In The Thrall of the Passionate Buddha

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Posted on on April 19, 2004

He spooks official China; he enraptures Goldie Hawn. How to explain the impact of the Tibetan spiritual leader?

By Daniel Gawthrop

Every time Tenzin Gyatso—better known as His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama—lands in a Western country, two kinds of stories abound. The first is political: will the country’s presiding leader grant an audience with His Holiness, thus incurring the wrath of the Chinese government (which on one hand dismisses the Dalai Lama’s political and religious importance to Tibet while on the other denouncing him as a dangerous separatist)? The second focuses on his charisma as the world’s most famous religious exile: the celebrity magnet whose adherents include Richard Gere and Harrison Ford and whose mass appeal rivals that of the Rolling Stones.

This week’s appearance in Canada is no different. Predictably, the Chinese ambassador issued veiled threats to Prime Minister Paul Martin, urging him not to meet with His Holiness. (Martin dithered for a while—he likes to please everyone, after all—before finally deciding that there were more votes in becoming the first Canadian prime minister to break bread with the Tibetan people’s spiritual leader than in snubbing him.)

The other stories have focused on the frenzied activity surrounding all the events. Apparently the Smiling Monk is such a hot commodity that a fistfight even broke out at one of the ticket line-ups a few weeks ago. On my way into the Pacific Coliseum for Sunday afternoon’s talk on “Universal Responsibility,” a woman in her 60s told me that she saw scalpers trying to sell $26.50 tickets for $100 a pop.

Faith and science

My interest in attending the Dalai Lama’s talk was mostly philosophical. I’d been reading Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (Basic, 2002), a cheerfully atheist tome that dispenses with the notion of God and soul by page three and goes on to illustrate how science-based belief systems and meaningful existence need not be mutually exclusive. I wanted to know how the Dalai Lama, a deeply religious man, has managed to attract believers and non-believers alike with his simple words about spirituality and global consciousness.

For the 13,000 who filed into the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, the best answer came from fellow Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who accompanied his old friend onstage to a rousing ovation before introducing him with an affectionate tribute.

It’s the Dalai Lama’s deep pool of serenity, said Tutu, combined with a schoolboy’s mischievous sense of fun, that draws people to him. After 45 years of exile from his own country, he said, “by rights he should be filled with resentment, anger and bitterness.” But instead, the 68-year-old monk “makes us feel good about being human—about being alive in a time when someone like him is around.”

Then it was the Dalai Lama’s turn to speak.

Simple truths, often forgotten

What did he say? About 90 per cent of his talk was common sense wisdom: “Human happiness comes from within,” “most disturbances in our lives come from our own mental attitudes,” and “There are two ways to respond to adversity: lose self-confidence and become ineffective, or gain more understanding and determination.”

Hardly rocket science. But it struck me that these words would come in handy for Svend Robinson right about now.

The remaining 10 per cent featured little gems of neo-Buddhist philosophy that have freshened many a cynical Western mind:

* “Physical stress can be overcome by mental power, but mental distress cannot be subsumed by physical comfort.”
* “Genuine compassion is unbiased” (i.e. not determined by an assessment of other people’s attitudes about oneself)
* “Our survival, well-being and happiness are dependant on the well-being of all society. Therefore, being selfish is actually self-destructive; it’s like cutting the very branch upon which one is sitting.”
* “People who use the words ‘I, me, mine’ all the time are at greater risk of heart attack.”
* “Birth is the foundation of death.”

And so on.

Religion, but with comedy

Throughout his talk, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu sat across from each other in matching beige lounge chairs, the white-haired Christian cleric leaning back and stroking his chin thoughtfully as his Buddhist friend spoke. Their comic rapport drew several laughs from the crowd, especially during a brief Q&A period at the end. When asked what should be done about terrorism, the Dalai Lama pointed to the Archbishop and said “Ask him–he has more experience in this area.”

Sitting next to me were a couple of bright, young SFU students.

What makes His Holiness so special? I asked 20-year-old Victoria and her friend Kyle, 21.

“If the pope came to Vancouver, you’d have a more set group of people coming out to see him,” said Victoria, an English and History major. “It says a lot about the Westernization of Buddhism that you see so many different kinds of people here.” (The mostly WASP-ish crowd–a typically west coast assortment of Goretex-clad environmentalists and Gaia-worshipping progressives—cut across class, generational and cultural lines with a smattering of minorities in the mix.)

Kyle, an English and Philosophy major, said that Buddhism contains an element of mirth that’s missing from Western religion.

“The Christian church is so demure, so solemn,” he said. “Mysticism and problem-solving—you get none of these things in the church.”

We’re drunk, and can’t get up

In today’s New Age mass market, where a guru is born every minute, the Dalai Lama has remained contemporary. After four decades of globetrotting, the essence of his message hasn’t changed—perhaps it’s just more poignant in a post-9/11 world.

And the message? The human race is drunk on narcissism. Only by weaning ourselves off it can we develop a sense of true compassion, which opens the door to real social change.

Ah, yes—the hard part.

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