Geshe Thubten Phelgye reciting a brief prayer before starting his talk before about 40 people, at Seattle University.

Geshe Thubten Phelgye reciting a brief prayer before starting his talk before about 40 people, at Seattle University.

A Tibetan Lama Teaches Buddhist Approaches to Social Justice and Social Change

Considering that all of us have witnessed a historic year of socio-political-spiritual upheaval—the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, as well as the birth of a new presidential election cycle—what guidance can the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist teachings provide?

How can the teaching help us steer a course of truth and justice—for ourselves, our communities, and our world—through the turbulent path ahead?

Geshe Thubten Phelgye offered some answers to a rapt audience of about 40 students, educators and activists, in a spacious meeting hall within the Department of Psychology building, at Seattle University Jan. 23.

As a Tibetan monk, vegetarian activist and disciple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as Gonzaga University professor and global interfaith participant, Geshe Thubten Phelgye, or Geshela, as he is affectionately known, has pursued these questions his entire life.

Geshe Phelgye began Jan. 23 with a humble prayer in Tibetan, containing the bodhisattva intention that any words uttered during the evening might bring benefit in the short term and long term, and ultimately lead to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

He then defined “social justice” as a term originating with a Jesuit in the 1840s, based on the Christian maxim: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He pointed out how Christian faith-based groups extend this maxim to apply to the entire society.

Geshe Phelgye noted how His Holiness the Dalai Lama frequently praises the Christian humanistic mission to serve the poor and underserved around the world. Although Shakyamuni Buddha clearly spoke out against race and caste discrimination, and extolled the Buddhist virtues of loving compassion, Buddhism lacks the organizational commitment to social change active in Christian organizations, he said.

Buddhism’s emphasis, as one audience member pointed out, has primarily been focused on inner transformation via scriptural study and meditation, as opposed to external service work.

This lack of social action in Buddhism needs to change, Geshela said, adding that ethical values and humanism need to be promoted beginning in kindergarten. Whatever their tradition, young people must learn how to behave, to think right and act right... according to ethical principles described in the noble eightfold noble path the Buddha taught, similar to the standards found in all other religions.

“Do we see these things in school books? I haven’t seen it except in Tibetan (religious and secular) culture,” he said. “We need to plant good seeds in the minds of the children so they can lead a peaceful world.”

When children become adults it is best if they apply these values to positive societal action, Geshe Phelgye said.

“We also need to adopt an attitude of responsibility, not simply walking away from politics and social turmoil because we’d rather not experience the stress of getting involved,” he said. “If we walk away from being involved in social justice issues, it only allows the corruption of corporate money-influenced politics to spread.”

He added that spiritual practice can empower people to take a stand.

“We need to get involved and not limit our dharma practice or our spiritual practice to our cushion or whatever formal rituals we do,” he said. “We need to use our mindfulness and awareness of spiritual ethics to monitor the events in the world and to speak out to those in power, even when there is personal discomfort involved.”

Geshela shared some of his own life story, offering his listeners an example of how his own attitudes toward taking action have evolved.

Born into a nomadic family in Tibet, he grew up in a culture where the food was 99 percent meat based, where the few vegetables available were only obtained by trading meat or dairy products.

However, during his Buddhist studies at Sera Je Monastery in South India, he began to experience an inner conflict between the ideals of compassion and loving kindness, and the reality of animal suffering. This conflict came to a head when a senior monk at his monastery asked him to go to a slaughter house to buy some fresh meat, early in the morning to get the freshest cut.

There the horrified young Geshe Phelgye watched the butcher wrestle and then execute the animal. He broke into tears, praying and vowing to be a voice for voiceless animals that are killed to satisfy humans’ desire for meat.

After this Geshe Phelgye became a strict vegetarian, starting a difficult journey championing animal rights within the Tibetan community. It was not easy and initially everyone turned against him, even his own teacher. But he did not give up, and eventually people began to accept what he was saying.

Geshe Phelgye eventually founded the Universal Compassion Movement. He introduced a bill in the Tibetan Parliament to promote vegetarianism, and gained the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to encourage the Tibetan people to consume less meat.

Broadening this theme of expanding from inner ethical training to positive action, Geshela said that humility, and practices of thought transformation designed to subdue the ego, can support actively applied compassion and bodhicitta aimed at eliminating suffering in the world.

In a similar vein, he said even though monks take a vow of poverty and turn away from attachment to wealth, they should not ignore or fail to oppose extreme wealth inequality in the larger society.

The conversation then turned to non-violence.

One audience member noted how within the Occupy Seattle movement, several people attempted during the “general assembly” meetings to adopt a principle of non-violence. But this failed every time it was brought up.

In response, Geshe Phelgye related his experience at the 2004 Sulha (Reconciliation) Peace Gathering in Israel, during which religious leaders and over 4,000 Arabs, Jews, and international observers discussed the path to peace. Each person had a chance to share their story.

“When I spoke, I talked about compassion and forgiveness, and a few young people in the audience began to scream and yell at me, saying, ‘How easily you speak of don’t know what we have gone through,’” he said.

“‘Wait a minute,’ I replied, ‘You don’t know what I have been through,’ and I continued my story of life in Tibet and the struggle our people have been through. A few days later, those people came to me and apologized, saying that my talk really helped them change their way of thinking.”

Geshe Phelgye ended the evening with a beautiful statement of his deepest beliefs:

“There is Buddha nature. Every sentient being has it. When you are not disturbed, you are kind and peaceful, compassionate. It is only when causes and conditions bring disturbance within the mind, then everything bubbles up—anger, jealousy, etc. There is no inherent evil in anyone.”

“It will take time to turn things around, maybe 30 years to bring society to a place where it is founded solidly on true humanistic values of kindness, equality, respect for all life, commitment to helping everyone, etc. But we shouldn’t give up hope. There is always hope. This is our practice. Thank you.”

Cosponsored by Seattle University Department of Psychology, Dharma Friendship Foundation (DFF), and the Seattle chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the event continued an interfaith connection that DFF has nurtured with Seattle University over the years, bringing respected leaders in the Tibetan Buddhist world to this Jesuit University, which is committed to interfaith dialogue.


About the author:
Jordan Van Voast is the co-founder of CommuniChi Acupuncture clinic in Seattle, and a practitioner in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He has served on the board of the Dharma Friendship Foundation since 2003.

Photo: Jordan Van Voast