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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Spirit Of The Matter

March 1, 2010

Gautam Adhikari
Times of India
February 27, 2010

WASHINGTON DC -- India is shy of advertising its
democracy. But, as a democracy, it has done good
things in the past, which still help it collect
brownie points. Half a century ago, India gave
shelter to the Dalai Lama and thousands of
Tibetans escaping from China's tyranny. Today,
the Dalai Lama speaks glowingly of his India experience.

He had a busy schedule in this town last week,
much to the annoyance of the Chinese. He called
on President Barack Obama at the White House,
showed up in the Library of Congress to collect a
Democracy Service Medal awarded by the National
Endowment for Democracy, and gave interviews to
Larry King on CNN and to the National Public
Radio. The Chinese put out surly statements
criticising his visit; but with a smile on his
face he spoke gentle truths that stung some and soothed others.

He praised India wherever he spoke. He contrasted
his experience in the mid-1950s of the Chinese
parliament, where the orderly proceedings had a
soporific effect on members and visitors alike,
to his later visit to the Lok Sabha, where he
watched a cauldron of cacophony to imbibe his
first lesson in the joys of democratic pluralism.

When Larry King brought up the subject of
discipline, the wise lama separated 'totalitarian
discipline', which damaged individuals, from
'self-discipline', which elevated individuals. In
the teachings of Gautam Buddha, the acquisition
of self-discipline was a key to self-realisation.
Since Buddhism had come out of India, he said, "I
always describe myself as a messenger of India, because i am a Buddhist."

Speaking of the Buddha, he said something that
took me back to a conversation in Delhi with a
friend who had wondered how an agnostic, like
myself, could hope to comprehend the reality of
the cosmos without any spiritual training. The
Dalai Lama said, in his speech at the Library of
Congress, that the Buddha implored his disciples
not to accept any statement or assertion of truth
on faith alone. All assertions or claims to
truth, even those coming from the Buddha, must be
investigated. Every position on the nature of
reality should be adopted on the basis of reasoning inquiry.

The problem is that such rational inquiry
requires in any curious individual a basic level
of acquired information. I, for instance, can't
graduate myself from 'agnostic', that is someone
who thinks any ultimate truth may be unknowable
for us humans, to 'atheist', that is someone who
asserts there is no god or prime mover. I am
unable to do that because my knowledge of
mathematical astrophysics is far too limited to
understand a concept like a 'singularity', for
instance, that makes superfluous the need for a
prime mover, or to comprehensively grasp the idea of a causeless cosmos.

There are thinkers, however, who can do that and
have written essays and books explaining their
take on reality. You can say, in a sense, they
are at one with the Buddha and the Dalai Lama in
that they don't accept any faith-based assertion
about the nature or origin of life. They and, for
that matter, we agnostics don't allow inquiry to
cease or curiosity to die as long as our thinking faculty is intact.

That is not to suggest that a god-believing
person cannot also be an inquiring soul.
Einstein, who had a profound understanding of the
nature of reality, seemed to be a believer in a
divine being up there with a plan for the
universe. But there may be no compelling need to
be spiritual, or to belong to one religious group
or the other, to carry on a fulfilling life of
rational inquiry or raise questions about
existence. You just have to be ceaselessly
curious and ready to change positions when facts evolve.

That was what was pleasing about the Dalai Lama's
spirit. As a Buddhist monk, he did not think
there was a need for devotional belief; as a
leader of an exiled people, he did not believe
any authority, be it divine or political, should
be unquestioningly accepted, including his own.
In Buddhism, agnostics and atheists can feel at home.
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