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The Dalai Lama: An Outstanding Example of Resiliency

Oceans of Wisdom

by Al Siebert, PhD

Author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.

The 14th Dalai Lama was in Portland, Oregon, for three days on May 13-15, 2001. To prepare for his visit, I went to several films and saw how he was located after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, how he was raised, China’s invasion of Tibet, the atrocities done by Chinese troops, how he escaped and transferred the seat of Tibetan Buddhism to India, and the way he has conducted himself while feeling the tragedy of 1.2 million Tibetans being killed by Chinese troops. (An excellent video about all this is the Martin Scorsese film Kundun.)

On May 14-15, 2001, I was part of an intimate group of 4300 at the University of Portland for two mornings, to hear Buddhist teachings by the Dalai Lama. I came away impressed with him as a teacher and as a living example of what he believes. Although I have had some familiarity with Buddhism for many years, for the first time I experienced profound wisdom in Buddhism. I can understand why the name "Dalai Lama" means "Ocean of Wisdom."

I am also deeply impressed with how the Dalai Lama remains silent about what the Chinese have done. Resiliency often depends on being able to not blame others for one’s reaction to adversity, to let the past go, and have empathy for adversaries. He gave me new ways of describing this process. He expresses no anger or bitterness, only compassion. His ability to live a life much different than what he was raised to expect is an exceptional example of resiliency. He has adapted to extremely adverse, profoundly disrupting events and found a way bring much good to the entire world. How could he do this? We find clues in his teachings.

The security at the University of Portland was tightly enforced. We had to stand in very long lines on a cold, windy, rainy morning while security guards scrutinized each person entering the Chiles Center. They would not allow anyone to enter with a backpack, large purse, or bag of any kind. When the Dalai Lama was on stage, he was flanked by several dozen Buddhist monks. Over a dozen secret service agents in black suits wearing radio earpieces rotated around the periphery.

The Dalai Lama spoke in English at first. He said that Buddhism has no deity or God to pray to, and that there is no conflict between Buddhism and religions. Anyone who practices a religion can also learn and benefit from Buddha’s teachings without giving up their religion.

When he began to speak in more depth about Buddhism, he spoke in Tibetan through his interpreter — after joking that when he spoke in English "sometimes I don’t understand what I am saying!"

Some insights that I heard the Dalai Lama express include these:

  • The practice of Buddhism is to experience the impermanence of the temporary moment. Our lives are a constant flow of brief moments between years of past experiences and expectations of future events. Time is constantly moving. How we use it is up to each of us, constructively or destructively.

  • All phenomena start from their causes, but what causes an event? Each event replaces another, but when something (an event) ends, the cessation is not caused by something separate. The nature of anything created carries the seed of its own end. Certain laws of cause and effect include their opposite.

  • Constructs, concepts, what we see and understand is not because of the thing itself, but how it contrasts with other things. Sensory perceptions are not a pure experience. Perceptions are mediated by our thoughts, experiences, expectations, needs and what other people see. Nothing we see is independent from its relationships, what we see is an illusion.

  • Conventional truth, conventional reality is a consensus reality, something that people agree on. Events do not have a reality of their own. All events depend on other events. Nothing ( no person) has an independent identity, there is no intrinsic reality. What is called "reality" depends on the context of other factors.

  • Insects are superior to humans because they are always in the present moment, doing what is their innate purpose to do.

  • What is a person? Their body? Their mind? Their consciousness? But what aspect of consciousness? Everyone is pinned down by their past. No person and no event has an independent reality.

  • Emptiness allows all people to share the same ultimate awareness and that can lead to ultimate truth, the universal truth underneath consensus truth.

  • Within the laws of cause an effect are the laws of Karma. The total effect of a person’s actions and conduct during the successive phases of their existence determine a person’s destiny. Reducing a cause, such as the perception or meaning given to an event, can diminish the effect (such as suffering.) Sometimes short-term satisfaction leads to long-term suffering. A misunderstanding of the reality of cause and effect is ignorance. Sometimes a person has to keep suffering until they reach enlightened about causes.

  • He focused particularly on a four-line verse written to help understand the Buddha’s teaching:

    All phenomena arise from their causes.
    Their causes are explained by the Buddha.
    Cessation of these causes too,
    Are taught thus by the great sage.

  • The Buddha nature is pure mind, conscious of this moment. Mental pollution can be removed by awareness that leads to cessation of causes.