A treasure of Tibetan Buddhism

Organiser, May 15, 2007

The Essential Dalai Lama; His Important Teachings
Edited by Rajiv Mehrotra
Penguin Books
pp 258, Rs 250.00

Understanding the Dalai Lama
Edited by Rajiv Mehrotra
Penguin Viking
pp 266, Rs 395.00

New Delhi, India -- Let it be said straightaway: Each of these two books is a gem of its kind though several books on the Dalai Lama have been published in the past and are available, each researched and written by a specific individual.

They reflect the understanding and assessment of each author of the subject of his or her study and reflect individual opinions. What Rajiv Mehrotra has done is to compile the opinions of several scholars who have done intense studies of Buddhism itself, apart from the Dalai Lama who all uniformly hold his Holiness in the highest regard possible.

The respect and affection the Dalai Lama commands is almost unbelievable on largely suspects because he comes through as such a human, approachable being, without any pretensions to holiness, who can hug his interviewer, laugh spontaneously and claim without any false modesty that he is only “a simple monk” whose only desire is “ to try to help others by sharing in their suffering”.

Combining rationality, humanism and religious tradition as the foundations for the moral responses to the great challenges of our century, it is the Dalai Lama’s argument that religion must be willing to modify its understanding and assumptions if the empiricism and instruments of science prove some of its myths and assumptions are wrong. How many religious leaders from other religions would dare to say that?

The first book The Essential Dalai Lama is a collection of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and perspectives on Buddhism, its interface with other religions and traditions chosen from books already published. Buddhism, as it is well-known has no Pope who has the last word. It is not a “religion” in the sense that it is generally considered. As he lay dying the Buddha was asked who would succeed him. His answer was simple and to the point. He said that the practice of morality should be the guide and the master of the entire Buddhist doctrine. He named Moral Discipline as his successor. At no place in these two books is there anything controversial.

Buddhism as it is practiced—Hinayana, Mahayana, Theravada or in any other form—gets no emphasis. What is constantly emphasised is the principles behind Buddhism like compassion, the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of karma—and the discussion of this particular subject merits total attention—and the Bodhisattva ideal. Buddhism believes in re-birth. Conscience exists.

The Essential Dalai Lama quotes extensively from the Dalai Lama’s written works on such subjects as The Quest for Human Happiness, the Four Noble Truths, Awareness of Death, Meditation and Transforming the Mind through Meditation, the Nature of the Mind, Ethics and Society, Buddhist Concept of Nature etc. As far as possible the Dalai Lama tries not to be abstruse. His writing are reader-friendly. And he does not expect any reader to take his sayings as the last word on any subject.

Many would find it extremely hard to understand, let alone accept what the Dalai Lama says, for it calls for deep study and a sharp mind. Take this statement for example: “If all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena and if no phenomena can exist independently, even our most enriched selves must be considered not to exist in the way we normally assume”. This is from the chapter on Dependent Origination which is in a class by itself.

Understanding the Dalai Lama belongs to a different category. This is not so much about principles of Buddhism as it is of the Dalai Lama himself as many see him. In fact it is a biography of sorts, the story of his life and work as seen by many who had seen him, met him, interacted with him, had discussions with him or have written about him, with one chapter written by Robert Thurman who had himself once been a Tibetan monk, dealing with the entire Dalai Lama tradition. It is interesting to know that while the evolutionary theory of Karma has existed right from the days of the Buddha, it has been only in Tibet that formal re-incarnation lineages became institutionalised.

The present Dalai Lama is the fourteenth in the line of succession and is universally accepted as “a giant of spiritual development—a living example of the best qualities of a Buddhist monk”. This work deals extensively with the man that is the Dalai Lama and describes how he lives, how he works, how he reacts with other people, of his reluctance to speak unless specifically asked to do so, of his disinclination to offer value judgements unless specifically asked for them.

In the Dalai Lama’s life pragmatism trumps dogmatism, logic defers to nothing. To him the principal cause of enlightenment is bodhichitta, the determination to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Reading these two books is not just a pleasure; it is an education in the essentials of Buddhism and, more than that, of how to live a happy and meaningful life. Unknowingly, he has transformed the lives of many and if that is not achievement what else is?

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