Florence, Tuscany, Italy – Rain fell out of a grey sky as His Holiness the Dalai Lama drove to the Mandela Forum this morning to participate in an interreligious meeting on the theme, ‘Freedom through Rules’. He greeted his fellow participants and made a point of walking the full length of the front of the stage to salute the more than 5800 members of the capacity audience before taking his seat.
Director of the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Filippo Scianna, welcomed His Holiness and the other participants. He thanked His Holiness in particular for coming and told him Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa was at his service. Francesca Campana Camparini, the organizer of the event, introduced Dario Nardella, the youthful local Mayor. He welcomed His Holiness to Florence, a city that has historically established connections between people. He stressed the importance of knowing about ourselves and others, in order to work together.
Describing Florence as a city of peace and humanity Nardella declared that it gave him great pleasure to present His Holiness with the ‘Seal of Peace’, the highest and oldest honour of the City of Florence on behalf of all Fiorentini, in acknowledgement of his contribution to peace in the world. His Holiness held up the medal for all to see.
Moderating the meeting, President of Italian national broadcaster Rai, Monica Maggioni, invited His Holiness to open the discussions.
“Good morning brothers and sisters. It is indeed a great honour for me to have this opportunity to share some of my experiences with you. I consider myself to be just one among 7 billion human beings alive today, who all have a right to live a happy life. It’s in the interests of humanity for us to talk about harmony, peace and unity.
“When we are born, we are like this little girl here, with no thought of ‘us’ and ‘them’, just ready to respond to any who smile and show affection, whatever their nationality, family or social background. Creating divisions provokes an unease that can easily spill into violence. And yet deep down we are one. We are the same in being human—no differences between us.
“Right now we are happy here, but elsewhere people are being killed and innocent children are dying of starvation. We need to look into how to put a stop to these man-made sufferings. A fundamental start is to recognise that despite secondary differences between us, at root we are all the same as human beings.
“Since today even religion is giving rise to conflict, this kind of interfaith gathering takes on an additional significance. Can members of different religious traditions live together? The answer is 1000 times—yes. India is a living example. All the world’s major religious have flourished there side by side for centuries.
“These days it’s wrong to refer to Muslim terrorists or Buddhist terrorists because once someone embarks on acts of terrorism their actions are no longer true to their religion. Islamic teaching, for example, says that one who sheds blood is no longer a proper Muslim.”
His Holiness added that today’s global economy makes us all interdependent, while the challenge of climate change is a threat that affects us all. Therefore, he said, it is crucial for the 7 billion human beings on the planet to work together.
As the applause subsided, Maggioni called on former president of the European University Institute Joseph Weiler to contribute a Jewish point of view. He explained that Judaism is a religion of rules, some of which are well-known. Jews cannot eat pork, they don’t work one day a week, and they abstain from sex for 12 days a month. They observe these rules as a way of maintaining their identity. Weiler remarked that if you don’t respect yourself and your identity, you won’t respect others.
Father Enzo Bianchi made the point that to assert that there is but one truth is a source of trouble. It fosters intolerance. However, human beings have a brain and the ability to reason, which they need to use. He noted that what Jesus taught seems often to go against the accepted rule or status quo. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Bianchi quoted St Francis of Assisi as saying that the gospel is not about rules. He ended in praise of forgiveness—“Whatever mistakes I have made are past; today I can start again and make a good life.”
President of the Union of Italian Islamic Communities and Imam of Florence, Izzedin Elzir, introduced himself as having been born in Palestine but brought up in Florence. He spoke of the importance of reading and study. He clarified that contrary to popular hearsay, the word ‘jihad’ means to put what you believe into practice. His Holiness intervened to say that friends have told him that ‘jihad’ is about our inner struggle to combat our disturbing emotions.
Elzir agreed that we need to try to change ourselves and that, as Prof Weiler had said, if we don’t respect ourselves, how can we respect others? He quoted a verse, which is at the root of his faith, that says “God shows his love for all humanity”.
In his summary remarks, His Holiness said:
“If we accept the value of religion, we should be sincere in observing it in practice. All our religious traditions, despite widely varying philosophical points of view, which I appreciate in the way I admire a garden of different coloured flowers, have the potential to create a more compassionate person.”
After a break for lunch, His Holiness met 150 Tibetans and told them of his commitments to promoting peace and happiness among human beings, as well as harmony among religions. Thirdly, as a Tibetan, born and brought up in Tibet, and someone in whom the majority of Tibetans have placed their hope, he is concerned to keep Tibetan religion, culture and language alive. He explained thoroughly how Tibetan Buddhism purely reflects the Indian Nalanda Tradition. He concluded:
“We are seeking genuine autonomy for all three provinces of Tibet, those regions described as Tibetan areas in the Chinese constitution. But we also seek the right to preserve our own religion, culture and way of life—including the right to protect Tibet’s fragile environment. When they understand this, many thinking Chinese support our Middle Way Approach.”
In introducing the afternoon’s them of Peace through Education, Governor of Tuscany Enrico Rossi mentioned that according to article 8 of the Italian constitution all religions are free in the face of the law and according to article 11 Italy has renounced the use of war—because we need peace. He said that he is urging Italy to ratify a treaty proposed at the UN to eliminate nuclear weapons.
“War means organized violence,” His Holiness observed, taking up the theme of peace. “War only exists among human beings. Other animals may fight, but they don’t go to war. They haven’t developed weapons of mass destruction—these are only found among human beings. One reason for this is that human intelligence misused makes human anger immensely destructive. This is why it’s clear that there will be no peace in the world without peace of mind.
“Human nature is compassionate and combined with warm-heartedness can ensure individuals, families, communities and nations live in peace.”
His Holiness answered questions from the audience touching on education, the potential roles of analytical meditation and memorization. His Holiness had particular praise for the value of comparing different points of view in order to reach a sound conclusion.
He ended with this advice:
“As far as the future of humanity is concerned, we have to start to work to create a better world now. It may take twenty to thirty years to achieve the changes we seek, but we can’t delay—we have to begin right away.”
The forum was filled with warm and friendly applause as His Holiness left the stage. From Florence he drove to Pisa where from tomorrow he will attend the ‘Mind Science of Reality Symposium’. As he retired for the day a loud thunderstorm broke overhead.