A Preacher of Peace

By AJIT JAIN, Toronto Sun, Oct 31, 2007

Dalai Lama's message: Happiness

Toronto, Canada -- He's God to Tibetan Buddhists. This God King, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is in Toronto for two days largely to meet his followers and admirers alike and to spread the message of love, peace and compassion. So he has chosen the right topic for his public talk at the Rogers Centre this evening -- The Art of Happiness.

<< Dalai Lama remains defiant

He's God to his Tibetan people -- 4,600 of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area -- but he travels outside his headquarters in India like a normal human being, jokes, and laughs, holds your hands with warmth and affection.

He folds his hands in respect and reverence the same way we do when we see him or persons of his religious stature.

There are dozens and dozens of strains of Buddhism. The predominant ones are Theravada (way of elders) that is largely practised by Buddhists in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. Then there's Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) which is practised in China, Korea and Japan.

Ardent followers

But Tibetans follow the Dalai Lama. A large number of Tibetans resettled now in other countries are also his ardent followers. All of them follow Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism.

The spread of Buddhism in the West has been enhanced by the Dalai Lama's constant travels in recent years. "His Holiness the Dalai Lama is God for Tibetans and an inspired teacher of the world," says Dr. N.K. Wagle, professor emeritus of history at University of Toronto and an expert on Eastern religions.

"The Dalai Lama stands for removal of sorrows. He's a proven striver for peace and happiness."

And he does that "by spreading the essential message of the Buddha of friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity."

The difference between sects or strains of thoughts in Buddhism is more theological and philosophical.

The followers of Mahayana, for instance, believe that as soon as one acquires the Buddha-hood/Nirvana (the state of ultimate release and happiness) by meditation and by following the principles of Buddhism, one has to spread and share that achieved status with others -- the kind of things that a saviour does.

Every Buddhist thus has the potential to achieve Buddha-hood. The followers of Theravada, on the other hand, believe that Nirvana is an individual experience which cannot be shared.

What the Dalai Lama teaches to his followers from Tibet and to those who have been initiated in Tibetan Buddhism is the Tantric strain of Buddhism.

"One has to be initiated in the Tibetan tradition to truly understand and become part of important kalachkra ritual which explains the mysteries of human life cycle," explains Wagle. "In that ritual, the Dalai Lama elaborates on a Tibetan system of meditation involving the visualization of Buddhist gods and demons, accompanied by mystical chants, gestures and diagrams."

The Dalai Lama was last in Canada in 2004, when he received the an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto and its international peace award, named after Jain monk Acharya Sushil Kumarji Maharaj.

In his acceptance speech, the Dalai Lama repeatedly laid emphasis on compassion; he invariably continues to sing that song of compassion towards all human beings. His visit coincided with a week-long performance of Kalachakra-Tantra ritual at the Exhibition Grounds attended by thousands.

Why have Hollywood stars like Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Jake Gyllenhaal and George Lucas become, in growing numbers, ardent followers of the Dalai Lama?

"In many cases there may not be formal conversion as such," says Wagle. "Buddhism is a very accommodating religion. One may follow the Buddha's doctrines but yet continue to retain membership of one's own faith."

One report explains that these celebrities follow the Dalai Lama because "they believe they have discovered a message of salvation that can at last bring the world peace and tranquility."

Martin Scorsese, who directed the 1997 film Kundun, based on the life and teachings of the Dalai Lama, declares "Violence is not the answer, it doesn't work any more ... We must cultivate love and compassion." Love and compassion -- that's what Buddhism is and that's what the Dalai Lama teaches.

The Dalai Lama doesn't go into discussing technical philosophical issues when he talks before the public. His public discourses inform the audience about the basic ethical and moral norms of Buddhism.

He will engage in Buddhist spiritual exercises and philosophical discourses only when he is amidst his true believers. He does so mostly in Dharmsala, his headquarters in India, where he took refuge after fleeing Tibet in 1958 with followers.

"The fundamental truths and belief shared by Buddhists all over the world, and on which Buddhism is founded, Tibetan Buddhism included, are psychological, not theological, that is, it is not God-oriented," Wagle explains.

There are Four Noble Truths stated by the Buddha, Wagle says, and their wider assumptions are well known: The world is full of sorrow; the sorrow or pain is caused by desire, craving and ignorance; it can be stopped by ending desire; and there is a way to end the sorrow by following a path endowed with wisdom, morality and meditation.

"The Buddhist Nirvana is the final release from the sorrow, a mental state, which finds the individual in an ultimate state of calm, total peace within oneself.

"Moksha in Eastern religions like Jainism and Hinduism, is generally understood as an ultimate rest as then there's no rebirth for one's soul after death. What is so special about the Buddhist Nirvana is that it can be achieved in one's lifetime," Wagle says.

"However, His Holiness expends his energy in explaining to the world audience the Buddhist notion of compassion, peace and truth."

According to him, these are universals which help induce harmony and bring about solidarity, brotherhood and fellowship among mankind.

Buddhism dates back to the 6th century B.C. The Buddha died when he was 80 in 544 B.C., according to the Sri Lankan tradition.

On his deathbed he said to his senior monk, Ananda, "You may be your own lamps, be your own refuge, take refuge in nothing outside yourself. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourself."

The clear stress is on individual responsibility, effort and striving, not any reliance on an outside entity or God. The Dalai Lama would agree.

The Buddha was against caste and class and any form of social disparities. He advocated non-violence towards fellow human beings and emphasized peace for all. And that's the consistent message we hear from the Dalai Lama -- non-violence and peace.

The Dalai Lama says "one way to deal with anger towards one's enemy is to focus on the enemy's good qualities. Try to develop respect and sympathy instead."