Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - This morning, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama had smiled, waved and taken his seat in front of the cameras, Celesta Billeci, Executive Director of Arts & Lectures, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), introduced the occasion. “We’re living in a moment that calls for optimism, resilience, courage and vision,” she said. “Who better to spark these qualities in us than the Dalai Lama?” Henry Yang,
Chancellor of the University welcomed everyone and addressing His Holiness declared, “It’s an extraordinary honour to welcome you today.”
“I am delighted to share this message of hope from His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he continued. “This is the fifth time we’ve had the privilege of welcoming him here. And it is now twenty years since we established the 14th Dalai Lama Chair of Tibetan Studies. The Dalai Lama is an incomparable Buddhist teacher and a champion of reconciliation. He radiates compassion and peace.”
With that, he called on Pico Iyer to open a conversation with His Holiness.
Pico Iyer: Welcome Your Holiness, it’s nice to see you again. We are turning our focus to hope. What does hope mean for Buddhists?
“To put it simply, our life is based on hope, a desire for things to turn out well. Even in the womb, their mother’s peace of mind affects the unborn child. Hope is concerned with the future. Although nothing about the future can be guaranteed, we remain hopeful, which is much better than being pessimistic. On a global level too, we have grounds for hope.
“We all come from our mother. We grow under her care. Appreciating her kindness, without which we would not have survived, is a basis on which to cultivate compassion. Experiencing our mother’s kindness gives us hope.
“If we investigate cases of children whose mothers pass away when they are young, I think we’ll find some emotional scars.
“Our lives depend on hope. If you have hope, you’ll be able to overcome problems you face. But if you’re without hope, your difficulties will increase. Hope is linked to compassion and loving kindness. In my own experience. I’ve faced all sorts of difficulties in my life, but I never gave up hope. Also, being truthful and honest is a basis for hope and self-confidence. Being truthful and honest is a counter to false hope. Hope founded on truth and honesty is strong and powerful.”
Pico Iyer: Can we train ourselves to be more realistic in our hopes?
“Our human brain, our intelligence, enables us to take a long view, not thinking only of our immediate needs. We can adopt a broader perspective and consider what is in our long-term interest. In terms of Buddhist practice, for example, we talk about aeons and aeons and serving all sentient beings, which strengthens our self-confidence.
Pico Iyer: Is hope not connected with religion?
“Generally, religion is a question of faith, but when we bask in our mother’s affection, there’s no faith involved. Faith is something human beings have created. All the major religious traditions teach the importance of kindness and love. Some say there’s a God, others deny it. Some say we go on for life after life, others assert that we live only one life. These traditions propound different philosophical points of view, but they share the message of loving kindness.
“Theistic traditions like Christianity teach that we are all created by God, who, like a father, embodies infinite love. It’s a powerful idea that can help us recognise the importance of being kind.
“We are social creatures, dependent on our community. And as members of a community, even people with no faith or belief can keep their peace of mind by being considerate, truthful and honest. Being honest and compassionate are not necessarily religious qualities, but they contribute to our being able to lead a happy life. Being concerned about our own community lends to our own survival. The key factor is compassion. Anger is its opposite. Anger destroys happiness and harmony.
“We need a sense of the oneness of humanity. It’s because I cultivate this that wherever I go and whoever I meet I regard as just another human being; a brother or sister. We seven billion human beings are essentially the same. We do have differences of nationality, colour, faith and social status, but to focus only on them is to create problems for ourselves.
“Imagine you’ve escaped from some catastrophe and find yourself all alone. If you see someone in the distance coming towards, you won’t care about their nationality, race or faith, you’ll just be glad to meet another human being. Desperate situations encourage us to recognise the oneness of humanity.
“There’s been enough war and violence in the past. Nowadays, when we face serious problems as a result of the climate crisis, we have to help each other. We have to make an effort to live together happily while we can.”
Pico Iyer: You mention global warming. How can we remain hopeful in the face of such a challenge?
“Global warming is a good reason not to squabble with each other. We must learn to live together. We are all human beings and we are all living on this one planet. We can’t adopt an out-of-date stance thinking only of ‘my nation’, ‘my community’, we have to take account of the whole of humanity.”
Pico Iyer: Have you ever worried about losing hope?
“Only on 17th March 1959 as I was leaving Lhasa. I really wondered if I would live to see the following day. Then, the next morning, the sun rose and I thought, ‘I’ve survived’. One of the Chinese generals had asked to be informed where the Dalai Lama stayed in the Norbulingka so he could avoid shelling it. Whether he really wanted to protect me or target me, I don’t know. On that occasion I felt some anxiety.
“Next day, when we reached the Che-la pass, the man who was leading my horse told me that it was the last place from which we could see the Potala Palace and the city of Lhasa. He turned my horse so I was able to take a last look.
“Eventually we reached India, the source of all our knowledge and the Nalanda approach to learning. Since childhood I’d been steeped in this tradition of investigation with its application of reason and logic. Faith rooted in logic is sound. Otherwise, it’s fragile.
“Today, scientists are intrigued by our analytical approach, which provides a basis for our discussions. In addition, we cultivate ‘shamatha’ to achieve a calm and focussed mind as well as ‘vipashyana’ insight as a result of analysis. And besides these qualities we cultivate ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’ — non-violence and compassion — on the basis of reason.”
Pico Iyer: So many have been affected by the Covid pandemic. How can we deal with death and loss?
“I really appreciate the efforts of all the doctors and nurses who have given and are giving help those who are sick.
“As a Buddhist, I see this body as something that predisposes us to falling ill. But maintaining peace of mind makes a difference. Anxiety just makes things worse. If you have a calm mind and you can accept that we fall ill as a result of our karma, it can help.”
Pico Iyer: Your Holiness you have great faith in young people. Are they the basis of your hope?
“Older people tend to look to the past, to the way things have been done before. Young people tend to be more open, to have more interest in the mind. Modern education has its origins in the West, but ancient India cultivated an extensive understanding of the workings of the mind and emotions. Ancient India outlined more than fifty types of emotion. I believe that India today can combine the materialistic thinking of modern education with an understanding of how to tackle destructive emotions.”
Pico Iyer: How can an ordinary person find peace of mind?
“Modern education in India was introduced by the British, but as I’ve already mentioned, I believe it can be usefully combined with the ancient Indian understanding of the workings of the mind and secular ways to achieve mental comfort. In addition, it can be combined with methods for tackling destructive emotions. When the pandemic is over, I’m looking forward to holding discussions with Indian educators about how this could be done.”
Pico Iyer: Is the world a better place than it was when you were born almost 86 years ago?
“People no longer take things for granted as they once did. Events like this pandemic and global warming present challenges that compel us to examine how we can deal with them. Difficulties can make us open our minds and employ our intelligence. The Indian Buddhist master Shantideva advised us to examine the problems before us to see if they can be solved. If they can, then that’s what we have to do. Worrying won’t help. Challenges can wake us up.
“The younger generation tend to be more open-minded, while older people stick to established patterns. It’s the younger people who will adopt a fresh approach to overcoming problems.”
Pico Iyer: Some people worry that there is increasing anger and violence in the world today. Do you agree or do you remain hopeful?
“Last century there was so much bloodshed. But after the second world war, former foes, Adenauer and de Gaulle founded the EU. Since then, there’s been no fighting amongst its member states. The entire world should adopt such an attitude of concern for the greater good of the whole of humanity. Conflicts and difficult situations tend to prompt us to turn to out of date ways of thinking — a resort to the use of force, for example — when we should adopt a fresh and more humane approach.
“I think that if I had remained in Lhasa, I’d think more narrowly than I do. Coming to India as a refugee has opened and broadened my mind and induced me to use my intelligence.”
Pico Iyer: How can we help Tibet and ensure the survival of Tibetan culture?
“Since 2001, I’ve retired from political involvement, but I still feel a responsibility to preserve Tibetan culture. In the eighth century, the Tibetan Emperor invited Shantarakshita, a great philosopher and correspondingly great logician to Tibet. He introduced the Nalanda Tradition, which has much in common with scientific thinking. It’s founded on taking a logical, investigative approach.
“At that time, there were Chinese Buddhist teachers in Tibet who asserted that the practice of meditation was more important than study. Shantarakshita’s disciple Kamalashila debated the merits of the Chinese and the Indian approaches before the Emperor. The Indian tradition prevailed and the Chinese meditators were invited to return to China. Since then, we have embraced logic. The key Indian treatises on reason, logic and epistemology were translated into Tibetan. This, the foundation of the Nalanda Tradition, is what we have kept alive.
“Nowadays, in remote parts of Tibet, despite the efforts of Chinese communist hardliners to oppose it, study of these traditions goes on. In India we have re-established our major centres of learning and more than 10,000 monastics are engaged in rigorous study.”
Pico Iyer: Can you explain emotional hygiene?
“It involves recognizing, for example, that the most effective destroyer of peace of mind is anger, but that anger can be countered by developing altruism and compassion for others. Ignorance, another mental affliction, also brings us problems, and it can be undermined by study. A great Tibetan scholar once remarked that even if I’m to die tomorrow, it’s still worth studying today.”
Pico Iyer: Is interest in Tibetan Buddhism growing in China?
“Yes, even among university teachers. We have published several volumes in a series entitled ‘Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics’ and Chinese translations have reached them. As a result, they have developed a greater appreciation of our tradition. Perhaps they see that Buddhist education is so much deeper than Marxist totalitarianism.”
Pico Iyer: Do you have any words of advice for the students of the University of California, Santa Barbara?
“This university is important. Our future must be founded on education. We need new knowledge. It’s important that professors can conduct research and pass on what they learn to their students. This university can make a significant contribution to our ability to create a better world. Thank you.”
Michael Drake, who is President of the University of California thanked His Holiness for sharing his time. He observed that His Holiness has been associated with UCSB for forty years and that twenty years ago saw the founding of the 14th Dalai Lama Chair of Tibetan Studies. He thanked Pico Iyer for leading the conversation. He noted that compassion is important in the lives of all seven billion human beings alive today and ended with thanks to Chancellor Yang and Celesta Billeci for organizing the event.
His Holiness responded with his own thanks and the suggestion that from time to time it will be possible to hold further conversations like todays over the internet. “Any contribution I can make to the betterment of the world, it’s my duty to do. I may be getting older, but my brain is still ok. The purpose of our lives is to serve humanity.”
Celesta Billeci ended the session, thanking His Holiness, Pico Iyer and President Drake once more and expressing her optimism that the University’s initiative ‘Creating Hope’ will have benefited others. She concluded by quoting His Holiness:
“Be kind whenever possible; it is always possible.”