by Catriona Mitchell
Last month, a long-cherished dream came true for me, in the form of a private audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I’d been studying Buddhism on and off since a serious illness struck me down at the age of 19, and my attention had been drawn for the first time (and the hard way) to the harmful impact of negative thinking on the body. I’d read the Dalai Lama’s books on meditation and Buddhist psychology and philosophy, enjoyed his earthy, natural approach, not to mention his playful nature, and done my best to integrate his wisdom into daily life; I’d heard him give speeches in places as far-flung as Belfast, Melbourne and Delhi; I’d queued up to sit at his week-long spiritual teachings amid 60,000 pilgrims, monks, nuns, beggars and swirling dust in Bodhgaya, catching swine flu while there but still rejoicing to be part of the melee… but I’d never had the opportunity to shake his hand, meet his eye, or use my voice to express my appreciation for all he does and is.
Last month that was to change. The stars aligned. My partner, Rio, requested an audience for the two of us in Dharamsala, and it was immediately approved.*
It was the day before my birthday. We were told to arrive at 8.30am, but while we were eating a simple breakfast of toast and eggs at our guesthouse, a call came: we had to be there at 8am instead. I didn’t have time to dry my hair; there was barely time to brush my teeth. We were packed off swiftly into a car. (Would His Holiness mind that my hair looked scrappy?)
I was very shy as a child. I felt that shyness encompass me as we sat in the ante-chamber, waiting to be invited into the Dalai Lama’s private quarters – after being asked to leave all possessions, including mobile phone, in a security locker, and being thoroughly frisked. I had to make an effort to stay calm, make sure I could still feel my feet on the floor, be ready with the question I had come to ask. I wanted to be fully present for this moment: who knew if this opportunity would ever come again?
The atmosphere was hushed, reverent. Two round-faced women from Mongolia were waiting there on the sofa next to us, in floor-length silken robes, clutching sky-blue katas; two monks were also waiting their turn. Outside the window, in the distance, a crowd was starting to assemble – Tibetan refugees, newly arrived in India, queuing up in anticipation of meeting their cherished spiritual leader.
Then it was time. We were ushered into a spacious room, neutrally decorated but for a series of thankas in primary colours on the walls. His Holiness arrived shortly after we did, sleeveless in his traditional burgundy robes on this chilly winter morning. He was accompanied by five or six Tibetan men in civilian clothes, one his translator, others security.
My first thought was that His Holiness looked exactly as he did on camera, and that I could relax; it felt utterly natural to be in the same room as him because his face was already so well known to me. My second thought was that he looked tired. We’d just heard that all his international travel had been cancelled for 2018 in order to give him time to rest: it seemed a good idea. **
Rio and I presenting katas to His Holiness; and the Dalai Lama’s traditional way of greeting Rio: by rubbing his bald pate and then oh-so-gently and playfully smacking him across the head.
Rio and I had both come with a question in mind. But after giving Rio his unique greeting of friendship – a rub-of-his-bald-pate followed by an affectionate thwack on the head, accompanied by a chuckle – His Holiness started to talk. He spoke about world affairs, about Afghanistan, about Saudi Arabia and Iran, about children dying as a result of war, about negative emotions, and the dismantling of these as the only way to bring about peace. About the need to dissolve binary thinking and the illusion of separation. About anger, and how it manipulates the mind, creating a conviction in the negativity of the object in front of it, when actually 90% of the negativity resides in the mind itself. About the need for someone to speak to the US president about the value of dismantling afflictive emotions….
By the time it came time for me to pose my question, the stage had truly been set. War. Fear. Distrust. Anger. The need for peaceful leadership.
My question, perhaps predictably, was about women in leadership. I wanted to know what His Holiness made of the ‘rise of the feminine’ as a way to harmony, as a way to address some of the world’s problems.
I’d been intrigued, as had millions of others since the Vancouver Peace Summit held in 2009, by the Dalai Lama’s comment, “the world will be saved by the Western woman.” (This statement had immediately gone viral on social media, and I knew it had influenced the professional choices of hundreds if not thousands of women since; women who had decided to quit their jobs or switch life-path in other ways, in order to do their bit to make this true.)
I didn’t want to ask the Dalai Lama about Western women, so much as ask for his thoughts on women stepping into positions of leadership across the globe, at a time when traditional roles for both men and women were being swept away, leaving many in a sea of confusion…?
The answer was very succinct when it came.
Two words. Eight letters.
The Dalai Lama believes that if women were to take over the leadership of this planet we call home, it would become a safer place for all. Why? Because women, biologically speaking, are more sensitive towards others: we share our bodies when we carry a child and we are, by definition, programmed to actively care for others.
As a result we are more prone to empathize with those who suffer, even during conflict. Whether we actually choose to bear children or not, the programming is there: compassion occurs more naturally, more effortlessly, in the female form.
I was fascinated to hear this expressed. As a student of Buddhism over the years, I’ve struggled with the apparent sexism shown in the religion, balking at the sight of 6-year-old monks being seated in front of sixty-year-old nuns at teachings, as an indicator of their greater capacity for study; appalled at the derelict state of nunneries I’ve visited, when adjacent monasteries clearly have far more plentiful resources to sustain them. I’ve questioned the Buddhist assertion that ‘precious human rebirth’ should ideally come in male form, despite the number of times Rio has assured me this is only a practicality: if you’re going to go and meditate in solitude in a cave for a number of years, it’s safer to do this as a man than as a woman.
Yes, I’ve struggled with a feeling of invalidation by dint of my sex, within a system of thought that is by far the most sophisticated one I’ve ever discovered or ever hope to discover; a philosophy I will explore for the rest of my life, because nothing else comes close in its propagation of non-harm.
In conversation about women’s leadership
But gender discrimination time is over, the Dalai Lama said to me that day, sitting upright on his beige sofa, a cup of tea growing cold on the table before him as he talked, a feeling of growing tension coming from his security guards at the back of the room because he was taking so long with us when the queue of expectant visitors was growing outside.
No longer are women bound to limited roles – roles prescribed for us by religious or feudal systems or other long-held patriarchal traditions.
This time is finished.
Play a more active role to promote the basic human values of compassion, affection and love.
Develop self-confidence and work hard, with determination, in all walks of life, for the betterment of our world.
Ancient Buddhist philosophy makes frequent reference to the value of women in one very pointed way, and that is in reference to the kindness of mothers. Indeed, many Buddhist meditations ask that practitioners focus on the kindness of their own mothers – all they have given us, all they have sacrificed in order that we may thrive – as a way to generate and amplify compassion inside themselves.***
The Dalai Lama himself often says that his mother was the first to teach him compassion and love.
Now, not all of us women are mothers, or will be. But now that women, childless or not, have been unleashed in many parts of the world with greater freedoms than ever before – freedoms that were unimaginable just a few short decades ago – what is the best we can do with these precious and hard-won freedoms?
It seems to me that we carry the responsibility of this question, if only as a mark of respect to all those who have gone before us and made these freedoms possible.
We must first question, think deeply, and then act.
Of course it is up to every one of us to determine exactly how to be active, with the peculiar and unique combination of gifts that each of us has.
Photos of the Dalai Lama are by Rio Helmi.
*Rio Helmi, my partner, has been a friend and student of the Dalai Lama’s for about 35 years; and is also one of His Holiness’ photographers.
** For the first time I understood the weight of responsibility that the Dalai Lama carries with him, in every cell of his being. A displaced people who love him and depend on him for their spiritual guidance; countless traumatized people who turn up seeking refuge in Dharamsala daily, in urgent need of his kindness and encouragement.
*** According to the Buddha, the many forms of motherly kindness include: the kindness of providing protection and care while the child is in the womb; the kindness of bearing suffering during birth; the kindness of suckling the child at her breast, nourishing and bringing up the child; the kindness of washing away the unclean; the kindness of ‘eating the bitter herself and saving the sweet for the child’; and the kindness of always thinking of the child when it has travelled far.