In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, C. S. Lewis referred to himself as a type of dinosaur; a species of “Old Western man” that was about to go extinct in the mid-20th century. Today I had the extraordinary opportunity to spend some time watching a man who I fear might also be one of the last of his kind. The Dalai Lama taught and interacted with several thousand young people in Louisville, Kentucky earlier today. His overarching teaching was on the virtue of compassion and his underlying conception of the good life was one conservatives should embrace.
No doubt many on the left are attracted to the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama because he is a pacifist and he expresses virtues from outside the Christian and western lexicon (those from within come with too much baggage for the leftists to bear.) It might be noted, though, that he did laughingly say that one should not be compassionate when a mad dog approaches but take “appropriate counter measures;” a statement reminiscent of some preemptive war theories we have heard. The vision we heard today was one of a man fully within what C.S. Lewis called “The Tao.”
In his 1944 book The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote in support of the great moral tradition that units nearly all of humanity who seek wisdom in ancient texts and modes of life. We have a choice, he argued, of either being part of this great tradition that he called “The Tao” (or “The Way”) or we can be outside all legitimate claims of morality. Morality is to be found, not created, he taught.
“The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”
It is modern man, scientific and materialist man, who seeks to break the cake of old morality to fit his new ambitions rather than to make his ambitions fit within the larger scheme of natural law that unites so much of the Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Confucionist, Roman, Greek and pagan traditions. Despite our political divisions, the true divide in the contemporary world might be between those who seek to live their lives within the Tao and those who seek to blot any such concept out of the hearts of men and thereby liberate us to be anything any current generation of individuals choose.
Today the Dalai Lama spoke from the point of view of a man clearly remaining within the Tao. Some of his concerns, like global warming, may be new but he approaches them in a way Lewis would urge us all—reform and growth from within; not the bludgeoning from without. When he supported “secularism,” for instance, he made clear he meant something different than the more popular use of that term. He advocated the inclusion of all religions within the public sphere, not the walling off of our public lives from religious convictions and arguments.
The end goal of modern education, Lewis instructed, was to create “men without chests;” to undermine the imaginative and emotionally noble part of the human soul that situates man somewhere between the brutish animals and the angels. The Dalai Lama seemed to understand just this point as he pointed over and over again through his burgundy robes to his own chest as he instructed the students on the virtues of a life lived in community and with compassion.
Not just once did he sound like Russell Kirk or Wendell Berry when he gently introduced the highly subversive idea that our current educational system emphasizing practical and commercially viable skills should be augmented once again by a more full understanding of what an education is—including moral education. Though the quiet and subtle word is his method of teaching, one can see the same concern as those of us railing more aggressively over our schools’ obsession with commercial relevance and S.T.E.M. rather than developing whole human children.
In 1791 Edmund Burke talked of the “wardrobe of the moral imagination” which helped keep humanity from collapsing into its baser animalism. C. S. Lewis would talk of his own imagination being “baptized” by a fairy tale when he was on his road from atheism to Christianity. Today the Dalai Lama seemed to be making a similar point. He took today’s obsession with bodily health and asked us to consider caring just as much for “the hygiene of our emotions.” One is left ruminating on just what such a disinfection regimen would look like.
The most traditionalist conservative could not have channeled Edmund Burke better than when the Tibetan leader explored how true compassion was demonstrated from one person to another and the good deed reflected back into the heart of the person acting on compassion. In such a way communities are built in these acts of affection and to work they must be among real persons, not abstractions or distant bureaucrats. The modern welfare state of the government forcibly taking from one group to give to another seems arbitrary and shallow next to the Dalai Lama’s vision of organic and free community. At one point he even said education in such virtues as compassion could not be handed down by government but must be passed on in local schools, families, and communities.
In his Jefferson Lecture last year, Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry divided the world into “Stickers” and “Boomers.” In one of the more surprising moments of the day, the Dalai Lama made a similar division among Tibetan young people and lamented those who Berry would call “Boomers”—those willing to leave their families and communities behind as they chase the dream of materialism in the West.
At the root of the Dalai Lama’s understanding of the good life is a profoundly illiberal understanding of humanity. Where the modern liberal project is based on the Lockean and Hobbesian lie that everything rests on the autonomous individual, the Tibetan gave us a vision of humanity existing in families and in community with one another. He told the story of how his illiterate mother carried him on her back while she toiled in the fields and how he learned compassion through a deep and nearly constant communion with her. A good life within the Tao sometimes requires us to carry others and sometimes to be carried as we attempt to make our way on this journey. We are never really autonomous and self-sustaining individuals. The very office of the Dalai Lama teaches just such an understanding as Buddhist believe he is the reincarnation of a soul who reached its journey but turned back to commune with those still suffering and striving.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the teachings of the Dalai Lama are so fully within “the way” that C. S. Lewis identified. What is surprising is how much the undergirding vision of the man and his teachings are misunderstood by the post-moderns who admire him for lessons they don’t quite understand. For the sake of the Tao itself, let us hope this 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama is not the last of his kind. For now, we Christians of the west should join in his teachings as we are all, despite our differences, either within the Tao or in the shadow lands beyond.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.