Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India - President of the Mind & Life Institute, Susan Bauer-Wu, welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the second day of Mind & Life Conversations this morning, telling him, “We’re so delighted to be back. We’re going to be exploring compassion, interconnection and transformation, this time with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela from South Africa”.
“Africa is a great continent,” His Holiness remarked, “previously exploited by Europeans, but it’s a continent with great potential and I’m very happy that we have an African here with us today.”
Moderator Aron Stern introduced Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela as a social scientist and clinical psychologist, a friend of Archbishop Tutu and as someone who served on the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It was her work there that provided the basis for her book ‘A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness’.
“Thank you for allowing us to be here and for taking time to be with us,” she began. “I bring greetings from Bishop Tutu. I was with him and his wife last Monday and they were delighted to know that I was coming here. I am grateful to you and to him for the way you have lived your lives in compassion—you’ve been a guiding light for me.
“I’ve been asked to talk about ‘ubuntu’ and forgiveness in relation to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In the context of ‘ubuntu’ the notion of a unitary individual is based on a false premise. Instead, human subjectivity is interconnected, is inextricably bound with others. A person is a human being, becomes a human being through other people. The richness of our subjectivity as human beings is always in relation to others.
“Nelson Mandela wanted ‘ubuntu’ to be part of the post-apartheid constitution, to indicate a movement from separation to interconnection. In the work of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, this meant setting aside the notion of vengeance in relation to people who had committed crimes.
“I’d like to tell you about a group of women whose children were killed by the apartheid police. The police had induced a young black man to lure the children to a place where they killed them. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission offered an opportunity to share their experience. The young man asked for their forgiveness, but the mothers were angry. “How could you betray your own people like that,” they demanded.
“In his reply, the young man used an expression that evoked the mothers’ sense of parental responsibility. One of them relented saying, “My son, you are the age my children would have been,” and their attitude to him changed. They were able to see him as a son too. This was an example of how, even when you feel wounded you can still find it in you to relate to the one who did you harm.
“In my work I’ve tried to understand forgiveness and beyond forgiveness, repairing. With a consciousness of doing good, we can relate to one another with warm-heartedness.”
“It’s true that the right words at the right time can be so powerful,” His Holiness interjected. “In the bodhisattva tradition we speak of all sentient beings as mother sentient beings, which is a telling way of referring to them. Curiously, to speak of all ‘father sentient beings’ doesn’t have the same ring to it at all, which only goes to show how important a mother’s care and affection really is.”
“You’ve reminded me of another aspect of the way the mothers I was talking about related to the young man,” Gobodo-Madikizela added. “They spoke of how the moment of transformation evoked a sense of how it was for his mother, and this mother to mother connection enabled them to open up. I’ve also understood that there are physical links. We enter the world in this body and we relate to the world through our bodies. Physical contact with our mother has a powerful impact on our experience.”
Aaron Stern invited Gobodo-Madikizela to say more about the responsibility and accountability involved in ‘ubuntu’. “Yes,” she replied, “this is important. We are responsible for and accountable to others. We don’t need to think of others as monsters. We are accountable and have a responsibility to invite them back into humanity—to cast off the sense that they have been dehumanised.
His Holiness wanted to know if the use of ‘ubuntu’ was confined to South Africa. Gobodo-Madikizela told him that it was in common use across the African continent. There is a similar term in Rwanda. The key is to recognise that other people are also human beings. It’s a word ignored when the politics of hate prevail. It involves an effort to reconnect to the community.
His Holiness observed that all 7 billion human beings alive today are physically, mentally and emotionally the same. In the past, people related only to their local communities, but in the 21st century technology, the modern economy and the threat of climate change have reduced the significance of national boundaries. These days all 7 billion human beings are part of ‘us’. To focus only on your own interests leads to misery, he said, cultivating concern for others makes us all happy.
“Differences of religion, nationality or colour are secondary. Such distinctions are irrelevant when we’re born. Our mothers care for us in the same way and ultimately we all die the same way. We all want happiness and seek to avoid suffering. We are the same in having a right to a peaceful, happy life.
“The Indian tradition of non-violence is relevant to this. Through education we can change the way we think. We can shake off narrow-mindedness and open our eyes. Religion should be able to help since its common message is of love, forgiveness, tolerance and self-discipline. But when there is killing in the name of religion, religion appears not only to be irrelevant, but dangerous too.
“Scientific evidence is important and effective. This kind of meeting can help. We have a common goal—to create a happier world. What gives me hope is that if we dig deeper into how our emotions work, we find that attachment and hatred depend on a misconception of reality. We can evaluate them, weighing their pros and cons. We need to use our intelligence to regulate such emotions.”
The group discussion began by considering conditions for human transformation. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela suggested that at moments of transformation, wisdom invites us to change out of love for our loved ones. We restore relationships out of a sense of community. Richie Davidson asked how such epiphanies can be converted into something more enduring.
“The basic factor is habituation and familiarity,” His Holiness replied. “There is an Indian approach to acquiring knowledge which begins with understanding based on hearsay—on what you hear or read. However, through reflection and conducting your own analysis, conviction arises. If you then really familiarize yourself with that conviction it induces genuine experience.”
Gobodo-Madikizela recognized this in what she refers to as repair. She said she’d observed in Rwanda that people had reflected on the benefit of engaging with former enemies. Even though neighbours had killed loved ones, people concluded that it was more helpful to think that tomorrow could be better than the past.
His Holiness observed that once you acknowledge that someone who may be thought of as an enemy is also a fellow human being, change can occur. He repeated that the ancient Indian notions of non-violence and compassion, ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’, have a contribution to make to this way of thinking. Gobodo-Madikizela referred to the significance of witnessing what is possible through the example of others’ transformation.
Samdhong Rinpoché was asked for his thoughts. “I am reminded of something that happened to Mahatma Gandhi. He was attending the Second Round Table Conference in London and a Christian priest read a verse from the Bible to him that said that we should love our enemies as we do our neighbours. Gandhi remained quiet and the priest repeated what he’d said. Pressed to reply, the Mahatma told him, “The difficulty for me is that I have no enemies”. Great compassion is not about concern for one group or another, but extending compassion to all beings.”
His Holiness noted that concern for our own well-being is the basis for reaching out to others because we want to be happy just as they do.
A member of the audience asked, how, in the context of the suffering experienced by the women Gobodo-Madikizela had described, it would be possible to reach a life of joy. She answered that one route to finding hope within suffering is through solidarity with others, such as a concern for social justice. When you have the will to maintain an ethical community, you express solidarity with others and care enough to stand up for justice. This offers the possibility of reaching out to others—recalling that the very word ‘apartheid’ means separateness.
His Holiness recommended that there is a need for a fundamental recognition of the equality of self with others. He quoted a couple of verses from Buddhist sources:
As no one desires even the slightest suffering
Nor is ever content with the happiness he has,
There is no difference between myself and others:
Therefore, inspire me to rejoice when others are happy.
Even if someone whom I have helped
And in whom I have placed my hopes
Does great wrong by harming me,
May I see them as an excellent spiritual friend.
“Anger, suspicion and jealousy disturb our minds,” he remarked. “The antidote to these emotions is to cultivate patience and tolerance. Who provides us the opportunity to develop it? The one we call our enemy. Therefore, we can see him or her as a teacher.”
His Holiness repeated his wish to know more about the positive changes cultivating compassion has on the brain and, similarly, what are the effects of anger. Richie Davidson told him there is growing evidence about this. Lately, it has become clear that meditation on compassion has the effect of reducing inflammation, particularly in connection with the brain.
Geshé Ngawang Samten asked Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela what had prompted the young man in her first story to approach the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Was it regret or a sense of compassion?
“Maybe all those things,” she answered. “I think he felt ‘I have to make amends’, having reflected on what he’d done. When you are full of shame, you can’t relate to others. Accepting the consequences of your actions enables you to reach out to others. This is part of what I call repairing, which is something that goes on day after day.”
As the meeting came to a close, Susan Bauer-Wu asked if His Holiness had anything more to say.
“Nothing,” he began, “however, I want to say that this kind of meeting is very useful. When I met the Mind & Life board members this morning, I mentioned that our work isn’t confined to one group or community. We’re thinking of the whole of humanity. People from Russia, Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea and so on have some sense of the importance of training the mind. I’d like to invite people from these places to join us, so they too can understand what we’re talking about here. The main thing is that our ultimate aim is to help the whole of humanity.”