Photo courtesy of DiDi
I arrived at Slee Hall around a chilly 7.34am, wondering if I was already late for the private session with the Dalai Lama. At the entrance, my slingbag was considered a security threat (as with regular backpacks), so I had to walk to the other end of campus just to put it down and return. Security was high, with metal detectors and the inability to leave the building unless you don’t intend to return. Interestingly, only Chinese students were invited to this private dialogue (no recording allowed), though I did hear something about His Holiness having a following session with the Indian students.
Having been made to seat early, plenty of students were restless, some sleepy, but mostly excited by the privilage given to them. Glancing at the Chinese from all over Asia, the audience included Mainland China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore. By 9am, President Simpson took to the podium to deliver his opening speech about UB’s quest for international excellence, and how the theme would be for higher education to build world peace. Soon after, the Dalai Lama took his place on the ornate leather chair centerstage.
The first thing His Holiness did when he turned towards us was to bow with hands together in prayer. He was showing us respect, which he later explained as a way of acknowledging that the Chinese have always had a longer heritage with Buddhism than the Tibetians. These humble gestures are common throughout his presence, and rightfully so since his hallmark goes by compassion. Within the stuffy academic atmosphere, his humility shine through to us with his use of simple words to pass on advice. While this might be due to the fact that he might not have a good command of English, his voice was clear and concise, and this simplicity only added more credence to his purpose.
To begin, the Dalai Lama spoke of three things:
- Education for Peace – Knowledge is important, but it can create more sadness if not used right (not 100% clear on this)
- Inter-Religious Harmony – Religion throughout history has often been a point of conflict. Catholics vs. Protestants, Shiite Muslims vs. Iraqis. No single religion fits everyone. While Buddhism fits the Dalai Lama, it doesn’t mean it’ll fit you. Understanding this would allow different people to live alongside each other.
- Human Values – An understated value: Compassion. This is the voluntary act of giving concern to others. This is more powerful than most people realize.
By this time, the floor was opened to questions from the students. While moderator Dr. Stephen Dunnett tried to remind students to keep it short and respectful, the Mainland Chinese students unfortunately turned the entire mood somewhat sour. Politics is an unavoidable topic at this point. The first question came from one such person who instead of asking a question, broke into a diatribe about how he had seen photos of Tibet and it was radically different from how he perceived it. He explained with a difficult sense of clarity (basically horribly) of how recent economic developments made Tibet seem ironic to him. He went on to tell his tale, but was clearly uncertain about himself, as if he was pressure to take the stand to prove his worth. Fortunately, Dr. Dunnett cut him off and sternly asked for the question, to which he finally complied. “What does the Dalai Lama think of developments in Tibet?”, he unapologetically asked, but somewhat realizing that he needed to brush up his public speaking should he wish to apply as a martyr.
In cheerful deposition, the Dalai Lama asked if he was indeed from mainland China, to which the Chinese responded yes, much to the delight of most of the audience. He calmly proceeded to explain about how Tibetians have always been trying to foster better relations with China and that they were not seeking independence, but general autonomy. He shared in great detail about the history between China and Tibet, of how when the Chinese army reached Chengdao, the only thing that stop more bloodshed was Chairman Mao. Interestingly, Chairman Mao was someone who the Dalai Lama trusted and admired the most, since both of them were able to share peaceful dialogue with one another, and respected each other’s wishes. Chairman Mao eventually offered an agreement to the Dalai Lama which no other provinces even had the privilage of such an arrangement. The idea was for China to help build Tibet’s infrastructure, in keeping with the rest of China. Tibet would then help China in time of need. An infamous railway link was built between China and Tibet, and soon an influx of Chinese came and even outnumbered the native Tibetians. The Tibetian language gave way to Mandarin, and food became more Chinese than Tibetian. The Dalai Lama welcomed China, but was concerned about political agendas. From what he saw, the Tibetian culture was changing, including the mentality and spirituality of fellow Tibetians. Were these economic developments leading to cultural genocide?
A second Mainland Chinese student took to the mic and by then everyone sat up with nails biting into their chairs. “With respect to Chairman Mao, what do you make of Marxism?” was the question. Dalai Lama took interest in this, explaining how he considered himself half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. Everyone broke into laughter. He believed in the ideals of Marxism and even wanted to join China’s communist party to see it through. However over time, he witnessed the damage it has done, since in practice most people do not have enough sincerity to make it happen. As a result, we become suspicious and turn suppressive. He thinks that this was why fighting existed between Russia and China even when they were both communist regimes. Selfishness, in the form of nationalism and politics, ruins this ideal. With regards to this, he recalled how Chairman Mao once asked him if they had a national flag. The Dalai Lama thought about it, and said yes. Surprisingly, Mao said he should keep it. [My take: We’ve been taught about how unworkable Marxism is, but that doesn’t mean its not an ideal economic model. Even the economics of Star Trek is prominently Marxist.]
Almost an hour passed just answering historically political questions when the Dalai Lama clarified about his choice to go to India. He had none. While fellow Tibetians were being supressed, a converging Liberation Army finally forced him to escape into India. There was no where else to go. His home was bombarded, and even if he were to survive, he would have probably been arrested and locked away for a long time. He then escaped by disguising himself as a soldier.
By now everyone wanted a fresh change of pace, which was thankfully given by a Malaysian student who asked a simple but heartfelt question: “How do you keep smiling even in difficult times?”. The Dalai Lama spoke of infinite compassion which was a practice of Buddhism. Love is something we as humans are afforded with since birth (i.e. new born’s dependency toward mother he has never seen before), and we should do so to the best of our abilities. He explains that the modern world is full of stress because we are doing involuntary things. Compassion is powerful because it is the voluntary act of giving concern for others. This selflessness allows one to focus on things other than yourself (and your body). In the general sense, you allow yourself to forget painful moments as your mind happily concerns itself with helping others. Eventually, enlightenment is possible for us humans, but such requires training of mind.
Another mainland Chinese asked: “Would you ever go back to Tibet?”. Hard work has driven China to become an economic superpower. The Dalai Lama notes how China is economically strong, but spiritually weak. He compare the coastal provinces as doing very well, but less can be said about the interior provinces. Huge gaps between rich and poor exists, and this lack of equal distribution creates unhappiness and even turmoil within the people. Applicable to most countries we know, the lack of freedom of the press is something that the Dalai Lama thinks is the real danger. As food for thought, he points out that if its called the “People’s Republic of China”, where’s the ownership that people are suppose to enjoy? He notes of deception which comes by being above the law. As such, he tells us that having multiple political parties, open media, and democracy, are essential to have a better spirited country. Attitudes and beliefs are important, but they have to be honest and truthful. In conclusion, His Holiness said that he is all for a unified China, but one with Tibet and Taiwan having their own forms of democracy (own sovereignty).
Finally, a girl from Taiwan (so far all the boys asked questions) asked a 3-in-1 question which stemmed on spirituality: “How do you tell from birth if a baby is the next Dalai Lama?”. The Dalai Lama laughs, but tried to answer this given the short span of time left. He explains briefly about the idea of one’s spirit transferring into a new body as rebirth. There are several levels of meditation, from deep sleep without dreaming (remaining conscious), no breathing, some even without heart beat (clinically death), while all this time the body remains “fresh”. Such is the subtlety of the mind, which is independent of body. Not sure about this, but I believe he said a higher spirited soul finds new life. He notes how scientists tried measuring monks while they meditate, for whenever they brought their equipment in I believe he said no one could meditate to that state. The timing wasn’t right. Finally, he said that the next Dalai Lama depends on whoever’s spirital level is higher, and you can somewhat tell if it was a previous soul by comparing characteristics of the Dalai Lamas.
The session ended on that note. If anyone can elaborate on my points, or even correct where I have misread what the Dalai Lama has said, do share your thoughts in the comments.