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Acting From the Heart: The Dalai Lama Helps Us Remember What We Have to Offer One Another

Guest Column Constance Parvey

Are you searching for the perfect parent? A Good Samaritan whom you can trust to be there for you? A wise mentor who will give you just enough and then let you free to explore? A world leader who speaks about peace and has lived out his words in his actions now for nearly 40 years? An environmentalist who talks about saving people, animals, trees, water, and the air we breathe? A universalist who advocates the riches of cultural diversity and a religious leader who looks at what might bring religions into more appreciation for and deeper exchange with one another? If that's what you're looking for, perhaps the Dalai Lama is for you.

Last Saturday at Brandeis University was the second time I had been in the same space with the Dalai Lama - the first was about seven years ago at Middlebury College with a few hundred people at a symposium on world religions. At that time, I greeted him and thanked him personally and had a long talk with his sister who was accompanying him along with James Gere. The folks gathered were mostly over 40; there were few students. In less than a decade this scholarly, humble, energetic man with his trademark laugh has become a media icon.

Why was I, a Christian chaplain, at these events? Am I becoming some sort of Buddhist Christian? Would that be the way for me to respect the faith of the Dalai Lama or for him to respect mine? He doesn't advocate a mono-world religion, nor does he push for conversion to Buddhism. His message is modest and straightforward: Act from the heart out of compassion for others; respect and celebrate the richness and diversity of world cultures and religions; protect human rights, animal rights, and the environment; be a peacemaker by ending the wars within our own divided hearts and minds.

This is a message that many Christians could already affirm; Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu people might well respond, "We teach this already." What is outstanding about the Dalai Lama is that he talks about these ways of wisdom, peace, and love in the midst of a life-and-death struggle for the present and future survival of his people. The lessons he has learned from experiencing with them the ongoing tragedies of violence, suffering, death, loss, and exile are that living is about flourishing in the midst of adversity.

The Dalai Lama entered the Brandeis auditorium from the rear, walking down the aisles greeting people individually - unhurried but in a steady movement toward the stage where a huge yellow sun served as the backdrop and fresh flowers were piled high enough to hide the podium.

The Dalai Lama began by saying, "I am human, just like you are: I hope you won't be disappointed in me. I hope you are not expecting anything from me because I have nothing to give." He talked about personal responsibility, urging his listeners to grow in awareness of their capacities, the context in which they live, and the choices they make - personal, social, and political. He counseled wisdom to explore a wide landscape and choose a course of action carefully that will engage our creativity, not as competition but as cooperation. He cautioned that he is not talking about individualism but about the dynamic nature of each person's impact when acting from the heart. Together with others, the sum total benefits us personally, as well as the welfare of our communities and environment.

The Dalai Lama warned against passivity, against succumbing to feelings of hopelessness, despair and powerlessness. Through what he said and what he has done, he transmitted empathy, energy, and inspiration. The problem today, he said, is one of attitude: We give up before we have taken the time to take seriously those deepest feelings and impulses that come from our hearts. When we give up we become fearful and defensive; when we are defensive we are close to anger and then we stand near the threshold of violence.

The big word that people associate with the Dalai Lama is compassion, what Christians, Jews, and Muslims associate with the words "love of neighbor." A key psychological and spiritual insight of an ethics of compassion is that in wise acts of care for others and for our environment, we find happiness, joy, and fulfillment. In one of the stories of Jesus, the difference between the Samaritan, the priest, and the Levite is that the Samaritan is at peace with his decision to act with compassion to help the man left for dead by the wayside, while the Levite and priest, though they may have achieved the goal of their journey, did so at the cost of being indifferent to helping someone in dire need. They cannot be joyful as long as this image of ignored responsibility is stored in their memories unresolved.

Not only does he encourages faith dialogues among religions as steps toward peace, but the Dalai Lama also encourages the sharing of our faith cultures, especially our sacred music. With the talent and diversity of MIT students, the respect and appreciation we are learning from each other, what could happen if some of us took dialogue seriously and sacred sharing intentionally?

The Dalai Lama claims he has nothing to offer us, but he reminds us that we have heaps to offer one another.

Constance Parvey is the Lutheran Chaplain of MIT.