Friday, October 01, 2004

The Dalai Lama in El Salvador

The Dalai Lama was in El Salvador this week, and Wednesday I joined 2,000 others in hearing him at the Hotel Radisson. Without pretending to report on everything that he said, I have here a simple reflection or two on the simple truths he shared. To many, his words may have seemed all too simple; to me, they seemed all too true.

Toward the end of his two-hour appearance, and in response to a question from the audience, he said to remember that "change is gradual." This doesn't seem so profound out of context, but after listening to him discussing how real change begins from within, I made an important connection.

Many of us who have been around revolutionary movements in Central America have long since abandoned any real belief in radical, immediate change; politically speaking, we have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that all political change is gradual. If we cannot expect change to happen from one day to the next, then certainly "change" that flows from the barrel of a gun is illusory and impermanent.

Of course, the Dalai Lama was not referring to political change, or was he? In fact, this belief is the reason that in resisting the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he refuses to advocate violence. Hugh Byrne, who spent twelve years of his life in the solidarity movement (with the last four as national political director of CISPES, which is to say, in solidarity with the FMLN rebels), went through his own personal transformation after seeing the ravages of war. He became a Buddhist, and began to link the personal to the political in his view of change. In the preface his doctoral dissertation-turned-book, El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution, he has these reflections to offer:
In the years since the war ended, reflecting on its enormous human costs and those of other conflicts, I have come to believe that all war is a war against ourselves; it is an illusion that we are separate from each other. While affirming the justice of the grievances that led to the war, the depth of the oppression, and the courage and sacrifice of so many participants, I have come to see strategies of violence as leading to strategies of counterviolence, which escalate in a spiral of polarization and conflict from which escape becomes ever more difficult. That the weight of moral responsibility is not equally shared does not alter this dynamic.
While many of us now feel this way, I think we still have a long way to go yet towards rethinking history --our own, as well as that of the people of Central America whose suffering we claimed to share-- in light of this profound truth.

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