“All that Lives is thy Neighbor” – this and other teachings of Mahatma Gandhi are the principles that guide Lia Diskin’s work. She is the woman who organizes the Dalai Lama’s visits to Brazil, and is behind some of the most palpable and persistent initiatives for peace and peaceful coexistence in Brazil.
By Chantal Brissac
Photos Erico Hiller
She is the one in charge of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s agenda in Brazil since the first visit in 1992. In September 2011 he made his 4th visit to Brazil, also organized by Lia. A follower of the ideas of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, Lia Diskin was born in Argentina and became one of the most noted names within the culture of peace movement. Words such as cooperation, sustainable economy, and mobilization, make sense when Lia says them. Coming from her, these are not only words. Since 1972, when she helped found Palas Athena Association, the institution promotes, organizes, and designs programs and projects in the areas of education, health, environment, and social development. Lia lives her life with simplicity and truth, gandhian values that she thrives to disseminate. “All that lives is thy neighbor”, Gandhi said. “Nowadays, this reconnection with all that lives, trees, rivers, or persons, is the most urgent and important”, she says.
Along with Palas Athena Association – that brought some of the most brilliant minds of the planet to teach in Brazil, such as the French philosopher Edgar Morin, the British economist Hazel Henderson, and the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, among others – Lia is celebrating 38 years on the road.
Born in Buenos Aires on October 27, 1950, she arrived in Brazil in 1971 at the age of 21. She had already graduated in journalism and married the Argentinean philosopher Basilio Pawlowicz. The young couple came to Brazil due to the tense situation created by the dictatorship in Argentina. In São Paulo they founded Palas Athena Association in São Paulo and Casa dos Pandavas, in Monteiro Lobato. Palas Athena included a centre of philosophical studies, a printing house and a publishing house. Casa dos Pandavas was a home for orphans and then became a school. She was recently awarded the Trip Transformadores Prize, and also the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation award for disseminating gandhian values outside India. Lia received us at the former building of the Association (they have now moved to Alameda Lorena 355) to speak to us about Gandhi, education, politics, and the future.
If Gandhi were alive today, what would he be struggling for?
“If he were alive today he would certainly want to stop this wild consumer craze that is going on. ‘All who have things they do not use are thieves’, he said. Obviously, they are thieves not because they have stolen, but because they do not need that object or raw material, and are thus impeding its use. ‘Mottainai!’ is a Japanese expression that means roughly “What a waste!” This expression has been revived by biologist Wangari Maathai, minister of the Environment of Kenya and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, who died in September 2011 after leaving a wonderful example. Gandhi would take ‘Mottainai” and transform it into the mantra of the 21st century. We will need this inspiration at Rio + 20 in June 2012.”
The cycle of life
“One robs the dignity of things when one does not know how to use them, or does not allow them to be used to their full capacity. Blocking the cycle of usage we also lose the sense of the origin of things. We tend to forget that every piece of paper was a tree that had roots and was nurtured by the earth, its water, sunlight, air. We forget that any pine tree or eucalyptus tree took at least 5 years to grow to be cut in order to become pulp and then paper.”
To be happy is to consume
“The association of consumerism and happiness is an explosive combination because it is equivalent to condemning three quarters of the population to unhappiness. This is cruel. Besides, we are jeopardizing the younger generations by leaving them a depleted planet, much poorer than that which we ourselves lived in. I belong to a generation that brushed their teeth while water ran freely from the tap. Nobody though this waste was a problem. Today we know that the dispute for clean water is already leading to wars.
And what about the lower classes that are starting to have access to consumer goods?
“Now that they are starting to be able to buy, how can we tell them not to? This is a perverse issue. What is necessary is to work on the other end. We have consumed too much, so it is time to start sharing, distributing, minimizing the impact. What greater happiness is there than that of sharing? Who would want to have a magnificent dinner table set with delicious treats, and eat alone? Where did we get the notion that using something exclusively for ourselves is a source of happiness and pleasure? We need others. Christmas is precisely the celebration of the joy of being together. “
Indignation that leads to action
“The waste of food is so preposterous – if this food were used, it would be enough to solve the most serious problems of malnutrition. We could solve this problem, nevertheless, our indignation has not yet reached the point that compels us to action, it is still on the intellectual level. We haven’t yet managed to get mobilized. Indignation has two steps: the first creates awareness, the second seeks reparation for that which we find unjust and lacking in solidarity.”
Look at Tunisia
“Look at what the youth in Tunisia did. They started out with indignation against police corruption and led a revolution. These young people had nothing but a small book that can be read on the internet – From dictatorship to democracy – by pacifist Gene Sharp, which is translated into 30 languages and became the starting point for a non violent action that ended a government of three decades.”
“2500 years ago Confucius said ‘Nothing is enough for those who consider too little that which is sufficient’. There is so much wisdom in this sentence. If one is not able to celebrate, be thankful for, and use with dignity that which is sufficient, nothing will quench your insatiable need, your dissatisfaction. The issues involving the sustainability of the European community and the Euro have to do with this – health austerity. Austerity combined with a clear and abundant notion of where we stand.”
How can this be
“In the business world they are starting to talk about access to products instead of propriety of products. There are successful experiments carried out in Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway showing us the things to come. In these places not only do they share cars and bikes – bikes are in the streets for anyone to use and cost a coin or two – but neighbors that live in the same building also share vacuum cleaners and other appliances. What is the sense of keeping in your apartment a vacuum cleaner, a food processor, a juicer, a mixer, when we do not use these machines daily?”
Signs of change 1
“Part of this younger generation is giving up the idea of having a car, they prefer to have a bike. They want to spend their vacations with the Yanomami or Xavante Indians in Brazil, or in an African tribe, rather than going to those scandalously expensive resorts. I know many who want to live in eco-villages, or transform their district into an eco-district. They understand life in a much more organic manner, and clearly perceive we are all part of one and only giant project called life.”
Signs of change 2
“In Brazil there is a network of about 80 institutions that are doing extraordinary things, from recovering communities destroyed by drug traffic to teaching ethics in the governmental and private schools for rich children – who are usually pampered and spoilt, showing them that life is more than using an ipad and shopping. There are many good programs going on. It is important to mention, because these good news inspire, motivate, and invite people to take part and contribute.”
Signs of change 3
Never have we planted so many trees, and never have we seen so many conservation projects. In the last 5 years the number of parks in São Paulo almost doubled. According to plans, in 2013 we will have at least 100 parks within the city of São Paulo. And these plans are getting a boost from social networks that provide fluidity, articulation, and mobilization. It is not necessary to create an NGO to improve your neighborhood, you can invite people to participate using facebook, twitter, and thus create an efficient action.
The Dalai Lama and consciousness
During the 4th visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Brazil in September 2011, I believe the most important meeting was one that ended with a dialog with Brazilian and foreign neuroscientists about states of consciousness and the positive effects of practicing meditation and other contemplative practices. It was an extraordinary meeting. Also his first visit to Brazil was a landmark: during ECO 92, I shall never forget His Holiness’ meeting with Dom Helder Câmara, Archbishop of Recife, at the Aterro do Flamengo during a vigil when all religious traditions were together in one same tent.
Gandhi’s example, always
Gandhi ended his life cleaning latrines in order to demonstrate that the work done by ‘untouchables’, as were called those belonging to the lowest echelon of the Indian society, was as dignifying as any other work. He even changed their name, calling them ‘harijan’, (which means ‘sons of God’). Gandhi was a strong and determined man, who fought with intelligence and non-violence, and who won the trust of the Indian population and never stopped when his pledges were answered with a no.”
“Every once in a while humankind comes up with apocalyptic ideas that the world will end. This is not new. For a long time we have been putting our money on this bet. But the end of the world will not happen at the same time as the end of our species. As a matter of fact, thousands of species were extinct along the history of Project Earth. This project will certainly survive. I believe this is a good opportunity to reconnect to our real and concrete foundations. We have been detached from reality, thinking we are independent from natural forces, from our very biological nature – this is a wild fantasy. Einstein, Beethoven, Mozart, none of them could have done what they did if they hadn’t had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or some similar form of nutrition. We are totally dependant of our environment.”