My conversation with the Dalai Lama

The LIP Magazine has undergone a substantial re-design, and a set of new articles have been published there in recent weeks. The write up of my questions to the Dalai Lama is the latest offering:

“Actually, my rough impression is that in the UK, ‘multiculturalism’ means a society where there are people from different backgrounds: Multi culture, multi racial, multi religion. In this sort of society, it means we need harmony, respect each other, and recognise others rights.”

The Dalai Lama suggests that most cultures and the morals that underpin them are based on religious faith, so to talk of multiculturalism is really to talk of ‘multi-religious faith’… What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

Please head over to The LIP Magazine to read the full thing.


Here, as backup, is the full article.

A man at ease. Six million Tibetans and 380 million Buddhists look to Tenzin Gyatso for political and spiritual leadership. He seems to carry this burden lightly. As the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, raised from the age of seven to be not a man but a symbol, perhaps this is to be expected. Rooms fall silent when he enters, and entire concert halls rise to their feet when he appears. Politicians and journalists alike hang on every word. Being treated as immortal must do wonders for your confidence.

So, too, must the very earthly fact of having been a Head of State for fifty-six years – nine years longer than Fidel Castro. Since his formal inauguration soon after China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama has established and run a government in exile, welcoming thousands of his weak and bitter countrymen who have arrived in India after a treacherous journey over the Himalayas to join him. He has met Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Popes, and debated with Chairman Mao. He has campaigned for peaceful justice in Tibet before a comprimised and slothful United Nations. If this was not enough, he has the moral trump card of a Nobel Peace Prize on his mantle-piece.

Not an arrogant demi-God, his manner is more that of an ex-President, the easy nature of a man with nothing left to prove. This is not so far from the truth. “We now have a fully elected Tibetan Government-in-Exile,” he says. “They handle many negotiations, so I am in a position of semi-retirement.” Some retirement: the Dalai Lama continues his arduous diplomacy and fact finding missions, such as his recent visit to the Scottish Parliament to assess its success in operating autonomously from its big brother in Westminster.

The comparison between Scotland and Tibet is perhaps forced, but there are pertinent points. The Dalai Lama repeats the need for ‘justice’ in Tibet, by which he means the need for genuine autonomy in the region, especially over cultural matters. Chinese immigrants in Tibet now outnumber the traditional Tibetan population, leading to the erosion of native customs. Perhaps these could be preserved through Devolution, rather than full Independence? So far as governments are concerned, the foundation of a solid ethical system to underpin the administration is most important, rather than the type of democracy in place. A country and culture may flourish, he says, when a people take responsibility for their democracy. This is what the Tibetan people desire.

For those campaigning for Tibetan liberation, this is hardly a universally accepted solution, and many are critical of the Dalai Lama’s essentially fundamentalist adherance to peaceful negotiations, over any kind of armed response. He has never endorsed any of the various groups of resistance fighters that have grown and withered over the years, some of whom received support, for a time, from the USA.

“Violence always creates more problems than it solves. It always has side effects. The alternative is indeed a compromise through negotiation and dialogue.” Few people have the patience for this approach, which is probably why he won the Nobel Prize. It is as if the achievement of a partial goal, or a goal achieved piecemeal over a long period is preferable to a quicker and more violent solution with untold side-effects. If you have been reincarnated fourteen times, it’s easier to play the long game. Everything the Dalai Lama says suggests he considers himself just a part of an ongoing historical narrative – a chapter in a longer story, not a whole book.

An answer to the problem of Chinese occupation of Tibet is, he says the first of three main focal points in his life. The second is the promotion of human value. If we see the whole of humanity, indeed, the whole living world as one body, then violence is merely violence against oneself. These are common values which underpin all cultures and religions, and a focus on human value is gaining ground.

“Compare the world today, with the world during the two world wars and the cold war. Although there is a problem with terrorism and despite the war in Iraq, there is more peace than in previous years”, he says. “War is the mobilisation of large numbers of people to violence. It legitimises and legalises violence.” He notes the anti-war protests that arose in 2003, and suggests that the ideal and philosophy of peace and negotiation is gaining ground. He suggests the promotion of peace, negotiation and non-violence from kindergarten upwards: “the spirit of dialogue” could invigorate societies in which neighbourly compassion is on the wane. Indeed, by being loyal to humanity as the whole, then conflict becomes not only an appalling way to operate, but also a ridiculously inefficient way to organise things. What he is saying (and what there is not enough acceptance of in the world) is that since we have a shared humanity, then any war should be considered a civil war between humans. The concept of wholeness and unity within Buddhism, and especially within the Dalai Lama’s writings, is probably his most important message for the rest of us.

What advice does he have for The West? Do we begin by adopting a more Buddhist way of life? “Not necessarily,” is the surprising answer. “Different people find different religions and spiritualities effective. Religion is like medicine for the mind, and not everyone needs the same medicine. So there is no particular need to be Buddist.”

“My opinion is that the West has its own religious tradition, which is Judaeo-Christianity (and to some extend Muslim). So I always say it is better to keep your own religion, it is not easy to change your own religion. So I say that westerners should be sincere Chrisitians.”

What if you are not Christian? Even if there is a strong Christian tradition running through our culture, many people do not have faith and it could not be said that they practice any religion at all.

“Of course, if you have no interest in a particular religion, then OK, but be a good human being.” Most ethics and values, he says, come from common sense, not religious text or religious leaders. It is therefore possible for everyone to adopt the idea of secular ethics. “The meaning of secular has two different interpretations. My understanding of the English word is that ’secular’ means the rejection of religion. But in Indian, secular means the respect of all religions, including the non-religious approach.”

“People everywhere want a happier life, a happier family, a happier community and society. Our inner values, such as a sense of responsibility, a sense of compassion and the oneness of the entire humanity, are values that you can reach without religion as such, and I think these are the basis of values that will bring about a happier humanity. So, with secular ethics, we do not talk about God or the next life or salvation, but just about making this life a happy one.”

These ideas of a co-operation, and examining all faiths, seem to be the basis of interfaith dialogue, and in turn ideas of multiculturalism. What, I ask the Dalai Lama, does multiculturalism mean to him, and what should it mean for us? He says it is a difficult question.

“Actually, my rough impression is that in the UK, ‘multiculturalism’ means a society where there are people from different backgrounds: Multi culture, multi racial, multi religion. In this sort of society, it means we need harmony, respect for each other, and to recognise others rights.”

The Dalai Lama suggests that most cultures and the morals that underpin them are based on religious faith, so to talk of multiculturalism is really to talk of “multi-religious faith”. A religion has its own unity and consistency, offering different ways of live, so religion and variety of religion is important, providing a diversity of ‘medicines for the soul’. What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

For the Dalai Lama, arguing over religion is pointless. “From a Christian view-point, I have a Godless religion, so strictly speaking, I am a nihlist. And from my view-point, since the Christian value system does not accept the concept of nirvana (among other things), I may call them nihlists. I might as well argue with you over whether to eat spicy food or not. There is no use in arguing like this. They have been doing so in India for three-thousand years and have not come up with an solution!” Religion is personal, and cannot be imposed on a plural society which has a heritage of many different religions. Multiculturalism is the acknowledgement of this pluralism. It is denying that other cultures are a threat, and instead seeking the earthly, secular common ground, on which we can all agree. And it is in the concept of secular ethics that we can find this commonality of purpose.

The Dalai Lama is fortunate that his fame has ridden the wave of advances in global communication. In his claret and saffron robes and thick glasses, he is a highly visible figure. The index specimen of a wise old eastern sage, he has written several books on self-help and spirituality. One half expects expects him deliver life changing words of wisdom with every breath. Perhaps it is inevitable then, that his sentences seem to finish early, before the life changing bon mot has been delivered. This is, of course, an unfair expectation on the part of the listeners – the Dalai Lama never claims to have answers, just guidance from a the perspective of Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, the broadness of his approach has drawn criticism. The oneness of humanity and the need for unconditional peace may be self evident for a monk who has studied nothing else. But convincing other people, especially those who have been born into suffering under occupation, is a somewhat harder task.

This sort of persuasion may be beyond the Dalai Lama. In any case, it is probably not his goal and not the point of his office. His symbolical nature stands for something longer. He is a cypher for the long-term. When he invokes ideas of unity, the Dalai Lama is very aware that he is advocating a paradigm shift in our thinking. These ethics, he says, must be impressed upon children from a very young age, so a new generation of leaders will be born with “the ideas of peace and human value at their heart”. He, and we, will not live to see these ideas bear fruit. As it is with Tibet, so it is with lasting peace – a long term project.

Religion has no sense of humour

Now I realise the zeitgeist of the Mohammed Cartoon Controversy was a couple of weeks ago now. However, there seems to be a lot of meat left on this particular bone, with bloggers all over the world breaking their promises to talk about something else almost as soon as they are made.

I have just finished reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Set in a monastery in the Thirteenth Century, one of the monks hides a book by Aristotle on comedy. He believes that comedy and laughter will undermine Christianity:

“Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God… [Aristotle’s] book, considering comedy a wondrous medicine, with its satire and mime, which would produce the purification of the passions through the enactment of defect, fault, weakness – would induce false scholars to try and redeem the lofty with a diabolical reversal: through the acceptance of the base. This book could prompt tyhe idea that man can wish to have on earth … the abundance of the land of Cockaigne [a land of easy living]”

By laughing and enjoying the here and now, we might lose our fear of God and suppose that we can find happiness not in heaven, but on earth. Jorge the monk is correct: Laughter is indeed a threat to a religion, especially one which depends on a fear of the afterlife for its power.

While the Abrahamic scriptures contain many lofty ideas on ethics and how we should live our life, they are short on wit. True, the Old Testament does declare “Eat, drink and be merry,” but even when Jesus spikes the water with wine at the teetotal wedding at Cana (John 2:9), he does so earnestly. I suppose that “suffer the little children who come unto me” (Luke 18:16) could be delivered with a smirk, and the passage about paying tax to Caesar (Matthew 22:21) shows a quick mind… but there is no irony to be found, and if the Prophets and Messiahs turn criticism on themselves at all, it is through po-faced self-flagellation, rather than self-depreciation of someone who appreciates the funny side of humanity.

When it comes to discussing their faith, true believers are totally without humour. Not for them the chuckle as they consider some contradiction in their position. If dogma is the inability to imagine how you might be wrong, then it is also the inability to imagine how others might consider you funny. Are there any Christians who laugh at Jerry Springer: The Opera? It it possible that we could create a cartoon of Mohammed that muslims would laugh at? If you can only see one side of an issue, then you cannot see the funny side.

The real battle is not over what we say or how we say it, but about how people react when they hear it. A world in which everyone is free to offend does not interest me. I would rather a world in which criticism does not cause offence… but laughter instead.

Clash of Religions

“Hello, excuse me, is this the Buddhist Meditation class?”

“No I’m afraid not. This is the Christian meditation class.”

“Oh dear. We thought this was the Buddhist Meditation class.”

“This is St Columba’s church hall. What you want is St Columbas-by-the-Castle church hall, next door.”

“Ah I see. How do we get there?”

“Turn right out of here, up the steps, and it’s on your left.”

“Thank you very much, sorry to intrude.”

“You’re welcome, think nothing of it. Have a nice time.”

“God bless you.”

Muddles of Narnia

I have not yet seen the new film adaption of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I have not read any of The Chronicles of Narnia since I was a child. So I will leave the debate over whether the books are evil Christian propaganda to others. Tory Convert takes issue with Polly Toynbee’s criticism of the books and the film, and makes some interesting points on moral agency, and the link between religion and culture.

I have just one point to make about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, something that has been bothering me for ages: If Narnia is a Christian allegory, what on earth is Father Christmas doing in there? Who or what is he metaphoring? Do Narnians celebrate Christ’s birth, or not-yet-saviour Aslan’s birth, or what? It looks like the inclusion of a big name star, just to draw the crowds…

Propaganda Pope?

Pop in a Santa HatThe Vatican has a good PR department. With half a billion adherents to the Christian brand, one might say this has always been the case. By the looks of certain papal headwear this festive season, a ‘merger’ with Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus logo seems to be on the cards, which could provide a further boost!

Their recent communication strategy may also prove an effective, if sinister ploy. From Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas message:

“Today we have vast material resources available to us,” he said. “The men of this technological age risk becoming victims of the successes of their intelligence and the results of their operative capabilities, if what they obtain is spiritual atrophy and an emptiness of the heart.

First, I think he is wrong to worry. The two largest technological revolutions are those of digital communications, and microbiology. Our capability for genetic engineering is certainly a potent force, but the furore surrounding GM crops is evidence that the scientists, the politicians and the public are acutely aware of the power we hold. Of course we need to take care, but the debate is proceeding slowly, precisely because of our ethical heritage.

I sense that the Pope is in fact referring to the advances in digital communications. In this case, the focus is on more people being able to communicate faster and easier. I would disagree that this will somehow lead to a diminished sense of soul. Indeed, these inventions have fostered entirely new types of community, ones that are not based on the accidents of geography or time. It allows people to maintain relationships with friends and family over long distances, and it allows communities to organise much more efficiently. Later in his address, the Pope emphasised the idea of a global family. Mankind is using these technologies to better itself – where is this threatening spiritual decline?

It is not our spirituality that is threatened, merely the Church and its outdated modus operandi. The Church does not deal in verifiable facts, but in the ideas we let into our minds. In the 21st Century, ideas flow so freely and cheaply that they are rebutted by a choir of voices almost as soon as they are aired. The Internet provides such diversity of thought and opinion, and the institution is particularly vulnerable to dissent and rebuttal. The Heiresarchs can no longer be silenced.

The Pope is free to tell us that our technological advances are threat to human spirituality. It is in fact only the Catholic Church that is under threat, but His Holiness uses his position to equate the two. He may well believe his analysis to be true, but it is a classic piece of propaganda and Christians should not fall for it. Instead, they should celebrate the growth in spirituality that the technology offers. Our new methods of communication allow minority voices to be heard, bringing new concepts of human value, and how people should spend their time. This may not be a new religion, merely an emphasis on (say) creativity and expression. The Catholic Church may “slip from their heart” but that is not to say that some other spiritual element cannot fill that void, even if it is simply concepts of kindness and happiness, which even atheists recognise as being a part of their substance. Who are you calling empty hearted, Joseph?

The casual Luddite attitude adopted by the Pope is designed to assert a superiority over other, competing voices. Paradoxically, it actually becomes a barrier to people attaining their version of spiritual fulfillment. Despite his white baseball caps, the new Pope’s pronouncements before and after his succession to the Papal throne hint at a hostility to the modern world. If this attitude does not change, then the Christian message will begin to wane. This would be a shame, as it is a creed that has so much to offer humanity. It is unfortunate that Christianity in its current form (along with many other religions too, I am sure) is obsessed with homogenising an aspect of life that is, by definition, personal. To do so, it must dismiss the possibility of other paths. Thus they warn us against technology, and the notion that spirituality may be a relative concept. As we use and embrace technology, so we announce that these alternative paths exist. The control that Catholicism exerts over its adherents, and those who happen to live alongside them is undermined.

Of course, it is possible my analysis of Pope Benedict’s strategy may be too complicated. Perhaps he is not as subtle as I give him credit for. He also spoke out against the proliferation of weapons. Perhaps the “operative capabilities” he refers to are in fact those conferred on the Saudi Arabian Air Force, now they have purchased 48 Typhoon fighter jets from the British Government! If it was this transaction that the Pope was talking about, then I can well believe in the spiritual atrophy he speaks of. The Saudi regime has a particularly warped conception of human value – Delivering these expensive killing machines to them will send our moral compass spinning.

Never mind driving: how about the vote?

Saudi Women in Full VeilsA perpetual debate rages over the role of women in Islam. The extreme Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia is held as an example of the faith’s essential sexism, as evidenced by the state’s insistence that women cover themselves in public. Moderate Muslims argue that proponents of Wahhabism and Sharia law should not be taken to speak for all Islam, which I agree with. They also argue that the veil is not necessarily oppressive, a point on which I am not so sure.

Commenting for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent on the slow pace of change in Saudi, Gerald Butt discusses that other well known ‘test case’, the fact that Saudi women are not allowed to drive. Apparently, King Abdullah has contributed to a debate by saying that one day, this may change.

A member of the all-male Majlis al-Shura – the 150-seat unelected consultative council – caused something of a rumpus. Muhammad al-Zulfa pointed out there was nothing under Islam or the constitution that justified the ban on women driving, and the council should discuss ways of lifting it.

A heated debate ensued. Even King Abdullah found himself involved. In response to a question on American television, he said he thought a day would eventually come when Saudi women could drive.

While this is welcome, I cannot help thinking that they seem to have their priorities wrong. As a caption in Butt’s article reminds us, Saudi women cannot vote. This undermines all of Islam, demeans women, and offends everyone. Driving licences can wait – there’s only one important right that Saudi women need. Once they have the vote, perhaps they can decide for themselves whether or not they need to drive…

Let’s disrespect more religions

Hindu looking navitityI’m not sure what the blog nettiquette is for quoting yourself, posting on someone else’s blog. I posted an opinion over at Pickled Politics that I had been meaning to make on this site. I shall repeat the thought here, but with a little more research this time.

The Hindu Forum of Britain are offended that a Royal Mail Stamp depicts a distinctly Hindu family fawning over the infant Jesus.

Commented Ishwer Tailor, President of the Hindu Forum of Britain, “Would the worldwide Christian community feel comfortable if the Government of India issued a Diwali stamp with a Christian priest offering worship to Baby Krishna?”

The quote from Ishwer Tailor betrays a wilful lack of understanding of his non-Hindu British neighbours. Despite preposterous Christian symbols on our flag, the British really don’t care about religion, and there would be little outrage to a Vicar/Krishna synthesis.

When seven men were arrested for their part in an alleged Ricin Terror Plot, the police raided Finsbury Park mosque, North London, in a search for evidence. There was an outcry from sections of the local Muslim community, who said that a Christian church would never have been desecrated in this way:

What can people have in a mosque? I think it was a provocative act. It was silly and illogical. When did you last hear of a church being raided when someone has been arrested? These people do not have principles. (Abu Hamza, via CNN)

My response was to laugh. We live in a country where our places of worship are rapidly being converted into pubs and art centres. Does anyone seriously believe that the police would think twice about raiding a chapel or arresting someone in a church! Christianity in this country does not have the same social cohesion as other religions. I cannot imagine criminals being stupid enough to stash anything incriminating under the local pews (although the thought of members of the Finsbury Park WI getting frisked with the same regularity as their neighbours down at the mosque, provokes a malevolent smile).

So it is with the slightly less sensitive issue of the art on stamps. The bizarre truth is that a refusal to pander to the Hindu religion is a sign of true integration with the ex-Christian majority, who refuse to pander to the whims of the increasingly outdated and irrelevant Church of England.

True equality at last! Welcome.


Back at Pickled Politics, a comment by Inders describes an incident in the 1980s where the police broke into a temple in order to deport a Sri Lankan man. I’ve also noticed that the visiting Scientologists are hardly being treated with reverence either…

On which front do we fight?

Two articles against Christianity: George Monbiot kicks off a debate by asking whether better off without God, since the stronger the faith, the stronger the function. Meanwhile, Johann Hari launches a timely Global War for the soul of Catholicism, after seeing how the church hinders the sex-education of vulnerable children. I’ve been thinking about these for a couple of weeks ago, until yesterday when I read a couple of letters in The Independent asserting that the problem with all religion is an inherent lack of tolerance.

last night I remembered Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily, at the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires. We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man.

Joseph has a point, but I’m with the relativists. While losing God and your moral anchor might mean a descent into egomania and decadence, this is by no means certain, and (more importantly) it is also not true for most people worldwide! Conversely, the dogma that the soon-to-be Pope advocates must entail a dictatorship, in order for it to work. And the worst kind of dictatorship too – one that is unchanging, static, and thus cannot be reasoned with. Continue reading “On which front do we fight?”

Crazy Creationists

I am not sure whether I am more scared of a British Police State, or an American Religious one. In the same five minute bulletin, I also heard that eleven parents in Pennsylvania USA are suing their school board, which has decreed that since evolution is just a “theory” it must be taught as such in schools, and only presented alongside alternative theories such as “intelligent design”, a form of creationism.

I continue to be both annoyed and puzzled by the shallowness of the “intelligent design” lobbyists, for a number of reasons. Why do they find evolution so offensive? What is wrong with being descended from monkeys anyway? I think it is demeaning to suggest that we simply appeared, perfectly formed, from the dust. I am not a clay model like Morph. The evolutionary struggle gives us a nobility, a triumph against ridiculous odds. How fantastic it is to believe in a theory which says that over the millenia, my ancestors evolved slowly from the trees, to the point where I can now be talking to the world from a laptop computer… And what rapture when I realise that despite the arbitrary and unjust nature of evolution, my genes and I have had the good fortune to succeed!

Why God cannot be described as a force of nature, or indeed the architect of the laws of Physics, has never been fully explained to me. For an omnipotent God, that should be a bagatelle! If one persists in beleiving in a God of the Abrahamic (i.e. Jewish/Christian/Islamic) ilk, then surely She would have the power to kick-start evolution at the beginning of the Earth. Since God is outside of time, She would presumably have the foresight of everything and everyone, including you, me, and Charles Darwin.

Why undermine the science that has introduced us to the idea of adaption, and therefore why species may become ‘endangered’? Why undermine the science that allows us to understand and cure genetic diseases?

Geologists deny that the earth created in six days. They say it is 4.55 billion years old. Are their theories criticised too? And if so, should we listen to what they have to say about volcanos, earthquakes, and tsunami?

Even if evolution is a theory, it is by the far the most rigorous we have. While we know we have not described the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about evolution, there is huge intellectual gulf between a few paragraphs in Genesis, and the mountains of peer reviewed experiments and tests that together make up the cannon of evolutionary theory. Let Genesis into science labs, and you may as well let in the Spaggeti Monster, and the Fundamentalist Aesopians. Its enough to make you tune in to MC Hawking.

Update: I found a quote from W.N.P. Barbellion:

I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioux, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?