John Keane | Dalai Lama in Australia
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Dalai Lama in Australia

  |   Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media   |   No comment

7jdbfr9j-1371465329My 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 spaceswhere diverse opinions and unrestricted debate are sacrosanct.

jzjx8rgp-1371466019During 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.


-> Originally published in The Conversation,  June 18, 2013