Dalai Lama advocates a secular approach to compassion

Two talks at Stanford emphasize the need for dialogue in resolving conflict, and the need for compassion that extends beyond creeds and beliefs.

“I want to stand to see more faces,” the 75-year-old Dalai Lama said, refusing a chair to address the capacity crowd in Maples Pavilion Thursday.

James Doty, left, director and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the Dalai Lama at the morning lecture at Maples Pavilion. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

There were plenty of them to see. The spiritual leader spoke to about 6,300 people on “The Centrality of Compassion in Human Life and Society” and, as this year’s Rathbun Visiting Fellow, about 1,000 students for the “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” series in Memorial Church a few hours later. But in both venues, the message was the same.

He repeatedly stressed a secular approach to compassion that reaches beyond individual creeds and beliefs. He spoke of the need for mutual respect and friendship, the care and education of children, and ongoing dialogue for conflict resolution.

Evident throughout was his fascination with science, the neurology of the mind and brain, the interest in the intricate distinctions between mind and body that led him to be a founding benefactor for the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is an old friend at Stanford: This week marks his third visit in recent years, with the promise of more to come. His talk was peppered with personal anecdotes, and although he spoke in a broken, heavily accented English, occasionally consulting his translator – Stanford visiting research scholar Thupten Jinpa – his infectious chuckle quickly had the audience eating out of his hand.

He chose to focus on what unifies us: Beyond race, ethnicity, nationality and religion, “We all have the desire to achieve a happy life, and everyone has the right to achieve a happy life,” he said.

“We are 100 percent the same on this level,” he said. “My enemy also has every right to work on suffering.”

“We human beings are created as social animals. Any social animal in order to survive depends on community,” he said.

In answer to complicated situations of deceit and injustice, he emphasized taking a holistic view – “compassion, combined with wisdom, always helps a broader perspective.”

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Video by Jack Hubbard

The Dalai Lama told the Maples audience that compassion and respect are two key elements for stopping violence.

“Someone who takes advantage of you and unjustly does something – ultimately, they will suffer, even within this lifetime.” He advocated action out of “a concern for their well-being.”

Violence and non-violence can appear the same, he said, and can be distinguished by motivation. “Out of hatred, out of desire to cheat,” someone could “smile, using some nice word, and with some gift.”

“It looks non-violent. But look at the motivation – they want to cheat, they want to harm. It is essentially violence,” he said.

A parent, on the other hand, “out of concern for others’ well-being may sometimes use some harsh word or disciplinary action. It looks rough, but it arises out of a sense of concern. Therefore it is essentially not violence.”

He repeatedly praised Tibet’s southern neighbor, India – a stable democracy that has thrived under a secular constitution for 70 years. He recently attended a dedication for a Buddhist temple in Patna, and recalled its invocation for Buddha’s blessings on the Indian state of Bihar. The Dalai Lama told those attending that “the Buddha’s blessing must go through human hands, human actions.”

Affection begins in the home, he said, and particularly from mothers – but this biologically rooted compassion will not extend far beyond the family unless extended by reasoning and unless the understanding our own well-being is linked to the love of others.

Perhaps the most surprising digression was his memories of childhood in a family of barley farmers in northeastern Tibet – an uneducated, illiterate mother who was kindly and compassionate, and an affectionate father who sometimes lost his temper.

He noted societies with abundant material wealth where the youth is nevertheless plagued with “a lot of suicide, a lot of depression,” he said.

His engagements in the Bay Area included a visit with 400 students in East Palo Alto on Wednesday.

During a question-and-answer session, about the poor – why one is unable to bridge the “compassion gap” from feeling sympathy to acting with compassion – the Dalai Lama recalled a night in Bombay, where he saw the “really poor people, hundreds,” and uncared-for and drug-addicted people.

“But nothing can be done,” he said, pointing to the need to weigh considerations. “Sometimes when I saw these things, I only pray. You should be realistic: If you can do something on the spot, do it.”

The Dalai Lama presented “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” in Memorial Church. At left is his longtime interpreter Thupten Jinpa and at right is the Rev. Scotty McLennan, the dean of religious life at Stanford. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

At the Memorial Church gathering, largely question-and-answer, one student asked about the Buddhist injunction to overcome desire – if one is choosing to live a meaningful life, isn’t the desire for a meaningful life just another layer of desire?

The Dalai Lama agreed that the Buddhist texts say that desire is the cause of suffering, but added that “without desire, movement is not possible. Even wishing happy life, a happy life for others – all is desire.”

“Desire leads our action. Action must come from motivation. Motivation comes from desire,” he said.

He encouraged the students to practice contemplation and self-discipline.

In a valedictory note, he turned the future over to the students gathered to hear him. “This century, whenever we face problems, we have to find ways through dialogue,” he said. The 200 million people murdered in the last century, he said, underscore the need for non-violence, mutual respect and compassion.

“You belong to the 21st century,” he said. “My people belong to the 20th century. We’re ready to say goodbye.”

Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty, the director of CCARE, told the Maples Pavilion gathering: “Often when we see immeasurable suffering, we feel overwhelmed. But every one of us has the capacity to make one person suffer less every day. Every day go forth and do what you can do.”