The Dalai Lama’s Message: True Compassion

Today Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, turns 80. To celebrate this milestone, friends of the Dalai Lama organized the Global Compassion Summit, a three day event in Orange County, California. The summit began yesterday with the “official birthday celebration” in which world leaders, Nobel Laureates, celebrity guests, speakers and performers from around the world gathered at the Honda Center in Anaheim to pay tribute to “His Holiness” and to listen to him speak on creativity and compassion.

This October, in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center will present the Dalai Lama with the Liberty Medal “in recognition of his advocacy for human rights worldwide.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas (teachers) only teach when requested to do so, and during the several decades that the Dalai Lama has been giving public teachings and talks, compassion has been his most consistent and fundamental message. Compassion is more than an emotion, it should be dynamic, for it is also behavior.  In Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama writes,

978bCompassion can of course be understood on many levels, and at the highest level, compassion ultimately liberates you . . . According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering . . .”

The aspiration, the state of mind the Dalai Lama is referring to here is what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, the wish or intention to realize awakening in order to help all living beings. Without this altruistic intention, it is not possible to realize full awakening.

However, during the practice of bodhicitta, we find that awakening is not as important as the generation of altruism and the performance of compassionate action. Or, perhaps, it is rather that deep altruism and compassionate action is awakening. The consummation of bodhicitta requires overcoming all narrow self-centered concerns and limitations, along with developing a genuine feeling of responsibility for others. What he said above, the Dalai Lama has stated many times: ultimately, compassion liberates us, and this is because through transcending the limitations of self and helping others become free from suffering, we become free from suffering, ourselves.

In another book, The Compassionate Life, he says,

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.

For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.”

Real compassion is not based on any religious or political creed; it is altruism that is truly universal. It comes from the heart, and the mind, and not from belief.

Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean of Wisdom
great teacher of the Middle Way,
I make this request O Lama,
please remain strong and please live long.

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New Boat People Crisis

According to Thailand’s foreign minister the number of migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an “alarming level.” Migrants desperately fleeing their home countries have been landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. During the past month, over 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have washed ashore, and the UN estimates that several thousand more are still be at sea, abandoned by human smugglers.

Friday, during the opening of an Asean conference in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis. Both he and the UN singled out Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country most responsible for the situation.

Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese persecution, while many others are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking job in other countries.

At the conference, Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, refused to accept any responsibility, while in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, over three hundred protesters, including scores of extremist Buddhist monks, took to the streets to deny that the boat people are Rohingya Muslims. Demonstrators wore shirts and held signs with messages such as “Boat People are not Myanmar, Stop Blaming Myanmar” and “There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Meanwhile in an interview before a visit to Australia next week with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama urged fellow a Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out: “It’s very sad . . . I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has disappointed many of her admirers around the world.

I would hope that if the Dalai Lama, as head of a Mahayana Buddhist sect, feels confident about pressing Suu Kyi, a follower of Theravada Buddhism, to take some action, he would also feel confident about calling on Theravadins in Burma and Sri Lanka to do something about the Buddhist extremism on the rise in both of those countries.

In an article published Thursday at Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, Theravada Buddhism’s Muslim Problem, Iselin Frydenlund, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Susan Hayward, Interim Director of the Religion and Peace building program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote that the problem “requires an intra-Buddhist debate on Buddhist principles, religious pluralism, and human rights.” They also maintain that joint statements crafted at local summits between Buddhist and Muslims “carry far more weight than any human rights group’s condemnation of the role of religious leaders in creating intolerance and mistrust.”

This may be true, but joint condemnation or at least some rather loud vocalization from fellow Buddhists would carry some weight as well. In my opinion, Buddhists worldwide have been far too quiet.

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Mischievous Blonde

The Dalai Lama is in trouble again. This time, in an interview from his home in India, commenting on the controversy over whether he will reincarnate or not, he sparked another controversy by saying if he does come back it might be as a “mischievous blonde woman.” But, he added, “then her face must be very attractive” or “nobody pay much attention”.

Historically speaking, some blondes have been too mischievous.
Historically speaking, some blondes have been too mischievous.

Some folks have jumped on this and now he being labeled a sexist.

Two things people should know about the Dalai Lama: A) his command of the English language is not that great, and B) he has a sense of humor.

B is good, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he tries to inject some lightheartedness into what can often be a dry subject, namely Buddhism. However, because of A, his words sometimes come out wrong and he is misunderstood.

Here is what I think happened: A) he was trying to make a joke and he muddled it up, or B) he was trying to make a sly commentary on the sad fact that women are still judged by their appearance and he muddled it up.

But this is what almost everyone is missing: for the Dalai Lama to suggest that he could reincarnate as a woman period is a very radical statement. That’s because the traditional teachings of Buddhism say a woman can never be enlightened. So, if the next Dalai Lama were a woman that would more or less tear that idea to sheds.

Gender inequality is still a problem in Buddhism and instead of nitpicking perhaps we should be commending the Dalai Lama for striking a blow against sexism.

Some of the things written about women in Buddhist literature are rather ugly. They are objects of scorn, their bodies are unclean, they are evil and to be avoided, etc. There are positive things said about women, too; however, the negative remarks stand out as rather large blemishes. The Dalai Lama addressed this issue in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA. He was discussing a section of the text known as the “Twenty Verses” and here is an excerpt from my transcript of the teachings:

In the 20 verses [from The Precious Garland] I would like to warn you about a passage that reads “may all women be reborn as males.” [Laugher.] When you read that passage it is important to bear in mind the culture and the context that those kind of sentiments are being expressed. If we are to take that literally and that aspiration comes into realization, then it’s going to be rather silly, because if the entire world is going to be populated by men then that means the human species is going to end at some point. [Laugher.] There’s going to be no possibility of procreation. [Laugher.] So, the point is that if one feels that in the form of a female existence one can make a great contribution, be more effective and be of greater service, then reverse the thought and pray that all men be born as females! [Laugher and applause.]

In the Buddhist scriptures, there is another type of sentiment that I have reflected on: when you read the Buddhist scriptures that deal with altruism and compassion, there is always a reference to sentient beings as mother sentient beings, never as father sentient beings. This suggests that within the Buddhist tradition, women are seen as the symbol of compassion and affectionate perfection. It is very rare that a man is the symbol of affection. Women, in the form of mothers, are also the embodiment of kindness.”

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God is Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.

Shantideva
Shantideva

Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

– – – – – – – – – –

* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.

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Understanding the Emptiness of Emptiness

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna writes,

Emptiness demolishes all dharmas (concepts) so that the only thing that abides is emptiness (sunyata). After emptiness has already demolished all dharmas, emptiness itself should also be set aside. It is because of this that we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ (sunyata-sunyata). Whereas emptiness conditions all dharmas, the emptiness of emptiness conditions only emptiness.”

This explains once again why emptiness is not the ultimate truth. We can say the same about nonduality. Some folks find this confusing, especially when we say that from the Madhyamaka or Middle Way point of view ‘neither-emptiness-nor-non-emptiness’ and ‘neither-duality-nor-non-duality’ is the ultimate truth. These two phrases represent a middle path, as close as we can come to expressing the ultimate, as it is ultimately ineffable. Although Nagarjuna equated the ultimate with the Middle Way, he taught that actually “The ultimate truth is not any view. Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

In his book Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama explains what Nagarjuna means when he says that emptiness conditions dharmas:

For example, when we speak of the emptiness of a form, we are talking about the ultimate reality of that form, the fact that it is devoid of intrinsic existence. That emptiness is the ultimate nature of that form. Emptiness exists only a quality of a particular phenomena; emptiness does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena.”

In the passage from his Treatise, Nagarjuna also compares emptiness to medicine – the “antidote” to the disease that comes from delusions originating from the attachments to self-being and dharmas. However, once the disease has been cured, there is no further need for the medicine. Again, why we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’.

Nagarjuna cautions us about clinging to the idea of emptiness, for when emptiness is seized there is always the temptation to misuse it, to fling it about as another view. Emptiness does not ‘exist’ for its own sake as a concept or a kind of dogma; all things are empty, even emptiness.  And so, emptiness is a tool that must be employed skillfully, and Nagarjuna warns,

Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.”

Nothing terribly bad will happen if we misunderstand or misuse emptiness, no punishments will befall us, but it does tend to push us further from the liberation from suffering, the peace and joy, we seek.

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