Monk-ey's Brain
By Kamal Sunavala

It’s not that people here don’t know what or who the Dalai Lama is. It’s simply that they expect to be overwhelmed and instead they are under-whelmed and that is exactly what overwhelms them. No, this isn’t a cryptic, Buddhist theory, this is simply an observation of what happened at the Žofín palace on a Monday morning in October when the Dalai Lama came a-visiting. He was part of an inter-faith dialogue organized by Václav Havel’s foundation Forum2000 which is essentially a group of distinguished leaders in different fields who meet up a couple of times each year to talk about issues that are frankly a pain in the behind. We tend to be very cynical about such forums and conferences, especially the tribe of journalists, for the obvious reasons - it’s all about high-end shoulder-rubbing, clinking glasses and photo opps while pretending to resolve the gritty reality that is literally killing thousands by the day. I usually scoff at excuses like these. The Dalai Lama is the only exception I make, being familiar not only with his discourses but also the work he does in India, where he lives. More than all that, I rejoice in the statement he unfailingly makes at any public appearance - I am a non-believer in religion. I am simply a follower of humanity and God’s will. Most Czechs present at that conference – and there were few, in comparison to the number of Americans – were confused. The Dalai Lama? A non-believer? What about the Buddhist religion that he is the head of? It was amusing to the Indians, Tibetans, Americans, British and other assorted nationalities, to see them struggling to make sense of that statement. A recent media survey in the Czech Republic showed that 78 percent of Czechs were afraid of Islam and about 80 percent from that 78 percent thought Islam was created by some chap called Abraham. And since a lot of people actually knew about this survey, they were laughing at their Czech counterparts, about how poor their general knowledge about major religions and faiths was. Some more helpful people were taking the educative route. I happened to lean in on a conversation in the women’s loo during the tea break.

American Girl: I love it so far, it’s great that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are talking today.
Czech friend: So what is the Dalai Lama doing here?
AG: He is sort of being the voice of reason between them all. A guiding light.
CF: But he says he is a non-believer. In Islam or Christianity or Judaism?
AG: No, no, in religion.
CF: What? But isn’t he the leader of the Buddhist religion?
AG: Buddhism is not a religion
CF: What? But then what else can it be?
AG: It’s a lifestyle choice. I am Baptist but I can follow the Buddhist path in practice.
CF: What? Aren’t you Christian?
AG: Yes, of course, but specifically a Baptist. You know like Sunnis and Shias..
CF: What?
AG: You know, what they were saying that whether we’re Sunni or Shia, we’re all Muslims.
CF: What? We’re all Muslims? Since when?
AG: I mean Mohammed was simply a Muslim, not Sunni, not Shia, not anything but a Muslim
CF: What? Then who’s Abraham?
AG: I need coffee.
CF: What? There’s free coffee?

I was amused by that unreal conversation but more worried about how little we all seem to know. Not just Czechs but all of us, yet, there we were, trying to understand each other’s faiths and the impact it undeniably has in the political and social world today. Upon returning, the Dalai Lama asked everyone what we each thought of the meaning of tolerance. Most people started whispering about how they put up with the bad smelling food/shoes/socks/body-odour of their neighbours, dog poop, gypsies, in some cases, immigration, politicians, stag parties, rude manners, those foreigners, the foreign police, the local police, knedlíky with every bloody thing, Czech wine, Japanese tourists and the list went on and on, with everyone agreeing about how in the interest of peace and sanity, we tolerated all this.

Very softly, almost regretfully, without raising an eyebrow in disbelief as to how nearly three hundred seemingly intelligent people got it all wrong, he told us, tolerance is understanding why. Once you understand why, you learn to love. So tolerance is a harder form of love.

Judging by the shocked silence and then a deafening applause, I would say that it’s not just Czechs who are ignorant of religions and common knowledge, but it’s every single one of us who perhaps learnt this word at the age of six and still don’t know the meaning of it.