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Rabbi challenges Dalai Lama at peace summit
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Rabbi challenges Dalai Lama at peace summit

Rabbi Michael Lerner said, “Our goal is to create a political movement with spiritual practices.” Photos by Robert Wiener
Rabbi Michael Lerner said, “Our goal is to create a political movement with spiritual practices.” Photos by Robert Wiener

A leading left-of-center rabbi took issue with the Dalai Lama at the May 13 opening session of the three-day Peace Education Summit at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Although not quite a dispute, the respectful jousting the panelists engaged in suggested that even among global peace activists, there are disagreements over policy and politics.

The summit, hosted by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman, and advertising executive Drew Katz, was planned as an opportunity to “examine how individuals, communities, cities, and nations can build foundations for peaceful societies.”

The headliner for the summit was the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, who chairs the Network of Spiritual Progressives and edits the left-wing Tikkun magazine, took issue with the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders on the panel who claimed that inner peace is a prerequisite for social change.

Instead, said Lerner, social change demands political movements as well as spiritual practices.

Among the sharpest exchanges was one between Lerner and Deepak Chopra, the physician, author, and frequent television guest.

“It is very clear that peace is the context for curing social injustice and economic injustice,” said Chopra. “At the same time, it is very important to understand that in the absence of personal transformation, peace can only be created by those who are peaceful.”

Challenging Chopra, Lerner said, “We need to be the peace we believe in. We need to be the love we believe in. But there is a danger there. The danger is that once you have that as a criterion, many people abandon social change movements.

“Our goal is to create a political movement with spiritual practices,” he said to loud applause. “We have a bottom line that flows from the echoes of selfishness and careerism. We need a new bottom line in America that says every institution, every social policy, should be judged as to whether it is rational or creative or productive and maximizing our capacity to be loving and caring, kind and generous, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and restore the universe to the grandeur of creation,” said the rabbi.

After arriving some 20 minutes late for the discussion, the Dalai Lama suggested that American democracy — though imperfect — was a model for healing societies.

The rabbi took issue with this notion.

“Either we have to acknowledge that this country is not a democracy or we have to argue that democracies are not a guarantor of peace, given that we are engaged in three wars at this very moment that are opposed by many of our people,” Lerner said.

Lerner was not the only panelist to take issue with the exiled Buddhist leader’s vision of peace.

“I thought it was strange to be asked to be on this panel on inner peace, because I don’t have much,” said the Dalai Lama’s fellow Nobel laureate, Jody Williams, who has worked to ban landmines. “It isn’t just that I am an angry human being; I am angry at injustice. It is righteous indignation which fires many of us because of inequality. I am still struggling with meditation and inner peace, and I am not sure I will ever work it out.”

Williams received loud applause when she said, “This nation spends more on defense than every other nation in the world combined, and we close the schools of our children.”

First step democracy

Lerner, who was born in Newark and raised in South Orange, also challenged Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who won a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her defense of women’s and children’s rights.

“Our children have to be taught to love others and to respect others like themselves,” said Ebadi, warning of technology that challenges the world’s peaceful intentions. “We bring computers into our homes that teach children how to kill others on the computer. In order to make our children happy, we buy them guns and other simulations of violence. Children learn from childhood what violence is,” she said through an interpreter.

“How do you imagine peace coming to Iran?” asked Lerner.

“The first step is to create democracy in Iran,” she replied.

Mahishan Gnanaseharan, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Newark’s Science Park High School, who was born in Sri Lanka, addressed the audience as the youth representative on the panel.

“We need to focus on the hope for a better life for all those living on this planet,” said Gnanaseharan, who was honored by the Library of Congress for his winning essay on teen violence.

Wilbert Rideau, a journalist who won his freedom from death row after 44 years in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, said he started his quest for inner peace “after being in a place as far down in life as you can be — an outcast condemned to die with anger at the world, yet along with those feelings was revulsion that I had taken someone’s life…. I can never make up for the deep rage and the actions of my youth, but I am determined to go forward working to improve the world around me.

“Individuals need to feel that they are important, that they are understood, and they need to feel that they belong,” said Rideau. “If they don’t, we’ve got problems.”

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