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Dalai Lama in Australia

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, shortly after his arrival in Sydney, June 13th 2013 John Keane

My first moments with His Holiness last week were not quite what I’d expected. In pulled the police-escorted motorcade, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing, bang on time, according to plan. As the motorcade drew to a halt, the small welcoming party hushed. The winter sunshine air tingled. Our distinguished guest, now frail with age, eased himself from one of the lead vehicles. Re-wrapping his red and gold robes, he adjusted his spectacles, stood erect, then extended clasped hands in my direction. ‘Tashi delek’, I said nervously, using most of the Tibetan words I know. ‘Welcome to Australia, to the University of Sydney, and to the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. We’re honoured to be hosting your visit.’

As if determined to upstage the solemn greeting of a Nobel Laureate extraordinaire, scores of cockatoos and parrots suddenly screeched from a tree directly above. ‘What’s all the noise?’, asked the Dalai Lama, frowning. ‘Our native birds are raucous, known for their full throats. It’s a local speciality’, I smiled, clutching for unrehearsed words. ‘Oh’, said His Holiness, ‘what time do they usually get up?’ ‘Probably before dawn, around 5 o'clock this morning’, I replied. ‘Oh’, said our honoured guest, now looking cheeky, ‘almost as early as me. I suppose I’ve some competition for the students’ attention this morning.'

With that little self-deprecating joke, the 14th Dalai Lama appeared in our midst, direct from the international airport, his first engagement in Australia, to speak to students and staff at the University’s Seymour Centre. The chosen theme of the lecture was ‘Education Matters’. His Holiness proposed that the ultimate purpose of education is to create meaningful lives guided not just by technical knowledge but by recognition of the vital importance of morality based on human emotions. Our minds and bodies are capable of love, tenderness, compassion, he said. These are moral virtues. By contrast, he continued, emotions such as anger, jealousy and fear are not merely negative vices. They seduce us into believing in a world of appearances. They bias our minds against what he called ‘reality’. The true purpose of education, he concluded, is to encourage young people to spot the difference between appearances and reality, to narrow the gap between them, to see that our world is in the grip of a crisis of moral emotions. If change is to happen, he said, young people must try to live more realistically. They must think and act in twenty-first century terms, strive for a happier world for all the planet’s living creatures, in opposition to the terrible violence and misery of the past century, marked as it was by such events as the cruel Sino-Japanese conflict, the wreckage and terror produced by World War Two and the sorrows of Hiroshima, the Korean War and the Cold War.

Measured in terms of audience excitement, learning and entertainment, this was a public lecture at its best. His Holiness was in excellent form. The crowd (a full house of nearly 800 students and staff) seemed to enjoy every moment. The blinding glare of stage lights meant (from the chair) I couldn’t see most of them (the Dalai Lama commented at one point he’d wished he’d worn his sun visor), but later I was told that some of the audience wept. It was obvious from the intense concentration that those present knew this to be a rare event in their lives, an occasion that managed to combine intellectual rigour with a felt sense of fun fed by the infectious chuckle of His Holiness. It was by any standards an unforgettable morning - a fitting climax to a long struggle to undo the University’s efforts to shut down the event, a public triumph for the principle that universities ought to be public spaces where diverse opinions and unrestricted debate are sacrosanct.

At his first press conference, Sydney, June 13th 2013 John Keane

During the course of his short forty-five minute lecture, the Dalai Lama pounced on reported descriptions of him as ‘a living Buddha’. I’d in fact used this phrase in my introductory welcome, which recalled how in preparation for the event I’d asked a Sydney friend to tell me the first things that sprang to mind at the mention of His Holiness. Quick as a flash, the friend said: ‘The Dalai Lama’s a living Buddha. I don’t think of him as an ordinary human being. He lives beyond this world. He is for me someone I have to figure out, someone who has 'presence’, who can enlarge my mind, who does not live his life according to human greed, or sorrow, or power.'

His Holiness wasn’t convinced. ‘Me? Living Buddha?’, he chortled at one point. ‘No, I’m only a human being. Don’t expect me to know everything. I don’t. Who does?’ More chortles prompted cackles from the audience. His Holiness grew serious, reaffirming his belief that the next Dalai Lama may be a woman, even that the role of Dalai Lama may be abolished. ‘So I urge you to question received opinions’, he said. ‘Doubt is the key to education. Do not straightforwardly believe what your teachers tell you. Doubt your professors as well.’ More mirth, this time pointing in my direction. ‘Scepticism is a precious virtue,’ said His Holiness, ‘doubt, questioning, awareness of contradictions are indispensable for life.’

At the downtown press conference that immediately followed his address at the University, the Dalai Lama returned to the theme of doubt, religious belief and the need for people from different walks of life to respect the different opinions of others. What he had to say about the acceptance of difference was of wider interest. It ended with words that shocked many journalists in the room.

‘The concept of One Religion, One Truth clashes with the idea of several religions, several truths’, said His Holiness. He pointed out that whereas for individuals the truth of a religion is often a given, an unquestioned and unquestionable Truth, the notion of several religions is highly relevant for whole political communities. He urged his listeners to speak not of religion, but of religions; and he went on to discuss India’s democratic experiment with secularism, a word which it took from the West in order fundamentally to transform its meaning. ‘Modern India is relevant. Beside its home-grown religions, all the world’s main religions are deeply rooted there. India’s constitution is based on the principle of multiple religions. It maintains that a multi-religious nation must accept all religions equally. Secularism means respect for all religions, and for non-believers as well.’

The Dalai Lama then moved to discuss the problem of animosity wrapped in religion. ‘Some books talk of a clash between religions, for instance between Islam and Western civilisation, but such views are negative, and based on fear. They miss the key point that Islam is a religion of compassion for all God’s creatures. There are of course mischievous Muslims, terrorists for instance. There are also mischievous Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews, but all their views are absolutely unrealistic.’

Back to realism. The term went undefined, but towards the end of the press conference His Holiness called on believers in other-worldly principles to be mindful of worldly concerns, worldly dynamics. ‘The Buddha was very realistic’, he said. Then came the surprise, the killer conclusion that made everybody in the room sit up, and think. ‘The Buddha never spoke in terms of only one religion. That’s why he said that all his followers, monks and scholars, should not accept his teachings out of faith, or devotion, but rather out of investigation and experiment. He thought it was necessary to raise questions, to find contradictions,’ said His Holiness. ‘The same applies to all religious people. They need to be realistic. Even God should be realistic.’

Whatever is thought of the spiritual reasoning and moral teachings of His Holiness, the remark showed once again just how brave, and bold, is his unswerving commitment to the democratic virtue of humility.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Tibetan Buddhism looks very much like what I imagine Catholic Europe looked like prior to Martin Luther. It seems to depict a demon ridden world with heavy emphasis on rituals and pilgrimage. A large religious establishment supported by taxing the surpluses of an uneducated peasantry.

    I was particularly struck how at the major temples ordinary Tibetans would hang around outside the gates. They were waiting for tourists to pay their 10 yuan to visit. They would then try and catch a glimpse of the inside of the temple as the doors opened to admit the tourists.

    Obviously the temples were far too holy and sacred to admit the Tibetan laity.

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    1. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      The Dalai Lama fled Tibet over fifty years ago, and cannot be blamed for the current state of Tibetan Buddhism. It would be wise to keep in mind that His Holiness is an enlightened being, and we are not.

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    2. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to John Lucas

      "It would be wise to keep in mind that His Holiness is an enlightened being, and we are not."

      Really - where do you get this notion from?

      " ‘Me? Living Buddha?’, he chortled at one point. ‘No, I’m only a human being. Don’t expect me to know everything. I don’t. Who does?’"

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    3. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to John Lucas

      ". It would be wise to keep in mind that His Holiness is an enlightened being, and we are not."

      Ahh yes, silly me. I had quite forgotten. Sort of like the Pope.

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    4. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      An enlightened being will never admit to being so. His holiness is genuinely humble, and has a sublime sense of humor.

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    5. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Pope Francis has also been demonstrating signs of a spiritually mature character.

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    6. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to John Lucas

      Dear me, is he really that bad? Well, he is supposed to be the last pope.

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    7. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to John Lucas

      Like when Pope Francis he took some recent photo opps to be seen beautifically releasing white doves while dressed in his top to toe white opulence. Come on!

      These guys are regular folks thrust into irregular positions either by circumstance of by design.

      The Dalai Lama had this thrust on to him. I respect him immensely for not only bearing the burden so incredibly well and with such good grace but also for having the honesty to admit his circumstance and his steadfast promulagation for reason in as much as his position allows.

      However ... Sean is correct here ... the Tibetan form of budhism is chock-a-block full of archaic superstitions, including anachronisms borrowed from pre-existing Tibetan animism, shamanism and the Bon religion all glued together with a self-referential sets of circular doctrines. In it's capacity for ornate ceremony and self-referential patriarchal decrees of authority it definitely has similarities with catholicism.

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    8. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Indeed they are regular folks; we are the irregular ones! All religions have social, theological and spiritual aspects designed to appeal to all kinds of people in various cultural settings to uplift them from where they are.It is the human mind that is flawed, not the spiritual teachings at the heart of all religions.When we distort these basic truths, misinterpret them, denying that they exist, and criticize those who also do, we do disservice to faith and to ourselves.The ultimate goal of all religions is self realization. Some reach it.

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    9. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to John Lucas

      I can see that we will continue to disagree.

      It seems to me that your basic truth is that there is something "spiritual" that is revealed to some but otherwise exeeds the capacity of the rest of us.

      I put it to you that we do a disservice to ourselves not when we question faith and doctrine (pretty much what the Dalai Lama was reported to be imploring us to do by the above article), but when we choose to believe in notions that have no rational basis, come laden with a few thousand years…

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    10. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to John Lucas

      Well maybe enlightened for some, but not everyone.

      I mean he's a nice guy and says some very ethereally wise things,
      but let's not get carried away.

      No need to speak in hushed tones of reverence.

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    11. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Frankly, I don't see it as a disagreement, but more of a misunderstanding. Perhaps you do not admit the existence of a non-physical reality or religions aiming to realize it, but some do. Whether you do or not does not affect whether it or they exist. Some who do set out to experience it using long proven principles of spiritual science within various religious traditions, and ultimately do. They are in a different category than we are, should not be confused with their immature brothers and sisters…

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    12. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to John Lucas

      A couple of points here.

      You treat assertions as fact and follow a principal basic assertion with a chain of reasoning using equally poorly established suppositions. Your assertion that there are people who are enlightened and therefore somehow more mature than the bulk of us is just that ... an unproved assertion. I ask you to demonstrate this with some evidence.

      Finally you assume that I have not studied the issue and that if I had I would reach the same conclusions as yourself. Wrong on both counts.

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    13. John Lucas

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Love for all beings, equanimity, and broadmindedness are the signs of enlightenment. His Holiness embodies these qualities.His character is the evidence.

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    14. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to John Lucas

      Very nice response ... but ... completely misses my points.

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  2. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    Thanks for another great article - nice to be reminded of things other than Australian politics!

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  3. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    The Dalai Lama continued on the theme of secularism this afternoon in Melbourne, where he talked about the 'sameness' (of emotions, physicality and mentality) which human beings share, across cultures and time. And that this 'sameness' provides a foundation for practising compassion, which both alleviates suffering in others, and generates a sense of well-being and happiness in ourselves. Not a bad message, really.

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  4. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Having read the many comments, I am reminded of my (eldest) son's analysis of opinions, "they're like arseholes, everyone has got one ... and what comes out is usually?" ... having been around for a while, I have formulated an opinion of my own and that is 'people who see and rely on the goodness in you to guide you are no threat', the rest I'm ready to thump ...

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  5. LP Hock

    Retired

    I believe Buddhism don't have Heaven and Hell and hence, a universal God. Buddhism believe in one self enlightenment and reincarnation - whether for better or worse. That, coupled with Taoism and Shintoism of nature gods and demons prevail in Asia and amongst many tribal groups. How to reconcile the good Tibetan Dalai Lama's preaching of embracing all religions in secular manner - I think He is appealing to western media and population for His political struggle. All spiritual leader can be replaced - even the Dalai Lama

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  6. LP Hock

    Retired

    I believe Buddhism is about self enlightenment and reincarnation - how would the good Dalai Lama reconcile to secular religion and their God/gods. Buddhism, coupled with Taoism and Shintoism extend common folk traditional beliefs to nature gods and demons. Such is the practice commonly evident in Asia and amongst tribal group.
    There is no doubt that the Good Dalai Lama is an exceptional person, of deeper conviction, wisdom and leadership. With that, come the political power and as such, religious leaders do vacate their office for many reasons.
    I think the Good Dalai Lama is holding audience for the western media and population. May His self-enlightenment bring the world to a safer place than now.

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