The Dalai Lama: Insight into selflessness
August 8, 2008
ASPEN ” Much to the annoyance of the Chinese, the Dalai Lama has become an international phenomenon whose happy pheromones soften skeptics, melt officiousness in heads of state, and often reduce crowds to giggling. Some say that this is because we are in the presence of a “living Buddha” who exudes cheerfulness, a sense of delight and a non-discerning mind, while empiricists discount the Dalai buzz as if it were mere charisma.
In terms of respect and adoration, perhaps Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, or Obama might draw equal crowds, but the Dalai Lama’s glowing presence stands larger on the world stage than any other being.
In coming to the three-day Tibetan Culture symposium at the Aspen Institute this past July 24-26, His Holiness brought an inspirational message of individual change based on compassion for others. According to the institute, he expressed interest in meeting with thought leaders here, knowing that his ideas might ripple out into the international community.
Outside the Aspen Music Tent on July 26, before the Dalai Lama’s keynote talk, there were Tibetans in cowboy hats, assorted monks, grandees, and the assembled Who’s Who of Aspen. In the air the redolence of incense-infused clothes, perspiration and patchouli commingled with the perfume of the well-to-do, smelling like a fresh-air subway to greater understanding.
Inside, before the address, the Dalai Lama’s Drepung Loseling monks loosened up the crowd with trombone-deep chants. Melodious meditations with horns, symbols, drums and bells followed, evoking a spellbinding sound one might hear in a bazaar in some faraway Rudyard Kipling land.
Then a frolicking white-and-green Tibetan snow lion ” a mythical fixture on the Tibetan flag representing a mind free of doubt ” left a tough act for His Holiness to follow. The shaggy beast with a toothsome red mouth, blinking eyes and wagging tail, roared at the crowd, pranced through the aisles, growled at the cameras, rolled on stage, and then collapsed with its head on its front legs like an adorable giant dog. But before exiting, the creature, animated by two monks inside, dropped its tongue to reveal a banner that read: World Peace.
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Arriving a smidgen late, as Buddhist teachers often do to teach patience, the Dalai Lama entered to standing applause. He bowed, smiling larger than life. Then he sat down and started taking off his sensible oxford shoes. Methodically untying the laces, before settling himself cross-legged in his spacious chair, he chuckled to the flock, “One minute, okay. Don’t consider waste of time.” Charmed to the bone, we waited.
Most in the tent surrendered themselves completely, except for the hard-core few who continued to send text messages and consult their Blackberries every few minutes, despite requests to shut devices down beforehand. A few celebrities slid in late, while former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in Jackie-O shades, sat attentively up front. Security was tight, and everywhere there were Secret Service with flesh-colored ear pieces, black suits and red lapel pins, which, ironically, looked Maoist-even as they demonstrated inadvertently a fundamental practice of Buddhism: concentration on mindfulness.
But His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, delivered the goods to the packed crowd, which included two Chinese professors from the University of Beijing in the second row, who in earlier plenary sessions had delivered the rote Chinese position on Tibet. Squarely looking at them, he said, “forget about our differences. This moment we just human beings. Please think that way, professors of China.”
Occasionally the Dalai Lama was difficult to understand, and he stumbled on some English words. Still, his spoonerisms delighted and confused. At one point he emphasized, “We are all human. Forget it!” But twice, to the delight of the crowd, it came out “F…k it!”
“All poor, all rich, no different” he said to the well heeled. “Just a human being.” He asked his interpreter what the topic was. “Values-based leadership and responsibility,” said his aide. “Oh,” said the Dalai Lama, surveying the crowd and seemingly catching the eye of everyone. “Mentality the same, concern of well-being of self, all sentient beings, all same,” he said. “Birds, animals, people…. I want to talk informal.” To the Sino-visitors he beamed and said, “Chinese professors talk always very prepared.”
He continued to take China to the woodshed, saying, “One day in ‘Peking’ I might create this [same] relaxed atmosphere.” He said that he was more a Red than they were, because he was a Marxist-socialist without totalitarianism, who believed that so many poor in China should be taken care of, while the “Chinese leaders just concerned with money, money.” He noted that he’d been a member of the Chinese People’s Congress in 1953, and that he’d met with Chairman Mao, who said that Tibet could always keep their flag. “During Mao’s time, many communists dedicate service to people-now lost,” he said.
Again he stated his “middle way” position, wherein Tibet remains a part of China, but keeps its cultural autonomy.
In Buddhism, the middle way refrains from choosing between opposing positions, while finding the wormhole in the continuum between the temporary validity of the existence of things and their inherent nonexistence because of their lack of permanence. Acceptance of this and meditation may lead to “enlightenment,” wherein a mind emerges that is neither subjective nor objective. This is the mind before thought arises.
Further, the Dalai Lama underscored that leadership needed a long vision toward “universal responsibility,” saying that the 20th century had been a century of bloodshed, and that the 21st century must be “the century of dialogue.” He suggested that each whole continent unify their forces. “Then no danger,” he said, laughing like some jolly Dickens character. “What is mind, body, world and space?” he asked. If science shows something to be true we must follow that instead of what we might believe, he said. And he called on the audience to develop warm-heartedness.
“Everyone heavily independent,” he continued. “All think economy is all there is. ‘We and they,’ no longer in new reality.” He allowed that in some cases the “war concept” had worked, creating a better existence for many, but that it was out of date because it pitted the interests of one group against another and then there was only victory for one group. “Destruction of your neighbor is destruction of yourself,” he said. “The west should make more effort to get along with Russia, if you expect attitude from Russia to change. The west should reach out to eastern countries.”
And he held the media to a higher standard: “Media people should make clear what is really happening in all fields, clearly, openly ” to build honest, truthful, unbiased transparency.” He then turned to prepared questions. Someone asked if evil existed in the world. He said, “yes there are evil people who we can call evil. But causes and conditions can change a very nice person to wicked, but wicked can become nice.” He shrugged. “Therefore evil is not absolute in the Buddhist view, because everything is in the process of change.”
A perplexed capitalist asked: If Marxism and socialism are for equal distribution, and capitalism makes more production of important goods, how do you choose between the two? The Dalai Lama straddled the conservative litmus, answering that we must address the difference between the poor and wealthy on a global scale.
In earlier sessions of the symposium, discussions took place where monks-turned-professors, doctors-turned-monks, lamas, journalists and big Buddhist guns had mixed it up. The opening salvo on July 24 included Robert Thurman, an ordained Buddhist monk and professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, who both framed western Buddhism as a bridge between estranged matter and spirit in a post-Darwinian world. They stressed that everyone would be impoverished if we lost the unique cultural heritage of Tibet, which brings a unified view to partisan times.
Thurman stood out as your favorite professor ever, bringing the issue of aggression versus peaceful coexistence into sharp focus, saying, “I’d rather be Buddha than Rambo.” He said that without meditation “you’re like a TV on one channel without a clicker. When you meditate you realize there are other channels present, and that you can create your own stations.”
Sogyal Rinpoche added, “Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear; the same is true with the mind.” He said that Buddhism is a science of mind that begins with questions, while religions offer answers.
With that, the symposium flowered into a menu of breakout sessions around the institute campus, expanding on topics such as “Mind, Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism,” “Tibetan Buddhism and the East-West Scientific Dialogue,” and the “Tibetan Plateau’s Fragile Environment” as the headwaters of Asia. Cultural exhibits, photographs, guided meditation, music and yak butter sculptures (that a local bear visited one night) rounded out three days of Tibetan immersion.
Lama Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche talked on rebirth, and said that impermanence could be understood by watching a burning candle, how it changes every moment. He said that we ought to get to know our own minds, and that we were “too expert at knowing other people’s minds and how to fix them.”
In the Buddhist view, the consciousness inside our heads is part of a universal consciousness called “Buddha Mind,” which is as endless as everything imaginable and unimaginable, and rebirth is a patterned reassembly from the molecular pool. Dzogchen quoted Art Buchwald, saying, “Dying is easy; parking is hard,” and he paraphrased the Dalai Lama as saying that he didn’t necessarily believe in rebirth, but that he planned to bring along an extra pair of underwear.
In another session, Shi Yinhong, one of the Chinese professors, apologized before presenting the Tibet-is-China view. Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s lead negotiator with the Chinese government, said that he’d been negotiating with them since 1982, and that he’d grown older, grayer and fatter, and that was all he had to show. Not once, he said, have the Chinese offered a counter proposal. Polite sparks flew from there.
In a more intimate setting on July 25, His Holiness entered, sat down, observed the Biblical-like winds uprooting the small tent and cracked to the assembled, “You’re safe.” He said that NATO should move its headquarters to Russia, and Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, asked him if he’d mentioned that in his sub rosa meeting with John McCain that morning.
Then Matthieu Ricard, a cellular-geneticist-turned-Tibetan-monk, recounted his studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he meditated inside an MRI tube with 256 sensors attached to his skull. The left frontal cortex of Ricard’s brain, the area associated with positive emotion, showed off-the-scale scores in comparison to the non-meditating control group of college sophomores, when they both concentrated on compassion. His experiments showed that a shift to empathy built new neural paths in the brain.
Meanwhile, in the background of all this, monks worked on a sand mandala, setting the stage for healing and re-consecration of the earth. For five days the monks coaxed different-colored sands through a thin metal funnel into a prescribed iconography of geometric shapes and ancient Tibetan symbols, only to sweep it all up and pour it into the Roaring Fork river, thereby showing impermanence.
In another room a public mandala offered passersby a chance to try their hand. The concentration and timelessness the monks demonstrated in their work contrasted with the impatience and preoccupation of the well-intentioned dilettantes, whose efforts looked more like a pre-school coloring book.
Throughout, the symposium highlighted that peace starts with the individual, passes to families and then to community. But while the Dalai Lama has the most important job on the planet exemplifying “insight into selflessness,” he could work as a standup comic, not only because of his impish humor, but because whenever he laughs, which is often, everybody laughs with him.
At several institute venues, His Holiness said with a twinkle, “I’m looking forward to my retirement.”