Most people view Buddhism as a polar opposite to Judaism, but Dalai Lama shows audience at Hebrew University issue isn't quite so simple
Jerusalem, 20 February 2006 (By Andrew Friedman, Ynetnews) - When Hebrew University President Menachem Megidor introduced Tenzin Gyatso to the audience Sunday, he said the author of more than a dozen books, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and incessant fighter for human rights preferred to be known as a 'simple Buddhist monk.'
The striking thing was that it was apparent in his face. The 14th Dalai Lama clearly views himself as little more than a simple man, preaching the virtues of compassion around the world.
But though the message of compassion may sound simple to many, the issue is no simple matter to the leader of the world's 6-7 million Tibetans. In a lecture entitled 'The role of compassion in the justice system,' the Dalai Lama proceeded to define compassion, speak about its role not only in justice systems, but in all human relations, and even managed to address the idea of compassion in warfare.
'I'm no legal expert,' he said in adequate English punctuated by frequent turns to an aide and translator when he gets stuck in Chinese, 'and each country has its own laws and legal system in any event. But in general, legal systems are meant to protect rights, both of criminals and victims.'
He said that all disciplines - law, politics, economics, science - become humanized and constructive when approached with compassion. But he said compassion must be unbiased.
'Compassion means we have a sense of concern, or caring, for ourselves, and mainly for others,' he said. 'But this is not limited to deep feelings for family and friends. We must develop non-biased compassion.'
Perhaps surprisingly, the Dalai Lama's strongest criticism was for religion, which he said becomes destructive when devoid of human feeling.
'Religion often becomes mechanical and suffers from a lack of sincerity and seriousness,' he said. 'Look at the world's worst conflicts - Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Sunni and Shiite Muslims throughout the Middle East. These are conflicts within the same religions.
'All Middle East traditions teach compassion,' he continued. 'There are different philosophies, different concepts. But all (can be used) to increase compassion amongst people.'
Perhaps most striking were the similarities between traditional Jewish thought and the Dalai Lama's teachings. Although the Dalai Lama said he considers himself a 'friend' of Israel (he has visited the country three times and was a 1994 honorary fellow of Hebrew University), many people view the Buddhist religion and traditional Judaism as polar opposites.
But Yigal Arnon, the Chairman of the International Board of Governors of the Hebrew University, took several opportunities to point out that this view is incorrect.
Arnon quoted both the Hebrew prophet Micah, who exhorted the Jewish people to 'do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8) and the Talmudic scholar Hillel, who told a potential convert that the whole of Judaism can be summed up in one phrase: Don't do to others that which is hateful to you' (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) to show his guest that although there are significant differences between the two religions, there are also many similarities.
In addition, there issue of repentance. Judaism maintains a steadfast belief that, whereas wicked actions should be punished, there is always a chance people will turn from their evil ways.
So, too, in Buddhism, said the Dalai Lama. 'Minds and attitudes are non-permanent, not absolute,' he said. 'The fact that someone does something bad today doesn't mean he won't stop doing bad things tomorrow. It's important not to lose perspective.'
And given the topic was compassion and the justice system, perhaps a word or two are in order on the similarities between Jewish and Buddhist beliefs on the topic. According to Jewish law, establishing a justice system is one of the Torah's seven mitzvot incumbent on non-Jews. And the Mishna says that without a justice system, people will 'eat each other alive' (Avot 3:2).
Compare this to the Dalai Lama's teaching: 'Of course there must be a strong legal system,' he said. 'But it must be based on caring and compassion.
'This does not mean people should be allowed to do whatever they like. It's like raising children - good parents don't let their children be naughty, not to be mean, but because they care about them.
'Violence and non-violence depend on the person's motivation. If a person uses appropriate measures to help another person, this is non-violence.'