Lessons from the Dalai Lama: Practise the Logic

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet. Photo: Antoine Taveneaux [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia.

How To Practise: The Way to a Meaningful LifeHow To Practise: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was with some trepidation that I thought I might adapt some of the Dalai Lama's ideas about "practice" to my own daily routine. I find the Dalai Lama to be more than charismatic; there is something about him that permeates the television. I was rather pleased when I read (p. 223):
Though my own knowledge is limited and my experience is also very poor, I have tried my best to help you understand the full breadth of the Buddha's teaching. Please implement whatever in these pages appears to be helpful. If you follow another religion, please adopt whatever might assist you. If you do not think it would be helpful, just leave it alone.
So, I have decided to adopt some things, and to leave others alone.

Things to keep:

I am impressed by the extent that Stoicism mirrors Buddhism in terms of logic and practice. I wonder to what extent Zeno of Cition (the founder of Stoicism) was influenced by Buddhist thought? Buddhism had reached the Seleucid Empire, and Zeno was apparently of Phoenician decent, so it is quite possible. 

According to Leesa Davis and Matthew Sharpe of Deakin University, it is not uncommon to see parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism, but there is not much in Western academic literature about it. I suspect this is because the boastfulness of "Western" thought would crumble once facts overcome pride. But I digress.

First, the "practice"of Buddhism is about changing ourselves (p. 9):
Individually we have to work to change the basic perspectives on which our feelings depend. We can only do so through training, by engaging in practice with the aim of gradually reorienting the way we perceive ourselves and others.
For the Stoics, this is based on the logic of what we can and cannot control (see Epictetus' Enchiridion), and then managing our impressions (or how we judge external events). Marcus Aurelius, often referred to as a "cosmopolitan", extended this to how we treat and respond to other people, reflected by the Dalai Lama, thus (p. 10):
The essential objective of daily practice is to cultivate an attitude of compassion and calm - a state of mind particularly crucial in human society today for its power to yield true harmony among nations, races, and people from diverse religious, political, and economic systems.
Second, the Dalai Lama confirms my approach to daily reflection, echoing Benjamin Franklin's Book of Virtues (p. 40):
Examine your motivation as often as you can. Even before getting out of bed in the morning, establish a nonviolent, nonabusive outlook for your day. At night examine what you did during the day.
The idea of examining my motivations is new to me, in that I rarely do this deliberately and certainly not every day.  Yet the idea of reinforcing the logic of the philosophy/religion is key. In my practice of Stoic philosophy over the past two years, I have found that if I do not constantly return to the logic, I act unconsciously, thus the maxim on my desk reads "avoid unconscious reaction, find the logic, create good habits".

The Dalai Lama says something similar, echoing Socrates (p. 38):
It is important to diminish undisciplined states of mind, but it is even more important to  meet adversity with a positive attitude.
I find here some divergence from Stoic practice. Arguably, this highlights some of the weaknesses of the Stoic idea of the "common good". The Dalai Lama is more utilitarian in his outlook (p. 39):
...ingesting [others'] negatives is not much of a problem for me, but it lessens their problems. I do this with such strong feeling that if later in the day in my office I hear of their atrocities, although one part of my mind is a little irritated and angry, the main part is still under the influence of the morning practice; the intensity of the hatred is reduced to where it is groundless.
Moreover, he sees hope as important, whereas the Stoics would see hope and fear as want and worry; things to be abandoned as beyond our control and therefore not worth pursuing. But for the Dalai Lama (p. 39):
Under no circumstances should you lose hope. Hopelessness is a real cause of failure. Be calm, even when the external environment is confused or complicated; it will have little effect if your mind is at peace.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism agree that anger is useless. This quote from the Dalai Lama could equally apply to the Stoics (p. 41):
Analyze your life closely. If you do, you will eventually find it difficult to misuse your life by becoming an automaton or by seeking money as the path to happiness.
Third, the idea of choosing how we react to external events lends some credence to the idea that, with practice, we can control how we react to our emotions, and not encourage emotions that are not useful (or at least prevent useless emotions based on our misjudged perceptions) (p. 42):
Regularly evaluate the possible negative and positive effects of feelings such as lust, anger, jealousy, and hatred. When it becomes obvious that their effects are very harmful, continue your analysis. Gradually your conviction will strengthen. Repeated reflection on the disadvantages of anger, for example, will cause you to realize that anger is senseless. This decision will cause your anger to diminish gradually.
Here is confirmation of the idea of finding the logic, and for me, it necessitates what religious and philosophical practice has preached for centuries. 

The key point is that once we have found the logic, when we can believe that the logic is true, there is no switch that enables a rational re-alignment of our behaviours from then on. The belief in the logic has to be reinforced, over and over again, through daily practice, so that we achieve what Paul Colaianni in The Overwhelmed Brain says is "congruence" (p. 29):
...aligning your intentions with your behavior (congruence).
This is no easy task and it requires reflection (morning and night at a minimum), judgement (of ourselves, not others),  and practice (the doing). But unless we can recall the logic (memorise it) and believe in the logic (in effect, remembering the logic and remembering to believe in it), then congruence readily remains aloof.

Things to consider:

The idea of "the middle way" was interesting, and echoes to some extent Aristotle's idea of the "golden mean" of virtue. But that is a rather flaky comparison. For example, the Dalai Lama writes of three categories of non-virtues (physical, verbal, and mental), and that virtues are the opposite of non-virtues. The non-virtues are:
  • Physical: Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
  • Verbal: Lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, and senseless chatter.
  • Mental: Covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong views.
But the idea of the "middle way" is more about a sense of logic. This is difficult to achieve and explain, but it is basically a process of being (p. 169): 
...pulled from one side to the other... [between] how phenomena arise in dependence on causes and conditions... [and how] persons and things appear to be so solidly existent, to exist in their own right, to exist inherently... the true middle way takes time to find.

Things to leave alone:

Of course, I have my own religious beliefs, so the religious practices of Sutra and Tantra are not for me. Not that it wasn't useful learning about Buddhist religious practice, and the Dalai Lama did this with such humour, at one point I burst out laughing (p. 124):
A yogi's meditation transforms [sex, delicious meat and drink, even human excrement and urine] into real ambrosia. For people like us, however, this is beyond our reach. As long as you cannot transform piss and shit, these other things should not be done!
Generally, the Dalai Lama suggests that a Buddha has no use for alcohol, drugs, or sexual intercourse (p. 195). There are many parallels between various religions, and the Dalai Lama does not shy away from speaking at or to other religions.


One thing I found interesting counters a critique by a Salvation Army preacher I once heard. He said that the Buddhist idea of meditating on nothing was dangerous, as the emptiness enabled the devil to enter. But the Dalai Lama says that a Christian could focus on Jesus. The idea of nothingness and emptiness are not the same, and that preacher knew enough to be dangerous.

The Dalai Lama speaks of ignorance thus (p. 44):
...ignorance is not just lack of knowledge but a consciousness that imagines the exact opposite of the truth; it misapprehends what is actually so. There are many levels of misperception, as in failing to understand what to adopt in practice and what to discard in daily behavior.
The biggest lesson for me is the importance of daily practice, especially as a way to cement a belief.  Religions and religious practice make sense in this regard. I don't mean that one should adopt a belief and force it upon oneself (or, indeed, others!). Rather, if there is a logic that one agrees with, then one must believe that logic.

The point is that unless we can turn to our logic in assessing events which we cannot control (in the Stoic sense), then how can we expect to behave rationally? If I have learnt anything from this journey into Buddhist theology and practice, logic and rational thinking rely on belief. But this is an examined belief, not one given to us, and it must be practised.

What I like most about the Dalai Lama is that he invited me to do so with this book and I am all the richer for it. And wouldn't it be wonderful if Stoicism has a direct link to Buddhism? The East-West divide perpetuated by ignoramuses would come crashing down in an instant!