The Dalai Lama's dilemma

By Ruha Devanesan, The Daily Targum, Sept 28, 2005

Rugers, N.J. (USA) -- "It seems to me, peace is not just the absence of violence but much more," the Dalai Lama said this past Sunday in his talk, "Peace, War and Reconciliation."

Peace, according to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th dalai lama of Tibet, means creating and coming into being. It has to do with attitude, motivation and compassion.

The peace of the Cold War, for example, was not peace at all, because it was a time where the terror of nuclear annihilation kept the nations of the two blocs in a relative military standoff. But fear and suspicion ruled for decades.

"Any action which is motivated by hatred, anger or jealousy, is essentially violent," he said. The Dalai Lama's speech was disarmingly simple, yet full of a wisdom that is so uncomplicated it will take most of us a lifetime to even begin to implement in our lives.

"We are all living things, including those trees, flowers, this grass. ... Is this real grass? It looks like real grass!" the Dalai Lama said.

He was referring to the Astroturf on which a hundred or so people were sitting, in front of the stage.

It is, unfortunately, the most straightforward and uncomplicated things that are hardest for those of us entangled in the chaos and overstimulation of modern urban life to grapple with.

For example, the monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery of Tibet have been working on a sand mandala - a circular patterned drawing made out of different colored sands - since Wednesday last week and finished off their beautiful mandala at the Zimmerli Art Museum on Saturday.

Sand mandalas are symbols of the universe and its energy and are also used by Tibetan monks in meditation and the initiation of new monks. Tibetan monks have been traveling around the United States over the past decade or so, publicizing their struggle for a Tibet free and independent from China. They have shared sand mandalas and prayer chants with audiences throughout the United States to raise awareness of their culture and what is being stifled by communist China's occupation of Tibet and the forced exile of its monks.

These sand mandalas represent the cycle of life and death; the mandala is created laboriously over a few days by several monks and then destroyed. The sand is emptied into a nearby body of water - in this case, the Raritan River.

This process symbolizes the transience of life and the ideal of avoiding attachment to the material world.

It surprised me, then, to see that once the mandala was destroyed, bags of the sand were to be distributed to museum visitors - of which there were hundreds - as a souvenir of the event.

It surprised me even more that people were scrambling into place to get their bags of sand first, in case the stuff ran out, and they couldn't take home their own little piece of the art.

Intentions were, I have no doubt, good-hearted. Those who were interested enough in the culture of another nation to turn up at the Zimmerli wanted to show their respect to the monks in taking a piece of their hard work home with them. They also wanted to support the monks by buying books, incense, Tibetan and Nepali cloth work and, of course, T-shirts. There was also a "donations" box, which, while it had some dollar bills in it, went largely ignored by the majority.

We were all awed by the mesmeric chants of the Drepung Loseling yellow-hat monks and their intricate sand drawing. Everyone who attended either the Zimmerli exhibition or the Dalai Lama's talk - I'm sure the population of both events overlapped a great deal - came away with a greater awareness of an ancient and inspiring tradition and its political perils with China.

What escaped many of us, however, was the essential spirit in which these monks, including the Dalai Lama, approach the world, which gives them such quiet sophistication that most of us can only imitate at best.

The point of destroying the sand mandala was that beauty and art, like life, must be enjoyed for what they are but then let go. The sand, the monks explained, is usually released into the water so it can carry the monks' blessings into the ocean and then into the rain, which spreads the blessings and prayers over the earth. Taking home bags of colored sand, whose pattern and beauty has already been destroyed, defeats an essential point of Buddhist philosophy - and of most spiritual philosophies, for that matter.

What is even more unfortunate than our lack of understanding of what it means to enjoy life without wanting to take it home in a bag, is this understanding does not come with being Buddhist or any other religion.

Most of us in the world are born into one religious background but have managed to carry the most hollow remnants of spirituality with us into our urban adulthood while leaving behind the essentially similar tenets most religions are founded on: compassion, tolerance and contentment.

Osama bin Laden, in terrorizing the globe with random and ignorant acts of violence, acts in the hope of bringing everyone to Islam, which, according to him, "is the religion of showing kindness to others, establishing justice between them, granting them their rights and defending the oppressed and persecuted."

While he has the tenets of his religion down pat in this statement, his actions and those he has orchestrated couldn't be further from the teachings of Islam.

Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, who theoretically share the Dalai Lama's philosophy of peace and nonviolence, have been heavily involved in the politics of the civil war between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government and the mainly Hindu Tamil separatists. The monks are fully supportive of the government's war against and extermination of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

Speaking to a reporter from The Associated Press, one politically prominent Buddhist monk said, "Nowadays, monks cannot go and sleep in the forest. The monks of Sri Lanka have always been involved in national issues."

According to the article, "Rathana, an official with a powerful Buddhist group, dismisses Sri Lanka's peace process and urges renewed military action against Tamil Tiger separatists."

"We should fight against unjust activities," Rathana said, according to the AP. "Yes, we should fight."

It seems, therefore, that while we are blessed with the immensely wise canons and values of ancient, but still relevant, religions today, most of the world's leaders, political actors and even everyday citizens - including those of us fortunate enough to witness Tibetan Buddhism at the Zimmerli and Rutgers Stadium - are somehow missing the point. Hopefully, listening to and understanding the Dalai Lama's call to tolerance, compassion and contentment will clear our minds of the complicated inanities of life and give us a glimpse of the simple profundities.

Ruha Devanesan is a Rutgers College senior majoring in journalism and political science. Her column, "Disorientations," appears on alternate Wednesdays.