The Dalai Lama Down Under

By Julie-Anne Davies, Nine MSN, June 1, 2007

The Dalai Lama's visit will give further impetus to what is already Australia's fastest-growing religion. Buddhism has shaken off its hippie new-age tag and is gaining converts in the nation's boardrooms.

Sydney, Australia -- Unless you've been meditating in a cave in China, you must know that the Dalai Lama is the man. The world's most famous refugee, who insists he is simply a humble Buddhist monk, albeit with Hollywood groupies, is one of the most recognisable figures of the last century. It is no stretch to claim that this 72-year-old Tibetan has in large part been responsible for the ever-increasing numbers of westerners - conspicuously baby boomers - turning to Buddhism.

<< The Dalai Lama 11 day-June visit to Australia will take him to Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney

Australians in particular are lapping up the Buddhist philosophy, with more adherents here per capita than anywhere else in the western world. According to the most recent census findings, Buddhism was the fastest-growing religion in Australia, increasing by 79% to 357,813 followers. It far outstripped the evangelicals in total numbers (194,592) despite the political and media hype the happy clappies attract. And there are plenty more people out there who don't identify themselves as Buddhist but still adopt some of its practices, most notably meditation.

That said, Buddhism has been accused of being the religion you're having when you're not having a religion. Some argue it is a philosophy, not a faith. And more pointedly, a religion that is light on community compassion but very heavy indeed on individual happiness. Perfect, in fact, says Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, for contemporary society obsessed with the individual.

"The problem with all this individualism, though, is that it doesn't necessarily give you any purpose, so if you're looking to fill that spiritual void then Buddhism fits the bill. Christianity, on the other hand, involves getting your hands dirty; being involved with people you might not want to associate with," Jensen says.

British commentator and avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens in his provocative new book God is Not Great accuses Buddhist converts of simply being bored by conventional "Bible" religion. "They may think," writes Hitchens, "they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep and to discard their minds along with their sandals." Selfish navel-gazers or psychologically sophisticated - take your pick.

With the death of Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama is about it when it comes to a recognisable global symbol of religion, says Gary Bouma, professor of sociology at Monash University. "Christianity would die to have the spin Buddhism gets," says Bouma "What's not to like about the guy? I mean compare him with [Cardinal] George Pell!"

Well, plenty, according to Kanishki Raffel, an ordained Anglican minister in Perth who was raised as a Buddhist by his Sri Lankan mother. "His drawing power is an indictment on a culture which has become so lacking in substance," Raffel argues. "It's not as if the Dalai Lama is saying anything particularly profound, yet he holds people in his thrall with the most simple words." Indeed the Dalai Lama has been known in the past to contradict himself when he has attempted to explain his position on issues like abortion and homosexuality.

"From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct," he has said. But he went on to explain: "From society's viewpoint, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless." On abortion he is equally wishy-washy. He told the National Press Club in Canberra during his 2002 Australian visit: "These are very complex issues on which it is very difficult to make generalised statements because the individuality of each context would be so different that it is something that needs to be judged - the merits of its decision - based upon context by context." You would get more enlightenment than this listening to Lisa, herself a convert, tackle a moral dilemma in an episode of The Simpsons, religious commentator Chris McGillion noted at the time.

There will be no shortage of sandal-wearers when an estimated 200,000 Australians flock to hear the Dalai Lama when he arrives next week for his fifth Australian visit. Celebrities such as Rove McManus, Jamie Durie, Garry McDonald, Ray Martin, Andrew G and Ben Lee are donating their time to appear with the Dalai Lama at free public lectures. Some of the nation's top business leaders are paying $700 a head to hear him speak at business forums being held in Perth and Sydney.

It's just our politicians who have an issue. Kevin Rudd and John Howard had both said a firm no when originally asked by tour organisers if they'd like to meet the Dalai Lama. Now Rudd has been embarrassed into finding an opening in his diary, but Howard so far has not. Fear of offending China, which as a matter of course sends threatening letters to anyone and everyone from prime ministers to mayors and CEOs who receive the Dalai Lama, does sometimes get results.

Very few, Rudd and Howard included, want in their heart of hearts to be seen within a bull's roar of the bloke. Only Queensland's Peter Beattie toyed with the idea of a meeting but has now pulled out. No other Labor premiers have time to meet the Dalai Lama, although Victoria's Steve Bracks is sending a stand-in. West Australian Premier Alan Carpenter - who, frankly, could probably use a little of the Dalai Lama's positive vibe - has, after initially agreeing to a meeting, cancelled because he's due in China on a trade mission. Melbourne's Lord Mayor John So has refused, although Sydney Independent and Lord Mayor Clover Moore is rolling out the welcome mat.

Not surprisingly, the cross-party Tibetan Parliamentary Friendship Group, chaired by Labor MP Michael Danby, and whose members include the Greens and the Democrats, are putting on an unofficial reception at Parliament House after the Senate president, Paul Calvert, vetoed an official parliamentary event. "No doubt we'll have more MPs coming now that Rudd and Howard have been embarrassed by their kowtowing to Beijing," the Greens' Bob Brown says.

The Dalai Lama only recently cancelled a planned trip to Belgium after China pressured Brussels to bar the exiled leader of Tibet. This all contrasts sharply with the US, where the Dalai Lama enjoys a bedrock of bipartisan political support. President Bush will meet the Dalai Lama, for the third time since taking office in 2001, later this year. At the same time, the Dalai Lama will be awarded America's highest honour to a non-national when he receives the Congressional Gold Medal.

Each month in a Sydney CBD boardroom, a group of the nation's top executives gathers to meditate and discuss the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. In March, a very select group of 42 attended a two-day leaders' retreat at the Royal Motor Yacht Club in exclusive Point Piper with Sogyal Rinpoche, one of the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the age. He wrote the hugely influential bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying which many of the business leaders interviewed for this story cite as their guidebook for life.

Ian Buchanan is one of the organisers of these leaders' retreats - the others are Gordon Cairns, the former Lion Nathan CEO and current Westpac board member; David White, a director of boutique consulting house Port Jackson Partners; Diane Grady, who sits on the Woolworths and BlueScope Steel boards; and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the former prime minister's daughter. Buchanan, a senior executive with one of the world's biggest management consultancy firms, Booz Allen Hamilton, embarked on his own spiritual journey in 1990 after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. When he recently celebrated his 60th birthday, one of Australia's toughest business titans thanked him. "I would never have believed it," the guest said, "but you've brought a spiritual dimension to the corporate world in Australia."

The retreats, which began in 2002, provide a safe haven, Buchanan says, for people whose work/home lives are often not just out of balance but totally out of control. "At last year's retreat, one of this country's most recognisable businessmen, who at that time was on the front pages of newspapers because his company was in some difficulty, simply broke down and sobbed for 10 minutes when Rinpoche stood in front of him." Another high-profile bank director got up and declared: "I used to be an angry, unpleasant bastard and my family hated me."

The day after we spoke, Buchanan flew to the US to help his best friend - a poor, black clerk who works in the mailroom at Harvard University - to die. Buchanan had already sent ahead a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. "Without this book and its core beliefs, I'd be ripping myself apart right now," he says.

Chatham House rules apply when speaking with retreat participants who include: Reserve Bank board member Jillian Broadbent; AMP Foundation chairman and former deputy head of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Lynn Ralph; and John Akehurst, ex-CEO of Woodside Petroleum and now chairman of energy giant Alinta. Some say they began attending because they had suddenly found themselves confronted with their own mortality or that of someone close to them. Many have an intellectual interest in the precepts of Buddhism. All espouse the benefits of achieving clarity of mind through meditation. Most also admit that meditation can be the most challenging aspect of Buddhism. "I'm not good on the mat," Ralph admits. She sits on a number of boards, including the Sydney Swans', probably the only AFL club where the coach (Paul Roos) and co-captain (Brett Kirk) speak openly about the benefits of meditation. Buddhism, according to Ralph, is about preparing yourself for a good death. It is not, she emphasises, "some new-age, Byron Bay crap" or a blind faith, but a philosophical framework with 2500 years of teachings to back it up.

"How has it helped me? I flew home from Melbourne a few years ago listening to my Tibetan teachings on my iPod and walked in the door and my partner of seven years said, 'I'm leaving.' Then, [when] my mother passed away last year, I went home and spent the last 10 days with her. Both were shocking, life-changing events but you know what? I wasn't shocked, so I was able to deal with them."

Akehurst readily admits he was a pain in the arse before he found meditation and then Buddhism. His wife Rachel describes him pre-conversion as an anxious over-achiever. "I was a bully in the workplace, impatient, just terrible. It could be effective but so destructive in so many other ways that I didn't understand,"

His interest in Buddhism began during his time at Woodside. "We'd already spent a fortune looking at our corporate culture and behaviour and it became clear that the first thing that had to change was me." Like Ralph (she squeezed in our meeting in while she was donating blood at the Red Cross), Akehurst is a very busy man - Alinta is currently the subject of an $8bn takeover bid - but he wasn't too busy to take a week out of his hectic diary a fortnight ago to disappear into the NSW Blue Mountains on a Buddhist retreat. It's something he does three times a year because, he says, "it's beautiful". Or to speak with me the day before Alinta's annual general meeting where he had to face down angry shareholders. "I shouldn't be talking to you, of course, but I can't help myself. It is too seductive once I get going," Akehurst confides.

It is the same with all of them. Ask any one of these business heavyweights to talk about their share price and they might not find the time, but ask them to speak about their philosophy on life and, bingo, they make themselves available. Sam Mostyn, the first female AFL commissioner and a member of the executive team at Insurance Australia Group, has attended one retreat and although she admits she is struggling to make a commitment to meditate every day, she has already promised herself she will go next year. "It is difficult to talk about this stuff in the business world because people might think you've flipped out," Mostyn says. "There is still a deep cynicism and it is very threatening because this is deeply personal."

All of them plan to see the Dalai Lama on his visit to Australia. Reserve Bank board member Jillian Broadbent had an unexpected meeting with the Dalai Lama during his last visit to Australia, courtesy of Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of NSW. Capon invited her to accompany him on what she assumed was a group tour with the Dalai Lama who was visiting the gallery to view the Asian art collection. According to Broadbent, she arrived to find Capon waiting nervously outside the gallery. "Edmund said, 'It's just us, you don't mind do you?' Then the Dalai Lama arrived and, I can't tell you, the way he responded to me, it was as if I was the only person on Earth. He totally focused on me as a human being and it was just an extraordinary experience."

Many more of those interviewed for this story keep saying the same thing - Buddhism, or at least the practice of meditation, makes your life better. The language they use is off-putting and frankly does sound new-ageish. Being "present" and achieving clarity is something they all bang on about. So, with the help of Brian White, the president of the NSW Buddhist Association, who assures me I have nothing to lose, and maybe my life to gain, I set off on my own Buddhist retreat.

Aloka is only one-and-a-half hours by train from Sydney then a 30-minute drive into the Brisbane Ranges. Not far in people-miles but light-years in my, until now, almost non-existent spiritual journey. Run by the Venerable Mahinda, a Malaysian monk who came to Australia 21 years ago, Aloka offers what the Buddhists call "noble silence". This doesn't just rule out all unnecessary chat but also how quietly you place a cup on a bench or chew your strictly vegetarian meals. Mobile phones are banned.

There are two young women living at Aloka who are studying to become Buddhist nuns. Another woman is up from Sydney for a month-long retreat after a car accident and there is Trudy, who lives nearby and is a volunteer at the centre. She survived a brain tumour four years ago and believes absolutely that meditation, along with neurosurgeon Charlie Teo's renowned knife-work, got her through.

Venerable Mahinda has warned me that enlightenment cannot be attained in two days. I'm prepared to settle for a few moments of this so-called clarity. Amazingly, I get a few seconds of something - actually, more like nothing, which, I think, is the point - when he takes me through a guided mediation. The daily routine of the retreat goes like this: 5.30am chanting and meditation, 7.10am breakfast, 11.10am lunch, 5pm dinner (optional), 6pm chanting and meditation, 8pm bed. In between, you meditate, pace in half-hour blocks (upright meditation) and keep quiet.

I can't tell you how boring, exhausting and anxiety-inducing all this mind-gymnastics is. You're here to stop the chatter in your head but with nothing else to listen to but your own internal carping, achieving feelings of loving kindness seems a big ask. Time crawls by. I have regular meetings with Venerable Mahinda and there is no doubting his wisdom. I come clean with him. Are all these people who come and sit at his knee to learn simply self-involved misfits, or are they actually doing something? Will they leave this place with superhuman powers to shine on the rest of us? Neither, he tells me. Buddhism is not about conversion.

"I have helped many Christians become better Christians but I do not know how to make someone a Buddhist," he says. He then tells me a story that he finds hilarious. "I was in Tasmania and received a strange request. A woman had placed an advertisement in the local paper asking for a priest to confirm her 14-year-old daughter as a Buddhist." Venerable Mahinda agreed but, he says, he didn't have a clue how this conversion was to take place. "I said a few Buddhist chants, sprinkled a few drops of water around like the Christians do and everyone was so thrilled."

He laughs out loud at the memory. It is absurd, of course, but illustrates perfectly the Buddhists' often flexible approach to life in a Western culture. Everyone I meet in the course of researching this story agrees that attaining mindfulness is the hardest work you can do.

Imagine, then, how the 24 men and women who are two years into a three-year retreat in northern NSW must be feeling. It is the first time the traditional Buddhist, three years, three months retreat has been attempted in Australia, according to Steven Cline, the retreat master. So far only four have dropped out. A program like this, which in some ways is "very boring", Cline admits, is also extremely challenging. This is hard-core. The participants, who are mainly in their 50s and early 60s, meditate for eight hours a day beginning at 4.30am. They are sequestered within the boundaries of the retreat for the whole time and can receive visitors - by prior arrangement - two or three times a year. "Of course, there are personal conflicts; we're only human," says Cline. Nonetheless, 29 people have put their name forward for the next three-year retreat, which begins in 2009.

Venerable Mahinda has a warning for us all. "We have two peaks in our life," he says. The first is between 30 and 40 years of age when typically people are trying to achieve status through their jobs and their relationships. The second peak comes when you hit your 50s. "Make sure you use this second peak for your spiritual development, otherwise at the end of your life, you will have nothing."

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