Meeting Tibetans and Discussing Secular Ethics with Younger and Older Generations
His Holiness the Dalai Lama today held a meeting with local Tibetans in the iconic Museum of Modern Art, which, because of its triangular shape, is called a ‘piece of cake’. He opened in characteristically upbeat mood:
“Greetings to you all. We are Tibetans from the Land of Snow; a distinct people. Archaeological findings in Amdo indicate the presence of people there 30,000 years ago. A Chinese archaeologist I met quietly at Harvard University many years back showed me evidence that contradicted the official Chinese line that Tibetan civilization originated from China. His findings showed that it arose in Tibet. We have our own language and script, which is one of the ten oldest in the world.”
His Holiness said that during the 7th century Thonmi Sambhota developed the current Tibetan script and is said to have composed up to eight books of Tibetan grammar, although only two survive. He said that the Tibetan language evolved as Tibetans began to translate Buddhist literature from Sanskrit. This often involved inventing new terms for specific purposes, which means the translations are especially precise and accurate. Although Perfection of Wisdom texts also exist in Chinese, they are not as precise, and are harder to understand. An example is the inclusion of the word ‘even’ in the Tibetan version of the Heart Sutra, which is present in the original Sanskrit but missing from the Chinese version. It shows that not only is the person empty of inherent existence, but ‘even’ the mental and physical aggregates are too.
Speaking of discussions he has been holding with modern scientists over the last 30 years, His Holiness mentioned that to begin with they asserted confidently that the mind was just a function of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change in accordance with changes in the mind. However, he is unconvinced by conclusions about the adult human brain drawn from experiments done on children’s or animal brains.
He referred to the rich knowledge of the mind and emotions to be found in the Buddhist tradition that derives from the University of Nalanda and the crucial importance of the study of logic and epistemology which have provided tools for study and investigation. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the only tradition to employ reasoning and logic as it was used in Nalanda. This training has been crucial to the ability of Tibetan monastics, His Holiness among them, to assimilate scientific knowledge. Logic and debate are now being employed to good effect in schools too.
His Holiness mentioned that although once-powerful Tibet fragmented in the 9th century, what has bound Tibetans together down the centuries has been Tibetan Buddhism. Another aspect of this continuity is the political responsibility that His Holiness received from Tagdrag Rinpoche when he was 16 years old and which he passed on to the Sikyong, the elected Tibetan leader, in 2011 when he finally fully retired. His Holiness expressed confidence in democracy and called upon individual Tibetans to mind their behaviour and not bring their compatriots’ good name into disrepute.
The two remaining events His Holiness attended at the behest of Tibet House Germany took place in St Paul’s Church - Paulskirche, a building of symbolic significance. It was started as a Lutheran church in 1789. By 1849, it had become the seat of the Frankfurt Parliament, the first publicly and freely-elected German legislative body. In 1944, during World War II, the church was destroyed. As a tribute to its symbolism of freedom and as the cradle of Germany, it was the first structure in Frankfurt the city rebuilt after the war. In this oval-shaped church building His Holiness met young students in the morning and a bishop and philosopher in the afternoon with whom he discussed secular ethics.
In the morning, His Holiness was welcomed and introduced by the Lord Mayor of Frankfurt, Peter Feldmann, who explained that Frankfurt is a tolerant, multi-cultural society of many faiths and many languages. Within such an environment Tibet House makes a prominent constructive contribution to the life of the city. His Holiness responded:
“Respected older brother and younger brothers and sisters, as a human being I am extremely happy to be here. Whenever I meet younger brothers and sisters like this I feel younger too. When I meet older people I wonder which of us will go first. While I belong to the 20th century generation, these young people clearly belong to the 21st century. The past is past and can’t be changed. The only possibility for change lies in the future. Since the 20th century is characterized by violence and destruction, in the course of which an estimated 200 million people were killed, we need to ensure that the 21st century is more peaceful.”
In answering questions from students, His Holiness referred to human beings as social creatures who are equipped from birth with the potential for affection. This natural capacity for affection and compassion tends to diminish because the modern education system is geared to materialistic goals rather that the enhancement of inner values. He said that although all religious traditions are based on ethics, what we need today is a system of ethics that includes everyone, which is what secular ethics is intended to do.
A student asked His Holiness for his most beautiful moment and he said that as a human being, developing warm-heartedness was best, while as a Buddhist working to develop infinite altruism provided him the greatest satisfaction. Following this theme, he said:
“Scientists have established that constant anger and fear do us harm, while a calm mind gives rise to self-confidence. Compassion too brings inner strength and the confidence that attracts trust and friendship.”
When he was asked about how to resolve the difficulties in Ukraine, His Holiness said he was insufficiently informed to comment. However, he said:
“Violence and its unpredictable consequences spell trouble. You might think to only use a little force, but it escalates. Violence may exert control over people physically, but doesn’t win over hearts and minds, leaving fear, anger and hatred in its wake.”
In the afternoon, His Holiness participated in a panel discussion on the theme ‘Ethics Beyond Religion’ that was introduced by Dr Eskanderi-Grunberg, Head of the Integration Department of the state government. Fellow participants were philosopher Rainer Forst and Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, who, naturally made their contributions in German. The discussion was moderated by Gert Scobel. While the discussion wended this way and that into the thickets of philosophy and theology, His Holiness remarked:
‘On a practical level, what I’ve observed in 55 years living in India, the world’s most populous democratic country is that despite being a multi-religious, multi-cultural society, because of its commitment to secular values, embodied in its constitution, it has been remarkably stable since independence. Nobody suggests that India’s secularism is anti-religious. My approach is to look to scientific findings and common sense. Actions that bring happiness to self and others are positive, while actions that cause self and others unhappiness are negative. In this context a compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the basis for secular ethics.”
Tomorrow, after giving a short talk in the morning, His Holiness will embark on his journey back to India at the conclusion of a successful and eventful visit to Latvia, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany.
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