Dalai Lama receives human rights award from Amnesty International

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[iPhone snapshot above: Xeni Jardin; illustration inset, Shepard Fairey.]

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His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was in Long Beach, California this morning to accept the inaugural edition of a "Shine a Light on Human Rights" award from Amnesty International. My notes from the event follow.

He accepted the award with characteristic humility and good humor, saying, "I am just a single monk; no more, no less," later adding for the Amnesty volunteers and human rights advocates assembled, "Your work is good. Please continue."

Addressing the crowd before the spiritual leader spoke, Amnesty International's U.S. executive director Larry Cox said the award honored the fact that he has "tirelessly and peacefully defended the rights of people everywhere" for over 50 years. This month will also mark the 50th anniversary of the human rights organization's own founding.

The Dalai Lama took questions from Amnesty volunteers for more than an hour, and spoke of the imperative to protect those who are engaged in human rights work, as well as the need for freedom of information and expression in Tibet, China, and around the world.

Speaking through a translator, he described a Tibetan concept of generosity that encompasses not only material goods or comfort to those in need, "but also protection from fear."

"Individuals in some ways have more power than governments; the individuals, the artists, the activists who are compelled to change society—we must protect them."

Despite the white stubble he pointed to on his shaved head, the 76-year-old monk said he was optimistic that he would witness Tibetan "reunion" and peace with China in his lifetime.

"If you start a noble effort and encounter problems, and just stop— it is wrong," he said. "You must persist. If you believe that the goal of your work must materialize in your lifetime, it is wrong. It's still worthwhile, even if you never live to see it materialize."

The internet's enabling of increased access to information, and the increasing velocity of information, he said, is a good thing. "Because of new media, the news [of human rights violations] reaches us immediately."

Censorship and seemingly ever-tightening restrictions on internet flow are a predictable response from the Chinese government, he continued, but they are fundamentally unsustainable. "More soldiers, more [surveillance] cameras, they build mistrust and fear. Harmony is based on trust... so this is totally the wrong method. Censorship should not be there; there should be free information, a free press, and then an independent judiciary and gradual government change can follow. That will develop trust and harmony within China, and with the outside world. A closed society with no transparency creates suspicion."

"The lifespan of a totalitarian regime is generally longer than that of an elected government," he continued. "But China belongs to the Chinese people, and not the government. 1.3 billion Chinese people have the right to know reality, and to judge what is right and what is wrong for themselves."

Asked by a young student LGBT activist what advice he might give gay and trans teens who are bullied for their sexual or gender orientation, the Dalai Lama suggested that apart from pursuing legal protection, greater understanding and more education in "moral ethics and concern for others" may help.

But "sometimes the system to solve the problem turns into a problem itself," he added; "The court can turn into a demon, the 'medicine' can become a poison, and people who do not have access to knowledge and education can be more easily manipulated."

He then paused and added "If someone bullies you based on discrimination, you should fight back."

No questions were posed about the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan, but the Los Angeles Times noted his response on that issue yesterday at a "Secular Ethics, Human Values and Society" event, before an audience of 3,000 at University of Southern California.

Did bin Laden deserve forgiveness?

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened. ... If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures."

This, from a peaceful monk who avoids killing mosquitoes. "When my mood is good and there is no danger of malaria," he said at the USC event, he refrains from swatting even these pests.

While the Dalai Lama's thoughts on the specifics of the bin Laden assassination may remain an engima, Amnesty International's stated position is clear: the organization has long opposed extrajudicial execution, regardless of the subject involved.

This week, the group raised concerns that "US forces should have attempted to capture Osama bin Laden alive in order to bring him to trial if he was unarmed and posing no immediate threat," because perpetrators of terrorism and crimes against humanity "must be brought to justice in a manner consistent with international law."

In response to a question today in Long Beach by an Arab-American Amnesty International member about anti-Muslim hostility in America, the Dalai Lama described discrimination based on faith or culture as "backwards" and "outdated."

He pointed to the Hindu caste system in India (where he resides in exile) as the same, and said it too "must change."

"People should not say that Muslims as a whole are bad. I have many Muslim friends, and they tell me genuine followers of the Koran do not take bloodshed. If you do, you are not a genuine practitioner of Islam. The real meaning of 'jihad' is not fighting, but a kind of internal struggle. In Tibetan Buddhism, we also have a terminology of engaging in combat with our inner afflictions, fighting for internal spiritual freedom. This is the real meaning of jihad."

(special thanks to Kalaya'an Mendoza)