What does compassion and global responsibility really mean to you?
To the Dalai Lama, they are inextricably bound to his life, his religion and his future legacy.
Consider this: Every morning at 4 a.m., the Dalai Lama rises in the pitch black and sits inside a sacred room to practice between four and five hours of meditation. Clothed only in humble red robes, he is completely alone, sitting cross-legged on the ground, contemplating the teaching and texts of Tibetan Buddhist masters.
For years, people have asked him exactly what he is meditating on. And for years, he has given them a one-word answer that is a primary tenet of Tibetan Buddhism: compassion
Yet the word “compassion” for the Dalai Lama has come to symbolize something more than mere altruism on a local scale, but rather, on a global scale.
After watching his country invaded, his monasteries destroyed and his culture dismantled by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet and enter the worldwide community, infusing the globe with his idealistic messages and Tibetan Buddhist ethics. This situation was summed up perfectly by famed journalist Pico Iyer, who said earlier this week at the Aspen Institute, “That Dalai Lama would always tell me, ‘I’ve lost my country, but I’ve gained the world.’”
And so it was only fitting that the Dalai Lama discussed his concept of global responsibility and compassion on Saturday morning at the Benedict Music Tent as the keynote address for the Aspen Institute’s symposium on Tibetan culture.
A century of dialogue
Capping off a week that included lectures by Tibetan scholars and practitioners, such as Bob Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche, Saturday’s lecture began with a performance of traditional Tibetan chant and dance by Tibetan monks from the Drepung Monastery. The stage was decorated with colorful prayers flags designed by local children at the Anderson Ranch.
When the Dalai Lama walked onto the stage amid a booming standing ovation, he wore white Tibetan katak (scarf) that was also decorated by local children with red peace signs.
“I was very touched by this,” said the Dalai Lama, pointing to the scarf. “Young children’s minds are not yet spoiled. They still have a feeling of humanity.”
He then began to speak about his idea of global responsibility, which, he believes, begins not with laws or legislation, but with changing our fundamental view of the world.
“Our basic feeling of self and desire for happiness is the same,” he said. “If you look at the world from space, you see one globe. There are no real boundaries. There is too much emphasis on secondary differences — religion, nationality, ethnicity. On a basic level, we are the same. We forget basic humanity.”
This concept of universal similarities among humans, according to the Dalai Lama, must guide how we act on a global level. For example, he proposed the idea of the Americas joining together with a sense of unity, and the same for Europe.
“You have to consider your neighbor not foreign, but part of yourself,” he explained.
Moreover, the Dalai consistently harped on the importance of dialogue in terms of solving international disputes. This, of course, is a message that he has been preaching to Chinese for more than 50 years in terms of opening a discussion about the future of Tibet.
“The 21st century is a century of bloodshed,” he said. “This should be a century of dialogue.”
In terms of government, the Dalai Lama made it perfectly clear that he is a proponent of Marxism versus a totalitarian leadership or a capitalist system.
“I am attracted to the Marxist sense of lifting the lower classes,” he continued. “It is about the well being of working-class people that are normally exploited by the richer classes.”
The Chinese dilemma
The Dalai Lama’s discussion of Marxism, however, was not a completely extraneous or hypothetical topic.
Throughout his lecture, he repeatedly pointed to and spoke to a group of Chinese professors sitting near the front of the music tent, at times castigating the current Chinese administration, which claims to rule with socialist principles.
In essence, the Dalai Lama opined that the original precepts of the Chinese communist regime had merit in the sense that they were designed to help the lower classes. However, he claimed that this original sense of political integrity has degenerated.
“The Chinese leaders have become corrupt,” he argued. “They only think of profit, and have lost a sense of purity in the original movement.” At one point, he also referred to the Chinese government as, “totalitarian and capitalist.”
The Dalai Lama expressed concern over human rights and their standing in the Chinese constitution, which are not provided for in reality. In the case of Tibet, he claimed there is both “human rights violation and violation of religious freedom.”
As such, the Dalai Lama pleaded that the media have a “long nose,” in order to smell the truth of what exists both in front of them and behind them.
“They must inform the public clearly and openly,” he said. “Transparency is very important.”
The issue of transparency within the media has been a central in discussions about Tibet.
During last spring’s uprisings on the Tibetan plateau, foreign journalists were expelled from the country and only state-sponsored media were allowed. The government also set up a series of media tours in which they hand selected Western journalists and gave them limited access to Tibet.
Most recently, many western media outlets, such as NBC, are beginning worry about having autonomy at the Beijing summer Olympics to cover projected demonstrations that the Chinese government would rather not be televised internationally.
The essence of compassion
Towards the end of his lecture, the Dalai Lama returned to the theme that he has spent his life preaching — compassion.
According the Dalai Lama, compassion exists on two levels.
The first is on the biological level, which he said was necessary for survival, like the way a mother cares for her children.
The second level relates to training and reason, which is something that needs to be habituated, practiced and extended to on a universal level, instead just to one’s own family.
“According to science [practicing compassion] makes the body better and the immune system stronger. So many people spend their money on medicine and sleeping pills. People that have compassion don’t need these.”
The Dalai Lama’s scientific arguments in this passage are not unfounded. Throughout the week, a world-renowned professor from Stanford University spoke about a new project, “Project Compassion,” in which scientists are currently measuring the direct correlation between a compassionate mind and its positive effects on the body.
It is also important to note that in the past decade, the Dalai Lama has taken a serious interest in the connection between Buddhism and science, even saying that if certain Buddhist principles are overturned by scientific truths, they should be discarded.
Returning again to this topic of compassion, at the end of his lecture, the Dalai Lama was asked by an audience member how it can be that in such a beautiful place like Aspen, people can be so rude and cantankerous. And moreover, can the Dalai Lama teach how to resolve this issue?
Fittingly, the Dalai Lama reminded the audience that change, compassion and global responsibility begin with individuals, not just with the Dalai Lama.
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “This is your responsibility, not mine.”