Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Tuesday I had the opportunity of hearing the Dalai Lama speak at Colgate University on The Art of Happiness. The full lecture is available here and a brief news clip here.

We only were able to get tickets at the last minute so only my daughter and I could go. It was a beautiful sunny, spring day for driving the back roads to Hamilton and walking through town to get to the Field House, where the lecture was held. It seemed odd to end up in the place where, more than a year and half ago, I stood for so long waiting to see my son run in an indoor track meet on a bitterly cold mid-winter day.

It was an even longer wait to hear the Dalai Lama. We arrived in the Field House at about 12:30 p.m. to get our seats. Security was very tight and no phones, cameras, or bags were allowed inside. I'm able to let my mind wander freely for quite some time without ever getting bored, but it was something of a challenge for my teenaged daughter to be without cell phone or computer or company other than dear old mom for such a long time. The lecture did not begin until 3:00 p.m., but everyone had to be inside and seated by 2:30.

Protesters were lined up across the street outside the entrance. Although we could not hear them inside, they were quite vocal both when we entered and when it was all over. I read a news report later that there were some Chinese protesters, but the ones we saw were all proponents of Dorje Shugden. We had no idea what the protest was about (only gathered it had to do with religious differences within Buddhism and the protestors' claims of discrimination).

Afterwards we took one of their booklets -- well-made and bound, with glossy paper and color photographs -- and my daughter started reading it to me as we drove home. It was odd -- she kept reading and reading about how evil the Dalai Lama was, how one could tell by just looking at him and hearing him speak a few words, how terribly he had treated those who want to practice Dorje Shugden, what a tyrant and despot he was, etc., but she could find nothing that explained who they were, what they believed, what their differences were with the Dalai Lama, and what exactly he had done to them. It was uncanny how much it sounded like the so-called Anglicans and their tirades against Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Only later when I returned home did I discover that the protesters most likely were connected with the New Kadampa Tradition - International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU), which can be described as a group of fundamentalist Buddhists who view themselves as the protectors of the "pure" religious tradition (even though Dorje Shugden supposedly never was part of mainstream Buddhism until it began to be used to promote this particular kind of fundamentalism). I know next to nothing about Buddhism and nothing about NKT or Dorje Shudgen other than what I read at Wiki yet, accurate or not, I had to pause when I read the following:
Kay writes that, "the determination of Geshe Kelsang and the Priory Group to separate from the parent organisation was uncompromising, and this was a position that only hardened during the following years." He goes on to describe the split from the Gelug school and FPMT as follows:

“ "Geshe Kelsang's perception of himself and his centres vis-á-vis the contemporary Gelug sect changed dramatically, and he came to believe that he could only uphold the tradition of Tsongkhapa purely by separating from the degenerate world of Tibetan, and specifically Gelug, Buddhism."[18]

According to Kay, Geshe Kelsang was gravely concerned that the purity of Tsongkhapa's tradition was being undermined by the lingering inclusivism of his Western students, something he had been outspoken for some years, "but he now acted more forcefully in his opposition to it by discouraging his students both from receiving guidance from teachers of other traditions and from reading their books."[24] Kay states that another result of these "radically exclusive policies" was that after the foundation of NKT the Manjushri Institute Library, with over 3000 books,[25] was removed.[26] Kay goes on to state that, "this began with non-Gelug books being removed, but as Geshe Kelsang's vision crystallised, even books by Gelug teachers became unacceptable to him and the library disappeared altogether. He thus became convinced that the Tibetan Gelug tradition as a whole no longer embodied Tsongkhapa's pure teachings and that he and his disciples must therefore separate from it. From this point onwards, Tibetan Gelug lamas would no longer be invited to teach within his network. This perceived degeneration extended to include its highest-level lamas, and so even veneration for the Dalai Lama was now actively discouraged."[26] The pictures of the Dalai Lama were removed from the gompas and shrines of Geshe Kelsang's centres.[26] In 1990 Geshe Kelsang became also outspoken against the Geshe Studies Programme[24], and "made the pursuit of his new programmes compulsory."[24] According to Kay "As it was no longer possible for students to follow the programmes of both Geshes, the basis of Geshe Konchog's teaching programme at the Institute was undermined, and in 1991 he retired to Gyuto Monastery in Assam, India."[24]
from, referring to David N. Kay, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation.

While I do not begin to know enough to have an opinion as to whether the protestors' grievances are legitimate, nevertheless, the tone and the language sounds so much like others who preach the exclusivity of their beliefs and intolerance for others and yet, at the same time, cry that they are being persecuted.

In hindsight, I wish I had stopped to talk to the protesters to hear what they had to say for themselves. Although they were quite vocal and persistent in their chants about the Dalai Lama lying, I cannot say that any were rude or unrestrained. My daughter had never been in a position like that, feeling a bit as though we were crossing a picket line when we went in over their protests. I pointed out to her that if it had been President Bush, the protesters would have been relegated to a back alley somewhere blocks, if not miles, away, and the whole point of having the right to protest is to be seen and heard by those who might be discomfited by it. She agreed, remembering she had heard about the so-called "Free Speech Zones" for protests against Bush and Cheney.

I guess the protest is still on my mind, since that is what we took with us as we left and I have been reading some about it since. I'm not sure what to say about the Dalai Lama's lecture. It was simple and a bit disjointed. Compassion and inner peace were at the heart of it all. Good ideas, profound and important if followed, but nothing more than a passing glance at the essential elements of Buddhism. I would like to take the time to hear it again with the webcast, but I do not expect to get much more out of it. I take very seriously the notion that negative ideas, emotions, etc. cause much havoc both in individuals and society. I sometimes think that some kinds of Buddhist meditation or discipline and/or the ideas and practices advocated by Eckert Tolle (The Power of Now) would be of great help to someone like myself who thinks and worries way too much about many things. But beyond the discipline, I do not find much that draws me in.

In fact, having now heard the Dalai Lama, I do not quite understand why everyone flocks to hear him. Perhaps for many, like me, it may simply be a mixture of curiosity and respect for his life and work as both a spiritual and political leader. I just did a lot of people-watching in the Field House and a bit of eavesdropping and it seemed that many were looking for some kind of spiritual or ethical guide or inspiration, something, anything but Religion as they knew it. Lots of graying Baby Boomers there in the faculty/staff section; earnest young people elsewhere, both college and high school students. One man, who looked to me to be in his late 50's or early 60's, walking out of the building at the end chuckled about the crowd and said something like "This must be what it's like to be in one of those mega-churches! ..... except they didn't pass the plate around."

What was perhaps most remarkable was the crowd's reaction to the Dalai Lama's response to what I think was the last question posed -- something about how should believers "share their spirituality" with non-believers. He basically said, don't do it, be an example, and if you are and someone asks you to teach them, then you can talk to them about it. But the crowd burst into a loud, spontaneous cheer when he said it -- I don't quite recall the words, exactly -- but I think there were two different moments when there was a strong reaction against trying to convert others, even family members or friends.

Interestingly, my daughter really liked the lecture -- she who was so impatient for the first hour or so of waiting with nothing to do. She wouldn't elaborate (please, she IS a teenager), but she clearly was glad she went. She thought the Dalai Lama was "cute" -- and she meant that in a respectful, affectionate way, warming to ... well, the Dalai Lama bits, the giggles, the jokes, the self-deprecation, etc. And who but the most hard-hearted, neo-Calvinist-Anglican would quarrel with the notion that compassion for others is the key to Happiness?

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