The Dalai Lama on Compassion

This morning’s Keynote at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies featured the Dalai Lama. After some opening remarks, he responded to questions by two panelists about the ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and scientists.

In discussing the value of science, one of the points the Dalai Lama made repeatedly is one he has made before: the need to ground compassion in something other than religion. Starting from the premise that all people desire happiness, he argues that, both because many people are “nonbelievers” and because religious faith sometimes leads to suffering, the way to grow compassion is to help people understand that a more compassionate mind leads to greater well-being, whereas anger and fear are bad for health and happiness. Therein lies the value of science in his view: to demonstrate without resort to religion why compassion is beneficial.

The problem with that approach from the point of view of a Christian is that it treats as the ultimate goal happiness in this life. Although I appreciate the desire to find a language all can speak, for me it is far too small a goal to seek happiness in this life, a life that is only a speck when measured against eternity.

The Dalai Lama addressed those who believe in God by asking a challenging question: If one seriously believes everyone is created by one God (or Allah – or whatever name one gives God), then how can one ever give harm to others? If one truly believes one God created us all, then we are all brothers and sisters, and how can one bring harm to one’s brother or sister?

Rarely does the Dalai Lama say something that I find bordering on insulting, but he did so today. Referencing his conversations with the late Wayne Teasdale, a Christian monk, he said that when Teasdale asked him to explain emptiness, the Dalai Lama declined, expressing concern that hearing about emptiness might adversely affect Teasdale’s faith in God. Immediately thereafter, he talked about another Christian who tried to convince him that God exists. Since Buddhism has no concept of a creator God, he listened with respect, but found the explanation “useless.” The idea that a Buddhist could hear about God without his Buddhist beliefs being shaken but that a Christian’s faith would be brought into doubt by hearing about emptiness was strange to say the least.

Notwithstanding that one comment, as usual I found much in the Dalai Lama’s talk I will ponder.


A Double-Header (and Then Some)

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, whose theme this year is Crossing Boundaries to Create Common Ground. The keynote speakers for the day were two of my heroes: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Sr. Helen Prejean. I went with great excitement, as I knew I would be part of a small group who would get to personally meet the Dalai Lama after his public address.

Almost the first person I saw after getting through security was Sr. Helen, who I had the good fortune to sit next to for the Dalai Lama’s morning keynote. She and I had time to converse before the program began; as interested as I was in talking about her work, she seemed equally interested in hearing my own story. Talking with her about our ministries was a great way to start the day.

The Dalai Lama’s address was, as always, powerful. Although I could write an entire post just on what he said, let me share only one of his opening remarks. He said that when he was young, he thought of himself as first Tibetan, then Buddhist, then Dalai Lama, but that now, he sees himself first as a human being. His earlier way of thinking was one that emphasized difference, and created an attitude that leads to anxiety and pretension. The more we emphasize difference, the more we create a we/they mentality that excludes and makes universal compassion more difficult. Seeing oneself first as a human being – as one of seven billion other human beings – reminds us that we are, first and foremost, related to each other. And that was his emphasis in his talk – our interdependence and relatedness, and our need to approach each other that way.

It was a powerful experience to get to meet the Dalai Lama after his talk. During my years as a Buddhist, when I ordained as a Buddhist nun, it was he who ordained me. I felt privileged to be able to give him a copy of my book adapting Tibetan Buddhist meditations for Christians (Growing in Love and Wisdom) and to share some words with him about it and my journey.

In between the two keynotes were two break-out sessions. It says something about the strength of the program that I waffled in indecision about which ones to attend – it was an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I settled on a program on forgiveness for the first session and one titled Religious Communities: Bending the Moral Arc of the Universe Toward Justice for the second. Both were worthwhile and offered me much I will reflect on in the coming days.

As good as the were, the break-outs were warm-ups for a woman who inspires me each time I hear her speak. Starting with the observation that “waking up is everything,” Sr. Helen described her own journey to “awakening” – from her realization that charity alone (without justice) is not enough to her determination to tell the story of the death penalty and those on death row. She was eloquent and powerful in her condemnation of a system that fails to respect human dignity, one that is detrimental to all who participate in it.

A powerful day. As I think back on my last three weekends: the Seattle Search for Meaning Book Festival two weekend ago, the weekend retreat on the Beatitudes I gave last weekend, and yesterday’s event, I am filled with gratitude.

Compassion and the Dalai Lama

 Today is the birthday of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.  He writes and speaks frequently on the subjects of universal responsibility, religious harmony and compassion. 

In this excerpt, he talks about the need for the development of compassion.

“[I]t is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances, is a brother or sister. No matter how new the face or how different the dress and behavior, there is no significant division between us and other people. It is foolish to dwell on external differences, because our basic natures are the same.

“Ultimately, humanity is one and this small planet is our only home, If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal altruism. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centered motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another.

“If you have a sincere and open heart, you naturally feel self- worth and confidence, and there is no need to be fearful of others.

“I believe that at every level of society – familial, tribal, national and international – the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities.

“I try to treat whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness.  It is the practice of compassion.” 

Whether we are Christians, Buddhists or members of any other faith, the practice of compassion is one in which we can all engage and one from which we can all benefit.  It is not always easy to “treat whoever I meet as an old friend,” but think of the difference it could make.

P.S. Today is also my daughter’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Elena.