If we look around the world today, sometimes it is hard not to fall into despair about human nature. Greed, selfishness and violence seem to rule unchallenged. Wherever we look we see crime in the streets, corruption in high places, poverty and homelessness in the midst of plenty. In the international arena the fleeting hope engendered by the fall of the Iron Curtain has been blasted by more of the same old fear and greed driven Realpolitik under new management.
But it is important to notice the things that restore our faith in the intrinsic goodness of the human spirit. There are all the little daily acts of generosity and kindness that happen in all our lives. And there is the occasional public event which squeezes a little space for itself in the news between the wars, murders and indicted politicians.
On the 15th of August, in a city that prides itself on hard-bitten cynicism, forty thousand people stood for two hours in the hot summer sun to listen to an old man in burgundy robes speak about compassion and non-violence. Perhaps only His Holiness the Dalai Lama could have pulled this off in New York.
Something of interest was definitely happening. When he last visited New York, in 1991, he drew less than 5000 listeners. People are becoming ready and willing to hear this type of message. Many of us are weary of the selfish cynicism of our materialist culture, weary too of leaders who capitalize on our most selfish and intolerant emotions.
In the Dalai Lama we see a leader who offers a vision of hope based on the highest human potential. The message he carries is a simple one; "I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the core of our being, we desire happiness. In my own experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove fears or insecurities and gives us the strength to cope with obstacles. As we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development. The key is to develop inner peace. " (from a recent statement of His Holiness)
The Dalai Lama is a remarkable man and a versatile one. In other contexts he is capable of delivering very refined teachings on the arcane subtleties of Buddhist philosophy. But here the point he is making is a simple but crucial one. People are capable of kindness and happiness, each and every one of us. If we choose to be selfish and miserable, it is not a reflection of our true nature, but an unskillful choice we have made, and one we can correct.
Coming from someone else, this message of patience, non-violence and universal compassion might seem trite or saccharine. But the Dalai Lama is a man whose life demonstrates the power of his words. From being the reincarnate spiritual and temporal leader of his people, he has been driven into exile by a brutal military machine. And yet he has not given way to anger or despair, but has devoted his life to the betterment of his people and the preservation of their sophisticated culture and religion. It is a cause for hope for all humanity that a leader of such caliber walks among us.