A Friendly Clash of Cultures - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Friendly Clash of Cultures

A Friendly Clash of Cultures

Published June 8, 2009

The Dalai Lama´s visit to the University of Iceland on June 2 revealed to me how different the Western and Eastern cultures are, their approaches to politics and people…

The Dalai Lama was clearly confused. His translator whispered repeatedly: “University of Iceland, University of Iceland” as the Dalai Lama went up to the speaker’s desk. The Buddhist monk lost patience, waved, said: “Anyway…” and welcomed the “people” in the room. He giggled like a child. He then expressed his admiration for all the educated people in the room, referring to himself as someone who only “learned from encounters with others.”

Eventually becoming aware of the fact that he was in Iceland, he started the debate: “I think that Icelanders on their island are a little bit isolated, but… basically, we are all the same human beings.” He giggled again. Disarming. He sat down. The discussion with the Dean of the Faculty for Humanities, two Professors of philosophy and one for religion, centred on religion, politics, the economic crisis and the people’s lost trust in politicians as well as the equality of men and women.

Uncomfortable academics
The questions and answers could have hardly been more opposing: the professors focused on complicated and broad subjects, such as war and corruption, whereas the Dalai Lama’s answers were always exemplary individual cases. It was obvious that the Western scholars were not always happy with the answers they received. Comments like: “Well, that’s all good in theory, but …” were common.

The Buddhist monk continued talking in examples, creating microcosms to explain the big issues and solve the problems of the world. In the end, for him it all boils down to two parameters: morality, together with education, and self-discipline. One hour of discussion was clearly too short for the Dalai Lama, who was at his best when he indulged in long philosophical monologues only interrupted by short conversations with his translator and accompanied with laughter every once in a while. Being reminded of the time, he turned around to the dean later and asked – almost giggling again – if he was talking for too long and if this was a waste of time now. He also felt sorry for the dean, who was standing behind the speaker’s desk the whole time and invited him to sit down and be more comfortable.

The dean did as he was told and the Dalai Lama gave him a friendly pat on his knee, which the dean was clearly uncomfortable with. In the end of the discussion, the Tibetan leader took his time to hand the traditional Buddhist white scarves to every participant in the discussion and thanked them individually. Everyone was smiling. The Dalai Lama was too frank, too happy to not reach everyone in the hall. I got the impression that we, the Western educated people, make everything more complicated than it actually is. In contrast, modest him sees everything clearly, just black or white. And maybe that’s what things are: black and white – which is the easiest and at the same time hardest part in this philosophy for our educated Western brains, because it makes us realise how difficult it is to go the straight and obviously moral way.

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