Towards a better way of being in the world
I WAS privileged to attend the Mind & Life Institute’s conference in Gaborone, Botswana, last week. The institute arranges dialogues between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists and scholars around critical issues of modern life at the intersection of scientific and contemplative understanding. Beginning in 1987, this year’s conference on the theme “Botho/Ubuntu” was the 32nd in the series.
Sadly, the Dalai Lama was unable to travel due to ill health, but his translator of many years, Thupten Jinpa, represented him and was able to make his holiness present by modelling that same clarity of mind and engaging humour.
Also present was Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, which meant the continued friendship between these two spiritual greats was evident at the dialogue. The Arch must have been particularly proud of his daughter, Mpho Tutu-Van Furth, who gave a wonderful introductory talk on ubuntu.
Tutu-Van Furth stressed ubuntu was so much more than the name of a computer operating system, a soft drink or a coffee shop – the things that come up when you Google the word.
This theme was taken up by subsequent speakers, stressing ubuntu as a way of life, an interactive energy that flows unconsciously among people and desires the best for others.
It is not a simple job though. “I am because we are” – the usual expression of ubuntu – hides a danger that the “we” often becomes a closed group that excludes the “other we”: those who are not like us. This is the basis of racism, tribalism and all exclusivist categories.
Professor Michael Eze suggested a more helpful phrase would be, “I am because of you”. In this statement, the “you” is any other person. Different or similar, another human being is a contributing factor to my existence and deserving of respect and compassion.
The more we are able to open to the difference of the other, the more likely we are to understand what it must be like to be in their skin. Opening to another human inevitably reveals what I call a “compassion window” into their life and empathy emerges.
In the conference discussions, one of the delegates summed this up perfectly, “Compassion inoculates you against hatred”. It also harmonises with the Buddhist understanding that all reality is interdependent.
A fascinating perspective was the contribution of neuro-scientists and psychologists who offered maps of how our brains change depending on whether we are experiencing alienating stress or compassionate inclusion of others.
Also prominent in the conference was a collective realisation that our world, so riven by division and suspicion, demands we find another way of being together. The interest of delegates from the US suggested that Americans no longer believe they have all the answers but are looking to the ancient cultures of Africa and Tibet to offer ancestral solutions that could heal us all.
ý Woods is a pastoral therapist.