I went to India in March of 2008, journeying there for the first time in 12 years. For over three decades India has been my spiritual home, the place where I first found meditation practice, discovered my innermost values, and forged my authentic life.
I’d gone for teachings the Dalai Lama was conducting–the first three days primarily for Indians, the next five primarily for Westerners (this latter group included many of the early translators from Tibetan into other languages.)
As it turned out, I arrived in India about 10 days after protests and demonstrations broke out in Tibet, which, as the Dalai Lama put it, “are the outburst of long pent-up physical and mental anguish of the Tibetans and the feeling of deep resentment against the suppression of the rights of Tibetan people.”
It is a tragic situation, with many deaths, imprisonments, and injuries. I heard traumatic, personal stories of relatives suddenly behind bars–perhaps never to be heard from again; of a mother looking for her son, work-boots in hand, in case he was sentenced to hard labor; of violence and murders. They were stories hard to even hear, let alone, as I can only imagine, live.
We were all wondering what in the world the Dalai Lama, who must hear these stories over and over again, all the time, day after day, would say. His comment at the beginning of each of these two teaching sessions was, amazingly, “My mind is filled with disturbing thoughts, but my heart is very steady.”
How could he accomplish that, someone asked. After a while the Dalai Lama talked about his practice, especially tonglen, which is a method, as Ani Pema Chodron describes it, “for connecting with suffering –ours and that which is all around us– everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”
It was tremendously inspiring to see the Dalai Lama, in the midst of the awful situation faced by Tibetans and the sorrow and sense of helplessness felt by all of us, delineate such a clear path: the possibility of strength of action born from compassion, rather than hatred. It is one thing to say that and mean it from the comfort of one’s climate controlled, very nice hotel room in New Delhi, having faced some minor challenges in the day, and it is quite another to say it and mean it when the people you are leading are in devastating pain, and you may never get home again.
The strength of the Dalai Lama’s vision is expressed in his insistence that a solution to the Tibet situation needs to (and would be) beneficial to the Chinese people as well. In circumstances where it would seem so many of us would fall into rigid determinations of us and them, or confuse vengefulness for enduring strength and courage, or mistake compassion for weakness, the Dalai Lama continually points to another way. As an example of this, in March of 2003 the Dalai Lama issued this statement on war:
“We have seen that we cannot solve human problems by fighting. Problems resulting from differences in opinion must be resolved through the gradual process of dialogue. Undoubtedly, wars produce victors and losers; but only temporarily. Victory or defeat resulting from wars cannot be long-lasting. Secondly, our world has become so interdependent that the defeat of one country must impact the rest of the world, or cause all of us to suffer losses either directly or indirectly.
Today, the world is so small and so interdependent that the concept of war has become anachronistic, an outmoded approach. As a rule, we always talk about reform and changes. Among the old traditions, there are many aspects that are either ill-suited to our present reality or are counterproductive due to their shortsightedness. These, we have consigned to the dustbin of history. War too should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
I’ve always been encouraged by my Buddhist teachers to stretch the boundaries of aspiration, eg “Why not aspire to be a fully liberated being, for the sake of all beings,” even while doing the daily, or moment-to-moment work of trying to make those aspirations real. The Dalai Lama is my primary model for a life of realization: manifesting both the heights of the immense aspiration we must have and the groundedness of the work we must do in each moment.