Given that he has spent much of the past six decades preaching against the follies of material wealth it was perhaps only natural that the Dalai Lama today gave away the single largest annual monetary award given to an individual.
The Tibetan spiritual leader flew into London to receive the £1.1m Templeton Prize but even before the ink was dry on the cheque he announced he would donate it all to charity.
The bulk of the prize money – more than £934,000 – will go to Save the Children in India where the 14th Dalai Lama has led a Tibetan government in exile for the past five decades.
The remainder, he said, would be given to the Mind and Life institute – a body which promotes collaboration between science and spirituality – and to a fund providing Tibetan monks with funding for science degrees.
Speaking at a press conference in the crypt of St Paul’s, the diminutive 76-year-old monk was characteristically modest as he announced that he would give the money away. “I always say I am nothing special,” he said. “Simply one of the seven billion human beings.”
The Templeton Prize was set up forty years ago by the American born British stock investor Sir John Templeton who felt that the Nobel awards honoured the contribution of science to humanity but failed to recognise religion.
He created the annual award to be given to someone who made and “exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension”, stipulating that the cash should always be more than the Nobel prizes. It has been criticised by some scientists with the campaigning atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once dismissing it as an award “usually [given] to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.”
Tibet’s spiritual leader had much to say yesterday about economic greed and the need for religions to embrace scientific study.
He called on nations to tackle the ongoing global econimuic crisis with “optimism and hard work” stating that “any problem which is created [by man], we must have the ability to solve.”
He revealed that he wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron after learning of last summer’s riots and said the root cause of such violence was young people "being brought up to believe that life was just easy.”
“Life is not easy,” he added. “If you take for granted that life will be easy, then anger develops, frustration, and riots."
But when it came to the fortunes of his own people he was remarkably reticent.
Yesterday’s visit was the first time the Dalai Lama has travelled to Britain since stepping down last year as the political leader of Tibetan in place of a democratically elected new generation of leaders. Organisers for the prize called on the press to refrain from asking questions about Tibet’s ongoing struggle for independence from China but given the current turmoil inside the Dalai Lama’s homeland the subject inevitably surfaced.
In recent months Tibetans have taken to setting themselves alight in increasing numbers to protest against Beijing’s ongoing occupation of their homeland and policies which are seen to favour ethnic Han Chinese at the expense of Tibetans. Since February 2009 more than 35 Tibetans are known to have self-immolated with four people setting themselves alight in the past three weeks alone.
Asked whether such self-immolations should continue the Dalai Lama replied: “This is a sensitive political issue and I think my answer should be zero.”
Self-immolations are often portrayed by Chinese officials as part of a plot by the Dalai Lama to destabilise his homeland, which has been under an increasingly repressive crackdown since riots broke out in predominantly Tibetan areas in 2008. However many analysts say the immolations – which are forbidden in Tibetan Buddhism and were virtually unheard of until the late 1990s – are in fact an expression of frustration against the Dalai Lama’s policy of “middle way” which calls on Tibetans to be patient while its exiled leadership negotiates with Beijing for a settlement.
Many younger Tibetan leaders have begun speaking out against the Dalai Lama’s insistence of non-violence and there are fears that unless Beijing takes a more sensitive stance towards Tibet they will see more and more examples of civil unrest.