By Michael Buckley
In a world largely lacking peace and compassion, the Dalai Lama is a beacon in the darkness. His advocacy of a nonviolent approach to resolving conflicts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. But more than this, the Dalai Lama has become an international icon for peace, an inspiration to millions who believe in nonviolence. He promotes what he calls “secular ethics”: living so that people can achieve a certain degree of happiness and cultivate compassion through “the warm heart”. These, he maintains, are values that should be promoted irrespective of one’s religion.
In April, Vancouverites will get a chance to welcome this charismatic thinker. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama has been invited to inaugurate a contemporary Tibetan studies program-the only one of its kind in Canada-to be launched under the auspices of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. Spinning off from this will be a two-day academic conference, a roundtable dialogue, and two public talks, one on universal responsibility and the other on cultivating compassion. (The talks are on Sunday, April 18, at the Pacific Coliseum. Tickets for each event go on sale Friday, February 20, through Ticketmaster.)
And what does the ancient and arcane Tibetan culture have to offer the modern world? Victor Chan, chair of the event’s visiting committee, elaborates in an interview: “The Tibetan Buddhist view and perception of reality is significantly different from that of the West. If you look at the monastic education of Tibetans, people go into that system when they are a few years old, and their whole training is to produce a person with heightened awareness of empathy and compassion, who can make a contribution to help others and alleviate suffering. So this is a highly focused education in mind science.”
High in the Himalayas, isolated for more than a millennium from the West, Tibet fostered a culture without parallel. Central to the Tibetan world-view is the concept of accruing merit through performing good or compassionate deeds, or by going on pilgrimage to sacred sites. It is believed that this karmic energy can be carried through to the next incarnation.
The most famous graduate of the Tibetan monastic system is the Dalai Lama himself. He debated his way to attain the highest philosophy degree-that of geshe-while in Tibet, before fleeing into exile in India in 1959, following the Chinese invasion. Although he claims to be nothing more than a “naughty monk”, the Dalai Lama has become Buddhism’s first global celebrity, cutting across barriers of race, religion, and creed. Remarkably, for someone who has experienced the loss of his nation, he is famed for his offbeat sense of humour and his hearty laugh.
The 68-year-old Dalai Lama will give the keynote speech at a roundtable dialogue that involves Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi and Desmond Tutu, former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel (a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (scholar of Jewish mysticism), and Jo-Ann Archibald (B.C. First Nations leader). The moderator will be Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham of Vancouver. The dialogue is a collaboration between UBC and SFU. The discussion topic is Balancing Educating the Mind With Educating the Heart. The warm heart is one of the Dalai Lama’s core convictions. “He has always thought that regular education-going through high school, getting a degree, and so on-should be paralleled with ways to develop the warm heart so that young people have a perspective on the world around them, especially in ways that they can be of service to the people around them,” Chan says.
With this in mind, an essay-writing competition, open to grades 11 and 12 in B.C. and to students at SFU and UBC, has been initiated. Organizers will select six winners to ask questions at the roundtable dialogue, and runners-up will be present at a simulcast session. The 800-word essay is to focus on an aspect of balancing mind-heart education in the context of sustainable development or community-building. Chan sees this as inspirational. “For the students to be in the presence of these luminaries would be the kind of memory that they would take with them for a long time, and hopefully would have beneficial, far-reaching consequences.”
The Dalai Lama believes in promoting harmony between religions, thus reducing violent conflicts due to religious intolerance. Shirin Ebadi is the first Iranian to win the Nobel Prize (in 2003), and the first Muslim woman to do so; she has worked tirelessly to improve the status of women and the rights of religious minorities. “She is a dynamic advocate of basic human rights and nonviolence. We are extremely pleased she will share her vision and her time with us,” Chan says. Chan draws on September 11 as an instance of missing heart: “Basically, the way the Dalai Lama sees it, some highly educated people were able to put together a very complex set of logistics and devise a very complicated plan of a level sufficient to bring down the towers. These are highly intelligent, highly educated people, but because they do not have what he calls a warm heart, they are using this knowledge, this capability, in a very destructive way. That’s why it’s important to parallel education of the mind with that of the heart.”
“The Dalai Lama thinks that in some ways we would all be better people and the world would be a better place if we have this kind of parallel component in which we can somehow develop a heightened degree of compassion toward our fellow human beings, to instill in people a stronger sense of moral values, and a sense of doing the right thing,” Chan says. “The Dalai Lama has often said he is not a specialist on education. He would not presume to suggest very concrete ideas on how these things can be implemented. When the Dalai Lama talks about these things, there is a reasonable chance that people will listen. He is casting a little pebble into the pond, and hopefully the ripples would reach some of the right people who can do something about it.” The Dalai Lama has done his fair share of casting pebbles in ponds. In the 1980s, he initiated an ongoing dialogue with western scientists, meeting with them mostly in India every year, and thus catalyzing an interest in Buddhist philosophy. He once said that while western science pursued the physical world (such as in its quest for outer space), Tibetan Buddhism has turned inward, in a quest to understand the workings of the mind (inner space).
Western scientists have long been leery of anything to do with mysticism, but over the past decade some scientists have taken an interest in Tibetan Buddhist practices. Neuroscientists at a handful of U.S. universities have used sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to track activity such as blood flood in the brains of accomplished meditation masters. Research suggests that meditation practices reorient the brain from stress-induced mode to one of acceptance, a shift that increases contentment and calmness. The potential applications for this are wide-ranging: meditation practices have been effectively used by NBA teams to improve concentration and as a stress antidote by those with attention-deficit disorder.
The Dalai Lama’s invitation to Vancouver was somewhat casual: it was delivered in person by Chan on behalf of the Institute of Asian Research. Chan, now in his late 50s, is a research associate with the institute. Since 1999, he has followed the Dalai Lama around the globe in the course of co-authoring a book with him and about him.
Chan grew up in Hong Kong before moving to Canada, where he eventually graduated as a physicist. But that career took a strange turn in Afghanistan. In the course of driving overland from Turkey to India, Chan was kidnapped in Kabul in early 1972, along with two young women, one from Munich, the other from New York. Their Afghani captors were interested in the women, and Chan was simply unlucky. When the car they were riding in crashed, the three scrambled out and managed to escape, departing quickly from Kabul. The woman from New York, Cheryl Crosby, was a student of Tibetan Buddhism and was on her way to interview the exiled Dalai Lama at his seat in Dharamsala, in northern India.
Chan followed her. During the interview, the Dalai Lama kept casting glances at Chan’s long hair, droopy mustache, Moroccan pants, and black Spanish cape. He was giggling because he had never seen a Chinese hippie before. “I asked him whether he hated the Chinese for what they had done to Tibet, and he told me emphatically that there has been no hatred or resentment on his part; and that has always been his wish, to make friends with the Chinese. So I am sure this concept of nonviolence has been with him for a long time, and in spite of what has happened in Tibet, he has always adhered to this Gandhian philosophy.”
Enthralled by his visit to Dharamsala, where he experienced Tibetan culture for the first time, Chan became increasingly drawn to the Tibetan world. From 1984 to 1988, he made 11 trips to Tibet. Research from these forays resulted in the publication of Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide, an epic tome weighing in at 1,100 pages. On a tour to promote the book in London in 1994, he met the Dalai Lama again and presented him with a copy.
Chan’s next book, to be published this fall, promises to be an unusual and intimate look into the life of the Dalai Lama. Chan was even allowed to sit in on the Dalai Lama’s morning meditation sessions in Dharamsala. “He meditates from 3:30 or 4 in the morning until 8 or so; most of that time is taken with sitting cross-legged in his inner sanctum, in his meditation room. It’s a good-sized room, with an altar, statues, thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings), and picture windows of the mountains. Even when he is being served breakfast, he will not get up from this meditation posture.”
Chan’s portrait of the Dalai Lama will take in both his serious and lighthearted sides. “At one meeting in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama, myself, and Pierce Brosnan were joking around and talking about reincarnation. Pierce Brosnan said he would like to be reincarnated as a bald-headed eagle. And the Dalai Lama said he would probably be reincarnated as a caterpillar because when he was young he was awfully afraid of caterpillars. So there was a great deal of daughter and hooting around. This forms one of the chapter titles in the book.”
Chan-working with Pitman Potter, director of the Institute of Asian Research-was able to arrange degree-conferral ceremonies for visiting Nobel laureates by both UBC and SFU. On April 19, honorary doctor of laws degrees will be conferred on the Dalai Lama, Ebadi, Tutu, and Havel at UBC. The following day, the same degrees will be conferred by SFU.
During the Dalai Lama’s visit, a two-day academic conference, titled Tibet in the Contemporary World, will take place at UBC. Top Tibetan research scholars have been invited to participate in discussions. Among them will be Robert Thurman, who is an ordained Tibetan monk, a widely published Tibetan scholar, and father of actor Uma Thurman. He is chair of religious studies at Columbia University, which is also initiating a Tibetan studies program.
Potter is hoping for input from these visiting Tibetologists on shaping UBC’s new Contemporary Tibetan Studies Program. “We have not entirely defined the syllabus,” Potter says. “It’s part of a graduate program: the principal component is to study aspects of Tibetan culture, encompassing socioeconomic, cultural, and political issues. Another dimension will concern the application of Buddhist principles of compassion and cross-cultural understanding associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to contemporary issues such as sustainable development, community building, economic and social change, security, women and development, governance, and human rights.” Potter is hoping, too, that this new program will encourage bridge-building and interaction between Tibetan, Chinese, and western scholars and specialists.
The Dalai Lama last visited Vancouver in July 1993, giving several public lectures. When he lectures in April, Chan said, he will be reaching out to Chinese Buddhists in Vancouver, to connect with what he terms his “Chinese brothers and sisters”. But the Dalai Lama’s visit is bound to be a high point for B.C.’s tiny Tibetan community. There are about 100 Tibetans living in the Lower Mainland, according to Tenzin Lhalungpa, president of the B.C. chapter of the Canada Tibet Committee. “And Tibetans from Alberta and from Seattle and Portland will come to Vancouver to attend the talks, and for a special audience. They are eagerly looking forward to this visit,” Lhalungpa said.
The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the universal bodhisattva of compassion. To many others, he is a source of great inspiration. He is a superstar without the trappings of stardom: he doesn’t care if he stays in a five-star hotel or a tent. He teaches that wealth isn’t on the exterior of the self; it is on the interior. He himself may well be the greatest living example of those teachings. And as Chan puts it, “The Dalai Lama’s concept of educating the heart may prove to be one of his greatest legacies.”
–Michael Buckley is author of Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide (2003), and Heartlands-Travels in the Tibetan World (Summersdale, 2002).