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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Dharma of Politics: Adventures in Interdependence

August 2, 2008

Rebecca Novick
Mandala Magazine
August/September 2008

"If we serve sentient beings by engaging in political activities with
a spiritual orientation, we are actually following the bodhisattva's
way of life." HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA

I met my lama at a demonstration. It's hard to imagine a less
spiritual place -- a busy intersection beneath the drab utilitarian
architecture of the Los Angeles Federal Building at rush hour. It was
December 10th, 1991. International Human Rights Day.  Less than one
year later, I found myself half way around the world in the North
Indian town of Dharamsala, filming a documentary about human rights
abuses in Tibet. I remember my teacher telling me once, "Spirituality
and politics aren't different. People think they are, but they are
the same." He put out his two forefingers and rubbed them together
side by side as he spoke.

I had never been interested in politics before I became a Buddhist,
but the Tibetan cause seemed to be a special case because it
represented something beyond the sphere of conventional political
goals. This thought was echoed in something that His Holiness the
Dalai Lama once said. "The political struggle for the restoration of
Tibetan freedom should not be seen in the same light as we view
ordinary politics." He went on to explain that this is because
Tibetan freedom is focused on a culture that "has the potential to
bring happiness to all sentient beings."

In Tibet, taking refuge is a political act. The guru -- the fourth
Jewel -- embodies the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Dalai
Lama, who China's leaders have called "a monster with a human face,"
is considered the guru of most Tibetans. Even possessing a photo of
him can be cause for arrest. And because of the history of protest
against its rule, the Communist Chinese government views Tibetan
Buddhism itself as a seditious system. But even before the Chinese
occupation, Tibetans happily merged dharma and politics, with a
system of government made up largely of monastics and a domestic
policy based on religious principles. The Tibetan freedom struggle is
rooted in the dharma. It's no coincidence that monks and nuns are
usually at the forefront of dissent.

In speaking with hundreds of Tibetan men and women -- torture
survivors and veterans of protests in Tibet from fifty years ago to
the present -- I've heard stories to both break your heart and mend
it. Many of these people told me about doing tonglen for their
torturers" mentally taking on their suffering and negative karma and
giving them their happiness. A young nun told me how she prayed every
night that tomorrow the prison guards would beat her instead of her
cellmates. Ani Pachen described how, after being released from a
nine-month sentence of solitary confinement, she asked the guards to
close the door because she hadn't finished her retreat. Every day,
Mahayanists are taught to pray to take on the suffering of the world.
These are people who really know how to live and die for others, I thought.

But in the pain and loss that went along with these experiences, it
has been repeatedly brought home to me that the dharma we now enjoy
in the West spilled out of Tibet in rivers of blood and tears. To my
confused and painfully self-conscious mind, the Buddha's teachings
seemed a miraculous elixir of sanity and happiness. Maybe it's just
the way I was raised, but I couldn't imagine taking it without a
proper thank you. I joined a local Tibet Support Group, organized
campaigns, and stayed up late licking cheap envelopes. Later, I
started a radio program about Tibet. I also attended dharma teachings
and tried to practice them as well as I could. It wasn't always an
easy balance, and I found myself thinking that if I could completely
devote my life to my practice I would be a better practitioner. Or
alternatively, if I just dedicated my life to activism it would make
me a better activist. I don't think that way any more.

Things shifted during March of this year. I had been ramping up my
practice for about a month before the protests in Tibet began. Rather
than racing through my commitments as if I were being chased by
wolves, I slowed down and allowed the meaning some time and space to
seep in. The harmony of emptiness and dependent arising, for so long
an exquisite idea lying on some distant shore, for the first time
seemed to hold the promise of true revolution right under my nose. I
spent my days merrily experimenting with ways to actually enact this
liberating reality, however imperfectly, rather than simply admiring
it and chatting about it with my dharma friends.

And then March 10th 2008 arrived. Tibet erupted, and I was flung off
my cushion and back out onto the street. But the shift felt
completely natural, as if the work in the world was simply a
continuum of the work in the mind. The tension I had sometimes felt
between the two seemed to have disappeared. And strange as it may
sound, there was a huge sense of joy among my activist friends, even
with the emotionally difficult news coming out of Tibet. It felt like
tsundue, enthusiastic effort. Simply, joy in doing good. The feeling
of camaraderie among those who work for Tibet transcends all
boundaries of age, race and culture. This isn't just a Tibetan cause.
It belongs to all of us.

Not everyone responded in the same way, of course. Some practitioners
understandably took off for a bit of peace and quiet away from the
action where people weren't shouting and marching all day long. But
others got involved for the first time in their lives and found
themselves standing on street corners handing out flyers and
forwarding email petitions to their office buddies. One dharma friend
who'd been frustrated at not knowing what to do with herself had the
idea of writing out the bodhicitta prayer that the Tibetans were
chanting all the time into English, and passing it out to the foreign
media who had flocked to Dharamsala after the protests broke out. A
simple but meaningful act. On visiting a hermit friend up in the
mountains, I noted a small Tibetan flag on the wall of his retreat
hut that hadn't been there before.

For me, it became increasingly difficult to tell where the practice
ended and the activism began. I was beginning to understand that to
be effective as an activist you need exactly the same qualities that
make one an effective Mahayana practitioner; generosity, morality,
patience, enthusiastic effort, concentration and wisdom. I'd read in
a booklet Gems of the Heart by the Dalai Lama, "If we serve sentient
beings by engaging in political activities with a spiritual
orientation, we are actually following the bodhisattva's way of
life." And as the days rolled on, these words seemed to come alive as
the practice became the action, the action became the practice. It
all seemed to arise as tenjung, interdependent origination.

It was in this atmosphere that the Dalai Lama gave three days of
teachings on emptiness to about two hundred Westerners in a hotel in
New Delhi. The audience included heavyweights of Tibetan Buddhist
thought, including Jeffrey Hopkins, Alexander Berzin, Anne Klein,
George Dreyfuss and Bob Thurman. It was the fourth week of March, and
in light of the turmoil in Tibet it was remarkable that the teachings
went ahead. But His Holiness was clearly distracted and disturbed.
During the question and answer session on the second day, one of the
attendees brought up the elephant in the room and asked, "How can we
help Tibet?" His Holiness looked genuinely at a loss. "I am
helpless," he said. His face showed that he meant it. "I don't know.
Perhaps you can give it some thought." And he looked carefully around
the room at each of us.

He then told the story of a French monk in the Tibetan Buddhist
tradition, who had told him, "You know, I really love the
Buddhadharma, but I'm not interested in the Tibetan cause." His
Holiness recalled saying to him, "The freedom of the Tibetan people
is a guarantor of the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. When you work
for the Tibetan cause, you are really joining the Nalanda struggle."
He was referring to ancient India's great institution of learning
that became a focus of Mahayana Buddhism and was emulated in the
great monastic centers in Tibet. Nalanda's destruction in the 12th
century by Muslim invaders, with the wholesale slaughter of monks and
the burning of its library, said to have taken several months, sits
in eerie comparison with the takeover of Tibet eight centuries later.
The "Nalanda struggle" is the effort to keep truth and knowledge
alive in times of darkness, and today this struggle is being played
out in the living rooms of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang, and in the
monasteries and nunneries of Tibet.

It was at these same teachings that Bob Thurman told me that those
who think that Tibet is a lost cause are suffering from "a failure of
imagination." He said that the Tibetan cause is "a complete focus of
where the energy should go. The Tibet freedom movement must not be
allowed to fail. It represents the antidote to all the trends that
are destroying the planet; commercialism, industrialism, militarism
and environmental destruction." Besides, he notes, it is on the whole
a joyful movement.

When His Holiness the Karmapa was in Seattle addressing an audience
of dharma practitioners on his first US visit, he said something that
surprised a number of those present. He'd been asked a question about
the most important subjects for dharma students to study in this age.
Rather than giving instruction on individual practice, however, he
spoke about the importance of engaging in actions for the benefit of
the world and said that seeking personal liberation is no longer
sufficient. "Go beyond limited concepts of what it means to have a
Buddhist practice."

In Israel, it's every citizen's duty to give two years of their life
to the army. Perhaps Tibetan Buddhists could devote two years to the
Tibetan cause; full-time, part-time, or just a few hours a week, so
that we can each become what Thurman describes as a "node of
spreading information" about Tibet. A life dedicated to genuine
spiritual practice is enormously meaningful and beneficial. As
Buddhists, practice should be the fountainhead for everything we do.
But using the Tibetans as our role models, we can perhaps stretch the
idea of what practice means a little bit, and embrace activities
previously relegated to other areas. The Tibetan cause is one such
activity. It's a lot more fun that the Israeli army. I guarantee it.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and the producer of The Tibet Connection
radio program www.thetibetconnection.org She is currently based in
Dharamsala, India.

Rebecca Novick, Executive Producer www.thetibetconnection.org
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