Revolutionary Spirit: the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan, JFK and MLK


A kind of revolution

I’ve been dipping into a book over the last few weeks and wanting to write about the key premise explored there. In Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium, published in 1999, the Dalai Lama sets out his call for a spiritual revolution. In the second chapter, entitled ‘No Magic, No Mystery’ he explores the difference between religion and spirituality. This gives a flavour:

“Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another – an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality…Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others”.

He goes on to say that what the qualities he has described as ‘spiritual’ have in common is a level of concern for others’ well-being; and follows up by stating the need to change ourselves so we are more ‘readily disposed’ to help others:

“My call for a spiritual revolution is…not a call for a religious revolution…Rather it is a call for a radical re-orientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self towards concern for the wider community…with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own’.

Spirituality: bad term, good definition

It was good to come across such a useful exploration of what spirituality is and what it isn’t as I feel like the term ‘spirituality’ and the related idea of spiritual practice often have a bad reputation. However, there is nothing in the Dalai Lama’s discussion which seems weird, sinister, fluffy or airy-fairy. On the contrary, it reads as a coherent clarion call to take responsibility, on an individual level, for feelings, thoughts and actions, with the assertion that this can lead to transformation at a societal level.

Written down in a few plain words, the notion of taking responsibility can seem quite a simple one. But I know that I often have an impulse to look outside of myself for explanations of my moods and decisions when these aren’t feeling good. Equally, it can be easy for many of us, I think, to look elsewhere for solutions to our perceived and real problems, focussing our energies on short-term fixes in the form of a person, food, drink, drugs and so on.

Scorcese documentary on Bob Dylan

This week I watched Martin Scorcese’s two part documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. It was compelling viewing for many reasons, including the footage. It was inspiring to see so many people in the ’60s being so proactive. Dissatisfied with the way things were with regard to issues such as nuclear armament and civil rights, people found lots of ways, new and old, to make their voices heard through protests, music, campaigns and lifestyle choices.

Times are a’changing – or are they? 

As I’m writing this down I’m all too well aware that, half a century later, we are faced with a sad and frightening plethora of world crises in multiple and overlapping forms: political, social, environmental, economic. It could be perceived that the good will and action of fifty years ago has all turned to dust. But much positive change was achieved through the work done then and today people continue to speak out through marches, social media, petitions and direct action. The demand for change and transparency now is what I saw in the documentary and took comfort from as well as inspiration.

Bob Dylan, JFK, art and truth

Bob Dylan is still often described as being at the forefront of the protest movement at that time, even though in the film he repeatedly distances himself from this role of spearhead. But in spite of his own take on his position in the 1960s, what he radiated and what seemed to chime with the era and those endeavouring to bring about change, was his integrity. This endures in his songwriting and performance, but what resonated for me in the documentary specifically was how he dealt with the press. Yes, he was an irreverent, witty young man who was becoming more and more successful by the day, but what he repeatedly demonstrated in these clips was his ability to not be drawn in by the machine, not to fold himself in to somebody other than who he was. President Kennedy talked about this in his eulogy speech for the poet Robert Frost in October 1963, just a month before his own untimely death:

“Art…is a form of truth. In free society art is not a weapon…The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist…is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation”.

Revolutionary duty: finding the artist in all of us

For art to work it must come from the deepest of places, uncontaminated by pressure and expectation. For most artists, protecting and facilitating this process is of paramount importance and forms the keystone of their creative work. For those of us who are not artists, who do not think of ourselves as artists in this way, we can and, I believe, must be artists of spirit. This is where the Dalai Lama’s guidance, Bob Dylan’s music and presence and JFK’s speech intersect. We need to be artists of our own lives in order to revolutionise the way things are in the world around us.

Where we are now and how we can go somewhere better

The current status quo is not a healthy one and most people are not very happy. We tend to keep on keeping on without stopping to see what else can be done. The Dalai Lama describes how we can do things differently through taking compassionate action, and the rewards that naturally follow for individuals, communities and institutions; Bob Dylan shows us what it looks (and sounds) like to act like this, from a place of integrity; and Kennedy reminds us that it is our role to act like this, to act up in a truthful way in order to keep society in check: it is our duty to serve the nation through our integrity so the nation serves us.

Meditation, music and Martin Luther King

Compassionate action doesn’t start flowing forth just at the mention of one book. But, as the Dalai Lama makes clear, we can learn skills that change how we interact with the world around us, that improve our artistry in engaging with our society and culture. He describes it in ways that seem possible and it boils down to training the mind. Call it meditation or call it mindfulness. I think it works and there are lots of pointers out there, particularly now, and not just in this particular book. But ‘Ancient Wisdom, Modern World’ could be a good place to start. Or any of Bob Dylan’s songs.

To conclude finally, these words from Martin Luther King which he repeated in various speeches, make the very eloquent case for deviating from the dangerously numbing yet comfortable norm:

“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed non-conformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority but through the creative maladjustment of a non-conforming minority. Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted”.

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