A Way Ahead: Human Approach to a Peaceful World

A Book Review by Tenzin Nyinjey, Tibet.net, January 22, 2007

New York, USA -- An American research scholar visiting Dharamsala once asked me who I thought was the greatest "politician" the world has ever produced. To this I confidently replied Ronald Reagan, because, to me, he was the only American President who "saw the birth and death of Communism".

And when I forwarded the same question to him, his answer, to my utter consternation, was the Dalai Lama. A citizen of America, sitting on the perch of global political order, I thought, would consider Churchill or George Washington, rather than a "simple Buddhist monk", as the world's most influential political figure ever. Why, then, the Dalai Lama?

Indeed had I read Engaged Buddhism: The Dalai Lama's Worldview, this unconventional answer from the American would not have raised my eyebrows. Written by Bharati Puri, a visiting research scholar at Tamkang University, Taipei, Engaged Buddhism is a detailed and widely researched book on the philosophy of the Dalai Lama, elaborating on the Tibetan leader's views on various issues such as human rights, religion, non-violent conflict resolution and the environment.

Coined by the Vietnamese monk and social activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, in 1963 during the Vietnam War, the term "Engaged Buddhism", in contrast to the traditional view of Buddhism as a religion isolated from the mundane world, has never existed in isolation. In fact engaged Buddhists, as suggested by the term itself, are more likely to engage in worldly affairs than shut themselves up in remote caves, meditating for the realisation of transmundane and esoteric goals such as nirvana and emptiness.

The book, apart from introduction, contains four other chapters and a conclusion Puri draws on the overall philosophy of the Dalai Lama. It also features six appendixes which include a personal interview the author conducted with the Dalai Lama, his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet, the Strasbourg Proposal and a Nobel Peace Laureate Joint declaration, issued on 6 November 1998.

In chapter one of the book titled Bodhisattva and Satyagrahi, Puri draws parallels and symmetries between the thought of the Dalai Lama and that of Mahatma Gandhi, especially on non-violence, human nature, and conflict resolution, and also shows Tibetan leader's point of departure from the father of the Indian nation. According to the author, the umbilical cord that binds the two apostles of peace is that both their views on non-violence had its roots in the teachings of the Buddha, and both share similar thoughts on the origin of violence.

According to them, violence is born because human beings consider themselves as distinctly independent of each other, focussing on their so-called exclusive interest, which, in reality, according to them, is intertwined with the interests of others. In other words, violence is the result of one having failed to recognise the reality of the concept of interdependence.

The two leaders also are in agreement, according to Puri, on the principle on which their concept of non-violence is based: universal equality of all human beings. Gandhi believed that the basic principle on which the practice of non-violence rests is that "what holds good in respect of oneself, equally applies to the whole universe. All mankind in essence are alike, what is therefore possible for one is possible for everybody." Regarding this, the Dalai Lama often says, "human beings by nature want happiness and do not want suffering...Basically from the viewpoint of real human value, we are all the same...we fabricate distinctions based on colour, geographical location, and so forth, and then on the basis of a feeling of separation, we sometimes quarrel with each other, sometimes criticise, and sometimes fight. From a broader viewpoint, however, we are all brothers and sisters".

Similarly, Puri claims that like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama does not consider non-violence as non-action or detachment. Both leaders are willing to "compromise where non-violence would no longer be a strength, especially where non-violence would entail a threat to one's life". This is interesting considering the Dalai Lama is often criticised from some quarters as being pacifist, idealistic, and out of tune with ground realities; a peacenik who is more concerned about transforming the inner world of consciousness, instead of coming to terms with the real Hobbesian world, in which every country is bent upon achieving its national interests, often at the expense of others.

To respond to such critics, Puri asserts that the Dalai Lama is practical in approach, as can be gauged by his response to the question "What would you do with parasites in our stomach": "I think we have to follow doctor's advice". This, according to the author, is similar to Gandhi's advocacy of the extermination of pests and the killing of a rabid dog and an ailing calf. In fact, according to the author, security concerns are much more important to the Dalai Lama than Mahatma Gandhi. To support this statement, Puri has quoted the Dalai Lama as having said, "Each nation has a right to its security, but the non-violent approach is the best...it is always right to protest against injustice."

However, what distinguishes the Dalai Lama from Mahatma Gandhi is his relentless effort to disarm the world from both conventional and nuclear weapons. Of all the wars, including wars fought with "human affection and human compassion", the looming nuclear warfare, according to His Holiness, poses the gravest threat to the survival of the whole planet. The author here cites Dalai Lama's views on nuclear weapons as being similar to that of British philosopher Bertrand Russell in that both regard nuclear weapons as futile, and advocated that the realities of thermonuclear weapons should be widely publicised.

The solution to the threat of the nuclear war, according to the Dalai Lama, is simple to grasp yet difficult to implement: it is all about looking within ourselves, listening to our inner conscience, to the call of compassion: "the threat of nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous, but in order to stop this threat, ultimately the solution is compassion, realising that other people are our human brothers and sisters."

In chapter two of the book titled Universal Responsibility in the Dalai Lama's world view, the author explains in detail the philosophical foundations of the Dalai Lama on which rests his views on human rights and the now famous concept of universal responsibility. The author states that the Dalai Lama's views on human rights are highly influenced by Buddhist ideals which proclaims all human beings as equal by recognising that they all have the potential to attain nirvana--the state of human perfection or eternal bliss. Puri writes, "Human rights in the Dalai Lama's thought are closely bound to the Buddhist foundation of human dignity, which derives from the capacity of human nature to reach perfection. The Buddha is the living embodiment of human perfection, and it is in the profound wisdom and compassion that he exemplifies, and which are qualities all human beings can cultivate, that human dignity is to be found."

According to Puri, the Dalai Lama advocates a universal application of human rights on the grounds that "it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality, and dignity and they have a right to achieve these." The Tibetan leader is thus firmly against those cultural relativists who contend that the concept of human rights is a product of western individualism and is being used to impose imperialism on other cultures.

The Dalai Lama's concept of universal responsibility, according to the author, is also a mere reflection of the Buddhist doctrine of the theory of dependent origination, which espouses that human beings are interdependent, and as such it is in the interest of human beings to be of service to each other, to be in co-operation, rather than in conflict, for the cause of common good. According to the author, "by emphasising universal responsibility, the Dalai Lama attempts to articulate a 'moral vision' in which 'universal connectedness' is emphasised. This unity implies, according to the Dalai Lama, a universal feeling of responsibility to all people".

In chapter three of the book titled A Clean Environment is a Human Right like Any Other, the author chronicles the Dalai Lama's views on environment and the importance of preserving it for the survival of the whole planet. According to the author, the Dalai Lama, influenced by the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, advocates that human beings should regard environment as a part of its own inner world, rather than something which is outside of its domain, consigning it to merely as a source to satiate our insatiable needs and desires. This view is extremely relevant at a time when the world is increasingly threatened with environmental catastrophes such as global warming, thanks to the massive exploitation of natural resources for maintaining high economic growth rates throughout the world, including in two of the world's fastest growing economies: India and China.

In the final chapter of the book titled The Dalai Lama on Religion and Humanism, Puri has done an excellent job in unravelling the Dalai Lama's efforts to instil what he terms as secular ethics in the hearts and minds of the people across the world. The Dalai Lama has always regarded the promotion of human values and religious harmony as his two most important missions in life. The author states that, for the Dalai Lama, it does not matter whether one believes in a particular religion or not, what matters in the end is to have in one the precious human values such as love, compassion, tolerance etc.; human qualities that have the potential to bring about lasting peace in the world. The author is fully convinced that the Dalai Lama is not, as alleged from some quarters, promoting his own religion, Buddhism, through subtle means. Regarding this she writes, "...the Dalai Lama makes it clear that he would not like people to convert to Buddhism since it could result in a clash of cultural and religious traditions".

With regard to the Dalai Lama's non-violent approach to resolve the Tibetan issue, Puri claims that he is pragmatic rather than a "pacifist and a man whose ideas are surreal". Puri seems to imply that the Dalai Lama's non-violent approach is not simply inspired by his Buddhist belief and upbringing, but driven more by a strategic reason. Here he quotes The Dalai Lama as having said, "adopting violent measures by Tibetans would provide ammunition for the factions in Beijing that favour a hard-line in Tibet and would also weaken the position of Chinese moderates". The Dalai Lama's decision to embrace voluntary migration or temporary withdrawal out of the boundaries of Tibet, by remaining in exile in India, therefore, is an act of non-violent struggle, a form of passive resistance that earned him the title of "Satyagrahi".

However, Puri is at her best when she eloquently explores the radical shift in the Dalai Lama's approach to the resolution of the Tibetan issue after 1979, the year when China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping offered his first important initiative to find a lasting solution to the Tibetan crisis by declaring that "except for independence, all issues could resolved through dialogue". The post 1978 Dalai Lama or what scholars refer to as "later Dalai Lama", according to Puri, is "typical of the earlier or pre-1978 Dalai Lama who was open-minded about explaining and seeking dialogue". The only difference between the "two Dalai Lamas" is that "compromise" and "negotiated solution" are the key words to the later Dalai Lama, which means he is more conciliatory, genuine, sincere and honest in abiding with his "Middle-Way Approach" that seeks genuine autonomy for Tibet, within the confines of the Chinese constitution. Puri claims that the Dalai Lama's means of resolving the Tibetan issue through non-violent means may or may not succeed in the end, but it has sowed the seeds of "strengthening the Tibetans and their Diaspora". To corroborate this assumption, Puri cites the significant international support the Dalai Lama has secured through immense media recognition and eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

It is a common knowledge that Tibetans have been given the tag "the most peaceful and compassionate lot in the world". Still one thing that the Dalai Lama never forgets to do is to advise young Tibetans to engage not just in modern education but also in the traditional Tibetan education rooted in the teachings of the Buddha. His Holiness has once again advised this to the Tibetan students as recently as during his visit to Hunsur settlement in South India on 8 January 2007. No wonder, all the Dalai Lama wants from young Tibetans is to become engaged Buddhist, a 21st century Buddhist, who can rub shoulders with the modern scientific world, while at the same time avoid the pitfalls of modernity. Therefore, a positive first step to enter the world of engaged Buddhism is by reading this excellent work by Bharati Puri. The fact that the teachings of the Dalai Lama has drawn the attention and curiosity of people from all walks of life--from practitioners of other faiths to film personalities, from psychologists and neuroscientists to agnostics--is a clear indication that it has got something in it to offer to the complicated and highly stressed out modern life.

By getting their hands on this volume of work, Engaged Buddhism: The Dalai Lama's Worldview, every young and educated Tibetan will derive loads of help and benefit in negotiating their often treacherous and complicated exiled life. And, yes, unlike the writer, readers would not find it surprising if they heard Americans saying, "the Dalai Lama is the world's most influential 'politician' ever".

The book deserves to be on the shelf of every Tibetan library.

Engaged Buddhism: The Dalai Lama's Worldview
Author Bharati Puri
Published by Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 495
Pages: 255