“It’s a great honour for me to address such a gathering of people from the field of medicine, because, while almost every human activity can contribute to people’s welfare, doctors and nurses are often able to give people new life. When someone comes to a hospital they don’t come for a picnic, but because they are seeking help for some sort of trouble. And you doctors and nurses are often able to give them a new lease of life.”
He mentioned that there are a variety of medical systems in the world some with origins several thousand years old. Tibetan history records an international conference being held in Lhasa in the 8th century under the auspices of the Tibetan Emperor. It was attended by representatives of the Yunani system from Persia and Afghanistan, of Ayurveda from India and of the Chinese and Tibetan systems. The modern Tibetan medical system seems to have emerged from this event.
His Holiness noted that some ailments respond best to allopathic treatment, but for others Ayurvedic, Tibetan and Chinese treatments may be more effective. He wondered whether a conference of physicians experienced in these different systems today might contribute to human progress.
Despite the earlier formal introduction, His Holiness said he’d like to introduce himself.
“As I said before, I consider myself to be one of the 7 billion human beings alive today. We are physically, mentally and emotionally the same. We all want to live a happy life. While we don’t wish for them we face problems, many of which we have created for ourselves. Why? because we take a narrow rather than a holistic view and because we lack a sense of the oneness of the human family. We are social animals. We all have the potential to develop love and compassion for each other, but we are self-centred. We see others in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, taking secondary differences of faith, nationality or race as an excuse. Instead, we need to promote a sense of the oneness of the 7 billion human beings.
“In the past we may have been more or less self-sufficient, but today we are interdependent. Now, the destruction of our neighbours means our destruction too. If we make the interests of the 7 billion human beings our concern, our own interests will naturally be fulfilled.”
His Holiness pointed out that when someone comes to a hospital in search of help, we don’t ask them their faith, nationality or other background, we regard them as human beings in need of help, as patients in need of treatment. He said that we all have this potential to develop unbiased love and concern for other human beings and trying to make people aware of it is his first commitment.
He mentioned that he is also a Buddhist monk who believes that all religious traditions convey a message of love, tolerance and self-discipline. As such they all have the potential to serve humanity. They may adopt different philosophical positions, but even these are directed towards the promotion of love. Therefore, he said, his second commitment is to encouraging inter-religious harmony, something needed more than ever now that increasing numbers of people are killing others in the name of religion.
His Holiness said that his third commitment derives from his being a Tibetan.
“We Tibetans have our own language and system of writing. It happens that today Tibetan is the most accurate language for explaining the Buddhist traditions taught at the great Nalanda University in India. These included philosophy and logic, beside knowledge of the mind and emotions. It’s on the basis of my studies in these traditions that I have been able to engage in conversations with modern scientists over the last 30 years or so. And one result has been that today, many scientists are interested in what the ancient Indian texts have to teach about the mind.”
The first question from the audience asked how we can deal with difficulties we will face in the future. In his reply His Holiness acknowledged that since 1 billion among the 7 billion human beings alive today assert that they adhere to no religious faith, we need to look for new ways to promote a sense of love and affection. All of us, even those who eventually become terrorists, grow up under our mother’s care and affection. But as we grow our natural sense of affection seems to decline. He suggested following the Indian example of taking a secular approach to ethics. This is an approach that respects religious traditions and even the views of those who have no faith, without depending on any of them. He told his listeners that curriculums are being developed with a view to introducing ethics with a secular, universal appeal into our general education systems.
Another physician wanted to know how to cope with emotions and how to decide ethically challenging questions. His Holiness told him that to reduce destructive emotions we need to strengthen constructive emotions. For example, to counter anger we cultivate love and compassion. Reason and common sense will help, but an additional result of developing compassion is an increase in inner strength.
With regard to challenging questions of medical ethics, the important factor is motivation. His Holiness said that he has teased his own doctors about surgery being a form of violence, but we accept it because the motivation is good. He suggested that while it is generally better to avoid abortion, there are occasions when it is the better course of action. He recommended exercising not only compassion in such cases, but wisdom and plain common sense too.
When a psychiatrist asked for advice to prevent suicide, His Holiness quoted a Tibetan master who remarked that the circumstances of some people’s lives are such that it may sometimes be better if their lives are short. He remarked that what makes our human life precious is our marvellous brain. We have an ability to cultivate compassion in a way no other beings can do and this is why suicide seems such a loss.
He pointed out that modern urban life is lonelier than, for example, life in an Indian village. In the village a suicidal person would likely find more community support and understanding. He recalled a conference he attended about 15 years ago in San Francisco that discussed crime amongst youth. The unanimous consensus was that a root cause was a general lack of affection in society. Perhaps the same applies to the incidence of suicide. He suggested that unfulfilled desire, competition and stress may be contributory factors too.
Senior doctors sought His Holiness’s advice about the impending crisis over the imbalance in numbers of elderly retired over young working members of society. He told them of a project he’d heard about in Sweden in which the elderly have a role looking after children. It results in mutual benefit. The children learn from the older people’s experience while their parents are working, and the stimulus the young provide to the old offsets the mental decline that would otherwise take place.
Coming back to the importance of secular ethics, His Holiness mentioned that it is important to teach young people at school that violence is a fruitless approach to solving problems. The use of violence and force inevitably entails unanticipated consequences and rarely a solution. It would be much better if children grew up accustomed to the idea that the proper way to resolve problems is through dialogue, through reaching a mutually agreeable solution.
Finally, His Holiness quoted the Tibetan saying about the well-qualified doctor whose treatment is less effective because he’s aloof compared to the less-qualified doctor whose treatment is more successful because he is warm-hearted. He cited his own experience of feeling more confident and likely to recover quickly when doctors and nurses engage with warm-heartedness, as opposed to those who make him feel like they are just repairing a machine.
“But,” he added, “just as we say we don’t teach the alphabet to the Buddha, you are the doctors and I’m sure this is something you already know.”
There were words of thanks and His Holiness offered all the participants on the stage a silk scarf. Outside, in the forecourt, His Holiness and the President of the JDA planted a tree to commemorate his visit.