Dalai Lama in Melbourne
|Gyuto monks' labour of love|
Last Tuesday afternoon I went to Melbourne's Convention Centre to hear His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, talk on the unexpected theme of 'Beyond Religion'.
Before I say more about him, I first want to acknowledge the supporting acts.
I was lucky enough some years ago to hear the Gyoto monks of Tibet performing. In the dark bluestone amphitheatre at nearby Fairfield park, in their strange yellow-plumed headgear, they chanted in unison to the gum trees and the moon. It was a weird and wonderful experience. But I had no idea the monks were also masters of sand painting.
On Tuesday I stood watching for ages, enthralled, as they collaborated in painstakingly directing tiny trickles of different coloured sands to create a mandala of exquisite beauty before our very eyes.
Then I queued for ages for a security check - what a sad signs of the times - before finally entering the hall. As you can see from the pictures below, my seat in row XX provided a real workout for my camera's zoom.
Tenzin Choegyal's traditional Tibetan music set the tone beautifully, as did the repartee between Tenzin and Magda Szubanski. At first I thought Magda an odd choice as compere until I was reminded how much the Dalai Lama loves a laugh - often against himself.
Arriving on stage, the first thing he did was share a joke with the Aboriginal Elder who welcomed us to country (sorry, but I didn't catch her name). In thanking her for her gifts, he commented that when recently presented with a handful of earth by representatives of the American First Nations, he had no idea what to do with it or where to put it. He wondered about rubbing it into his scalp, as he demonstrated (below).
|Dalai Lama at his toilette|
I find it astonishing that such a world-renowned religious figure, and one who has suffered so much, is always so quick to laugh and manages to avoid taking himself seriously. Suggesting that this century belongs to youth, (who were well-represented by the many school children in the audience), he said that he wouldn't be around to see how well they were doing. But even so, he joked, he would be looking down from heaven. Or if he ended up in the 'other place', he would appeal to the authorities there for a few moment's leave to check out humans' progress. When we remember that Buddhists are not theists, and so don't believe in heaven or hell, the flexibility of thinking and the generosity about others' beliefs (and perhaps the gentle prod) implicit in this joke I find amazing. I can't think of a single other religious leader who would say anything like it.
But the Dalai Lama takes a radical stance on religion. He believes that although their philosophical top dressings differ, all the main religions share the same key values, of compassion and forgiveness. He delighted in telling a story about the time he was introduced as a 'good Christian' and congratulated his Catholic priest friend for being 'a good Buddhist'. Although he frames his message of our fundamental sameness in simple terms, the implications are profound. If we were truly compassionate to each other and saw ourselves as the same, there would be no wars.
The Dalai Lama's message, as always, is an optimistic one. He argues that today's young people are sick of violence. And he is a great believer in the power of education. The 21st century, he suggests, will be the 'century of dialogue'.
|Looking like an ageing golfer in his visor, His Holiness delights the crowd with his prowess|
I have no doubt that, although he loves informality and is the most human of men, the Dalai Lama is an exceptional person, a holy man - and a visionary. So I was delighted when, as his parting comment, he declared categorically that our present life-style can't continue, that the challenge for the future is to find a more sustainable economy. Ladakh, a close neighbour of Tibet, is the place where the ideas behind the Economics of Happiness crystallised for Helena Norberg Hodge, the theory's originator. So perhaps it's little wonder that His Holiness too sees the need for a total shift in our economic system. But it was still great to hear him say so.
I abstained from the mosh pit at the end, when people descended en masse on His Holiness. Instead, I stood in XX and watched until he finally disappeared offstage.
|Monks destroying their handiwork|
I knew in advance that, to make the point that everything in life is impermanent, the creators of the mandala would destroy it. So I was prepared - at least intellectually. But watching the monks ritually drag their tiny trowels through their beautiful art work was still distressing. I don't know how they do it - transform those beautiful images of brightly coloured sand, that they had worked so hard on, into a dun-coloured pile on an empty canvass. But I accepted their gift of a pinch of sand, and I'm looking at it now. I have to admit it beats the Christian memento mori of a human skull, which decorates many a Renaissance painting. But still...
In my next I will return to another creative group who also specialise in beautiful temporary art. You guessed it - I'll be back with Melbourne's grafitti artists, this time talking to a rare female graffiti-ist called Trash.