Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - This morning, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited to take part in the Jaipur Literature Festival’s Brave New World project, joining his old friend Pico Iyer in conversation over the internet. When he walked into the room at his residence, His Holiness was visibly pleased to see Pico’s face on the monitor before him. He smiled, waved and wished Pico and Sanjoy Roy of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), “Good morning”.
Roy returned the greeting on behalf of the JLF, explaining that they were honoured to present a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Pico Iyer on the theme ‘The Seed of Compassion’. He introduced His Holiness as someone who describes himself as a simple Buddhist monk, a man of peace and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his consistent advocacy of non-violence.
“Welcome, and thank you for joining us,” Pico began and asked His Holiness, “How have you been?”
“Check my face,” His Holiness replied. “Listen to the strength of my voice. My regard for the thousands of years old Indian traditions of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) and ‘karuna’ (compassion) gives me both self-confidence and inner strength.
“Wherever I go, I always feel the people I meet are the same as human beings like me. Scientists have also observed that we human beings are social animals. We have a sense of community. From birth we have the same feelings of closeness to those around us.
“In the past, people had limited relations with others. Today, as part of the global economy, we all belong to one community, whether we’re from the north, south, east or west. At the same time, we face problems like global warming that affect us all. Therefore, we have to think of all seven billion human beings as one human community. That’s why wherever I go I always think of those I meet as brothers and sisters.”
“How do you practise ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’? Is it something we can try?” Pico asked.
“Because of this pandemic, I’ve been asked not to meet people physically face to face, so I’ve had a holiday,” His Holiness told him. “But I say my daily prayers and do four hours of meditation in the morning as usual. As soon as I wake up, I think about ‘karuna’, which is the method side of my practice. On the wisdom side, ‘ahimsa’ reflects ‘pratityasamutpada’ or dependent arising, which can also be expressed as ‘shunyata’, emptiness, free of assertions.
“Anger and jealousy, which are destructive emotions, are based on our having a strong sense of ‘I’. So, cultivating an understanding of selflessness reduces the hold destructive emotions have over us. Quantum physics makes a comparable observation that appearances differ from reality. The appearance is that things exist independently, but if we examine them deeply, they’re not like that. Destructive emotions are based on that kind of appearance. Understanding nothing exists as it appears reduces the influence negative emotions have over us.
“The Indian nuclear physicist, Raja Ramanan once told me that quantum physics is new to the West, but corresponding ways of thinking were developed long ago in India by thinkers like Nagarjuna.
“So, when I wake up, I look to see where is the self, but I can’t find it. This loosens the hold of negative emotions like anger, fear and jealousy. Positive emotions on the other hand like ‘karuna’ — compassion — are based on and can be strengthened by reason.
“India also has longstanding traditions for cultivating ‘shamatha’ (a calmly abiding mind) and ‘vipashyana’ (insight); useful methods for training the mind.
“As I said, when I wake up, I ask myself, ‘Where is the self? Where is the ‘I’? Where is the Dalai Lama? When I can’t find it, I realize it is only a designation. This is what the Buddha’s explanation of selflessness (anatman) is about. And it’s very useful when it comes to tackling the negative emotions. These emotions are negative because the destroy our peace of mind and in that way damage our health.
“Each night I also get nine hours sleep. Three or four years ago, I was in north-eastern India and made friends with a local politician who was accompanying me there. One morning he asked how I’d slept, so I told him ‘I always get nine hours sound sleep, followed by four hours’ meditation to sharpen my mind so I can more readily cheat other people.’ He immediately responded, ‘O, I only ever get six hours sleep, so I’m not able to cheat anyone.’”
His Holiness remarked that all his knowledge originally came from India and that these days he’s encouraging Indians to revive their ancient heritage. Modern education, he asserted, is only oriented towards material goals with little appreciation of the role of the mind and emotions. However, he is convinced that India could find a way to combine modern education with ancient knowledge, and if she were to do this, could help the whole of humanity by showing how to cultivate our inner world. He stressed that we will only achieve a peaceful world if we first cultivate peace of mind within ourselves.
Pico Iyer noted that His Holiness talks about educating the heart and asked what that entailed and how it was different from educating the mind.
“It can’t be done through prayer alone; we have to use our intelligence. Whether or not we’re healthy is related to having a more detailed acquaintance with our minds. We often think of our minds only in terms of sense consciousness, but we need to be better acquainted with our mental consciousness. We need to analyse the mind, to use our human wisdom. We need to examine which emotions are useful and which are harmful. We also need to examine the causes of our emotions. Ask yourself what gives rise to anger in you and what is the source of compassion. This is something to think about deeply. As a result, we’ll be able to enhance the causes of positive emotions and reduce the sources of those that are negative.
“The human brain in its analytical rather than its non-conceptual aspect is so important. We need to use this intelligence and ability to analyse to make the effort to reduce our negative emotions. Ancient Indian psychology has the potential to make a contribution to healthier minds across the world; something that is missing from Western civilisation. Indian understanding is not just rooted in faith, but in optimal use of human intelligence in a secular context.”
His Holiness mentioned that he has four commitments. The first is related to his being one of the seven billion human beings whose basic nature is to be compassionate. He’s committed to promoting appreciation of compassion and warm-heartedness. He also feels a duty to foster inter-religious harmony. All religious traditions teach about loving-kindness and warm-heartedness, so killing in the name of religion is unthinkable. India, he observed, is an example that religious harmony is possible. The world’s great religious traditions, those that arose in India, as well as those that originated elsewhere, live together here in harmony.
Acknowledging that he’s a Tibetan and someone in whom the Tibetan people place their trust, His Holiness explained that he retired from political responsibility in 2001. The Tibetan refugee community is small, he added, but it has evolved a democratic system that ensures there is now an elected leadership. Not only has he retired from his former political role, but he has declared that no future Dalai Lama will take it up again.
With regard to Tibet, one of his main concerns is its ecology. Major rivers of Asia, such as the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Yellow River rise in Tibet and flow across the continent. They are an essential source of water. Global warming, and the consequent reduction in snowfall, poses a serious threat.
In addition to environmental issues, what most concerns His Holiness about Tibet is preserving its knowledge. “In the eighth century, the Tibetan Emperor, Trisong Detsen recognised how important it would be to study what the Buddha taught. He was interested to know more about India’s Sanskrit tradition as upheld by the masters of Nalanda University. So, from there he invited the great scholar and logician Shantarakshita. We have followed what he taught us for more than one thousand years. We have applied sharp minds to keeping the Nalanda Tradition alive.
“Our training begins with memorizing the classic texts. I myself began to do this when I was seven years old. Then, we listen to word by word explanations based on the writings of Indian and later Tibetan scholars. Finally, adopting a logical approach, we examine what we have understood in debate. The Buddha advised, ‘As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words — after testing them — and not merely out of respect for me’. This was the approach, always asking Why? Why? adopted at Nalanda. And it’s on such a basis that we use our human intelligence to the full.
“Such a reasoned, logical stance was only preserved in Tibet. Chinese Buddhists were aware of the Nalanda Tradition because Xuanzang studied there, but they preferred a quiet meditative rather than a studious approach. The great texts of logic written by Dignaga and Dharmakirti were not translated into Chinese, although they were available in Tibetan.
“After coming to India, we gradually entered into discussions with scientists focussing mainly on cosmology, neurobiology, physics and psychology. Science also takes a reasoned, investigative approach to knowledge and our interactions have been mutually beneficial.
“Since I became a refugee, I have enjoyed living in India. For us it is a sacred land. In Tibet we cherished the wish that we could visit Bodhgaya at least once in our lifetimes, much as a Muslim hopes to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. As refugees now, we’re able to go to Bodhgaya every year.
“Another important part of India’s appeal is that it is free. I love Chinese culture, but in China there is no freedom of speech. So, becoming a refugee was sad from one point of view, but provided opportunities from another. I feel very fortunate to live in this country and enjoy its freedom to the full. I am also deeply honoured to be the Government of India’s most longstanding guest.”
Iyer recalled that the last time they met in Japan in 2018, His Holiness told him the world seemed to be passing through an emotional crisis. He asked if he still felt that way.
“We really need a sense of the oneness of the whole of humanity,” His Holiness replied. “Thinking only of my country, my people, my religion is out of date. A lot of problems arise when our thinking is restricted to one narrow identity or another. It can lead to conflict, but even war derives from a feudal attitude. In the past, kings, queens or sometimes even religious leaders, would go to war out of concern for their own power. They would evoke a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and conscript men to fight on their behalf.
“Today, in our more democratic world, if we were to ask individual soldiers, whether, from their own personal point of view, they were willing to die for their country, or whether they would prefer peace — most of them would say they prefer peace. Nevertheless, since they have been trained, armed and are under orders, they have to go to fight.
“I believe we can achieve a more peaceful world through education and the use of intelligence. If we consider the whole of humanity, each of the communities that make it up will derive the maximum benefit.
“You, my old friend, please keep in mind these commitments of mine, the fourth of which is to encourage a revival of ancient Indian knowledge in modern India. The education system set up by the British left little room for this. Even Mahatma Gandhi, it seems to me, was more concerned with the power of non-violence than with ancient Indian psychology and Pandit Nehru was quite westernised. Still, it’s not too late to find a way to combine a knowledge of our inner world with modern education. Please keep this in mind.”
“Your Holiness,” Iyer asked, “you are an optimist and you’ll soon be 85 years old. Do you feel the world is better now than when you were a child?”
“It’s improving,” His Holiness averred. “I admire the spirit of the European Union (EU). After so much conflict and violence culminating in two world wars, the people of Europe, France and Germany in particular, decided that enough’s enough. Rather than let killing go on, it would be better to work together. Despite their history as arch-enemies, France and Germany developed the idea that became the EU, and as a result there has been no fighting between member states for the last 70 years. In the early 20th century such a result seemed unthinkable.
“The English, however, still think too much of the few centuries when they ruled an empire. Now, England is just a small island. Of course, it’s the Britishers’ right to decide what they will, and it’s not for me to question, but I feel that it would have been better if they had remained in the EU. And I think it would be good if unions with a similar spirit could be established in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
“We should expand the influence of the United Nations (UN) and accord equal status to all its members. Confining the power of veto over decisions to only a few is no longer democratic. Wherever there are problems in the world, the UN steps in. It paid attention to the crises involving the Rohingya and in Yemen. It concerns itself with the poor and starving.
“In the world today, there is still a huge gap between rich and poor. Starvation is rife. We must reduce this gap out of a sense of the oneness of humanity.”
“So, isolation is unrealistic?”
“Yes,” His Holiness answered, “we need to think of all human beings. Clinging to my nation, my religion, my this, my that, leads to fighting. We need to aim for a demilitarized world; to extend ‘ahimsa’.
Thanking His Holiness for sharing his wisdom, Pico Iyer brought the conversation to an end. Sanjoy Roy thanked His Holiness and Pico Iyer for their words, as well as the audience for listening to them. As the screen faded, His Holiness could be heard saying, “Thank you, and goodbye.”