Accomplished compassion

The Chinese embassy protested the Dalai Lama's visit, and Israeli officialdom uncomfortably ignored it.

dalai lama 88 (photo credit: )
dalai lama 88
(photo credit: )
The Chinese Embassy protested against the Dalai Lama's visit to Israel last week and Israeli diplomatic officialdom uncomfortably ignored his presence. But the thousands of students, social activists and religious leaders with whom he met during his stay here embraced him warmly, inspired by his universal messages of peace and charmed by his unpretentious and inviting manner. Tenzin Gyatso, 70, is the 14th Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of the Boddhisattva of Compassion and the spiritual and communal leader of the Tibetan people, a role he assumed nearly 50 years ago. Following the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement to the Chinese occupation in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and, since then, has lived in exile as a refugee with his people in Dharamsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Responsible for his people's negotiations with the government of China, which continues to refuse Tibetan demands for autonomy, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989. On his fourth day in Israel, the Dalai Lama attended a meeting of social activists at the Khan Theater, organized by Shatil, the New Israel Fund and Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People (IFTIP). According to the organizers, the meeting was intended "to promote spiritual thinking and action in the context of social change among activists and organizations for social change in Israel... and to encourage activity for social change based on commitment, responsibility and action on behalf of others." "We think of this meeting as an opportunity for activists to receive inspiration, encouragement and reinforcement," said Eliezer Ya'ari, Israel director of the New Israel Fund." For many of the participants, the meeting was also an opportunity to be together as well as to listen and question the Dalai Lama. The Khan's small auditorium was crowded and over 200 people watched the proceedings on a closed-circuit television hook-up outside. Noisy Israeli familiarity contrasted comfortably with the sacred, restrained tone set by the Dalai Lama and his representatives as the chatty activists studied the protocol and practiced the ritual draping of a simple white scarf, a ceremony that symbolizes blessing and greeting. Even as he entered the theater, the Dalai Lama revealed his charm and the combination of sanctity, earthiness and humor that has convinced people the world over to support the Tibetan cause. Coming through the door, the organizers guided him toward the stage. But the Dalai Lama noticed a woman in a wheelchair, placed in the outside aisle, and he broke from the ranks to greet her. Visibly moved, she asked to give him a kiss. "Of course," he responded, then added with a laugh, "But here and not here," pointing first to his cheek then to his lips. Seated on a sofa, covered in orange and silver throws, on the softly lit stage, he gathered his crimson and gold robes around him, removed his laced shoes, and tucked his feet underneath him. Then he posed playfully for the media and waved at the dozens of cell-phone cameras stretched out toward him. Rachel Liel, director of Shatil, thanked the Dalai Lama for coming and asked him to help the audience to understand "how a journey inward to one's soul can become a journey outward to social action." Before he began his speech, the Dalai Lama listened to a performance by Sheva Dego, a singer who came to Israel from Ethiopia as an infant 20 years ago, accompanied by flutist David Louis, who immigrated to Israel from the United States over 20 years ago. As Dego's sweet raspy voice blended into the tones of the flute, the Dalai Lama closed his eyes, seeming to imbibe the music into his gently swaying body. Then he spoke for nearly half an hour, his remarks seemingly random yet centered around his consistent messages: Reason must triumph over emotion; when in conflict, one must distinguish between an evil act and the actor who performs that act; today's enemy could be tomorrow's friend; compassion is a strategic choice. Speaking of "Holy Jerusalem," he noted that all religions share similar spiritual messages, but that each religion and country believes it is the center of the world. "I don't know if Tibet is the center of the world," he quipped, "but at least I do know that we're on the roof of the world." Modern life, he acknowledged, often seems empty and devoid of meaning, and he understands why Westerners seek out Eastern spiritualism. "Be we must recognize the contributions of the west," he said. "Democracy, rule of law, human rights, ecology - all these come from the modern west. So modernity isn't all bad." Noting that the audience was composed primarily of activists in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Dalai Lama encouraged them. "NGOs can be more effective at change and they have more freedom than the government. Due to policies or other reasons, the government's hands are tied or there are politicians involved who have not developed trust." And mistrust, he said, creates unnecessary distance, which leads to conflict. Commenting on Liel's introduction regarding spirituality and action, he responded, "Action is much more important. If a person speaks spirituality only for his own individualism, not for good, that is not enough. If we operate only at the mental level, we will not make much change. It is action that matters. But no serious human action can take place without spiritual motivation." His spirituality is tempered with a pragmatic, get-over-it attitude. "The white people murdered millions of Native Americans when they came to that land... and that it is very, very sad. But it happened. It is not realistic to expect the white people to leave... after all, how would that small number of Native Americans handle all those big cities?" As the audience chuckled, he said, more seriously, "To the Arabs I say, it is sad, sad what happened to you. But look at what the Jewish people have done here. Take the good." Then, abruptly, he looked at his watch and said, "OK, I'm finished. I usually just talk, because sometimes, if I prepare too carefully, it looks like pretension and could be considered hypocrisy. So if I've said something wrong, I apologize." But having concluded, he continued to chat with the audience. He smiled at Louis the flutist, noting the "talit katan" (ritual garment) that he wore over his white shirt. "I saw that, and I thought you would play a shofar," he laughed. He turned to the audience. "So now let's be like a workshop. Let's interact. I will make suggestions, and I want suggestions that will be beneficial to me, too." Members of the audience walked over to the microphones placed to throughout the theater and asked the questions. The first question was hardly surprising. How can you practice compassion when the other side is acting violently towards you? asked a middle-aged woman. "You must distinguish between the actor and the action," he responded evenly. "You must act against the action while maintaining your sense of compassion towards the actor. The actor is still a human being, even if with that action, he is your enemy. That is the basis of reconciliation. One day, that person may become your best friend, in other circumstances." The Dalai Lama begins then to speak about his admiration for the Jewish people. "It seems to me that Jewish people are very noisy, but very hard-working. I appreciate that," he said. But when he was on an El-Al flight, he wanted to cover his ears as the Israeli passengers came aboard. As the audience laughed yet again, he continued and said that he had great admiration for the Jewish people "because you have transformed a barren land into a green land." Earlier in the week, he had participated in tree-planting ceremonies for Tu Bishvat. Planting young trees, he said, is wonderful. But how should we vote in the upcoming elections? a woman asked. The Dalai Lama laughed heartily, then said, "I tell you what. I will come here to live. I will run for office here. And then I will say, please, vote for me." Yet again, he switched effortlessly to a more reflective statement. "Use proper judgement to see. Stand everywhere to see all the sides. Then you will know what to do." Although his assistants gestured that he was already late for his next appointment, the Dalai Lama insisted on answering a few more questions. Should Israel meet with the Hamas? he was asked. "It is too early to tell," he replied, then called on the Hamas "to give up its violent ways." Non-violence, he insisted, is "more realistic." Through non-violence, you can avoid the cycles of violence and counter-violence, distrust and retaliation. And he revealed that while he was visiting Israel, his envoys had arrived in China to resume talks with Chinese officials. Yet it was sadly paradoxical that the Dalai Lama's scheduled visit to Bethlehem, organized by the Holyland Trust Organization, was canceled at the last minute. A spokesman for the IFTIP would only say that "the timing for the meeting was bad." The Holyland Trust did not respond to In Jerusalem's questions. And when the questions had been answered, he concluded by telling the audience that over one million Tibetans had been murdered by the Chinese. But they had never lost hope. He wants to bring hope to this part of the world, too. For decades, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people have felt a particular affinity for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel. Like the Jews, the Tibetans have struggled to maintain their own ancient tradition in the face of exile, persecution, and repression. The Jewish people's return to their homeland after 2,000 years of exile and the achievements of the State of Israel have allowed many Tibetan exiles to believe that their dream of returning to their homeland may yet happen in their lifetime. In turn, while Israeli officialdom has tried to avoid diplomatic squabbles, Israelis have responded with warmth and admiration. IFTIP was founded in 1989 by a group of Israelis who, upon meeting the Tibetans-in-exile, were struck by their condition. "We support the Tibetan struggle because we, as Jews and as a Jewish state, support human rights and understand that our two peoples have much in common," stated psychologist and consultant Nahi Alon, president of IFTIP. Among its other activities, IFTIP has been instrumental in helping the Tibetan government-in-exile establish a museum in northern India, where most of the Tibetan exiles live. The museum highlights the history, culture, and traditions of the Tibetans and preserves them for future generations. IFTIP also assists in the education and financial support of Tibetan children, brings students from the Tibetan community in India to Israel to study agriculture, health and community development; sends Israeli experts and volunteers to advise and assist the exiled community; and arranges the Dalai Lama's visits to Israel. The Dalai Lama has already been invited to return to Israel for the annual Sulha meeting of Arabs and Jews scheduled for 2008. And Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger called for the establishment of a "religious United Nations" representing religious leaders of all countries around the world, to be based in Jerusalem and headed by the Dalai Lama.