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2001 – My enemies are just like myself

Peter Thomas  |  18 September 2018

After exactly one hour the interview was over. It was my choice to stop, but as others had told me, I would know when to stop, somehow people do!

It was 42 degrees when we left the sprawling 14 million people of Delhi and travelled the long, slow Indian train journey to the Punjab followed by a four-hour taxi trek to Dharamsala, since 1960 the home-in-exile of the world’s most famous refugee, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

A small sign outside McLeod Ganj, a village in upper Dharamsala, the previously abandoned British hill station now occupied by 10,000 Tibetan refugees, welcome us to ‘Little Lhasa’. Here was a reminder of a piece of Tibet on Indian soil, the remainder of the country, less than 200 kilometres over the Himalayan mountains, occupied since 1950 by the Chinese.

At the end of the interview I stopped myself from saying God bless, and hold him so! He laughed. He laughs a lot, and beckoned me to bless him. Self-consciously I said it and added that it seemed absurd to ask Go9d to bless the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. He laughed again and gently, yet sincerely replied, ‘and God bless you too’.

He told me he was a simple monk, a human being with special training, and when I asked him about frustration he acknowledged that he had moments of ‘negativity’. We shared our thoughts on suffering, prayer, karma, reincarnation and institutional religion. I praised him for his promotion of non-violence as he told me that ‘our greatest teachers are our enemies.’

With laughter, the word compassion was never far from our conversation. I modestly suggested that the Buddhist notion of compassion and the Christian understanding of love were compatible. We agreed. I shared with him my theory that as in the West love was a devalued word, the word ‘compassion’ has much appeal. In transit in Singapore my theory was confirmed as I saw a woman emerge from a duty free shop at Changi Airport with a plastic bag on which was written, ‘We love you for shopping at Changi.

He agreed that Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your enemy’ was, in essence, the same as the Buddhist teaching on ‘compassion’. He said that compassion is unbiased and detached. When you are ‘close’ to someone you are attached and therefore biased but compassion is truly demonstrated when it is exercised towards your enemy.

He spoke of the mental energy generated in the practice of meditation, the mind focusing on a particular point. A recently arrived refugee-monk, in Dharamsala to learn English before moving on to a Tibetan monastery in the south of India, had already demonstrated to me the constancy of the monk’s daily practice. Nanching told me of his routine which included at least three hours each morning of meditation.

The Dalai Lama said that meditation is good when it produces positive energy but not so good when it is negative. He said it was like human intelligence, sometimes misused.

I was curious about this appeal to the West. In New York’s Central Park, less than three weeks before our interview he drew a crowd of 50,000, and his latest book, The Art of Happiness is a best-seller. Careful always not to denigrate other religious he used his own faith tradition to remind me that doctrinal dogmatism and temple practice should never take precedence over personal transformation. When I spoke with him about Thomas Merton his eyes lit up and he muttered, ‘my friend, my friend’. In 1968, Merton, a Trappist monk from the United States introduce the Dalai Lama to the story of Jesus Christ. He laughed as he recalled the robed Merton as bald, belted and with big boots. The Trappists in those days were tonsured and wore a large belt as a girdle to hold their black and white habit in place. ‘When he quoted the Buddha I quoted Jesus and we laughed together like friends’.

I was surprised when he said that suffering was negative and we should do everything we can to eliminate it. Yet suffering was also positive in that from the Buddhist point of view suffering can eliminate previous negative karma or sins. My suffering could help others and indeed reduce their suffering. Suffering then becomes meaningful, something good and useful. He gave the example of someone suffering physical pain when mentally they are joyful. I told His Holiness that aspects of this Buddhist teaching seemed very similar to the Christian understanding of redemption. ‘Yes, yes similar’ he said, ‘the Jesus story is much about pain and suffering for others. The Buddha, similar’.

He said he prayed to Buddha and that he prayed for personal liberation and happiness for others. I jokingly told him that some people in the West might pray for their football team to win. He said that as a child he would pray to Buddha to give him a holiday from his studies. We laughed.

I said that the notion of karma was perhaps misunderstood in the West. That people used it to describe fate. ‘Karma means action’, he said, ‘that we are responsible for own actions. That we create our own karma’. Again, I quoted Christian scripture, ‘he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’. He nodded agreement.

He was keen to expand on the practice of compassion. It was perhaps natural for him to return to this point. ‘My enemies are just human beings like myself so I must respect them and develop a sense of concern and sense of caring. Of course, I condemn their unjust actions.’

I responded, ‘so you hate the sin, but love the sinner.’ And he responded, ‘that’s right, exactly!’

He pondered carefully over my final question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ:’

‘For me, as a Buddhist’, he said, ‘Jesus is possibly a Buddha or maybe a Bodhistra’ (i.e. one destined for Buddha-hood). Such an answer may not have satisfied my third-grade teacher, Sister Mary James, but from a Buddhist it is the very best he could say.

On parting he squeezed my hand and arm as a gesture of friendship and an acknowledgment that we share a common humanity and journey towards enlightenment.

First published in Australian Catholics 2001 Summer edition.

Image: Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II – Getty Images.


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