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Dalai Lama at the University of Southern California, 3rd May 2011

Author: Debashish Banerji

Last Activity: May 7, 2011

In his characteristic maroon and yellow wrappings, but sporting on his head a red cap with USC written on it, the Dalai Lama came in with a group of USC academics – a teacher of Zen Buddhism, a professor of law working at the intersection of ethics and consciousness, a neuro-biologist, a social psychologist and a novelist Pico Iyer. The Lama also had an interpreter who sat next to him. Iyer who has been a close associate of the Dalai Lama for the last several years, was moderating the discussion. The general topic given by the Lama was Secular Ethics. After the session was opened by Varun Soni, dean of Religious Life at USC and Pico Iyer had done a short introduction, the academics each spoke briefly, outlining their stands. The Zen Buddhist spoke of Indra’s net and global interdependence; the law professor spoke of universal ethical concerns and legal systems, the neuro-biologist spoke of the biological, animal and selfish bases of behavior and the limitation of ethics, and the social psychologist dealt with the empirically studied failures of teaching ethical behaviors and proposed environmental changes instead to arrive at ethical societies.


The Dalai Lama responded to these views in his free-form soft bantering style. My reflections of necessity cannot be verbatim nor stick to the sequences of presentation but are an attempt to cover the ideas he presented.

1.       The Lama started with the issue of biology and interdependence and pointed to two levels in the operation of ethics. Biological ethics arose out of a sense of narrow self – love for one’s mother and immediate family. This was where animal behaviors largely coincided with the human. But human beings went further in using their intelligence to think interdependence. This kind of thinking could also be socially reproduced through education. In our times, global interdependence was not only more concretely imperative but also more concretely experienceable and hence easier for the intelligence to understand. Though spirituality may be considered to be concerned with the loss of self, secular ethics may be considered to work with an expansion of self. The narrow self, closer to the animal self, is restricted to an immediate family or clan circle. But intelligence and education can help in a progressive widening of the self – the conception of an interdependent world, if kept concretely in the attention, afforded one this larger sense of self. One could then speak of selfish motives for ethics but this would be dependent on what one meant by self, the nature of self-experience. It is interesting that one could sense the Indian idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world as family) strongly present in this aspect of the Dalai Lama’s thinking.


2.       He dwelt further on the relationship between love and ethics. Ethics was practical and organic when arising naturally from love. The biological basis of love could be narrow, even the expansion of this love is usually in terms of an extension to those who are “like one” – share one’s tastes, presuppositions and ideas. This can lead to a kind of cooperative ethics but one which is limited to one’s family, clan, religion, sect, ethnicity or nation. Instead, intelligence could extend the sense of love towards all beings not for their similarity with us but for what they are in themselves. This developed the bases of secular ethics in pluralism. He considered this proposition both in terms of an atheist conception and a spiritual conception. Both in fact rested on our perceived unity as creatures of the earth in a large interdependence and our ignorance of Truth or Reality. The scientist experimented and expanded knowledge in search of Truth, but had to concede his ignorance. Hence, the acceptance of viewpoints other than his own as possibilities of truth while holding to one’s own tradition of seeking due to one’s own sincere intuitions of belief was the best attitude for the atheist. For the spiritual person too, the basis of pluralism lay in human ignorance. The Dalai Lama exemplified this through an analysis of Buddhism.


3.       This analysis of Buddhism seemed to me to be the highpoint of the Lama’s talk, since it seemed to sound his depths. He moved from a mood of banter to a seriousness which demonstrated interested reflection. He pointed out that one did not even need to consider the great diversity of world religions and their beliefs. There were a large number of Buddhist traditions represented in the city of Los Angeles itself – Thai, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and often many varieties of each of these. Each of these people would describe Buddhism very differently, yet they were often drawing from the same core texts of the Buddha. There were tremendous divergences. Even the tenet of the non-existence of the soul or of God which are held to be common to all Buddhism, were not adhered to by all Buddhist schools. There were sayings of the Buddha which lent themselves to the interpretation that the soul did exist. The Dalai Lama questioned why there were such radical differences? Did the Buddha try to confuse people? Was he himself confused? According to him, the answer was neither. It was simply that human difference, finitude and ignorance made each person who heard or read the Buddha understand him in a limited way as per his or her own nature and need. They then followed this understanding. Evidently Truth transcended its human descriptions. Hence, to have faith in one’s path and love and respect in the sincerity of others’ paths was the basis of a pluralist secular ethics. We are united in our common humanity, our common ignorance and our common search for truth and freedom or meaning. In developing these ideas, the Dalai Lama made reference to India’s millennia-long tradition of multi-religious or multi-sectarian harmony and the care with which the founding fathers of modern India sought to protect these traditions through the constitution. He referred to Mahatma Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the first president of India in this regard.


4.       Responding both to the neuro-biologist’s reduction of mental states to neuro-chemistry and the social psychologist’s contention that the teaching of ethics was not successful in creating an ethical society, the Dalai Lama questioned whether indeed mind could be equated to brain activity. He asked the neuro-scientist if he was sure of this and the latter admitted that not everything was known about brain functioning or its relationship with mental states. The Dalai Lama referred to the 2000 years of development of the science of Mind in India, a science of mental states which proceeded along assumptions which were not materialist. According to this tradition and its findings, many states of mind were independent of brain activity. Though he admired and respected the scientist for his sincerity of seeking and his methodical rigor, he said the scientist should also accept the research of the Indian theories of Mind as equally if not more sophisticated and leading to practical results which the scientist had not sufficiently explored.


5.       To the social psychologist’s question of the inefficacy of education and its replacement by environmental changes, he pointed to the fact that all forms of environmental design were forms of conditioning and not durable, given the human factor of choice. Without the tools for independent choice, human beings could not arrive at enduring behavioral changes. This was only possible through education. Perhaps the education the social psychologist was talking about was not effective enough, but then a better education was necessary. Perhaps a different and more complete understanding of mind, its states and its capacities was needed and this needed to be taught. In any case, the Dalai Lama was quite impassioned about the need for proper education, perhaps Consciousness Education, as the only solution to the development of an ethical culture.



6.       The social psychologist finally brought the topic around to politics. If the Dalai Lama was given beck Tibet by the Chinese, what kind of political system would he establish? The Dalai Lama said that practical concerns would give the specific shape, but generally speaking, he favored socialism. He called himself a Marxist, though not a Leninist. He believed in common ownership of resources but not coercive methods through power. The sense of protection for all and basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, health and education for all was part of the idea of socialism, though he also believed in the positive energetic force which creative free enterprise brought to people. He said he had suggested a synthesis of both these approaches to the people of Czechoslovakia after they became free from the Soviet republic. But returning to his bantering mode, he said – But to run a country one needs to know how to make money. I don’t know at all how to make money. If you give me money, I may learn how to use it, but not how to make, it. For that, perhaps I would have to go to the economist or social psychologist, no?


7.       With his robes, but with boots which he carefully removed as soon as he sat down, lifting his legs up and sitting cross-legged on the chair; with a couple of gifted red caps with the letters USC written across, one of which he put on his bald head as he sat down and later removed, studying its construction along with its pair’s as he listened to his fellow panelists; with his serious androgymous face, which nevertheless had an edge of childlike mock laughter underlying it, the Dalai Lama cut a paradoxical image, occupying a liminal space between an ancient grandeur, kin to the simplicity and profundity of great natural things; and the world of artificial largely unnecessary contraptions and labels which he needed to address for its well being, since that was also, in the larger sense of self, his own world, but which he wore lightly like a clown, amused and amusing. Throughout his session, he fiddled occasionally with these contraptions of modernity, studying his caps, drinking water from a plastic bottle, pulling out bottles of pills from his knapsack, looking at his watch and finally, while answering his last question, lowering his legs to slip his feet into his boots and bending down to tie his laces. All these actions carried a sense of incongruity, a sense heightened and rendered comical by his own subtly expressed absurdism, so that the audience could not but laugh when he bent to tie his laces. As if in acknowledgment of his success in foolery, he laughed, excused himself, put on his red USC cap and handed the replica cap to his neighbor, the grey-haired small figured neuro-biologist. The latter also smiled and donned his gift, the two looking like exotic USC mascots, distant neighbors, one marked by the materialist denial, the other by the refusal of the ascetic, both absurd, both human. The Dalai Lama had made his point: it didn’t matter if one was a fool in someone else’s semiotic system, it mattered even less if that someone else was also a fool, man the despot of contraries shared his grandeur and his absurdity with every other human being. This was the basis of secular ethics.

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commented by R.P.Gayatri on May 7, 2011

The obvious always seems to have been least visible and least acceptable to the human race. The web of 'principles', 'codes', 'ethics' etc. only make the scenario fuzzier. It is easy for more
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commented by Keka Chakraborty on May 7, 2011

Beautiful write-up Debashish! We are privileged to have you amongst us. True Pluralism could be as difficult a target as realizing The One and the Infinite Love, I believe. Also, I understand it as more
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commented by Vladimir on May 7, 2011

Wow! What a description! Very moving and true. Thank you for your fine insights and impressions. 
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replied by Debashish Banerji on May 7, 2011 (in reply to Vladimir's comment)

I'm glad you found it useful, Vladimir. Though an event occurring so far away in the metropolis of Los Angeles, I thought Auroville, with its aspiration for realizing the ideal of more