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Hearing The Dalai Lama

On Friday we had the great privilege of hearing the Dalai Lama at his Brisbane audience. Human beings whose goodness goes all the way through are a rarity, and when you see the real thing, the difference is striking. The event started comically, with the Dalai Lama sitting with the Mayor of Ipswich and an ABC interviewer, who had probably never had their hands held in public before!

I wanted to mention just a few incidents from his answers to audience questions, first an important practical one, then an insightful emotional one.

The practical one: You have probably heard the word 'secular' used in connection with society, government, and so on. Some think it is a good thing, some a bad one. I think it is a very good thing, but only if it is defined properly. A common definition, which doesn't help us much, is that secular society is atheistic. Religion having botched the job, so the story goes, must now get out of public life and allow the country to be run on the assumption that there is no god, no afterlife, no spiritual reality. But such a government is actually enforcing belief (or at least behaviour that accords with belief) just as much as a theocracy enforces religious conformity. It is not a secular society, it is in fact (to coin a word) an 'atheocracy'. As a firm believer in the right of the individual to determine their own understanding of reality, and to come to terms with it in their own way, I find both religious and irreligious 'ocracies' repugnant.

Imagine my amazement, then, to hear the Dalai Lama explain exactly this difference. A genuine secular society, he explained, is based on the freedom of the individual, on allowing differences of opinion and understanding, of giving each person their space to develop in their own fashion. He put it much better than I could, and I don't have a recording so I can't quote him verbatim, but a great many politicians of all colours could learn a thing or two from his insight.

Now for the emotional event: A young woman, deeply troubled, asked a question in such a halting and tearful way that we couldn't catch what exactly was causing her so much grief. The Dalaai Lama gave an answer in two parts. The first part was to call her to come to him and to hug her and soothe her pain. He said all the soothing and encouraging words we normally expect in such a situation. But he did something else too: he told her she wasn't the most unfortunate person on Earth: she was a 'handsome lady' and she could rise above her present pain.

What struck me as so insightful in this was that most people would give one answer or the other. Some people give a lot of cuddles and soft words, but little practical advice. Others give the realistic message with not much empathy attached. It is a very hard thing indeed to blend a somewhat stern call to reality with enough compassion and love to put that message across and make the person feel good at the same time. It was a lesson to me specifically, as I find it hard to do this when I can see some obvious practical point someone else has overlooked.

So at one and the same event, this wise man spoke about the large and the small, and with equal importance attached to both. Oh yes, he told the truth to the politician on the stage, about the dangers that profession can fall into, whilst making him feel good about it too. At no point did he avoid giving straight advice to anyone, and some of it was very direct indeed, but no one felt bad about it due to the love that came with the message.

It was a great blessing to be in his presence; if only we could all find such wisdom.

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