Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - This morning His Holiness the Dalai Lama took part in a Mind & Life Conversation from his residence by means of video conferencing. Joining him were: Richie Davidson, Carolyn Jacobs, Thupten Jinpa, and Susan Bauer-Wu, all longstanding members of the Mind & Life Institute. As His Holiness entered the room, ten minutes earlier than scheduled, and saw his old friend Richie Davidson’s face on the screen in front of him, he laughed and tapped his nose. Usually when they meet, His Holiness teases Davidson about his prominent nose and then rubs it with his own, greeting him affectionately as he learned to do in New Zealand.
“Good morning,” he said, addressing the whole panel. “I feel very happy to see you although we are at such a physical distance from each other. Nevertheless, we are able to gather virtually and dedicated to the well-being of others.”
When Susan Bauer-Wu told His Holiness how good it was to see him again and asked if he was well, he replied, “You’ll have to judge from my face. I’m 85 and physically very healthy. I feel this is because my mind is peaceful as a result of my cultivating altruism, the awakening mind of bodhichitta. As you know, my favourite prayer says:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
“And, in trying to fulfil that aspiration, I feel my life has been of some benefit. The 1st Panchen Rinpoché lived to the age of 108 and some of my friends have asked me to do the same. So, I hope I’ll be around for another two decades.”
“We’d like that very much,” Bauer-Wu replied. “We’re so happy you could join us today. We last met in November and the world has changed so much since then.”
“For many years now, we’ve held these Mind & Life meetings,” His Holiness continued, “that have given us the opportunity to exchange experiences. The main point is how much we can contribute to human knowledge.”
Susan Bauer-Wu mentioned that 100,000 people might be tuning in to the conversation. In fact, taking account of webcasts in 14 different languages, the eventual audience numbered more than 900,000. She remarked that at the first Mind & Life meeting 33 years ago His Holiness had made his fellow participants curious and stimulated their desire to help the world. She introduced the other members of today’s panel and handed over to Carolyn Jacobs, who would moderate.
“We are coming together today to discuss the current crisis,” she told him. “We want to ask how we can bring humanity together, with resilience and compassion. The first of five questions I’ll put to you is, considering the high level of unease associated with this global pandemic, what skills can we adopt to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty?”
“This illness is serious,” His Holiness responded. “Many experts are paying attention to it, so I have nothing to add. I appreciate their efforts and the help they are giving so many people — both those who are doing research and those who are giving treatment and care. So many doctors and nurses are putting themselves at risk.
“I believe that when there is fear it makes the effect of the illness worse. We need a stable mind. An eighth century Nalanda Master, Shantideva advised that we examine the situation we find ourselves in. If a problem has a solution, we must work to find it; if it does not, we need not waste time thinking about it. This is a practical approach. It’s helpful to reduce our fear and anxiety. In the context of evolving worlds and galaxies, one human life is tiny, but when it ends the end is not permanent. Something goes on, life after life.
“Among other serious problems we face are many we have created ourselves. In America these days protests are taking place against racial injustice. Much of this depends on our mental attitude. We must promote a sense of the oneness of humanity, which I am committed to doing. Among the seven billion human beings alive today, we’re all born the same way and we all die the same way. In between those events, while we’re alive, there may be minor differences between us, but essentially, we are all the same as human beings.
“What’s more, all our futures depend on humanity. Thinking of ‘my group’ and ‘their group’ on the basis of colour or faith is an old way of thinking. Today in the global economy there are no boundaries. To emphasise small differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gives rise to problems and provokes conflict. We have to think instead of the whole of humanity. We might think one way when we’re young and another when we’re older, but despite these differences we still think of ourselves as the same person.
“Making distinctions on the basis of colour, faith or nationality distracts us from the fact that we are all the same in being human. This is something we must share with others, because we all have to live together on this planet. We are mentally, physically and emotionally the same. Concentrating instead on superficial differences is foolish.
“Look at the diversity of India. All the world’s major religions flourish here unhindered. People in the south, north, east and west of the country speak different languages, have different modes of writing, yet they all live together as part of the Indian Union.
“If we put too much stress on differences of colour it becomes important. Instead it’s better to stress that we are all the same in being human. Look at the European Union. Among its members are people of different nationalities, speaking different languages, enjoying different cultures. In the past they fought and killed each other. One of my physics teachers, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, told me that when he was young in every German eye the French were enemies and in every French eye the Germans were the same, but it is no longer true. After the second world war, Europeans adopted a more mature approach and founded what has become the European Union. Since then, its members have no longer fought and killed each other. The spirit of the European Union is something we all can learn from.
“Many of the problems we face we create for ourselves as a result of narrow-mindedness and emotions. Emotions are a natural part of our lives, but negative emotions have no sound foundation. Positive emotions like compassion, on the other hand, are based on reason.”
His Holiness referred to the quantum physics insight that although material things appear to exist objectively, if you look deeper, nothing exists as it appears. Identity is not solid. When you look deeper, you find that material things are composed of particles and that their identity is a mental projection.
He mentioned that the Indian nuclear physicist Raja Ramana pointed out to him that quantum physics seemed new to some, but corresponding ways of thought could be found long ago in ancient India. He quoted a verse by Nagarjuna:
There does not exist anything
That is not dependently arisen.
Therefore, there does not exist anything
That is not empty (of objective existence).
His Holiness asserted that if we could adopt the quantum physics point of view, negative emotions could be set aside. He reiterated that negative emotions have no foundation, whereas compassion and other positive emotions, based on reality, can be enhanced through meditation and reason.
“Wonderful,” Carolyn Jacobs exclaimed. “Richie, are there any parts of this you’d like to talk about?”
After greeting His Holiness, Richie Davidson brought up the issue of the coronavirus pandemic. He quoted a Chinese scientific paper that reports that 54% of the Chinese population have been experiencing moderate to serious symptoms of distress. Elsewhere too, other scientists cite mental health problems associated with the pandemic. People have difficulty coping with the uncertainty: not knowing if they’re infected, not knowing how long the risk will last, and not knowing when the pandemic will end.
Recalling His Holiness’s earlier quoting Shantideva’s advice, it seems that there are some things we can control and some that we can’t. What we can learn to do, Davidson suggested, is to control our minds. This is particularly important when messages of fear and uncertainty are having such destructive effects.
Following up on His Holiness’s concern about racial tensions currently afflicting the US, Davidson cited evidence that black people between the ages of 35 and 45 are ten times more likely to die from coronavirus. This is a serious physical problem.
Meanwhile, people’s attention is being hijacked by fear, so the question he wanted to discuss was, ‘How can we control our minds and not give in to fear?’ ‘How can we calm our minds and reach a state of equanimity?’
“Research into this illness,” His Holiness replied, “is going on and must continue. It’s caused by a virus, so the body has the potential to create anti-bodies and immunity. However, as far as our mental state is concerned, fear makes us more vulnerable. Self-confidence strengthens our well-being.
“From a materialistic point of view, sense consciousness predominates. Until the late 20th century not much attention was paid to the mind itself, to our mental consciousness. But towards the end of the 20th century it began to be acknowledged that there was something else that affected our brains. Meditation and exercises to control our breathing affect our mental consciousness. These things can help us focus on the mind itself, for a few seconds to begin with and then for a few minutes. I have some friends who can focus their minds for several hours. Adding analysis to this enables us to achieve insight.
“The common Indian traditions of cultivating a calmly abiding mind (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana) are very useful. They enable us to increase the power of the mind and hone its sharpness. And this can be done in a secular, academic and objective way.
“You, (Richie Davidson), have made a great contribution to the understanding that something about consciousness can affect the brain. As a result, more and more scientists are paying attention to emotions and our inner world. Anger and fear are part of our mental landscape, but through meditation we can develop a conviction that such negative emotions are of no use. We need to learn how to achieve peace of mind. Negative emotions deserve the blame for many of the problems we face. We need to learn how to reduce them through analysis. We have more work to do in the emotional field.”
“When we first began our dialogues as part of Mind & Life,” Richie Davidson told His Holiness, “the word compassion was not used in a scientific context. If you looked in the indexes of books at that time, compassion was missing. You, (Your Holiness), have been a catalyst for change for an entire generation of scientists. They have learned how compassion affects our emotions, something twenty years ago few people knew. Twenty years ago, in Dharamsala we pledged to put compassion on the scientific map. There are now fields of contemplative science and contemplative neuroscience.
“We see that even a small amount of compassion training counters implicit bias, the prejudices within us that we don’t know about. Through compassion we can reduce them. However, we still face the question of how to disseminate this knowledge more widely. We welcome any advice you may give about how all seven billion human beings could learn to do this. An analogy I use is that not so long ago not so many people brushed their teeth — now everybody does.”
“The existing education system,” His Holiness observed, “lacks any concept of the mind. It should incorporate an understanding of the mind and emotions. Just as we teach children physical hygiene, they need to develop a sense of emotional hygiene. Ancient Indian tradition has a great deal to tell us about this. For example, it distinguishes between our primary awareness and 51 mental factors. These are defined by their function. I believe it’s possible to study this material in a contemporary academic context.
“Because we generally lack an understanding of our inner world, we would do well to find a way to incorporate it into the education curriculum from kindergarten to university. Small beginnings can lead to a thorough and sophisticated understanding of the mind, just as a single seed grows into a great tree. We have to examine which emotions are helpful and which are harmful. Some, like compassion we should learn to enhance, while others, like anger and fear, we should learn to reduce. Emotions have causes and we need to understand what they are.
“In ancient Indian thought, ‘ahimsa’, non-violence is regarded as conduct. ‘Karuna’ or compassion comprises the motivation. This is the background out of which Buddhism arose.
“The existing education system is inadequate for ensuring people are happy. Scientists have the authority to raise questions about it. If I do so, as a monk, it will attract less attention. People these days pay closer heed to what scientists have to say.
“The Nalanda Tradition cultivated the scepticism the Buddha encouraged and questioned everything. Nalanda University was a centre of learning as much as a monastery. Its scholars employed reason, logic and philosophical thought. This was the tradition introduced to Tibet by Shantarakshita in the eighth century and we have followed it rigorously ever since. Our familiarity with reason and investigation is the basis on which we have held conversations with scientists, and with the Mind & Life Institute have been able to make a positive contribution.”
Carolyn Jacobs asked His Holiness what advice he had for young people today who are protesting and seeking to change the world.
“The world is always changing,” he responded. “Science moves forward. Today’s world is so different from what it was 100 years ago. The 20th century was a period of great violence. People readily resorted to the use of force to resolve conflict. These days when disagreements occur, it’s better to talk them through. Let’s make this an era of dialogue.
“Previously, when people engaged in killing one another, there was no final victory. Some opponents still survived. Pursuing dialogue is a much more constructive policy. My main aim is to promote a spirit of dialogue through education on the basis of the oneness of humanity. War and the use of weapons are no use. We should set our sights on a demilitarized world. The manufacture of weapons is a waste of money and resources.
“In a demilitarized world we would resolve problems through dialogue, for which we need self-confidence, truth and honesty. We need to take a wider perspective not only concerned with our side. Thinking only of ‘my nation’, ‘my people’ is too limited when you reflect that we all have to live together. Scientists have observed that human beings are social animals who depend on others in their community. Therefore, we need to cultivate a compassionate mind.
“Education is a key factor. Still, how much time we have left in the context of global warming, I don’t know. But to spend what time we have left killing each other is senseless. It would be like two old people on the verge of death quarrelling — pointless. How much better to live happily, at peace, in a compassionate society.
“So, my friends, we all have a responsibility to educate our human brothers and sisters. Inner values are the ultimate source of happiness, not money and weapons, whether you’re talking about individuals or the whole of humanity.”
Carolyn Jacobs thanked His Holiness and Richie Davidson for their respective contributions to an engaging conversation. Susan Bauer-Wu expressed a deep gratitude to His Holiness for sharing his wisdom and warm-heartedness, telling him they looked forward to seeing him again soon. She announced that a film, ‘Infinite Potential’, about theoretical physicist David Bohm, one of His Holiness’s teachers, was to have a premier showing tonight and again on His Holiness’s birthday.
His Holiness remarked that in the wider scheme of things the impact of an individual life is limited, but if we use our brains for the welfare of humanity, our ideas will be of benefit to future generations. He also stated that there is evidence that some level of subtle consciousness goes on from life to life, citing children who have clear memories from their previous lives. He remarked that while it might be difficult for scientists to accept, there does seem to be something to investigate.
His Holiness concluded by observing that, in his experience, reflecting deeply, day by day, on altruism, the awakening mind of bodhichitta and the reality of dependent arising is really useful when it comes to tackling destructive emotions.
“I hope our conversation has been of some help, especially to those who are studying now. Thank you — and goodbye.” And he waved to the many whose faces he could see on the screens before him.