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He’s a moral aquifer

In India, there is distrust between society and the State and among different limbs of the State. We could do with the healing touch of the Dalai Lama. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2012 20:59 IST

‘The Buddha’, he said, “can sound contradictory”.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was speaking to some 300 persons in Delhi last month. “But,” he went on, “the Buddha is not so, he is not changing his views, he is only simplifying his message to suit the receiving capacity of his listeners.” His Holiness then closed his eyes and swaying gently sideways, said: “So… you can relate to that saying of the Buddha which appeals to you…”

High-level receptors of Buddhist teaching were seated self-effacingly to the sides and rear of the large hall. I, with only a lay understanding of the Tathagata’s philosophy, occupied a privileged seat upfront. When have front row seats been merited? They are invariably occupied by the undeserving, the unctuous and the unpunctual.

Like the Buddha, his disciple was varying his speaking style to suit the varied levels of his audience. Explaining the Four Noble Truths, he brought in intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tantrayana for the ripe of mind. For those not quite so, the Dalai Lama seamlessly wove into his discourse parables and incidents from his own life. And, as a further simplifying method, after every serious exposition, paused with his characteristic “So…” and then summarised what he had said in an easily-understood aphorism.

Speaking of the several planes or ‘terraces’ of Knowing, he said the process of self-enquiry could take years, going in fact into successive re-births. I knew at once that I was most definitely ruled out from all Knowledge of the capital K and birth-after-birth type. But then came relief. His Holiness said: “… On my first visit to London after I had finished a discourse, a serious-looking English gentleman came up to me and bowed and said, ‘Your Holiness you said many times in your speech ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t know’… Now that is quite wonderful’.”

His Holiness’ indulgence to listeners with my limitations was as charming as it was helpful. While speaking of the Fifth Dalai Lama, he said the white light of the Goddess Tara had appeared as a clear and substantial vision to that predecessor of his. “But,” the 14th Dalai Lama quickly added: “I have never had any visions… nor seen any miracles… My excuse is that I am too busy!”

He gave the unprovable if un-rebuttable theory of re-birth a new birth — by a personal recounting: “My mother said to me that when the search team came to our remote village looking for the 14th Dalai Lama, I was playing… but when I saw some of them I could straightaway recall them and addressed them by their names… from my previous birth…” He was not claiming this… ‘My mother said to me…’

Between gongs of his famous laughter, his fleeting frowns and banter with his translators (“We do not agree… So… better not to translate”), the Dalai Lama brought the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths alive. Not so much as a canon but as real world experiences. He said the true ideal was not wanting high knowledge, but wanting to help suffering humanity by “being born again and again” to do so.

I was seated, on each of the sessions of the three-day teaching alongside two remarkable contemporaries of mine — literally so, in terms of ‘age-bracket’ and our ‘batch’ in the IAS — Aruna Roy and Wajahat Habibullah. When His Holiness said that awareness of ‘dukha’ (sorrow, suffering) is crucial but rather than dwell passively on that knowledge, the Buddhist way would be to be actively compassionate in the amelioration of suffering, I thought to myself that right beside me, in front of His Holiness, were two examples of ‘active compassion’. Aruna in the way she has galvanised exploited humans to ask for the Right to Information, to food, work and wages. And Wajahat in the way he has tried, uniquely for an individual, to make room for trust, for ‘vishvas’, ‘bharosa’ or ‘aitbar’ in Kashmir. The distinguished sociologist Professor Andre Beteille has written about how important a framework of rights is but, equally, how important it is for that framework to be held together by the adhesive of trust. The trampling of human rights for dignity and justice, of animal rights for plain decent handling, and of the ‘rights’ of natural resources to not be raped for monopoly gain, is a national shame. Equally, the wholesale erosion of trust between individuals and institutions, between society and the State, among different limbs of the State, has to be seen as a national sorrow. “I trust him,” would be the biggest compliment that can be paid or earned by anyone in India today.

The restoration of trust in different sectors of our life has to begin with some sincere and public ownings by the culpable of their culpability, by the complicit of their complicity. And it must, of course, be accompanied by a rigorous enforcing of rights and justice from the State and through the courts of law. But the process needs an inner drive, a moral rotor. It needs a propulsion of the spirit. We do not have the Mahatma amid us. We, however, do have a craving for moral example, for ethically-driven leadership, for the telling stricture of a man and even more, of a woman with the courage of an active conviction.

At a point in the discourse the Dalai Lama said: “Sometimes people think I can heal them from illness… But I am not a healer… I have no such powers…” Yet, he was being a skilled diagnostician when he spoke of selfishness and hypocrisy — with a shaking of his forefinger that I can never forget — as being two dominant human failings. He did not, but we could add to those two: envy, ambition, scurrility, violence.

Among the very few moral aquifers in our country is surely, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. In seeing him as a protocol-guest and not as a master physician with medicaments — including the saving grace of humour — for his guru’s immortal but pain-afflicted land, we are denying ourselves.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed by the author are personal