Friday, May 30, 2008

The Dalai Lama speaks at the Sheldonian

On the final leg of his official UK schedule, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has come to Oxford for a couple of days. Wherever there are Tibetan connections, the Office of Tibet will seek to guide His Holiness there - whether Tibetan communities, Tibetan culture or the study and practice of Buddhism.

Today he came to present on the topic of 'Buddhist Understanding: How and Why' at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, where many distinguished and honourable people have spoken before - it's a very compact venue, which generally houses just under 1000 people, unless there's a very important debate for University Congregation (in which case a couple hundred more are likely to squeeze in!). On this occasion there were a mixture of academics, practitioners, supporters etc; only a few monks - some Tibetans, one Burmese Bhikkhu, I think, but no Thais.

This event had been organised by the Society for the Wider Understanding of Buddhism (So-Wide), which has at its core the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, under the academic direction of Professor Richard Gombrich. I was fortunate to be present and offer here some recollections, though even within a few hours I forget many things, so must apologise for inaccuracies in any of this. I think a podcast will be available at some point, so I'm just going to relate some aspects that I particularly noted.

I filed in at around 9.30 and made my way to the central part of the lower gallery, where I was delighted to see some friends from a local Dhamma group, who kindly made space for me. With a clear view of the stage straight ahead and some padding on the seats, I had never had such a good seat before!

At around 10am, Geoff Bamford, the Executive Director (the business brains and tireless volunteer worker) gave the warm-up introduction opening (once mic was set and chatter had died down) with "Hi" - it was nice to set an informal tone. He then went on to talke briefly about So-wide and the symbol of the open hand (teachings that may benefit the whole world, not exclusive), an image I think he is very fond of. And so it was fitting that His Holiness was patron of So-Wide.

Soon it was time for His Holiness to make his entrance, preceded by some Oxford academics who took their seats in the front row. The Dalai Lama then came in and made the gesture of greeting - palm to palm - left, right, up, down, in many directions (and duly returned)! Already the audience felt engaged. He then took his seat.

Professor Richard Gombrich then welcomed His Holiness as a Buddhist figure of unique and pre-eminent significance. He then went on to convey the significance of Oxford in the Buddhist landscape, in a characteristically Oxford-centric way - he described a few ancient manuscripts referring to Sukhavati, the Pure Land in the West, with one or two translations as "Ox-Ford" (bringing applause from the audience), going on to relate that there are just one or two minor differences [in that tone of understatement in which academics are so well versed] in the descriptions - the seats in Sukhavati are lotuses (whereas many in the Sheldonian are bare wood). And so the tone of the morning was set - to be informative, yet informal.

His Holiness then came to the podium accompanied by Dr. Thupen Jinpa, his interpreter (of many years, I think). He started off by saying a few things in Tibetan and then switched to English, apologising for how poor he thought it was - "never improving" and said that in fact as he gets old his English gets older too! He responded to Richard Gombrich's opening comments about Oxford being Sukhavati in a very light-hearted dismissive way by quipping that being born from a lotus doesn't allow us to know much about humans!

His Holiness opened by saying he wanted to talk largely about two important things: human values and religious harmony. Human values really lay at the core - and straight off was pointing inside himself for the source of peace - that it must be inner peace. In relation to this, he talked about two kinds of compassion:

  1. Compassion dependent upon attitudes, which i think meant that it is conditional or you give compassion only to those in your good books.
  2. Compassion based in the realisation of every living thing being a sentient being, particularly human beings relating to human beings, doing things out of compassion for human beings, developing empathy. It leads to clearer understanding. In contrast, fear and anger distort the world view and can lead to false projections. When you are compassionate to people, then they are kind in return - you find many friends who can help you out, e.g. when in need, e.g. of money; when that person goes, they are missed. In contrast, someone who is mean, who even is glad that others are suffering ("serves them right") - when they pass away, everyone is glad!

The second part - on religious harmony - should draw on the virtuous qualities. The validity of other faiths was evident to him through the deeply impressive quality of practice he had encountered through others - he particularly expressed appreciation about this following his participation in a colloquium the previous day at Blackfriars [I had wanted to attend, but couldn't get a place]. This kind of encounter has convinced him of the importance of looking at the world from different angles. Even though Buddhist views might be based on dependent origination without God, whilst a Christian view might be centred on God, the practices - inner and outer - are very worthy of respect.

His Holiness said with a lot of convictin that he thought that Buddhists, especially Sangha, could learn from Christians in their outreach in society - he had discussed this with His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, who had pointed out "correctly" that the Sangha choose a separate existence, and the Dalal Lama joked that the interaction was limited "for food". I was naturally disappointed that the Thai Sangha had by implicaton been given a rather remote image, whereas in fact only a couple of weeks ago I met a senior member of the Thai Sangha from Wat Thepsirin, Bangkok, who was in the UK to promote Buddhist study among lay practitioners - he even persuaded me to sit the exam without any preparation (in English, though)!. Traditionally Thai temples are part of a wonderful eco-system of mutual support in the local communities - they would provide schooling for children, medical help as well as spiritual advice. There's definitely plenty of room for Thais, especially the Sangha, to communicate better - the Dalai Lama has really mastered this and the Thai Sangha could learn from him, how to build more of a rapport with audiences of other cultures.

His Holiness extended the angles to the secular sphere and I could see the mutual interpenetration: the study of the physical universe - e.g. through particle physics - was an area where Western science had a useful role; the study of the mind was an area where Buddhism had a lot to offer Western Psychology. When asked about whether taking meditation from the religious into the secular sphere (e.g. in western psychiatry) whether it lost something, his main response was that he simply wanted to share in a way that most benefited humanity [like the open hand].

Whilst discussing compassion, there were some very vocal protests outside - it has been widely reported, e.g. by local news (I hope they cover what happened inside as well!) They could easily be heard inside the theatre. I wondered if HH would proceed without any direct reference to them (which was what I was hoping he would do, if only to stay more focused on the topic in hand), but he took a few minutes to explain the details relating to practices of a specifc deity worship and issues that went back as far back at the 5th Dalai Lama.

On a much smaller scale, another issue, which this time probably most people are familiar with is the mosquito - in Q&A His Holiness wondered how to be compassionate to them. (Coincidentally I had chatted before the talk with the lady sitting next to me about dealing with mosquitoes; my Thai Aunt had said a long time ago that if I want to love Thailand, I must love mosquitoes too!). The Dalai Lama said if he is in a good mood, then he is happy to donate blood for 1 min or however long it takes (and then get the swelling); the second mosquito he will blow off and the same, I guess for the others; but when his peaceful sleep is disturbed (he made motions and sounds of mosquito darting in and around his head) his emotional state doesn't fare so well! So he asked one of the Profs about the intelligence of insects, I think whether their small brains can support compassion or are they so small that they only live to survive?

His responses were very human and humane, very appealing to the audience - generally when he giggles, the audience enjoys this and joins in with laughter. When His Holiness had finished speaking, he walked past Prof. Gombrich and adjusted his gown, one of many kindly gestures.

A Q&A session followed. One question was about compassionate action following animal experiments - and he cited some practices where an animal used for the greater benefit of humanity might in some cultures be given a special ceremony. (Was this question predicated on questionable assumptions?) His Holiness, expressed appreciation for acknowledging animals and went on to promote the importance of vegetarianism. This response may have left some people concluding that one could justify harming animals for the sake of [supposedly more noble] human beings.

The Dalai Lama was also asked about termination of pregnancies of those foetuses diagnosed to contain severe anaemia - the questioner indicated that there were differences in attitudes between Western countries and some Asian countries. His Holiness replied that as a monk you are trained to observe the rule that it is basically wrong to kill. However, he went on to provide what looked like loopholes, offering an analogy with the vinaya rules - first monks can't take meals after midday, but some monks who became seriously ill would have to have some food in order to survive, so there could be some flexibility in these cases [is that saying that he introduced the rule that medicines are allowed any time?] So by implication, there could be some leeway in severe cases of illness, perhaps as here. The questioner seemed delighted with the response, but I hope he doesn't now go back to these countries and say the Dalai Lama supports his view etc... because the Dalai Lama did at least say that these need to be viewed on a case by case basis [and I think advanced meditators would look very carefully at karma involved- that's what really needs to be studied experimentally,instead of just intellectually speculating].

The session ended at around 11.40, with a great sense of friendliness and support. This was carried on to the reception afterwards, where His Holiness urged the work to continue for the benefit of humanity.


Paul Trafford said...

An official report from the Office of Tibet provides details of this and other gatherings in and around Oxford University at which His Holiness was present.

Anonymous said...

Great report. I could almost feel like I was there. Thank you for the links as well. I could imagine the atmosphere in the Sheldonian theatre. thank you. Jason

Shravasti Dhammika said...

I was so impressed by your beautiful images of churches. Some of yor comments on Buddhism were worth reading too. You might be interested in some of mine at www.sdhammika.blogspotcom.

Paul Trafford said...

Thank you, Jason and Ven. Shravasti Dhammika, for your kind comments.

You may also be interested in a BBC recording from the previous day at Blackfriars.

Anonymous said...

I have been recommending a book called "My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor and also a TEDTalk Dr. Taylor gave on the TED dot com site. And you don't have to take my word for it - Dr. Taylor was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, the New York Times wrote about her and her book is a NYTimes Bestseller), and Oprah did not 4 interviews with her.

Paul Trafford said...

I watched a video in which Jill Bolte Taylor tell her poignant story at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Does she meditate? If not, she should. If she does already, then she should meditate more! At least until she realises how mind is rather more than brain. :-)