The Dalai Lama: the Laughing Buddha of Modern Times
Posted on April 23rd, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness Dalai Lama XIV, is arguably the most popular spiritual leader of the world today. Though he doesn’t radiate ‘spirituality’, he demonstrates it by his practice and his precept; he is the most relaxed looking ‘holy man’ that people of all faiths are inspired to look on and listen to; his smiling face looks hardly saintly; by his own account, he is ‘a simple monk’; he is the Buddhist ‘missionary’ who advises potential converts from other than Buddhist backgrounds to stick to their original religions if they feel comfortable in them, saying that he believes ‘that all the major world religions have the potential to serve humanity and develop good human beings’; by ‘good’ human beings, he says he means those who ‘have a good and more compassionate heart’. (In the same context he also said: ‘This is why I always say that it is better to follow one’s own traditional religion, because by changing religion you may eventually find emotional or intellectual difficulties’. But he adds that for those who think their traditional religions are not effective for them and for those who have no religious beliefs, the Buddhist way of explaining things may have some attraction’. Source: a talk given in London, contained in The Heart of the Buddha’s Path”, 1995) What better healing advice can a spiritual and ethical teacher give to humanity that is living today, as it is, in a world riven by brands of hate driven religious fanaticism? The extremely politicized Nobel Peace Prize may have accidentally recovered some of its lost prestige by being awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989. But all the adulation that he inspires leaves him unaffected. He is an example, if not an epitome, of egolessness; his relative freedom from ‘the illusion of the self’ is the essence of his magnetic personality. This does not, however, stop him from being identified as a controversial political figure in robes. In fact, that is the other side of his public image, for he is also a man of the world, a consummate politician, as he ought to be, as both the spiritual and temporal leader of his unique  tradition governed community , the Tibetans. Tenzin Gyatso may be called a willing philosopher-king who is not being allowed to rule his kingdom. Historically speaking though, he is the deposed or self-exiled 14th ruler in a line of God-Kings that ruled the country from the mid-17th to the mid-20th century.

The Dalai Lama that we know has come to us through the media, which is as good as if he came to us in person. However, behind the affably smiling, lovable, somewhat clownish, yellow clad Yeatsian figure of ‘a comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ is the sage who exemplifies in his conduct and speech the two cardinal virtues of wisdom and compassion taught in Buddhism. He easily reminds us of the Laughing Buddha, who is basically a part of Chinese Buddhist and Japanese Shinto culture. Though the Shinto religion predated Buddhism in Japan, the Laughing Buddha was later admitted into its pantheon as one of the seven gods of good luck. Actually, the Laughing Buddha is believed to have originated in a mix of Buddhist and Shinto religions during the latter part of the Liang dynasty  in China. Pu Tai or Bu Dai (so called because of the trademark cloth sack he carried) was a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monk who lived in that period (907-923 CE). Though a beggar (a Buddhist bhikkhu is by definition a beggar), he was contented and happy in the way a Buddhist monk had to be. His never failing smile (which expressed his loving-kindness, friendliness, metta/maitri) made people happy wherever he went, and this earned him another nickname, the ‘Loving/Friendly One’. He came to be honoured as a bodhisattva (a buddha-to-be). The Laughing Buddha is venerated as the Maitreya Buddha-to-be, the future Buddha according to the belief of Buddhists belonging to different sects. The Dalai Lama is regarded as an ‘emanation’ of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an iconic figure that embodies boundless compassion. Just as the Laughing Buddha tradition is claimed to have brought Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and later, even Western cultures closer together, so can the Dalai Lama phenomenon be regarded as a force for easing East-West tension and for dowsing sectarian passions engulfing the world at present.

There is no monolithic version of Buddhism that is followed across the world. Seeds of the Buddhist teaching which were planted by ancient missionary monks in different parts of the world have given rise to a bewildering mass of sects, movements, and divisions of Buddhism  coloured by local cultures. However, the basic teaching of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, is common to all these versions. Scholars of Buddhism recognize three main schools: Theravada (the Teaching of the Elders), the traditional Mahayana (the Great Vehicle), and its split Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle). Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is the best known exponent, consists of elements from all three branches. Of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism Nyingma, Sakya, Kegyu, and Gelug, the Dalai Lama represents the last.

Recently, it was reported that though he was invited to visit Sri Lanka by some Buddhist monks, he was denied a visa by the government. The government’s denial of a visa is not something difficult to understand. In this regard, the Sri Lankan government has been caught up in a Catch 22 situation in that Sri Lankans cannot extend their eager hospitality to His Holiness without antagonizing China, Sri Lanka’s indispensable friend-in-need. The reason for this dilemma is that the Dalai Lama is being used by the West as a bludgeon against the emerging superpower, for the Tibet problem provides the West with an ideal opportunity to rock on its liberal hobby horse. The refusal of a visa to His Holiness by the government, while confirming our friendly relations with China, will not lessen the Lama’s compassionate goodwill towards the Sri Lankans, nor will such refusal unnecessarily disappoint them in spite of it effectively denying them a chance to have him among them for a short time. But they are already able to see him well through his words and actions.

Dalai Lama XIV has been of interest to the West and to China in contrary ways from the very beginning. When the young Dalai Lama (then only 24) fled Tibet and reached the Indian border after a two week trek across the mountains disguised as a common soldier in 1959, it made world news, as Lynn M. Hamilton says in her short biography of the Tibetan leader ‘The Dalai Lama: A Life Inspired’ (Oct. 2014); according to her, the then US president Dwight Eisenhower put a trail of pins in a map tracing the Lama’s escape route! Hamilton says that CIA operative John Greaney cabled to India asking on behalf of the US that the Dalai Lama be given asylum there. She is unable to say whether or not this US directive influenced the Indian response to the problem. But the Indian premier of the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, of his own accord, gave the Lama political sanctuary, and eventually settled him and his fellow Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala where he is based to this day.

China acts as if the Dalai Lama is a threat to it. He may or may not be, for different reasons. But one thing is clear: It is that he has become a pawn in the chessboard of geopolitics where the two major players America and China try to move him as their interests dictate. Unfortunate though that is, it doesn’t concern those of us who are only interested in the moral or spiritual message he has to communicate to the world. We remember that there were anti-Chinese protests in Tibet in the lead up to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, sometimes involving violence, which the Chinese blamed the Dalai Lama for. They said he was a political stooge in the pay of American intelligence. Chinese supporters maintained that there was no ‘ national liberation struggle’ as such in Tibet, but that ‘secessionists’ backed by America were causing disruption. Zhang Qingli, the secretary of  the Communist Party in Tibet was widely reported to have made the following comments: (in translation) The Dalai Lama is a wolf wrapped in a habit, a monster with human face and an animal’s heart”. This characterization is not accepted by many including both pro-China and anti-China commentators. In 2008, Randeep Ramesh, a journalist attached to The Guardian, London (UK), ridiculed the  Chinese concern as a case of a Chinese dragon (being) scared by a mouse that prayed”.

As far as that conflict (that involving the Lama being wooed by the West and rejected by China) goes, it is hardly likely that Tibet will eventually be able to assert itself as an entity independent of the latter, despite or because of the fact that it is wedged between three nuclear powers, while being located in a watershed that plays an important part in the world’s water supply. On the other hand, Tibet’s cultural deracination as a cross product of these forces is inevitable, but that will not be the end of the 14th Dalai Lama’s influence on the peace loving rational people of the world. The institution of the Dalai Lama as the political and spiritual leader of Tibet may have already lapsed into obsolescence. Probably, no one knows this better than the present Dalai Lama himself. According to Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, ‘the Dalai Lama has been one of the harshest critics of old Tibet”…’. He adds that the Lama would have introduced political reforms without the Chinese intervention. Professor Robert Barnett, Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University believes that ‘as a political leader, he asks for very little – he seems quite happy to accept a merely symbolic gesture like a cup of tea and a photo’. That may be to put too low a value on his actual political significance. In any case, he has tried to come to an agreement with the Chinese authorities by opting for a degree of autonomy for Tibet while remaining a territory of China, provided it is allowed to enjoy a status that is similar to the status of Hong Kong: a large measure of self-government with its own political and legal systems. He has even indicated his readiness to let Tibet have a communist government, with meaningful” autonomy, but China will not agree to such a settlement. It may be that with the death of the Dalai Lama (80 this year) the world may forget Tibet as it was with him living; it will be the end of history for Tibet under its god-king. The Dalai Lama’s lasting legacy for the world will be what he stands for today as a spiritual leader.

Professor Barnett points out that the Dalai Lama declared in 2011, in an Important Proclamation”, that he will make a decision on the problem of succession after consulting with other high lamas and the Tibetan public, and that this will be in 2024. He has also hinted at the possibility of there being no 15th Dalai Lama. But if there is, the Lama has explained, there will be a child identified as his reincarnation after his death or an adult person as an emanation” chosen by him while he is still alive, and he will leave clear written instructions. In another source which I can’t now remember, he was reported to have confirmed that he will not return to Tibet. This was probably meant to send the Chinese a signal indicating that the time for a peaceful settlement was running out. He was also said to have suggested that his successor could be a woman. But it is generally the case that news hungry journalists misreport their own speculations as assertions allegedly made by the Dalai Lama. His promise to leave written instructions about his succession, Professor Barnett says, was presumably (intended) to help journalists and others get the story right”. All this goes to prove that the Dalai Lama is no less a politician than a monk.

He set up the Tibetan Central Authority (CTA) , aka Tibetan Government in exile, for the Tibetan exiles in Daramsala who number about 100,000. But he has relinquished political control of the government in exile. The CTA operates as a democracy with an elected prime minister and parliament. Its constitution is based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, the Dalai Lama seems to have divested himself of serious political responsibility as far as the Tibetan government in exile is concerned. While remaining the head of Tibetan Buddhism, however, he has assumed the role of an ambassador of Buddhism at large to the world. The Dalai Lama remains a symbol of wisdom, peace, and compassion in a world threatened by violence born out of religious fundamentalism and hegemonic politics.

The diminishing political stature of the Dalai Lama is being compensated for by his increasing spiritual significance for the world. As a teacher of Buddhism should do, he provides guidance for spirituality without religion (though he does not describe it as such), an urgent need for the world today. Incidentally, I must make it clear that I am aware of the risk I am taking of annoying my readers who accept religions as well as those who reject them or have nothing to do with religions, but I beg that they bear with me, for I don’t mean to hurt their feelings. I am expressing some opinions (relevant to the subject of this essay) that are open to constructive criticism. It is necessary to distinguish between spirituality and religion in trying to explain in what sense the Dalai Lama is important as a spiritual teacher or leader, who is, strictly speaking, not ‘religious’ in the normal sense, that is roughly in a theistic sense.

In Buddhism, there is no belief in a creator god who supervises our lives unseen from above and rewards or punishes us eternally according as we obey or transgress his moral law. The Buddha Gautama taught the karma principle, that is, the principle of causality which says that the good intents and actions of an individual bring about good karmic results, and bad intents and actions bad results; no outside power is involved in that, so there is no need to praise, pray to, or otherwise propitiate such an agency. This is one of the senses in which Buddhism is not a religion. Buddha, in fact, did not found a religion, a system of prayer and worship, but explained a non-religious ethical system based on self-realization, on seeing things as they really are, i.e., on enlightenment. The whole of the Buddhist teaching can be briefly summarized as the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering, that the suffering is due to a cause, that an end to suffering is available, and that there is a path leading to that end. The principle of causality known as karma underlies this four-term formula of the Buddhist teaching.

So while the concept of spirituality in religions involves a divine dimension, in Buddhism it doesn’t. What is considered spiritual in Buddhism is not tantamount to making contact with the so-called ‘divine’; instead, it consists in attaining heightened mental states through the extinction of the sense of self. A basic teaching of Buddhism is that there is no enduring entity that can be called self (soul); the idea of self is an illusion. ‘Spiritual’ experiences are heightened mental states such as self-transcending love, inner light, ecstasy, bliss which have been found to be common to people of different religions as well as to people who have no religion. Since religions are ideologically different, these phenomena cannot be explained in terms of their unchallengeable dogmas which contradict each other; so there must be a non-religious principle involved, which means that spirituality must be separated from religion.  (A good source to consult, for an explanation of what ‘self is an illusion’ means is neuroscientist Dr. Sam Harris’s recent book ‘Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion’, 2014, a Kindle edition of which is also available.) It is in this sense that the Dalai Lama should be taken as a spiritual guide, rather than as a religious teacher. The book elaborates a scientific argument that true spirituality consists in realizing that the sense of self is an illusion. Dr Sam refers to the Dalai Lama’s participation in scientific discussions involving the study of consciousness, representing the Buddhist perspective.

It is because of these reasons that Buddhist scholar and former Tibetan monk Robert Thurman, author of ‘Why the Dalai Lama Matters’ (2008) says that his importance is multifaceted: it can be understood psychologically, physically, mythologically, historically, culturally, doctrinally, and spiritually.

Concluded

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