I always feel uncomfortable when people ask me, “What’s the last book you read?”. I can never ever answer the question because of this nasty habit of mine which I’ve been trying to break for years – the habit of starting 15 books at the same time (quite literally, no exaggeration here) and never finishing any.
But today, I can proudly say I’ve finished Imagine All The People: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama on Money, Politics, and Life as it Could Be, a feat I managed only by reading it in one sitting. It helps that the conversations in the book are, really, very interesting. It’s not often one reads about Buddhism in relation to politics, at least in the practical, down-to-earth and realistic way that is presented in this book .
Most of the time, in Buddhist books, mention of the words “politics” and “money” are coupled with equal doses of the words “detachment” and “ego”. And this is good, because it helps us reflect upon our personal situations or our attitudes as individuals; ultimately, I think, the world can only change if individuals (in large numbers) start to make changes within ourselves. Yet ideas of spiritual work – although they may be the most essential ideas of all – do not do much to assess the situation our world finds itself in, a least in terms of giving specific reasons for the wars and other problems. But this book scarcely mentions abstract Buddhist ideas at all, except for the very central theme of “compassion”, which is a pretty universal idea.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama is different because, as the news likes to put it, he is the “spiritual and political leader in exile of the Tibetan people” and has had vast experience in the world of politics. He also, as he states in the book, intends to reach out to everyone, not just Buddhists, and therefore, I think, explains things in a manner that is understandable to people with no knowledge of Buddhism.
Some of the more interesting questions raised in this book, which consists of a number of conversations between him and French Jewish businessman Fabien Ouaki, are “Is money intrinsically evil?”, “Does humanity need religion?”, “Is abortion permissible?” and “Should everyone become Buddhist?”, to which he gives some rather surprising answers (for a Buddhist). He emphasises that money itself is not evil, but totally necessary, and is an extremely GOOD thing provided it is not the most important consideration in one’s life. Money, he argues, can give people a peace of mind that is necessary for spiritual development, but being a slave to money is awful because it causes more anxiety. On a more global scale, he talks about the income inequality and the North-South divide; two of the many reasons for these problems, he says, are the creation of the nation-state and the ideology of “increasing GNP”, which he argues is totally senseless.
Another surprising thing he says, which many people acquainted with the Dalai Lama’s books and speeches must already be familiar with, is that it is better for people to stick to their own religions/traditions rather than adopting the Buddhist way. This is not something you often hear from a “spiritual leader”. He also proposes that an international body be set up, not like the United Nations which is presented by political leaders, but instead, a “Council of Sages” comprising wise and compassionate, though not necessarily “spiritual”, people from all over the world. And he also talks in detail about education and the failure of the Western model, which encourages intellectual development but leaves no room for moral/ethical development. As a result, he says, much intellectual work that is done today is stimulated by feelings of rage and anger instead of compassion. For example, while Marxism had altruistic intentions of eradicating income inequality, it was fuelled by hatred for the rich and was a failure because it was rooted in negative emotions.
Many people have many things to say about the Dalai Lama, but his books, not only this one, are altogether very clear and sensible. But there seems to be a stigma about religious leaders these days; many get crticised no matter what action they take or don’t take. Some of the criticisms may be very accurate with regards to many “spiritual gurus”, since a large number are, in fact, merchants posing as wise men (a topic the Dalai Lama also addresses) but it is also evident that many, including the Dalai Lama in this case, give simple, commonsensical antidotes to the insane predicaments we find ourselves in.