Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Dalai Lama Talks Tech

Computers are one of life's mysteries and great wealth one of its distractions, he says

The Dalai Lama, master of the mind's inner technology, is confounded by the external technology that drives the planet. He put it like this: ``My computer literacy is zero. It's partly because it wasn't easy to learn, so I just gave up.''

He broke into his booming laugh.

This was Wednesday morning in his Peninsula hotel room, where His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, sat for a private interview with the Mercury News about money, technology and an ancient Buddhist prophecy. More about the prophecy later.

Back to computers. The Tibetan government in exile he oversees in Dharamsala, India, is well-wired with e-mail, computers and the Internet. A Bay Area devotee went to India to help put it together several years ago. It's a little surprising that the Dalai Lama, a famous tinkerer who disassembled and rebuilt watches for fun as a boy, hasn't jumped aboard the technological train.

But he cited precedent for his lack of interest: The fifth Dalai Lama, who was named Ngawang Losang Gyatso and lived from 1617 to 1682, once said he didn't "pay much attention to letter-writing skills because he felt he could always find someone to do it for him. Same for computers!''

He's busy enough.

The Dalai Lama, who wakes each day about 4 a.m. to pray, read and do prostrations, is in the midst of a five-day Bay Area visit for teachings, talk and ceremony through Sunday at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

He arrived for the interview without fanfare, wearing a pair of worn rubber flip-flops, bowing to his visitor and a photographer and settling into a sofa. He folded his feet beneath him on the cushion, lotus-style. With his closely shaved head, claret robe and spectacles, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, 65, looked to be the ``simple monk'' he calls himself. He zoomed in on questions and was never perfunctory with answers, though he sometimes struggled with his English. Then he turned to his longtime translator, Thubten Jinpa, for clarification.

The very fact of sitting in a Silicon Valley hotel room led to conversation about the vast sums of money generated here in recent years. Wealthy people sometimes are afflicted with a spiritual "restlessness"' because they rely on comforts at the sensorial level: good colors, good smells, good companions, including sex. But still, mentally, they are not necessarily happy. . . . The restlessness and unhappiness that occurs at the level of the mind is something that can only be addressed by a means that is mental. . . .

"Sophisticated machines produce very sophisticated articles,'" he said, "but cannot produce peace of mind. . . . If I go shopping and say, 'Please give me peace of mind. I will give you a million dollars,' I think the shopkeeper will laugh."

Though he is a religious man -- teacher, scholar, monk and, to Tibetans, the incarnation of divine compassion -- the Dalai Lama says he thinks most people do not derive their values directly from religious traditions. Given that reality, he said, a system of ``secular moral ethics'' must be taught to lift the lives and spirits of millions of people. The values he enumerated include nurturing what he calls a "warm heart," and a "sense of caring, a sense of sharing," as well as "self-discipline and contentment."

Oh, the prophecy.

It said that the dharma -- or teachings -- of Buddhism would pass to the land of the "red-faced peoples" 2,500 years after the coming of the historical Buddha, known as Shakyamuni. According to most calculations, those 2,500 years were up in the 1950s when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. To some of his friends and followers, that means the Dalai Lama -- now an icon in the West -- is the inevitable expression of the prophecy.

Does he believe it?


He says there is more than one way to interpret the prophecy and to calculate the passage of time since the coming of Lord Buddha. He says the land of the red-faced man might be Tibet. And besides, this is precisely the type of statement the Dalai Lama steps away from. Tibetans call him a living god, but he describes himself as a political and spiritual leader in the real world.

Exiled from Tibet in 1959, the monk travels extensively in Europe and North America. Some might assume his goal is to spread Buddhism, but he said that's not so: "I'm propagating the value of human beings and religious harmony -- not Buddhism."

In fact, he said he sometimes feels "a little hesitant'' teaching about Buddhism in the West because he believes every religious tradition arises from a particular historical and cultural context, and, while people can change faiths, it's not necessarily advisable. A new tradition might not suit the convert and could end up causing "some confusion and some difficulties." That's why it is "better, safer, to keep your own tradition."

He expanded on this Wednesday at the Shoreline, during the first of three days of teachings on the Heart Sutra, a pagelong discourse at the center of Buddhist thought. Before the Dalai Lama were more than 7,000 people, many of them Buddhist students or converts to Buddhism. Some may have been surprised to hear him say there are certain Buddhist notions that Christians shouldn't necessarily probe, as they could undermine their own beliefs in God as creator..

But there are ways that religions and their ``many truths'' can enrich one another. For instance, he mentioned a group of ``Christian brothers,'' friends of his, who ``incorporated into their Christian practice methods for cultivating single-pointedness of mind . . . meditations and visualizations regarding compassionate behavior.''

Then he said Buddhism would benefit by emulating the Christian tradition of community service in education, health and other fields. That Buddhist institutions have often neglected to serve their communities was brought home by a German friend who visited Nepal and returned complaining that "he saw many large monasteries built by lamas. However, there were very few hospitals and schools built by the monasteries."

"There's nothing else the Buddhists can say but, 'He's right,'" the Dalai Lama said.

At the Shoreline, the Dalai Lama was seated, again lotus-style, on a raised platform behind which stretched a massive backdrop depicting the Himalayas and the Potala Palace, the towering centerpiece of the city of Lhasa, Tibet. The Dalai Lama grew up inside the gilded cage of the palace -- and escaped from it 42 years ago, slipping past the Chinese military and crossing the Himalayas to safety in India.

The men and women in the crowd listened raptly to the Dalai Lama's explanations, spoken in Tibetan and translated by Jinpa, who wore a sport coat and slacks amid 200 robed monks filling the stage.

The scene was bursting with typical colors of Tibet: maroon, saffron, blue. The audience, in shorts, T-shirts and sun hats, seemed to have arrived from a different world.

Yet Tom Flynn, director of a Buddhist retreat center in Soquel and a main event organizer, pointed out to the assembly that there was something very right about the day. It was entirely appropriate, he said, for the Dalai Lama to come to Silicon Valley.

After all, it used to be called the Valley of Heart's Delight.

By Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News , May 18, 2001