The University Record, May 9, 1994

Dalai Lama enlightens, entertains student audience

By John Woodford
News and Inforamtion Services

The Dalai Lama told U-M students that Chinese leaders were wrong to tell critics of its Tibetan policy that human rights are not universal but relative, to be defined by different cultures and countries as they see fit.

Tenzing Gyatso, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader, made the statement during a three-day visit to the Univer-sity. He met with students in the Power Center for the Performing Arts April 22, a day after he delivered the Raoul Wallenberg Lecture. He also met with faculty and commmunity groups.

The Dalai Lama discussed the concept of human rights in response to graduate student Carole McGranahan’s question, “Are universal human rights to be found, and if so where?”

“All beings who experience pain and pleasure have equal rights to seek happiness and overcome suffering,” he said. And because the human brain gives our species “much greater than that of other species,” human life is the most precious.

“To me,” he continued, “it is quite simple. Whether it’s rich people or poor people, this nation or that, this culture or that culture, we are all born the same way and die the same way. The way of being nourished by mothers’ milk—it is more or less the same. Human beings can marry and reproduce children only with other humans. We cannot mate with monkeys. These are the basic factors that show that all of humanity is the same and has the same rights.”

He said that when certain cultural practices and traditions “come into conflict with universal ideas like human rights, I believe strongly it is the culture that needs to modify, not the ideals of universal human rights.” It is even worse when the recognition of human rights is resisted for ideological or political reasons, he added.

Dustin Howes of East Lansing asked how people committed to non-violence can stop violent activities of such groups as the Nazis, or halt contemporary violence like that in Bosnia.

This idea of passive non-violence comes from an ancient Indian tradition, the Dalai Lama replied, but in Buddhist tradition “non-violence is not the mere absence of violence. Neutrality and indifference are not non-violence. I consider action that comes from compassionate motivation to be non-violent action, whether it is verbal or physical.”

He said that it can be hard to judge whether an action is violent or non-violent if one looks only at the apparent action. “If you want to cheat or deceive someone, and with that motivation you use gentle words, a smile, or even give some priceless gift—such action seems non-violent on the surface, but in its deep nature it is violent.” But actions taken sincerely to help others, “even if you use harsh words or rough physical action, such as spanking a child who ignores a warning not to touch a fire, we cannot say that that is violent action because the motivation is completely helping and affectionate.”

Hal Bidlack, a graduate student from Colorado, asked the Dalai Lama’s opinion of religion’s role as a divisive force in places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

“Religion can motivate individuals for good or ill,” the Dalai Lama responded. “Unfortunately, sometimes people forget that the main purpose of religion is to help human beings transform their inner selves.”

He prescribed “a two-fold remedy” for religious intolerance. “The follower of any religious tradition should gain deeper understanding [of their own religion]. Then you can think more openly and almost certainly will recognize the value of other traditions also. Secondly, closer interaction with other religious traditions will let you see that different traditions all have more or less the same message and that all have potential to serve humanity.”

Sunir Garg of Shelby Township asked, “I was wondering, sir, if you are wise.”

“It is relative,” the Dalai Lama said. “If I compare myself to someone more foolish than me, then I am wise. If I compare myself with someone else, I could be more foolish. But anyway,” he merrily laughed, “I am trying to be a wise man.”

Healthy human beings have about the same “nature and potential,” he continued. “The only difference is that some are not fortunate enough to have a good and healthy upbringing, or have not taken personal initiative to utilize their potential.”

The best time to deepen wisdom and “build inner qualities like courage, self-confidence and fearlessness,” he said, “is when we pass through a difficult period. If you are like me and still have black hair—well, in every single white hair, there is a learning experience. Maybe a Westerner who from birth has white hair has more wisdom.”

He and the audience laughed heartily at this idea.