Most of us would agree that enlightenment would be a noteworthy achievement although we might not all agree on what that might actually mean. The conventional definition of enlightenment, growing out of the 18th century philosophical movement, meant examining accepted doctrines, superstitions and institutions rationally which led to what we now call the Age of Reason. Becoming the creature that reasons, however, has not improved our species’ ability to succeed at creating a sustainable human community. Perhaps a more impressive achievement than conventional enlightenment would be an “awakening;” or as Buddha might have phrased it “experiencing the nature of reality.”
Buddhist definitions of enlightenment are popular today, but they might be confusing for those of us raised in the context of a different religious worldview. For those of us for whom that’s true we might need a book like Anne Cushman’s Enlightenment for Idiots (many of us feel like one of those from time to time). Or we could turn to Alan Watts who talks about “feeling” as opposed to an “intellectual” understanding. “It is a special kind of enlightenment to have this feeling that the usual, the way things normally are, is odd—uncanny and highly improbable.” When something about P-B begins to feel “highly improbable” then we might be ready to consider enlightenment but before we begin making unconventional choices in our lives, it would be a good idea to make a connection with our inner wisdom, the source of the “feeling” Watts experienced.
For any of us to experience what we have labeled Simple Reality requires a willingness to change our beliefs, attitudes and values. This is obviously profound change, transformational change, and difficult, not because it is necessarily hard but radically different. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama might be undergoing such a change, a paradigm shift.
The Dalai Lama has proven his ability to accept radical change and to accept it with equanimity. There was a time as the leader of the Tibetan community in exile in northern India when he might have believed that he could return to a Tibet free of Chinese control. In the “naïve era” following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, democracy and capitalism seemed to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts. New nation states appeared across Europe and Asia, apartheid ended in South Africa, peace was declared in Northern Ireland and the European Union was born.
Tibet’s “modernization” today, however, has had little to do with democracy or capitalism. “The world has become more interconnected, but—defined by spiraling wars, frequent terrorist attacks and the rapid rise of China—it provokes more anxiety and bewilderment than hope.” Today, Tibet’s future is being directed from Beijing.
His relationship with China has been long and turbulent although in the beginning the young Dalai Lama had high hopes. “He traveled to Beijing in 1954 to meet Mao Zedong and was impressed by Communist claims to social justice and equality.” Perhaps unaware of the tactics used by the collective false self of both the U.S. and China he would become a pawn in the global power struggle easily cast aside when he became a perceived liability by either side or both. He had embarked on a steep learning curve that would have been the ruin of a lesser soul.
Tibet is twice the size of France, a fact that should have made Chinese foreign policy in that region easy to predict. C.I.A. dominated U.S. foreign policy was also predictable in hindsight and the paranoia experienced by both nations fed the Cold War. A Tibetan armed rebellion resisting Chinese claims to Tibet began in 1956 and the C.I.A. trained Tibetan guerrillas in Colorado and parachuted them back into Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, who had helped with the training in Colorado, now (2015) accuses the U.S. of using the Tibetans to “stir up trouble” with the China. Most of the Colorado-trained Tibetan guerrillas were killed by the Chinese army.
That’s what the C.I.A. does, intervening unconsciously without rhyme or reason, escalating conflict, as it would also do in Vietnam, “stirring up trouble” and then abandoning its allies. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, would later write a poem about this behavior.
Its beauty torn apart,
only blood and tears now flow.
Brothers killing brothers
for promises from outsiders.
A second big uprising in 1959 forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. The Cold War also left Tibet out in the cold. A liberated India needed to develop friendly relations with its largest neighbor China and Nehru, the Indian prime minister didn’t support Tibetan independence. In the early 70s Nixon made his trip to China to meet Mao and the Cold War was warming. “Though Western diplomatic support for the Dalai Lama rose after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989, it declined again. By 2008, Britain was actually apologizing for not previously recognizing Tibet as part of China.” The political realities of the post-Cold War years were not lost on the Dalai Lama, but neither were several deeper realities.
The Dalai Lama over time reached the point and had insights into the nature of reality that would prepare him for a paradigm shift, for enlightenment, for a new worldview, a new identity and new behavior—he is ready for Simple Reality—but, of course, the rest of the world may not be ready for the new and improved version and instead will want to cling to the old and familiar symbol of a dying culture.
The condition of the human community cries out for a deeper understanding of reality, a new and more profound pragmatism. When the old worldview and the old institutions have outlived their usefulness, it’s time to reinvent new ones and move on. Buddhist teachings on change and impermanence may have helped the Dalai Lama see more deeply into the human condition and the need for self-transformation. “Over the previous months he had expressed various versions of a drastic prospect: The institution of the Dali Lama had outlived its purpose, he said. ‘If it is not needed, then do away with it.’”
No valid worldview would entertain the idea of nationalism or geopolitical entities of any kind viewing such fragmentation of the human community as a delusion of the false-self identity. Speaking to the journalist Pankaj Mishra the Dalai Lama described his new identity. “He then quickly reminded me that he had renounced his political responsibilities, ending a four-century-old tradition according to which the Dalai Lama exercised political as well as spiritual authority over Tibetans … he told me that he may one day travel to China, but not as the Dalai Lama.”
As a student of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama had a head start on the rest of us in being wary of the pitfalls of the false self and its pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. “He embodies an ancient spiritual and philosophical tradition that enjoins a suspicion of the individual self and its desires, and stresses ethical duties over political and economic rights.”
His intuitive understanding of the distinction between response and reaction shows that he uses The Point of Power Practice to stay equanimous and thereby transcends personal suffering and avoids becoming embroiled in political conflicts and power struggles. “[The] Dalai Lama appears wholly untouched by bitterness and self-pity—the sense of victimhood that fuels many contemporary battles for territory [power], resources [plenty] and dignity [pleasure or affection and esteem].”
Renouncing P-B in favor of P-A would give all of us not only a new personal identity but a new collective vision. The Dalai Lama revealed that he understood this in a recent speech. “His speech made clear that to him, Tibet had become more than a geographical and political entity; it was now a noble idea, a different way of being in the world. Its fulfillment did not require political sovereignty, let alone nationalistic passion. It could be realized in any part of the world and was available to anyone, Tibetan or not.” Someone should have stood and said Amen at the conclusion of that speech.
Great insights like the one revealed in his speech are universal and could be experienced by anyone on the planet whether they were Buddhist or not, religious or not. Wisdom is universal but so is the human yearning to express compassion—our most wholesome and satisfying behavior. Few people today seem to grasp the importance of a new definition of reality more profoundly than the Dalai Lama. Perhaps Tibet will not survive as a separate nation-state but may have a more critical role to play. “Modern science was validating the insights of Tibetan Buddhism and confirming Tibetan medicine’s assumptions about the indivisibility of body and mind. Millions of Chinese were also attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. But it was important for Tibetans not to grow complacent, to preserve their ‘moral culture of compassion.’”
Renowned for his sense of humor as well as his disciplined meditation practice, he could teach all of us not to take the experience of our tortured false self too seriously. “A solemn hush fell when a student asked the Dalai Lama for the key to happiness. The Dalai Lama seemed to ponder the question. A then in his noun-stressing baritone he declaimed: ‘Money!’ ‘Sex!’”
In addition to an appealing sense of humor, he knows how to use the shock value of provocative images and language to make a point about the need for radically new behavior on the part of both people and nations. “I am Marxist (and he is one—at least in his critique of inequality). He has also declared himself a true jihadi in his everyday struggle against ‘destructive emotions.’” If by “destructive emotions” he meant reacting to the provocation of our past conditioning, he has had the insight revealing the distinction between response and reaction.
The Dalai Lama’s new worldview of Oneness has no room for religion despite the fact that he has been a religious leader since he was a child. “Today, the man who in old photos of Tibet can be seen enacting religious rites wearing a conical yellow hat—in front of thangkas, or scrolls, swarming with scowling monsters and copulating deities—speaks of going “beyond religion” and embracing “secular ethics:” principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.” Interconnectedness is not only a Buddhist notion but rather the universal experience of all people who find themselves in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh would use the word “interbeing” meaning the same thing. Two of the world’s most influential Buddhist teachers are both setting examples for the people of the Global Village. Is anyone listening?
Perhaps we don’t like the profound insights we are hearing from these two enlightened teachers. For example, for the people of the Global Village, religion has become a luxury and an anachronism. The Dalai Lama has come to realize this and has the courage to say so which is remarkable for a religious leader. What he told a reporter in a recent interview could be said of all the world’s religions: “Too many superstitious beliefs had overlaid Buddhism’s commitment to empirically investigate the workings of the mind. Tibetans believed that he ‘had some kind of miracle power,’ he said. ‘Nonsense!’ he thundered. ‘If I am a living god, then how come I can’t cure my bad knee?’” Again it helps to have a sense of humor when encountering Simple Reality.
As a student of history, he does not bend the facts to prejudice one religion over another or the dysfunctional nature of religion as a P-B institution. “Corrupted by hierarchical systems, they began to discriminate between men and women; they came to be compromised by such cultural spinoffs as Sharia law [Islam] and the caste system [Hinduism]. But he said, ‘times change; they have to change. Therefore, Dalai Lama institution, I proudly, voluntarily, ended. So,’ he concluded, ‘it is backward.’”
To make sure that his shocking pronouncements were not misunderstood he mentioned his new insight often with different phrasing. “It was no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multicultural societies.”
He seems to have realized, as we all must eventually, that religions are not inclusive and therefore divide people against one another. This reality flies in the face of the most important principle underlying Simple Reality, Oneness. As the Dalai Lama said and we must all learn to repeat over and over: “We are all the same human beings.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.