An exclusive interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2006)

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By Parveen Chopra and Swati Chopra

An exclusive interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Policemen in mufti swarm around the plush hotel room in Delhi, crackling wirelesses in hand. Spared routine security checks, we are ushered into an antechamber and politely asked to wait .His Holiness the Dalai Lama is meeting a foreign diplomat.Minutes (that seem like centuries) later, we are led to an inner suite, a temporary abode of the Yeshe Norbu (‘Wish fulfilling jewel’) of Tibet.
We await him with a mixture of awe and reverence compounded by the presence of his somber attendants. Nothing prepares us for the boisterous, maroon-robed monk who walks in, greeting everyone loudly and shaking hands warmly all around. We are finally face to face with the Presence (Kundun in Tibetan).
The next hour is spent in communion with the man, his beliefs, his faith, and of course, his laughter. It seems that His Holiness has perfected the ‘art of laughing’, if one may call it that. He uses it to punctuate philosophical debate, at times to bridge the awkward silence as he thinks up a suitable reply to a question, but most of all, to convey his innate joie de vivre. It is infectious and we join in heartily each time his laughter booms out.
We are fortunate to partake of the Dalai Lama’s reservoir of loving-kindness, if only for a few fleeting moments.

You seem to exist on numerous planes as a world figure, the temporal and spiritual head of Tibet, a world-renowned spiritual master. Yet you often refer to yourself as a simple monk. Who is the real you?

I see myself as a monk first, then as a practitioner of the Nalanda (the world reknown Buddhist education center of India, established around 200 B.C.) tradition of wisdom. Masters of Nalanda such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Aryasangha, Dharmakeerti, Chandrakeerti and Shantideva have written the scriptures that we, as Tibetan Buddhists, study and practice. They are all my gurus. I feel that I might have interacted with them in previous lifetimes. When I read their books and meditate upon their names, I feel a connection. At this point, I don’t say that I belong to the Hinayana or the Mahayana traditions, but to the lineage of Nalanda.

You are called the ‘living Buddha’…?

The term ‘living Buddha’ is a translation of the Chinese word ‘ho fu’. In Tibetan, the operative word is ‘lama’ which means ‘guru’. A guru is someone who is not necessarily a Buddha but is heavy with knowledge. I believe that previous Dalai Lamas were manifestations of Avalokiteshwara (the Buddha of compassion) and the fifth Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of Manjushree. I am fortunate to be the reincarnation of all these great lamas! (laughs)

Can anyone become a Buddha?

Oh yes! All sentient beings have the seed of the Buddha within them.It is also said that eventually all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood?Yes, this is so because all negative emotions of the mind can be eliminated. Once the mind is purified, you are a Buddha.

How would you describe the Buddhist concept of shunyata?

Shunyata is different from Buddhahood. It is the ultimate reality of everything. To purify the mind it is essential to know the nature of reality, which is shunyata. Negative emotions arise from a misconception of reality. In order to remove suffering, you have to meditate on shunyata.

What does our world need to become a better place?

Undoubtedly we need to be more compassionate.

How can we practice compassion?

Through awareness! I think that ignorance and afflictive emotions, called klesh in Sanskrit, give rise to unwanted circumstances. As far as ignorance is concerned, not just Buddhism, every religion recognizes it as the source of suffering. All over the world, much effort is put in education. It is something sacred as it helps to get rid of ignorance. But we have to be careful about the kind of education we impart to our children. Now I see well-educated people who are so unhappy. Sometimes, I think those who use their minds too much are unhappier than the simple people who don’t. Why do they become unhappy? It is because of too much desire, hatred, and jealousy. The antidote to weaken that is increasing the right kind of knowledge. I think, perhaps knowledge coupled with a warm heart brings wisdom.Compassion, or karuna, stems from wisdom. For instance, animals with their limited intelligence, are happier and more peaceful than we are. Even so, I have observed that animals become aggressive during the mating season because there is now attachment to the mate. Attachment awakens feelings of klesh within them. Similarly for us, if there is less attachment and jealousy, we are able to focus within.I believe that whether a person follows any religion or not is unimportant, he must have a good heart, a warm heart. This is essential for a happy life, which is much more important than Buddhahood. This is part of what I call ‘secular ethics’.

Are we not conditioned by our past karma that may not allow us to be loving and compassionate? How can karma be transcended?

By acting with awareness.

How can we live in awareness?

Analyze! Let’s take the example of Mahatma Gandhi. Physically, he was frail. Although he was well educated, there are others who are better educated than he was. Why then did he become a mahatma? It was because of his heart. He did not act for himself or in his own interest; that is karuna. Karuna, I think, is the main element in becoming a good person. Stalin, Lenin, Mao Zedong were powerful leaders. But they lacked karuna and became unpopular.Compassion automatically brings happiness and calmness. Then, even if you receive disturbing news, it will be easier to take, as your mind is still. But if you are agitated, even a minor happening will upset you greatly.How does one bring about calmness? Hatred, jealousy and excessive attachment cause suffering and agitation. I feel that, again, it is compassion that can help you overcome these to move into a calm state of mind. Compassion is not being kind to your friend. That is attachment because it is based on expectation. Karuna is when you do something good without expectations, even without knowing the other person. It is in realizing that the other person is also just like me. That recognition is the basis on which you can develop karuna, not only towards those around you but also towards your enemy. Normally, when we think about our enemy, we think about harming him. Instead, try to remember that the enemy is also a human being. He or she has the right to be happy, just as you do. Talking about myself, maybe I too have some enemies.

Are you talking about China?

No, no! I am talking hypothetically. If one has an enemy, one would want him to suffer. Whenever you feel hatred towards the enemy, think of him as a human being. That is actual karuna because you are feeling it for your enemy. You don’t have the other’s kindness to base your compassion upon; the other is actually harming you! That is why I say real karuna is unbiased. What we normally feel is biased karuna, as it is mixed with attachment. Genuine karuna flows towards all sentient beings, particularly towards your enemy. You must keep in mind that developing karuna might not benefit the other directly. If I try to develop karuna towards my enemy, he might not even be aware of it. But it will immediately benefit me!

How?

By calming my mind. On the other hand, if I keep thinking how awful everything is, I will immediately lose my peace of mind.And that will help the enemy?It is not necessarily helping the enemy as much as harming yourself. By changing your thoughts, you immediately get inner peace. Many people also think that the practice of karuna benefits others and not oneself. That sort of thinking is a grave mistake. It must be overcome through awareness, which, as I mentioned earlier, comes from analyzing.Even modern medical researchers have come to the conclusion that peace of mind is vital to good health. Experiments show that it is easier for those who practice love and compassion to regain a peaceful state of mind after being agitated.In May this year, I witnessed an experiment performed on a monk at Wisconsin University who was subjected to a loud sound. It had little impact on him and he was able to regain his composure without much difficulty. This goes to prove that the practice of compassion actually calms you down considerably.I am not saying that compassion must be practiced because the Buddha taught it. No. It must be practiced equally by the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Jain, the Christian. It is part of the ‘secular ethics’ that I talk about. There is nothing sacred or religious about aspiring to a calm mind. People just need to realize that it is good for our health! My approach is to promote values that enable the individual to have a calm mind.Having a calm mind actually works wonders. Recognizing this would help me want to develop it.This has to be made clear to every individual, even to children. It is important to make the child realize that if he loses his temper, he will suffer. If he is able to be more compassionate, he will feel more joy even while playing. If you smile, life becomes sweeter. After all, if I smile at you, you will smile back!Don’t you ever experience anger?Oh yes, I do. Negative emotions come and go. I do not think they remain within me for long. If you let anger remain within you, it leads to ill-feeling and hatred.

How do you deal with anger?

Through my clear conviction about compassion. I think negative emotions are part of my mind. It is quite natural to feel angry when faced with problems. But you can change.Can we say that awareness of your emotions helps in dealing with them?If you are able to recognize the moment when anger arises, you will be able to distinguish the part of your mind that is feeling anger. This will divide your mind in two parts-one part will be feeling anger while the other will be trying to observe. Therefore anger cannot dominate the entire mind. You are able to recognize that anger is harmful and maybe develop an antidote to it. View your anger objectively. Try to see the positive side of the anger-causing person or event. All these ideas are not Tibetan inventions, they are Nalanda inventions, your inventions! (laughs uproariously) We Tibetans are the chelas (students) and India is the guru. But today, our guru is getting too materialistic, perhaps becoming too orthodox on one hand and too westernized on the other. I think it is time that Indians get Indianized!

Since you have been stressing ‘secular values’, would you not prescribe spiritual practices because they owe allegiance to some tradition?

I would recommend what I call ‘analytical meditation’. It is scientific, as the main job of a scientist is to analyze. When you meditate, you shift your focus from the external to the internal, emotional world.That’s why the Buddha is said to be a great psychologist? Undoubtedly, because he taught the science of the mind.What is the goal of human life? What are we born to achieve?To be happy!What is the purpose of existence?Happiness.Happiness for others or ourselves?Take the example of a plant. What is the goal of its existence?Service to others?May be the plant just is! It doesn’t have fixed goals. It just grows. The plant has no mind, so to speak. Animals also seem to have happiness as their aim.Nature never remains static; growth is essential for a human being. Why do we always say ‘Happy Birthday’ and never ‘Happy Deathday’? Because we don’t want to see the end. The human mind is attracted to growth, beginning and freshness. Compassion thus is the force of growth and development while anger is destruction.If the goal of life is happiness, where does nirvana fit in?Now you are talking about another level. At the first level, you need to practice basic human values. Then, you can talk of nirvana, which means permanent cessation of suffering. So we come back to happiness!

How can nirvana be made possible?

(Laughs) It is possible because it is possible to eliminate all negative emotions! When Buddha Sakyamuni experienced mahaparinirvana, his mind ceased and he was freed from the karmic cycle of birth and death. Nagarjuna says clearly that the pure mind has no counterforce, and only those that have a counterforce can cease, like matter. The mind, and space too, have no counterforce and so have no reason to cease. In the case of other afflictive emotions, they might end if they have strong positive counter forces. But in case of the mind, we cannot say that it will come to an end, as it is difficult to find a strong antidote that will hinder its existence, as in the case of space. Here, you could argue by saying that in that case, could we put an end to loving-kindness or compassion because they have strong counter-forces? On investigation, we will realize that kindness and love usually accompany wisdom whereas anger and hatred might seem strong but have no praman (proof/basis). Everything that is good and right is the result of valid perception. Based on this, the more you analyze, the more you will be able to hold on to reality. If it is something wrong, however strong it appears, as you analyze it, its falsehood will be revealed.Suppose you feel angry with a person called Gupta, ask yourself: ‘Who is Gupta?’ ‘Is he a body, or is he a mind?’ You will see that there is no answer. Immediately, the feeling of hatred subsides, as it has not found a target. But karuna (compassion) is different as it is not dependent on identifying a target. Because of this, Buddhist philosophy refers to karuna as the mind that does not perceive the object. Maitri (amity), karuna and bodhichitta (the matured soul) do not perceive any object. Did you get the point? (laughs)Of course, this is the Buddhist explanation and is very precise. I think it is because of the richness of Sanskrit, which is highly developed in this (metaphysical) aspect.

Aren’t the original Buddhist teachings in Pali?

All the Nalanda masters wrote in Sanskrit but Vinaya and Abhidharma teachings are in Pali.

The Buddha was silent on the question of God. What about you?Why did the Buddha not say anything about God?

Because he talked about the law of causality. Once you accept the law of cause and effect, the implication is that there is no ‘creator’. If the Buddha accepted the concept of a creator, he would not have been silent; everything would have been God! Who caused the law of causality? About that, the Buddha would say ‘the mind’, never God or dharmakaya or even the Buddha himself.How did the mind come about?The source of mind is nature. The word that been used for existence is ‘interdependent arising’. Talking of God, who created God? There is no point arguing. Dharmakirti and Shantideva debate the existence of God and reach the conclusion that if we believe in a benevolent creator, how do we explain suffering? I remember a funny incident. In Tibetan drama, criticism is allowed and even the Buddha is not spared. There was this man acting on-stage and he was saying that he did not believe in God. If God made us, he said, instead of putting both the eyes in the front, one should be at the back! We would have been more efficient that way. Jokes apart, the idea is not to disrespect any religion but to analyze the nature of reality.

Do you see any common ground between Buddhism and Hinduism?

Historically, Buddha Sakyamuni was a Hindu. So I would like to call Hinduism and Buddhism twin brothers. Then there are common practices like samadhi and vipassana. The demarcation comes in the concept of shunyata. Whereas Hindus believe in atma, Buddhists believe in anatma. In practicing ahimsa, Jains are more thorough than either Buddhists or Hindus.

Aldous Huxley talked of ‘perennial philosophy’xe2x80x94the common mystical ground of all religions. Do you believe in that?

That is difficult to say. At one level, all religious traditions have the same aimxe2x80x94to transform the individual into a positive being. At another level, theistic religions do not have the concept of nirvana.You travel all over the world.

Do you think that by and large, the world is moving towards being more positive?

I would like to quote Britain’s Queen Mother on this. On her 96th birthday, I asked her the same question. She said that it was becoming better because when she was young, for instance, nobody was concerned about the environment, human rights or the right to self-determination. Today, these have become universal values. When Gandhiji implemented ahimsa, I think everyone took it as a sign of weakness. Now the entire world, except perhaps China, accepts nonviolence and practices it, like Nelson Mandela. India has not only given birth to great religious tradition like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism but has also sheltered many, like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity. The religious tolerance we see around the world is also an Indian tradition.

Do you think that China is changing?

Yes, I think China is also in the process of changing.

Any message for the readers of Life Positive?

Life can be pleasant or miserable. To lead a fruitful life, and to make it positive, practice analytical meditation. And remember that calmness and compassion are an important part of human life. I hope that all your readers will pay greater attention to inner values.

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