Sunday, July 16, 2006

Rainbow warrior


Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was recognised at the age of three as the reincarnation of his predecessor.
Picture: Phil Wilkinson

IT IS day two of the Dalai Lama's week-long visit to Belgium, and the cramped smile on his face speaks volumes. Would he please pose in front of a colourful - and rather dreadful - mural? For a moment he seems on the verge of moving, but then he shakes his head and replies that the painting is too ugly to pose in front of. He continues with a tale of how he was once speaking to a Japanese friend about tasteless paintings such as this one, and "that friend later had to spend the night in a room with monstrous illustrations," he laughs. "He didn't sleep a wink."

The security guards and his entourage stand around the Tibetan leader, waiting, shepherding him along and only just stopping short of tugging on his sleeve. "Your Holiness, it is time to go," he is told softly, but decisively. The Dalai Lama is in his element. His programme includes an interview with yours truly and a meeting with representatives from the Catholic, Islamic and Jewish faiths, but the jack-in-the-box, as the security guards call him, still finds time to jump out of the car to say hello to some passers-by.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (Mongolian for 'ocean of wisdom'), was recognised at the age of three as the reincarnation of his predecessor. At four he was crowned in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to be the leader of his people. By six he was a monk, being educated with a view to helping his country through difficult periods of political conflict. Then, on March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama, regarded as the most eminent authority in the Buddhist world and the head of state of Tibet, was forced to flee his beloved homeland. A Tibetan uprising had brought about a crackdown by the Chinese, which left the 24-year-old holy leader and his entourage running for their lives. They escaped to India, where the country's first prime minister, Pandit Nehru, offered political asylum to the Dalai Lama and 80,000 other Tibetans. The exiled leader was also given a place to live, in Dharamsala, which has remained his home to this day.

Now the Dalai Lama spends his time travelling the world. He has been to Scotland twice in the past two years. On his most recent visit, last November, he praised the Scottish Parliament and devolution as well as discussing personal ethics for modern life. He says that the purpose of his international tours is to draw attention to his philosophy; the Chinese say it is to promote Tibetan independence.

He has written dozens of books on the themes of a balanced life, compassion, universal responsibility and accountability, world peace and religious tolerance. His most recent book, however, fits into an entirely different discipline. It debates the beginning of the universe, genetic manipulation and the evolution of species. Entitled The Universe in a Single Atom (Lannoo, 2005), it delves into the common ground between spirituality and recent discoveries in physics, biology and even quantum mechanics.

The Dalai Lama admits that he is a soul in search of the truth - which, he says, owing to new scientific insights, may turn out to be different than originally thought. "Buddhism is based on discovery and experimentation," he says. "Buddha himself taught us that we should have the freedom to experiment, and it is important how we view the reality all around us. From one perspective you only see a limited view of reality, which changes completely when you look at it from another angle. So what is reality? Yet in both cases we are discussing the same universal reality. Now that concept becomes complicated if I view that reality from my Buddhist state. But it differs from other traditions and cultures, where other philosophies prevail. That, too, is reality."

The Dalai Lama stands by the concept of 'one truth, one religion', saying, "For me, Buddhism is the only truth and the only religion. But my Christian brothers and sisters say the same about Christianity. Result: different truths and different religions. That makes things difficult. Therefore we should try to operate from only one religion or truth."

This may seem like a strange pronouncement, but the Dalai Lama believes that we in the West are better off sticking to our own religion rather than shopping around. "As a Westerner, you have a culture of your own. That culture is heavily influenced by Christianity. For that reason it is healthier to continue in the same tradition. Otherwise frustration will result," he says.

"Some people have a different opinion or look towards other traditions. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are convinced that your own religion has no more effect on you. But I would hope that one does not criticise one's own traditions. You have to keep showing respect, because religion is good and a source of inspiration to many people."

But the Dalai Lama's favourite topic is science, sparked by his discovery as a child, more than 60 years ago, of a copper telescope, a wind-up clock and illustrated books about the First World War, which had been hidden at his official winter residence, the Potala Palace. For the last 20 years, he has brought Buddhism into line with modern scientific thinking."We don't discuss reincarnation, karma or nirvana with scientists. That is a different area. We talk about cosmology, psychology. Those are themes that Buddhism covers, and it is useful to learn about the most recent scientific findings. It enlarges our knowledge. It is not that we want to convert scientists or non-believers to Buddhism, or that scientists are trying to make non-believers of us," he laughs.

"Modern scientists are starting to realise that life is fed by constructive and destructive emotions, so now they are studying emotion. Experiments are being done with students meditating for half an hour every day. After three weeks a difference can already be observed in their behaviour. That knowledge serves humankind," he says. "In our institute we have introduced science as a subject for a select group of monks. In the end we hope it can become a full-time study. We need that type of knowledge."

He accepts the view that the human race, while materially successful, is failing spiritually. "We are capable of much, but when something goes wrong it leads to catastrophe, depression, suicide... Despite our intelligence, we have a tendency to concentrate on one point. For example, if your mother were to die, for a whole day you can think of nothing else. And you grow towards depression. But when you take into account the fact that your mother died without pain, or in a happy way, and that you have many friends who can offer support, that should be a consolation and cause for new inspiration."

The Dalai Lama also believes that we lack balance as a result of too much stress, emphasising the importance of education. "From pre-school onwards, people have to learn to stay balanced. Many direct all their hope towards making money, but when something goes wrong in that regard they get depressed and can end up homeless or frustrated," he says.

Buddhism also has its conservative side, and sex is a thorny issue. I ask him why religions often have so many problems with sexuality and expect their followers to lead celibate lives. His Holiness's entourage look a bit startled at the question, but the Dalai Lama answers with almost visible pleasure. "Buddhism and Catholicism have reasons for preferring celibacy. One of those is that we can practise detachment. You see, desire and attachment can be obstacles for our spirituality. We need to watch out for that."

And homosexuality? He laughs. "All forms of sexuality are viewed as undesirable behaviour for monks and nuns." Why? He laughs loudly. "The goal of sex is reproduction."

My comment that it may be pleasurable all the same is met with a sharp giggle. The entourage giggle along, albeit a little uncomfortably. Then he says, "The point is that when you decide to take your religion or tradition seriously, you should follow its principles. But if you do not have that interest it is up to you to decide what you want to do. I think anything can be done then, as long as it is consensual. Then there is no problem if men do it with men, women with women."

The conversation moves back to the topic of Tibet. Last year the Dalai Lama was not welcome here in Belgium. The Chinese were being difficult, and to avoid a political row Belgian officials chose the easy option. "It was clear to me that it was not a good moment for the government," he says with a shrug, "No problem, I thought, I'll go there next year."

Meanwhile, he remains hopeful about the Chinese attitude towards Tibet, suggesting that the country will have to go along with the international trend of increasing openness, human rights and religious freedom. The Dalai Lama is sure about it: the regime is changing. "Very, very slowly," he emphasises, "but change it does." He says that many Chinese these days show respect, admiration and interest in Buddhism, and he is sure that the government will too. It is only a matter of time. He also believes that there are already changes within the government. For the first time in 60 years, there was a conference on Buddhism and there is even some talk of opening Buddhist schools. "That makes me happy. It is a clear sign that China may be striving towards a more open, more democratic society, even if it is a slow process. I am not seeking separation, I am only looking for a solution for us and the Chinese. Distrust is the biggest obstacle between any two parties."

One area of regret for him is in the gradual disappearance of the Tibetan language. "In that sense there is definitely a cultural genocide in progress, intentional or not. Naturally, the Chinese population is growing very quickly, and they are looking for areas, such as Tibet, that are suitable for the Chinese," he says.

He takes hope from talks that have taken place with Chinese government officials in the last four years. "Formerly, contact and communications with them were officially denied. Those talks are still being held. They help ease the distrust," he says. "We will see where it leads."

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