Questions and Answers on Compassion with the Dalai Lama

Editor’s note: The following is a report on a recent talk by the Dalai Lama from reader Noah Weil, who generously decided to take notes and type them up to share with me and with all of you. Thank you, Noah, for sharing this with us. I thought all of you would enjoy it as the Dalai Lama expresses some interesting observations that relate to things we’ve discussed here on Zen Habits … especially interesting to me were the questions and answers at the end.

On April 13, 2008 the University of Washington in Seattle conveyed to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Although the capacity of the arena was over 65,000, tickets were offered to all the colleges in the state and went extremely quickly. As a Seattle University College of Law student, I jumped in the queue as quickly as possible, and was lucky to get a ticket. I almost didn’t go actually; the event conflicted with two of my classes, and at the end of the term, those can be important. Nonetheless, friends told me to attend, succinctly asking “How often do you have a chance to hear the Dalai Lama?” Looking back, I’m certainly glad I attended.

I took these notes for a few reasons. My girlfriend wasn’t able to make the event, and so I wanted to share with her the ideas offered. But there was also Leo at Zen Habits. I’m a great fan of his journal, and wanted to be able to give something back for all his hard work. Hopefully the readers will be able to use some portion of the ideas presented here. I’ll admit right now I was quite taken with the Dalai Lama himself and his message, and plan on further exploring these concepts.

After some introductions by the presidents and regents of various universities, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama entered to heavy and sustained applause. Before speaking, he clasped his hands together and bowed to the honoraries behind him and to the audience surrounding the stage. After the presentation of his honorary doctorate, the Dalai Lama began his speech in Chinese, which was surprising since I always thought he spoke strong English. His interpreter translated his initial portion, which were expressions of gratitude to all the students and university folk who had come out, as well as his thanks for such a prestigious award. His English did turn out to be excellent, which led me to believe he only began in Chinese because his thankfulness was the most important part of his speech, and hence the most important to convey correctly.

When he began speaking in earnest, I was struck by a number of things. As mentioned, his English is quite strong(although not perfect, below). He’s got a great speaking voice, which is to be expected considering his position. But what I most appreciated listening to him was his sense of humor. He conveyed great wit up there, and was almost always smiling. As he accepted his honorary doctorate, he said he felt humbled being in front of so many learned people, and praised education in general. “But if you do seek a degree, being presented an honorary one is certainly how I recommend it”.

After the initial thanks and well-wishes were dispensed, his Holiness began by reflecting on the previous century. He spoke of the technological and social advancements, but also of the preeminence of war across the globe. He reminded everyone that the people who bring war always have high hopes in creating a better future, but their violence only creates violence. He spoke on the new generation, the students in front of him for example, bringing an end to global violence. Violence and war are our creations, he noted, and thus under our control to solve. Live happily, and understand conflict can be defeated without violence. One must exercise real power in future conflicts, which is based on dialogue and respect. Then, he stated, can the cycle of violence be broken.

The Dalai Lama’s speech in general wove around three points, the external world like the message above, the internal spirit, and the interdependency of all people. On that interdependency, he spoke on all people being connected, and their flourishing allowing us all to prosper. Helping one person helps yourself, helping one country helps yours, helping one continent helps your own, etc. By the same token, the destruction of your enemy is the destruction of yourself; your enemy is a part of yourself. Thus, war is outdated as it can only lead to mutual destruction.

I felt the Dalai Lama’s most salient and applicable points were those that related to one’s inner self. First was a determined, focused effort to refrain from negative emotions: hate, anger, and fear. The goal is to instinctively refrain from harm and keeping a sedate heart. While a person may say they are for peace, if they have inner turmoil and negative emotions, they only pay lip service to the aims of peace.

True global peace begins with inner peace, and inner peace comes from a deep respect for all sentient beings, along with knowledge the future rests with them. Excise negative emotions, and along the way, learn to dismiss negative emotions as they arise, so they do not disturb your inner strength.

The Dalai Lama also spoke on the attachment that arises from negative emotions. When we are young, (I don’t know if he was referring to physically young or technologically young), we use fear and anger to survive. But now that we have grown up, the negativity swamps our intelligence, our respect, and our happiness. Negativity also destroys our sleep and our appetite. In this way negative emotions hurt us physically as well as mentally. It was noted that confrontation was inevitable, but confrontation and life can exist without anger and hatred. One should confront, deal, and live always with a smile.

The Dalai Lama expressed deep respect for education, but noted that the process must include a moral education as well. He noted that ethics and morality can come from religion or secular sources; ethics are a universal truth. Once we have learned ethics and respect, and have truly embraced internal disarmament, external disarmament would come.

The Dalai Lama took some questions from the audience at this point:

Q: What is the simplest, most effective act of compassion?

A: Paying more attention to your inner world. The tenets of Buddhism allow those to examine our inner realm. One must be compassionate to one’s self before external compassion.

Q: What is your vision for the world in the next few decades?

A: With effort, a more friendly world. Less of a gap between the rich and the poor. People of color will have the confidence in themselves to know they can achieve as much as anyone else, and will take on the training and education to fulfill these opportunities and prove each person the same. Overall, ideally, a more compassionate world.

Q: How do you show compassion to those who have hurt others?

A: With understanding. Understanding the relationship between all living things allows unbiased compassion to all others. People who have hurt others particularly need compassion for two reasons. One, they work against your goal for overarching peace. Secondly, they are probably hurt themselves as they hurt others, so they need more compassion to heal their hurt within.

Q: How do we balance compassion for others and compassion for the planet?

A: The moon looks like a nice place from Earth, but we cannot settle there. This is our home. Some things are beyond our control, perhaps global warming has some influence with the alignment of the planets. Yet we do have control over many things and our behavior, good and bad, has an effect. We will not notice the degradation until things have collapsed. Therefore, we must work as part of our daily lives to maintain and appreciate the Earth. To this extent, I no longer take baths, only showers[all laugh].

And at this point the Dalai Lama made his exit with much thanks, to thunderous applause. My take was a brilliant public speaker, clearly with some important messages. The Dalai Lama had amazing awareness.

I mentioned he spoke excellent English, and it is true. A few points during his speech or Q&A, there was a word he wanted to use but did not know the English translation. He would give his line, and on the gap with the unknown word, would ask his interpreter, receive the translation, and continue. I was very impressed with the way he never actually misspoke; any opportunity that would be error was deftly handled so his words proceeded apace. His awareness of his skills and limitations were such that the audience knew of the gaps of his knowledge without being affected by them.

Besides his clear public speaking skills, one got the impression he was having fun up there. Serious topics sure, but nothing so heavy that he couldn’t crack wise when the situation came up. His wisdom, gratitude, and simple joy made the entire presentation eminently approachable and persuasive. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said to this group, but I recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to listen to him speak. You will be glad you made the trip.