We live in a time of disturbing prophecies of climate change, sea levels rising and world wars and around the world people are suffering in dire situations through food shortages and civil wars. Many people are trapped in tragic circumstances, among them refugees, women, children, families facing terrible poverty and living under the conditions of war and displacement.
Many of the world's problems appear to be increasing, instead of being solved. At the same time, there is more than ever before in history, an enormous number of esteemed spiritual teachers and leaders sprinkled across the globe, providing light for their communities and hope in turbulent times. It's heartening that these leaders can motivate their followers to open their hearts to their fellow humans and create a better world for all.
In a secular world of greed and selfishness, it is spiritual values that must lead the way. And this year Australia is at the centre, providing the backdrop for a global gathering, the Parliament of the World's Religions.
This December, the world's religions and spiritual communities will convene in Melbourne for the largest and most diverse global interfaith gathering in the world. Based on the premise that there cannot be world peace unless the religions of the world are at peace with one another and working together to find solutions to global problems, the gathering aims to foster tolerance and unity.
The seven day event will bring together the world's religious and spiritual communities, and their leaders, enabling participants to explore some of the most pressing issues of our time.
This year one of the major themes to be addressed at the Parliament of the World's Religions will be indigenous spirituality and reconciliation. Distinguished indigenous speakers taking part include Professor Joy Murphy Wandin, Senior Aboriginal Woman of the Wurundjeri people, Chief Oren Lyons, Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, USA, Bob Randall, Aboriginal Elder from Uluru and Margaret Lokawua, Member, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Uganda.
When it comes down to it, we are all beings with an instinctive priority, that being our personal survival. Many of the seemingly negative actions from one person towards another and between nations can be grasped in much the same way.
I was in the garden playing with my children early this morning, rescuing woodlice and snails from their loving, yet sometimes, too firm grip, when, to our excitement, my children discovered a skink wallowing in the drain.
Excitedly, they prodded at it through the leaves. I got them to step back and give the little creature some space. It was obviously terrified and had jettisoned the tip of its tail. As I carried it with docked tail to a safer spot in the garden, I felt it quivering in my hand. I said a blessing over the poor being's body and placed it in the shade and relative comfort of our olive tree. It was in that moment with the creature in my hand, I felt its anxiety, that it had feelings and fears and a life running through it that it cherished.
It may be obvious for many people, but in that moment I realised that the primary aim of all beings, humans included, is to cherish and sustain this life that flows through us. Every argument, battle and untimely death is attributable in some way to this desire and the way we act and react in order to preserve it.
Religions, in their best incarnation, teach and guide us so that our own personal desire for life does not hinder the life of others and can, in fact, augment the life in others. Spiritual systems may differ in the details they focus upon and in their methods of practice, yet the linking point of all of them is their desire to have life for all beings flow in harmony with each other. Let not the fox hunt the rabbit, nor one man slay another, but may the lion lie down with the lamb, to reconfigure one famous saying.
And how glorious it is that after hundreds of years, centuries even, of animosity between the followers and even the leaders of various religions and sects, religious leaders are now coming together under one banner of peace and hope and mutual cooperation. This really marks the dawning of the Golden Age and how honoured and fortunate Australia is to host such a congregation. I am particularly excited to see how many indigenous spiritual leaders are involved with the Parliament of the World's Religions, as we learn from these people and begin to take steps towards a more earthy spiritual expression, honouring our connection with Mother Earth, the clay from which our individual entities are crafted.
I encourage Melburnians and people all across Australia to attend and put your energy into the process. Let us come together to celebrate the spirit that runs through us and honour the various expressions in all our brothers and sisters. Let us unite in the presence of the one life to honour the one spirit of which we are each a part. I applaud everyone involved in putting this program together and pray that there are many other similar celebrations around the world and in every community.
Those comfortable in their own spirituality have no need to compete or prove their system superior. Rather simply share the blessings they have accrued and delight in the presence of the one.
Chair of the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions, Professor Gary Bouma, has said thousands of guests from 80 countries will attend, making this the largest convention in Australia this year.
"This Parliament will provide opportunity for the world's religious and spiritual communities and their leaders to discuss and explore peace, diversity and sustainability in the context of interreligious understanding and cooperation," said Professor Bouma.
The theme for this year's Parliament is Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth. Over 500 programs will feature lectures, dialogues, workshops, symposia, performances and exhibits, with participation and delivery by renowned spiritual, religious, civic, academic and political leaders, from Australia and overseas. The program will give participants a taste of different religions, with morning observances of different traditions, such as sacred dance, yoga, Sufi whirling dervishes, Aboriginal healing, Sikh contemplative meditation, qur'anic recitation, sacred art and Buddhist meditation and chanting.
The program will include debates and showcase presentations allowing participants to gain a broad understanding of the world's spiritual traditions. Parliament participants will work with others and in their own traditions to craft responses to vital issues like indigenous reconciliation, global poverty and global warming, environmental issues, migration, spirituality and the arts and sports.
This year speaker program will be headlined by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who will consider the challenges of disaster relief, conflict resolution, global sustainability and interfaith action for peace in Africa, and, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder and spiritual leader of the Art of Living Foundation, which undertakes educational and humanitarian work in more than 140 countries.
Other prominent speakers include Ms Dalia Mogahed, Muslim member of President Obama's White House Office of Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, Rev Tim Costello, head of World Vision in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Mrs Lally Lucretia Warren, chair of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is in Botswana, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Chief Rabbi of Norway and International Director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, a human rights advocate from Malaysia, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf , chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent multinational project seeking to improve Muslim relations with the West, the Hon Michael Kirby, former Australian High Court Judge and Rabbi David Rosen, Chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations in Israel.
The Parliament of World Religions has been convening in a major city, every five years, since 1993. Previous host cities include Cape Town, Chicago and Barcelona. This year's event will be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from December 3 - 9.
A PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF PEACE IN OUR TIME
The true test of spiritual merit comes in the face of great tribulation. It is one thing to be peaceful in the presence of peace, it is another when under great turmoil, violence and oppression to respond with more of the same but inject the essence of peace into the oppressor. Obviously, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the symbol of this and other virtues to many people around the world. He has shown himself, as have many of his fellow Tibetans, to be someone who not only preaches his religion but walks the path, too, even in the most dire of circumstances.
I visited Tibet for the fourth time in June this year and found that Lhasa, the capital, and the country's Jerusalem is now a city living under tyranny. Dozens of young Chinese soldiers in groups of eight clad in army fatigues, with riot helmets, wielding batons or guns, march up and down in the main plazas with the intent of squeezing fear into the veins of Tibetans. This goes on throughout the day and into the night. Street corners and alleyways are set up as heavily armed blockades. Sacred temples have snipers on the roof letting all know below that they are watched and their life is just a trigger squeeze away from annihilation.
Yet, amid this terror, the local Tibetans go about their day as unfazed as anyone can be among a multitude of guns and people from a foreign land pushing you around. I know of no other people in the world who would be so calm under so much pressure.
The Chinese propaganda states that Tibetans lived under the oppression of the lamas (religious leaders) and used the masses for their own material gain. To demonstrate that there were many beings of the Dalai Lama's ilk living in Tibet and not people who strived for place and power, or even to force their will on others, as a measure of their spiritual beauty, people flocked to them to learn and be in their presence. Farmers would gladly give of the fat of the land to assist such practitioners, valuing the beauty of the service they performed for all sentient beings. Tibet was no Shangri La, that's for sure - it was a place inhabited by humans on earth. Yet neither was it a draconian state where greedy royalty preyed upon their subjects.
Jamyang Shypa was a young boy at Labrang Monastery in Amdo, the province bordering China and therefore the first to be invaded. He was not just any young boy, but the Tulku of this very esteemed monastery, that is he was the reincarnation of the previous high lama and would be tutored especially to carry on the work of his predecessor and become the spiritual leader of the monastery and the surrounding populace. When the invading Chinese soldiers came, their brief was to kill the high lamas as a show of force, the justification being that these lamas lived off the backs of the peasants.
At Labrang, the lama was a young boy, who had lived just a handful of suns. Chinese soldiers literally marched into the grand meeting hall at Labrang Monastery, a hall that could hold hundreds of monks, with the intention of shooting the young boy there and then in front of his guardians, tutors and future students. The boy's tutor, Yongzen Sam dup Tsang, spoke up reasoning with the invaders that since it was he who had taught the boy everything he knew, the boy should be spared and he should die in his place. The leader of the Chinese soldiers agreed, and before they performed the deed, Yongzen requested he be allowed a short prayer. The request was granted and the prayer went like this - may the negative karma they accrue from committing this misdeed come on to me and may any positive karma I have accrued (there would be much) be showered upon them. With the prayer said, Yongzen was shot there in front of his monks, many of them his students.