Dalai Lama’s Lecture


This week-end, we attended a public lecture given by the Dalai Lama.

dha-dalai-lama.jpg Most people who attended were locals – that is Tibetans, there were also a few Indians, possibly Hindus as well as travellers from other parts of the world. It is a relatively rare event – the occasion today was the visit of Buddhist performers from Russia and Mongolia, but it does appear to happen frequently enough for translators to transmit the teachings over the local radio in English, Russian and other languages while the Dalai Lama speaks in Tibetan.

The lecture started with an introduction to Buddhism which it seemed had been delivered numerous times. Most fundamentals concepts which are at the core of Buddhism were not only explained but argued with remarkable logic. It touched many subjects from the nature of knowledge to notion of self. In fact, one could easily mistake the first talk for a philosophy lecture on Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” if it were not punctuated by cryptic Tibetan words. This did not necessarily make it accessible though, and despite the translation, one would have to follow assiduously and be acquainted with the Buddhist terminology to make full sense of it, but it was certainly a good attempt.

After a few hours, we felt that we had been enlightened enough for the day and did not attend the rest of the lecture which went in greater details into Buddhist religious philosophy.

On the second day, we attended the morning Puja. This, in contrast with the previous day, was truly a religious ceremony. The translation was quite useless: English was merely used to connect religious terms in Tibetan, but it didn’t make much sense to us. In fact most rituals and prayers meant very little to us, we could only sense the spirituality of the event.

Looking back at these two days, it did strike me that what the Dalai Lama – and I guess Buddhism in general – does quite successfully is separate the philosophical aspects from the needs for religious practice and devotion, therefore presenting Buddhism as a very open and modern set of philosophies providing guidance to lead a better and happier life. Indeed, at the end of its introduction, the Dalai Lama stressed that one could call itself a Buddhist if it believed in the basic principles of Buddhism. He gave a very post-modern definition of the self presenting it as changing over time as it is interconnected with the rest of the world.

Most usual objections that non-Buddhists would generally raise were also dealt with as the arguments were slowly and methodically unrolled. Perhaps the point that is most relevant to non-Buddhists was about the belief in God or gods. He quite cleverly presented his arguments in a way that makes the question about the existence or nature of God of little relevance to the task of following a spiritual path; the message in other words, was “regardless of your belief, God is not the point”. He acknowledged that the scriptures were not meant to be taken literally, and that most religious images including heavens, hell, gods and demons were only helpful to create mental pictures. He also accepted that lamas may have teachings that appear contradictory or inconsistent, but also cleverly pointed out that the limitation of language was – another modern idea which has dominated philosophical discussions since Wittgenstein, reminding that Buddha himself remained silent on a number of questions. Interestingly, he likened the way Buddhist thought evolves to that of science, where theories can be discarded as progress is made and which encourages debate.

Overall, the start of the lecture certainly portrayed Buddhism as a modern, open and non-dogmatic religion which is compatible with other beliefs and does not put itself at odds with modern science. It presented a set of philosophies reflecting the evolution of the modern philosophy and where followers could do away with religious duties. This will appeal to atheists and agnostics alike, but also allows followers of other religions such as Hindus and Christians. This partly explains why Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the West…