What I learnt from the Dalai Lama

What I learnt from the Dalai Lama

As part of our Ubuntu journey, Tom and I decided to do something a bit different and signed up for 10 days of teachings with the Dalai Lama, or as we learnt was a more respectful way of addressing the great man; His Holiness. 

I’m not really sure we really knew what we were signing ourselves up for. As it turns out, we were to join with 33,000 others; mostly Tibetan Buddhist monks, some Tibetans and others Buddhist devotees who had travelled from all over the world to receive transmissions of ancient Buddhist texts from His Holiness, himself.  

On the first day, we found our seat in the “Spanish” section and learnt to sit cross-legged for hours on end, tuning into the English translation we could receive from the radio on our ipod/phones. Despite it being pretty intense and a lot of stuff going over our heads, mainly due to the slightly obscure translation from thousands of years-old Tibetan texts to English, it was still a pretty cool experience. 

Whenever I’d get lost in the teachings, which was frequently, I’d just get out a book I’d bought, “Beyond Religion” by The Dalai Lama, which was a bit easier to digest. So, I kind of treated the time as an opportunity to just be open, to learn and experience in whatever way felt right. This was also my argument when Tom caught me listening to music through my headphones instead of the translations a couple of times. I innocently explained that it was just my form of meditation.

The experience also provided awesome opportunity for people watching. Our highlight of the day was seeing the young monks deliver lunch and tea at the respective break times. It was so funny seeing these young guys lining up, eagerly waiting for the signal for them to start serving. As soon as the signal was given, they would be off; sprinting back and forth, ducking in and out of people, taking their jobs incredibly seriously, but with massive smiles on their faces. It was just one of those examples of teenage boys will be teenage boys; full of energy, super competitive and making any activity fun, no matter what culture or religion. In all fairness, they did a pretty good job. Each day we’d receive our food in our plastic bowls and go find a spot to sit in the sun. 

Connecting with the Monks

When I first started thinking about The Ubuntu Project, I was adamant that I didn’t want to just meet people as a tourist. I wanted to make sure I was getting a more authentic feel for what “normal” life was like for someone who’s life was so different from mine. Our time at Sera Je Monastery gave us a little glimpse and feel for the life of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, thanks to a random connection (some may call it a Karmic ☺) with the beautiful Kaari Schlebach on day one.

Kaari is a self-confessed hippie who, in her early 20s, whilst backpacking around the world, was introduced to the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) by her now partner of 25 years and father to her 3 children. We were so grateful to have sparked up a connection with her, mainly, because we just really got along and had a great time hanging out with her. Despite her strong faith and commitment to Buddhism, Kaari was also really open and accepting of us just wanting to be there and not get too caught up in the religious side of things. She was so supportive of our project and we were lucky enough to interview her for the documentary. Finally, she introduced us and allowed us to be welcomed into the home and lives of some of the monks living in House No. 2 at Sera Je Monastery. 

Kaari was encouraged to set up her own Buddhist Centre in the North of New Zealand by a high up Lama about 15 years ago and now has three Tibetan monks living there and teaching out of the centre. I get the feeling she has played a huge part in helping the monks be able to continue practicing and teaching Buddhism, after the difficulty they’ve faced since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. She is really well regarded and respected amongst the monks and was welcomed into their home for the duration of the teachings. So, through association, so were we! 

It was a pretty special experience to be invited to hang out with and share meals with these unique individuals, especially given our position. One afternoon, whilst waiting for Kaari, we sat and chatted to another one of the monks who shared with us his story of escaping Tibet in the 1980s, on foot, across the border to Nepal and eventually through to India. He explained that there were many times he and his friend were lucky to escape alive after being shot at by both Chinese and Nepalese army. We later discovered this is not an uncommon story for Tibetan people. In my ignorance, I had not realized the extreme struggle they have faced and are still facing now. I have been really inspired by the commitment and determination the Tibetans have to keep their culture and religion alive.

What I learnt from the Dalai Lama…

So, back to Buddhism and Ubuntu…. Even though I have no intension of converting to Buddhism (much to Tom’s relief) I’ve taken on a lot of the philosophy and way of approaching things, both for my own life and to support what we’re doing with The Ubuntu Project.

What I learnt from the Dalai Lama…

A lot! But here are three main things that I’d like to share:

We are all part of the 7 billion people on this planet who want the same thing; to be happy and be free from suffering. When it boils down to it, we’re all in the same boat, we all want the same thing. We are really not as different as we think. 

I learnt about the dangers of self-cherishing. Self-cherishing is that thing we do when we place a huge amount of importance on our ego, our self, our identity, how we define ourselves, how we are viewed by others and what our legacy will be. It was quite an interesting process to reflect on the amount of self-cherishing I am guilty of and how much this gets in the way of my own happiness and inner peace. How much anxiety and fear, anger and resentment, narrow focusing and lack of perspective and insight this creates. 

So, what the Dalai Lama taught me was that self-cherishing leads us to view ourselves as separate entities to be analyzed, judged and scrutinized. To be free from self-cherishing, is to consider yourself as existing within a complex web of connections with billions of other human beings. He explains that this is why it is more worthwhile for us to focus on others’ wellbeing and happiness and relief from suffering, because our happiness, wellbeing and suffering is dependent on theirs. 

The personal learning for me, is to not being so attached to things; to ideas, or plans working out a certain way, or to me being the type of person that I want to be, but go with the flow a bit more. I think India has been the perfect place for me to put that to the test.

One other part of Buddhism that I thought was pretty cool, is the belief in reincarnation; that we have all had past lives and, apart from the few enlightened ones, will all experience a rebirth into a new life, depending on our actions in this life (that’s where karma comes in). Therefore, he states that it is possible and even probable that every person on this earth has at some stage or will be at some stage, our mother- interesting!

For the first few months and years of our lives our survival as humans depends on the kindness and love of a mother, or mother figure. If we reflect on this, and the possibility that each person alive today could have, at some stage, been our mother, it is hard for us to respond with hatred towards others. Instead, we are more likely to respond with love, respect, understanding and forgiveness and more compelled to want to repay the kindness in some way. 

I’m not sure how much I believe this, but regardless, I think it’s a pretty cool way to see the world.

It was interesting to reflect on the fact that it’s one thing to believe in compassion, kindness, equanimity (considering ourselves as equal; all part of the same human race) and another to put it into practice. Being amongst thousands of Buddhist devotees who had just been sitting through teachings from The Dalai Lama on these very topics, I was surprised to still see people pushing in line at the toilets. It just highlighted to me just how important it is for us to take responsibility for our own actions. Theories and philosophies are great, but they mean nothing without action.

Final Reflections

Tom pointed out to me the other day that there’s probably quite a few people who think that I’ve gone a bit nuts; gone down the “do good-er” path or am even trying to promote some new religion, called UBUNTU. 

I just laughed but it still bothered me and surprised me that that’s what people might be thinking. Because that’s not what this is about at all. There is no religious tie at all to Ubuntu or to what we are trying to achieve with this project. It’s simply about using the Ubuntu philosophy, which just so happens to have a lot in common with Buddhist philosophy and probably a lot of other religious philosophies, and making people think a bit more about their role in contributing towards a more just, harmonious world. Simple as that!

So, it was nice to learn from and feel supported by The Dalai Lama; that hopefully we’re on the right path.