Morality and the Dalai Lama

on Friday, 11 August 2017. Posted in Sermons

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Sermon on Ekev 5777

This week we read the great Torah portion of Ekev, which tells us how to be morally good.  It is a simple but high standard that is commanded here: listen and observe God’s rules in order to live life as we should. 

But even beyond our own standards of conduct, there are a few individuals in the world who transcend ordinary measures of human quality, and cross all boundary lines of national, religious, and ideological approval.  These are the exceedingly rare people who teach us profound things about our essential nature, and who, in their own lives, demonstrate true moral greatness.  The list is short, and some of the most prominent members have died fairly recently: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Elie Wiesel, for example.  You may have your own candidates.

Prominent on anyone’s list of such luminaries is the 14th Dalai Lama.  He has been the religious leader of his people, Tibetan Buddhists, for nearly 80 years, and has represented both their aspirations for freedom and the common humanity in each one of us throughout his long career.  Many words of praise have been written about him—it is almost incidental that he is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate—but most telling is that with all the accolades he has received for his wisdom, sagacity, learning, and courage, he is warm, charming, funny, and self-deprecating.  He embodies for Buddhists the supremely important value of compassion, which he demonstrates with grace and generosity to us all.

In July I traveled to Ladakh, a region of northern India high in the Himalayas and close to the Pakistani border, not far from Tibet and China, at the invitation of Bodicharya Arizona and its president, Anna Roemer.  My friends and I attended the second and third in a series of three public teachings presented by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—abbreviated as HHDL there—in the remote Nubra Valley, traveling over “the highest motorable road in the world”, as the t-shirts say, across the Kharondongla Pass, 18,380 feet high at its crest.  This might also be the worst motorable road in the world, and one of the most terrifying, but we made it… 

The morning’s teaching was originally supposed to be on meditation, but it was instead on the central importance of compassion, and the need to identify and defeat selfishness and arrogance to achieve true compassion. The public teaching event was huge, and as my friend Scott put it, arriving there was like attending a large sporting event in America.  People came from all over by car, hired transport, motorbike, hitchhike, bicycle, and on foot.  Vendors sold food and souvenirs, a myriad of volunteers helped attendees find space to sit, and many security personnel of various organizations provided protection.  The Dalai Lama’s public teaching is a great event for Tibetans, but it is also an enormous attraction for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, including our small group of Jews.  There is no fee to hear him teach.

The huge crowd was seated on the ground on large tarps, divided loosely by signs in English that indicated where “Foreigners”, “Chinese”, and everyone else—Ladakhis, Tibetans, and Indians—were to sit.  Although there was no shade, it was a fairly cool day in this high-altitude region, and we were as reasonably comfortable as you can be sitting on the ground for four hours.  Volunteers passed out free bread as you entered, and came through later bringing cups of hot milk tea—at the second day’s teaching at the village of Sumur they also served yak butter tea, which I don’t recommend.  Still, it was a remarkably generous way to do things in an economically poor region of a comparatively poor country.  I wonder if, say, Rosh HaShanah services would be improved by passing out tea and bread mid-service instead of waiting for the oneg afterwards.

The Dalai Lama sat on an elaborate throne, cross-legged in the lotus position, and did so comfortably throughout his extended presentation, impressive by itself for a man who had just turned 82 years old.  Loudspeakers carried the Dalai Lama’s words to the crowd effectively, but there was an idiosyncrasy to it.  The dialect of Tibetan he speaks is just one of three, and the people of the Ladakh region speak a different one.  That means many of the people attending could only understand a portion of the words in his three-hour talk. 

The address was broadcast on an FM radio frequency as well, and those with Indian cellphones and the proper App could listen to an excellent English translation through earbuds.  We met the translator on the second day, a remarkable, learned, and brilliant man himself.  Sadly, non-Indian cellphones don’t work in the Nubra Valley, so our fancy iphones were useless.  A number of transistor radios—remember those?—were passed out with earbuds for people to listen to the translation, and we shared one of those among us.  Some copies of the text the Dalai Lama was expounding upon were also circulated; we did not receive those the first day but had them at the second day’s talk. Clearly the goal was to be as inclusive as possible, so all could hear and try to understand his words of wisdom.

The program began with prayers and chants, which were also interspersed throughout the teaching program.  Sometimes HHDL (the Dalai Lama) himself led the chanting, sometimes the monks seated round him did.  There was a section of his teaching that was considered a transmission, in which one seeks simply to open oneself to his words, voice, and presence in order to receive the experience without thinking about the text or using cognitive effort.  This is similar to some Kabbalistic practices, in which one simply seeks to absorb the words of the text without analyzing or thinking about them at all.

Most of the Dalai Lama’s teaching was academic in nature, at a very high level.  [He explained the origin of the sacred text, gave extensive biographical information about the author or authors without using notes, and while expounding on the text he gave personal commentary throughout, referencing important scholars and sacred authorities, often with human insight into their character.]  Although on the first day I attended I did not have access to the audio translation until about two hours into his three-hour presentation, it impressed me as being very similar to the best rabbinic interpretive teaching, public exposition of sacred text in a scholarly way.  There were occasional jokes, never mean-spirited, and a generally relaxed sense of extraordinary competence and deep knowledge and wisdom.  When I did get the audio translation I felt a bit like a middle-school student attending a graduate school lecture.  These were Tibetan Buddhist ideas and guidance propounded by a master for everyone to hear, but it required more than my rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, to fully benefit from the teaching.

Still, the deep devotion to learning as a means to improved practice and cultivation of the proper qualities mind and heart require for betterment, spoke quite easily to my Jewish soul.  The focus here was more internal, on developing compassion, wisdom, and strength in practice while defeating or sublimating the inclinations towards anger, hatred, materialism, and other barriers to spiritual enlightenment.  In Jewish terms, this is like Mussar mixed with Kabbalah, in contrast to Talmudic behavior modification through practical rules.  But as religious truth it has strong similarities with nearly teachings of every denomination in every religious group I have encountered.

At the conclusion of his teaching presentations were made to HHDL, most importantly a florid one by representatives of the Muslim community.  Forging a new precedent, the Dalai Lama is famous for having visited Muslim holy places in recent years, seeking to bridge the gap between Muslims and Buddhists both in Ladakh and elsewhere in the world.  As he says often, “I think of myself not as a Buddhist, or Tibetan, but as one of 7 billion people on the earth.  We must see each other this way, equally sacred beings.”

At the end of the first day’s talk and ceremony, we were in a small group of “foreigners”—non-Tibetans or Chinese—invited to come back to a garden in front of the house behind the speaking grounds.  The Dalai Lama was inside the building, having lunch.  He soon came out, sat, and delivered a wonderful talk in fluent English for 45 minutes.  He thanked us generously for being there, and spoke on themes central to him: the essential humanity in us all, his personal friendships with religious and popular leaders like Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu—who calls him, “The mischievous Dalai Lama”—Mother Teresa, and others.  He clearly stated that someone who becomes a terrorist has ceased to represent any religious tradition: a Muslim terrorist is not a Muslim, but a terrorist, just as a Buddhist terrorist in Myanmar is not a Buddhist, but a terrorist.  He spoke about the dedication in Buddhism to knowledge and wisdom, and his personal dialogue with and exploration of the work of scientists, and his great respect for them.  He noted with admiration that scientists from around the world speak the common language of the pursuit of truth, and work together without regard for national or religious divisions.  He believes that while adherents to religions have theological differences, they have a similar capacity to work together to alleviate human suffering and prevent war and violence.

And then he segued into his personal agenda.  He called first for an international conference of the leaders of all religions to come to India to meet and discuss what we share as people of devotion and faith, instead of harping on our differences.  He believes that if he calls for this, others will respond, such as the Archbishops of the Anglican and Episcopal traditions, the Pope, the leaders of all faiths including very traditional Muslims, Christians and Orthodox Jews.  He stated that the main benefit might prove to be that the deputies and assistants to the leaders, the younger representatives of each faith, would meet their counterparts, talk with them, eat with them, make friends, and discover their commonalities as part of the seven billion human beings on the planet. 

The Dalai Lama also called for a religious conference for India itself, to bring together Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Christian, and Jewish leaders to work to build religious understanding in the huge and populous nation of 1.3 billion.

The Dalai Lama also reiterated his retirement in 2011 from any political role in Tibet, an overture to the Chinese government that has gone unheeded so far.  All of us present were aware of the brutal repression by the Communist Chinese government in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his close followers narrow escape from Mao’s soldiers, and the long struggle for autonomy or independence in Tibet, as well as China’s continuing acts of brutality.  Of course, that’s why so many Tibetans were here in Ladakh in the first place, as well as in Dharamshala, and in Southern India where the Tibetan refugee camps are located.

HHDL then addressed the ecological dangers of global warming, noted that his home country of Tibet possesses what some scientists call “the Third Pole” after the North and the South since it is so high and snowy and its glaciers and snowpack have been steadily diminishing.  He is deeply committed to working to stop the damage we have been doing to our home planet. 

And he urged us all to demonstrate greater compassion to the poor and destitute of the world, some of our 7 billion brothers and sisters, as a means of continuing to cultivate compassion in our hearts, the greatest of the virtues for him and all Tibetan Buddhism.

It was a beautiful speech, delivered without notes to an audience just a few feet from him.  Then we posed for photos with him; the warmth in his discourse is clearly no act, as he took joked and smiled throughout. And, well, I got my hug from the Dalai Lama.  Here’s how it happened.

As we posed for photos, the Dalai Lama saw my kippah and reached down to me, calling out, “My Jewish friend!”  I rose, turned and said, “Your Holiness, I always receive white shawls from your people.  Here is one of our prayer shawls as a gift for you.”  He beamed, immediately put the tallit I had brought on—correctly!—paused, and then hugged me, saying, “Thank you, thank you my friend!”  I thanked him for his gift of understanding and his incredible warmth and generosity, and he said, “This is a blessing!  Your people are my friends.”  We stood together in embrace for a few moments, and then his assistants moved him off, still smiling.  It was a wonderful conclusion to an extraordinary morning.  And he looks good in a tallis.

When I returned to the van we were traveling in our guide, a very hip young Tibetan named Gelsin, surprised me by hugging me, and said, “You have hugged the Dalai Lama, his holiness, so I must hug you!  You are holy.  It is very special.”  

It was very special, even if I am not, just a Jewish guy embraced for representing his people.  Perhaps that’s the greatest, simplest meaning of holiness: people who lift ordinary human beings towards sanctity by opening our hearts to the best aspects of our nature.

Here, high in the highest terrestrial mountain chain of all, the Himalayas, I met a man who ascends even higher.  He embodies holiness in a deceptively simple way, through compassion, wisdom, and humor.  That is clearly only one side of things, as he is, at heart, a scholar, trained from the time he was sentient, and he understands highly complex ideas at a deep level.  But the way he embodies compassion and empathy as the great message of our common humanity is a truth that has been conveyed to me again and again by the many holy places I have visited.  For all of our superficial differences, we are all very much the same, equally human, all deserving of compassion.

And yet his most important lesson of what constitutes moral greatness is simple.  As the Dalai Lama teaches, not too differently from our own Torah portion this week, “Be kind whenever possible.  And it is always possible.”

May we add this to what Devarim teaches us.

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