For a Western Audience, Some Tibetan Wisdom 5,000
Pack American U. Arena to Hear the Dalai Lama
-- The Washington Post, 14 November 1998
The road to happiness is rigged with land mines -- 84,000 of them to be
exact. These are destructive emotions that cause pain and suffering and can
be triggered at any time by people whose minds are not trained to apply the
84,000 antidotes to overpower the negative with the positive.
The Dalai Lama invoked those numbers from ancient Buddhist teachings Sunday
to instruct a mostly Western audience at American University on "the
complexity of the task" of achieving enlightenment, or nirvana.
Achieving nirvana, he said, brings freedom from the endless cycle of
suffering caused by being too much in the world -- of wanting too much
money, of seeking too much power, of trying to find happiness through
"It is important not to have the unrealistic expectation that we will find
a magic key to help get rid of [all suffering]," the leader of Tibetan
Buddhism told more than 5,000 people who packed the university's basketball
"It takes determination, patience and more than one week," he quipped, an
apparent reference to spiritual seekers who are attracted to Buddhist
teachings but are unwilling to take on the daily discipline of study and
"I always tell my Western friends it's better to keep their own
traditions," he said. "Changing religions is not easy and often is a cause
The two-session, 3 1/2-hour course in Tibetan Buddhism is believed to be
the Dalai Lama's first such teaching engagement in Washington, said Gregory
Kruglak, director of the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture, the
event's co-sponsor. The Dalai Lama, 63, visits here once or twice a year,
but usually in a political role, asking the U.S. government to help restore
autonomy to Tibet, which China invaded in 1950.
The Tibetan leader, who fled to India in 1959 and has never returned to
Tibet, met separately this week with President Clinton and Hillary Rodham
Clinton, Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
-- all against the wishes of the Chinese government. Last week, he joined
other Nobel Peace Prize winners at a symposium at the University of
Virginia in Charlottesville.
But Sunday was about religion, and the rare teaching engagement attracted
participants from as far away as Hawaii and Peru. Many were Buddhists, new
and long-term, others merely curious. They paid up to $1,000 -- though
students got in for $12 -- to hear the man Tibetans have called "His
Holiness" since he was declared, at age 2, the 14th Dalai Lama, which means
"Oceans of Wisdom."
For his presentation, the Dalai Lama sat in a lotus position on a wooden
throne made by local Buddhists. Behind him was a large tapestry featuring
three Buddhas, past, present and future. Below him, a silk banner with two
swastikas -- an ancient whirling symbol that represented long life
centuries before it was adopted as an emblem by the Nazis.
He spoke mostly through an interpreter but sometimes broke into fluent
English. He smiled often, rocked back and forth, waved to friends in the
crowd and, to emphasize various points, pounded his fists together or
alternated hand thrusts as if shadow boxing.
The Dalai Lama started with the fundamental teachings of Gautama, the man
who 2,500 years ago found enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree. Gautama
developed the Four Noble Truths about the origin and nature of suffering
and the path one must follow to conquer it.
Tibetan Buddhism, which was fully developed in the 11th century, is one of
many strains of Buddhism that follow the Noble Truths. It emphasizes the
responsibility of the individual for his or her own pain -- the result of
an undisciplined mind -- and teaches compassion for all sentient beings,
including people and animals.
Like other Buddhists sects, Tibetan Buddhists believe that one's actions in
this life can determine, through reincarnation, one's role in the next. But
Tibetan Buddhism also teaches that any individual can achieve enlightenment
in a single lifetime, although "it's very difficult," said Jhampel Lhundup,
a former attendant to the Dalai Lama who now works at the conservancy.
As a tool for disciplining the mind, the Dalai Lama distributed an
eight-verse poem by an 11th-century monk. He called the poem the "essence
of the Buddha's teaching in a distinct form." Tibetan practitioners use the
poem as a practical guide to living, following such instructions as
thinking of all sentient beings as more precious than jewels; examining
one's life to avoid negative emotions and harmful actions; and treating an
enemy as "a sacred friend." These are the kind of antidotes, or teachings,
the Tibetan Buddhist uses to combat negativity.
The Dalai Lama, also known as the Buddha of Compassion, lives what he
preaches. He speaks of the Chinese as his "greatest teachers," learning
from their violent takeover of his country that violence breeds discontent,
not happiness. A disciplined mind will help one control anger, he said.
"This is not to suggest that the True Practitioner should give in to harms
and injustice," said the Dalai Lama, who for nearly half a century has
waged a nonviolent war against China to restore freedom to Tibet. Some
negative actions require "strong countermeasures."
Another feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its insistence that all people and
things are interrelated, dependent upon one another for meaning. For
example, there is no intrinsic evil or negativity in people -- and there is
no intrinsic goodness.
No god causes suffering or pain, nor does misery just happen. Only the mind
creates negative action, and only the mind, a disciplined mind, can create
"The seed for nirvana exists in all of us," said the Dalai Lama, who
sounded more like a preacher when he said anyone can change his or her way
of seeing the world and others.
"The time has come to think more wisely, hasn't it?"
WORDS FROM THE DALAI LAMA
On the nature of humanity: "We all have the same potential to be a good
person or a bad person. It is important to promote the good side and try to
reduce the negative. In the short term, you might get some kind of
satisfaction from the negative side, but in the long run, it always brings
some unpleasant experience."
On instructing non-Buddhists: "Because I'm teaching about Buddhism does not
mean I'm trying to promote or propagate Buddhism. Check my years of
activity to see whether I am a liar or telling the truth."
On the public's attitude toward religion: "That we follow the principles of
altruism and compassion -- that's the kind of perception we [all] must
On sensual gratification: "Pleasurable sensation is a form of suffering. It
plants the seed of dissatisfaction."
On empathy and compassion: "There is a phenomenological difference in
experiencing pain yourself and sharing someone else's pain and suffering.
Your own pain is involuntary; you feel overwhelmed and have no control.
When feeling the pain of others there is an element of discomfort, but
there also is a level of stability because you are voluntarily accepting
pain. It gives you a sense of confidence."
On achieving nirvana: "True enlightenment is nothing but the nature of
one's own self being fully realized."
On the capitalist mind-set: "On a daily basis, you must take more care of
your mind than just money, money, money, money!"
On suffering and time: "If through practice of insight you develop a sense
of ease, then time has no relevance. If you're miserable, time does matter.
It's so unbearable, so enormous you want to get out of it as soon as