The Dalai Lama came to Rhode Island yesterday, courtesy of Brown University. The event was held at the RI Convention Center under the the strictest security the United States State Department could provide. I sat with the other media representatives, next to Palden Gyal from Radio Free Asia. Palden had been assigned the task of covering the Dalai Lama’s two week tour of the United States, and had been at every public event so far. He commented to me about the security, so I asked him if he thought the Dalai Lama was in any actual danger from the Chinese government (this while men with flashlights were doing security sweeps in the rafters of the room.) Palden felt that an attack by Chinese assassins was unlikely and that the greater worry was your garden variety crazy person or generic terrorist.
At about ten past two Brown University President Christina Paxson introduced the Dalai Lama, noting that he is a self described “simple Buddhist monk” and a winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize as well as the 2012 Templeton Prize, regarded as “the most prestigious award in religion.” (The controversial Templeton Prize is given to those who work to bridge the gap between science and religion, or as Martinus JG Veltman, 1999 Nobel laureate in physics suggested, between “sense and nonsense.”)
The Dalai Lama then took the podium, quickly connecting to the predominantly Brown University audience by wearing a university-branded baseball cap. Known for his somewhat cornball sense of humor, the Dalai Lama removed his hat and made jokes about his white hairs and encroaching baldness, suggesting that they were competing for dominance on his head.
After this brief comedic intro, the Dalai Lama got down to more serious business. He talked about seeing past the ethnicities and borders that divide us, and suggested that we see the world as one planet, where we all live. He said that the gap between the rich and poor must be closed, and as an example he pointed out that Washington DC is the capitol of the richest nation on Earth, yet the city is surrounded by poor.
The other great problem confronting us, according to the Dalai Lama, is the degradation of the environment. Given these problems, and the great silence from most of the governments on this planet, the Dalai Lama declared that if he were to affiliate with a political party, it would be the Greens.
The Dalai Lama then discussed scientific issues, a subject he is very interested in. He stated that science and spirituality used to be separate, but now science is beginning to study the human mind and the mind-body connection. This is true, but though great inroads are being made in neuroscience, and many interesting discoveries are being made, I think it would be a mistake to call these investigations “spiritual” in the sense most people take the word. We are not talking about souls, angels, answered prayers and gods. Under the Dalai Lama’s definition, as I understand it, we are talking about mindfulness and compassion training, (mostly through meditation) the ways they can reduce stress, and the positive mental and physical health benefits stress reduction accompanies.
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected part of the Dalai Lama’s message was his call for a set of secular ethics based on universal human values. The Dalai Lama makes his case by maintaining that all the world’s religions have common values. He believes that when we sift the common values out of all the different religions, we will have a set of humanistic values upon which a set of secular ethics can be based. These values and ethics would be secular in the sense that they would be common to people of any religion, as well as to those with no religion. He points out that in India, the Founding Fathers were religious people (like Ghandi) but they established a secular Constitution. Of course, this reminds Americans of our own Constitution, a secular document written and ratified by a bunch of Protestants, Deists and nonbelievers. Countries like India and the United States, which have within their borders many forms of belief and non-belief competing for our attention, need a strong secular government to serve as referee.
The common secular values of humanity should be taught in schools, from Kindergarten through University, according to the Dalai Lama, who values education quite highly. Ultimately, he wants humanity to learn that the never ending quest for material success, based as it is in greed and selfishness, is a shallow, empty pursuit unless we also work towards an inner peace through mindfulness and humanistic values.
To some it might seem odd to hear a religious leader champion secular values and secular government, but here in Rhode Island we have our own model, also a Founding Father, Roger Williams. Williams was a Christian minister of unassailable character who was convinced that people could best flourish economically and spiritually under the aegis of a secular state guided by secular values. In that sense the Dalai Lama’s message should resonate here.
The lecture ended with the Dalai Lama answering a few questions, then a final word from the religious leader. “If you feel these points are relevant,” he said, “tell people and investigate them for yourself. If don’t feel these points are relevant, then forget it.” Unfortunately, the person working the closed captioning for the event rendered the words “forget it” as “fuck it.” Now I’m sure I heard “forget it” but the crowd seemed divided on the issue, and I overheard two students who were sure that the Dalai Lama ended his lecture with an expletive. It was an odd and funny ending to an interesting event.