fossey, in charge of H.H.’s security, he was wired from the intensity of the organisation, but also from having come from a meeting with H. H. On another occasion I asked someone from the Jamyang centre assembling in the volunteer’s area what was up and he said they were off have an audience; later Kevin was laughing explaining to some others how he had asked some of those from the Tibetan community to bring along their spouses to meet H. H. only to find that they had found seven relatives each and so H. H. was meeting 150 of them in his apartment. I happened to trip over these instances, being right on the periphery of the organisation. My guess is that a fair amount of his day is spent with complete strangers and nobodies without the remotest call on his time, other than their desire to spend some time with him.
The quite remarkable thing is that none of this is his day job. You dear reader probably are aware of the ongoing Tibetan turmoil. That turmoil centres on H. H. and the refusal of the Chinese to recognise their leader and, of course, recognise their human, religious and political rights. His leadership remains central to the government in exile, the entire diaspora and the Tibetans at home—there can be few people anywhere quite as dependent on the leadership of a single person, and it requires constant and careful attention (for example securing a visit from the proud and defiant UK prime minister, only to find him scurrying to Lambath palace in deference to trade relations and his Chinese masters). He said on several occasions that the pressure since the 10th March has been particularly acute. He is also quick to remind people that he never loses any sleep over it either (literally I mean, unless something really does need to be attended to between sun-down and sun-up).
So the Buddhist monk is indeed ordinary having to deal with many worldly concerns, though perhaps at a slightly higher tempo than your average senior citizen. The Tibetan government’s bone-headed decision in 1939 to pay a large ransom to a local Chinese Muslim warlord for the 5-year-old son of some obscure peasants living in a hinterland that they didn’t even control seems to have paid off. Lucky them eh. (The Tibetan government may have had another luck strike with the 17th Karmapa with his equally obscure pedigree, certainly judging by the presence of the fourteen year-old I saw shortly after his flight into exile.)
Five days of teachings, four two-hour sessions of public talks and six of teachings on one of the most technical topics in the Tibetan canon, and what was he talking about? In every session it boiled down to two essential points: the interdependent nature of reality and the consequent importance of a non-violent disposition in acting skilfully. The teachings boiled down to this essential point and it pervaded the whole of the public talks. It is interesting to see how the technical teachings played out in the public talk.
- One of the H. H.’s favourite riffs is the injunction to be wisely-selfish rather than foolishly selfish. This follows immediately from the causal model of reality that is central to the completely interdependent view and our human intelligent capacity to make sense of this causal reality as well as the importance of being compassionate if we are to be skillful. If things happened in a random way or we were unable to analyse and make sense of this structure then acting wisely would be either pointless or impractical or impossible. The deep interdependence of reality suggests a connectedness of events, that things don’t happen at random. That we, as intelligent, communicating agents are part of that connected fabric suggests that we can make sense of it (a manifestly different view of reality than Kant’s, for example); once it is appreciated how connected that fabric is (not as an abstract theory, but in a deeper experiential sense) it becomes clear how counterproductive violent action ultimately is, that while it may cut some corners and yield quick results, in the long run such action is actually self-harming. Note this chain of reasoning is not at all logical or even original but suggestive. The logical route is longer, involving the attendance of the teachings, meditation practice and integration into daily life, something we ought be entirely prepared for considering how much time, effort, perseverance and preparation it takes to make a decent architect, engineer or philosopher, the quality of the result being dependent on the the time and effort invested, the quality of the aspirant and the skill and knowledge of the teacher.
- We were given some remarkable advice in answer to a question from the audience asking for some advice for a practitioner that was considering suicide. After some thought he suggested that the practitioner meditate on the preciousness of having a human form (as opposed to an insect or even a cat), with human intelligence, and so on. If you knew that if you killed yourself that you would go somewhere better then for sure kill yourself, but we can’t be at all sure of this. Clearly in this case any advice based on norms (suicide is wrong) is useless so the only thing we have (and remember that this was advice to a Buddhist practitioner) is to reflect on the reason that suicide is considered a negative action, because it will almost certainly result in a leap from the frying pan into the fire. To die in highly disturbed state of mind, by one’s own hand would make for a truly wretched preparation for death: on this all the major religions agree. For someone in as disturbed a state as to be contemplating suicide there can only be one antidote: reality. (Of course if you don’t agree with Buddhism’s approach to reality then you will almost certainly use entirely different advice.)
- H.H. reaffirmed his view that the major religions were in agreement on the major ethical issues, the need for a compassionate non-violent approach to life. By major he meant those with a proper philosophical basis and had proved themselves over many generations. It is not the case that anything that is claiming to be a religion becomes a repository of wisdom because of the label. They each need to be investigated, and clearly longevity, while not sufficient is suggestive. It is clear that according to his own investigations, Christianity and Islam, for example, are capable of producing great practitioners and do teach compassion and non-violence. H. H. made the unfashionable point that doctrinal disputes are often productive but occasionally destructive. This reinforces his consistent theme that religious diversity (including note, those that decline to follow any religion) to meet the differing needs of a diverse humanity. He discourages people from dropping native religion to pick up Buddhism as it often leads to complications, but accepts that for a minority of Westerners Buddhism is best.
- The major difference between Buddhism and other religions was reiterated: the teaching of the absence of a substantial, unitary, immutable, independent self seems to be unique (and is often a source of problems for those converting to Buddhism from another religion), and that although Buddhists accept Buddhas as having perfected enlightenment, Buddhism teaches that they were unenlightened human beings before they became Buddhas, and we are each capable of doing this. This is of course in accord with the interdependent, connected nature of reality that is at the heart of Buddhist teachings.
- H. H. sees Buddhism as a science of mind and while modern science’s mastery of physical causation is impressive, it is relatively speaking, in a pretty primitive place compared to Buddhism (and Hinduism). [Note: science seemingly has yet to understand the interdependence of the physical and mental, much of it being stuck in the 19th century idea that all processes must be reduced to the physical; see the Mindful Universe and Consciousness Really Explained? for an explanation of why this is about time all of the physical sciences took note of what has been happening in fundamental physics these last 100 years or so.]
- Throughout the Dalai Lama was at pains to pay homage to Chinese culture and achievements and to emphasise the political nature of the disagreements. Each morning session started with chanting in the classical Buddhist languages of Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit (and Tibetan) and H. H. said that Chinese, the senior student, the older tradition, should take precedence over the junior student (but he did allow that the junior student’s learning was impressive).
- H. H. acknowledges that the Tibetans needed the material progress the Chinese were offering and suggested that the solution to the problems lay in a middle course between the hard-line position of independence demanded by some of the young Tibetans and the status quo demanded by the Chinese hard-liners, an autonomy that allowed the Tibetans religious freedom and way of life and the freedom to choose their own representatives. Again non-violence and interdependence in his approach to the shared future of the Tibetans and the Chinese.
- The whole of Sunday afternoon was given over to the environmental crisis, a recurrent theme throughout the public talks. No simple solutions were offered—some way of tackling population growth had to be found, and the disparities in wealth manifest even within the industrial world. Consuming less was key, reiterating his preference for vegetarianism and that the Tibetans though highly, omnivorous had switched to vegetarian catering in most of the monasteries.
H. H. noted that the Chinese were endangering the sources of the rivers that irrigate India and Tibet (the environment at altitude being especially fragile) and that a satisfactory resolution of this issue had consequences for two billion people.
- Kevin Fossey, a headmaster, noted H. H.’s advocating the education of the whole child drew some enthusiastic applause which was surprising given how pervasive is the instrumental view of education (as a means of supporting economic activity and remaining competitive).
So the Dependent nature of reality that he explains in the technical teachings is really to be found pervading his public talks and everything he does. I can’t reproduce the technical arguments here but I do recommend the compact Four Noble Truths, with the original teachings available on line in four parts: 1, 2, 3 & 4.