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Over Tea With the Dalai Lama


27 Aug 2003
Over Tea with the Dalai Lama

an interview with the Dalai Lama, by Pico Iyer

I was lucky enough to visit the Fourteenth Dalai Lama at his modest, colorful cottage in Dharamsala for the first time in 1974, when I was still a teenager. Since then, I've tried to return to the northern Indian town as often as I can, partly to witness the Tibetan struggle, and partly to enjoy the presence and wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Like more and more people these days, I've also been fortunate enough to see and hear him in Los Angeles, in Malibu, in New York and New Jersey, at Harvard and in San Francisco, but there's always something special about listening to him at his home, the snowcaps in the distance, and the hopes of Tibetans palpably, poignantly, in the air.

One recent autumn, I went to conduct a series of interviews with His Holiness during a rare respite in his schedule when he was officially on retreat. Dharamsala is radiant in the fall, the days dawning sharp and cloudless and the nights so full of stars that the real world can feel very far away. I wanted to know how Tibetan Buddhism was changing as its exile deepened, as its practices and teachers got sent around the world, in person and in the movies, and how, in a new global age, with more pressures and possibilities than ever before, the Dalai Lama could keep up his uniquely difficult balancing act of serving as political leader and spiritual teacher at once.

Every day we met in his room at 2 p.m., and over tea talked for as long as I had questions and he had time. Whenever my cup of tea was empty, His Holiness noticed it before I did.
-Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer: I think the last time I was in this room was eight years ago. How have things changed since then?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Less hair, I think. Both of us!
I think at a global level there is perhaps more hope, in spite of these very tragic things, like Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Regarding Tibet, I think on the positive side there is much more awareness, and as a result, concern and support are growing. Even some governments-publicly, as well as behind the scenes-are making an effort to do something for Tibet. On the other hand, inside Tibet the Chinese policies are very hard, very destructive.
So overall, I am very optimistic regarding Tibet. For the near future, no hope. But in the long run, definitely. It's only a matter of time-things will change.

And in your own life, things must have changed a lot in the last eight years.

Not much. My general physical health is very good. My spiritual practice-not much opportunity. But as usual, I carry on. So I'm still the same person. You also are the same person. I am very happy to have a reunion with an old friend I've known since your father's time.

Yes, in fact, my father came to visit you just after you came to India.

Yes. Very early.

Your Holiness is officially on retreat at the moment. It must be difficult to find the time for your spiritual practice because of all the things you have to do out in the world.

Yes. Also, each time I receive some new teaching, that adds something to my daily practice. So nowadays, my daily recitation, compulsory, normally takes about four hours.

Every day?

Usually I wake up at 3:30 in the morning. Then immediately I do some meditation, some exercise-prostrations-then bathe. Then a little walking outside. All this time I am reciting some mantra or doing some meditation. Then at 5:15, I breakfast and at 5:30 listen to the Voice of America Tibetan language broadcast. The BBC East Asia broadcast often mentions something about Tibet or China, so I usually listen to that.

After breakfast, I do some more meditation and then usually study some Tibetan philosophy or important texts. If there's some urgent business I come here to my office, and sometimes before lunch I read newspapers and magazines-Newsweek, Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, some Indian newspapers.

Oh, yes. At 7:30 I always listen to the BBC world news. Always. I am addicted. When I visit some foreign country and I can't listen to it because of the time change, or not having enough time, I really feel something is missing that day. I feel I don't know what's happened in the world. The BBC is always very good, and, I really feel, unbiased.

After my lunch I come here to my office until about 5:30. Then at 6:00 I have my evening tea-as a Buddhist monk, no dinner, sometimes just a few biscuits or some bread. At that time I always watch BBC television. Then evening meditation for about one hour and at 8:30, sleep. Most important meditation! Sleep is the common meditation for everyone-even for birds. The most important meditation. Not for nirvana, but for survival!

Nowadays, it must be almost impossible for Your Holiness to pursue some of your previous hobbies, like photography.

No longer any interest. Until early 1960, I had some interest in photography, but not since then. Of course, I still love different flowers. And occasionally I do some manual work, some repair work, of watches and small instruments.

No previous Dalai Lama has faced your situation of being responsible for a diverse, worldwide community. There are those still in Tibet, who are cut off from you in some ways; there are exiled Tibetans scattered all around the world, and there are all the new Tibetan Buddhists in the West. It must be difficult to keep in touch with all of these groups and make sure things are going in the right way.

More and more people are showing interest about Buddhism, and there's an increase in the number of Buddhist centers. But unlike the Catholic system, these are more or less autonomous. I have no responsibility. Of course, if occasionally people come here and ask me something, I give some suggestions. Otherwise, there's no central authority. They're all quite independent.

But if perhaps they're practicing in an unorthodox way, or doing things that you think are not in the true spirit of Buddhism, that must be difficult for you, even if you're not responsible for them.

Generally, no. Of course, there were some scandals-money scandals, sexual scandals-and at that time, some Westerners told me they were seriously concerned that because of these accusations all Buddhism may suffer. I told them, "Buddhism is not new. It is more than 2,500 years old, and during that time such scandals have happened. But basic Buddhist teaching is truthful. It has its own weight, its own reasons, its own beauties, its own values. If individuals, even lamas, are doing wrong things here and there, it will not affect the whole of Buddhism."

But it's also important to have discipline, especially those people who carry responsibility. When you are teaching others, when you are supposed to improve the quality of others' lives and their mental states, first you should improve yourself. Otherwise, how can you help other people? And perhaps because of these scandals, it seems there's more discipline, more self-restraint.

It must be a great worry of yours that Tibetans will lose their connection with their culture-both those inside Tibet, and in a different way, the ones outside Tibet. It must be hard to keep the continuity.

Inside Tibet, yes. There are clear signs of the degeneration of the Tibetan traditions, and of moral principles. In recent years, there have been a number of murder cases in the Tibetan community in India. All of them took place among people newly arrived from Tibet. This shows the degeneration of the spirit of tolerance and self-discipline. And then in Tibet itself, there is gambling and also prostitution. I was told there are many Chinese prostitutes, as well as some Tibetans. And also drugs-the refugee community has some, and it seems there are some drugs in Lhasa and the bigger towns in Tibet.

My main worry is the preservation of Tibetan culture. Tibetan political status is of course important, but to keep alive the Tibetan spirit, the Tibetan cultural heritage, that's my main concern. This not only benefits the six million Tibetan people, but also is of interest for the larger community-particularly, in the long run, to the Chinese. There are millions of young Chinese who are sometimes called the "Lost Generation." I feel that particularly in the field of human values, they're completely lost. In that vacuum, Tibetan Buddhist culture can make a contribution.

Do you think that Tibetan Buddhism is going to have to change as it's practiced by more and more non-Tibetans?

No, I don't think so. Some Westerners-even some Tibetans-have told me that they feel it needs some kind of modification. But I feel there's no need of such things, as far as the basic Buddhist teaching is concerned. Buddhism deals with basic human problems-old age, illness, suffering. These things, whether in today's world or a thousand years ago, whether in India or China or America, they're always the same.

Though Buddhism is now being practiced in countries with very different cultures and histories.

In any religious tradition, there should be two aspects: one is the cultural aspect, the other is the teaching or religious aspect. The cultural aspect, that can change. When Buddhism reached other countries from India, the cultural aspect adapted according to new circumstances. So we refer today to Japanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly, we will eventually have Western Buddhism. That, naturally, will come.

But where the basic teaching is concerned, I think it should be the same. For example, all authentic Tibetan scholars, whenever some important matter comes up, always rely on quotations of an earlier Indian scholar. Without that, we do not believe it's authentic. So you see, the teaching has been the same for 2,500 years. That's why I feel it's not correct to call Tibetan Buddhism "lamaism." With this incarnation, the Dalai Lama has been called, especially by the Chinese, "living Buddha." Now that is totally wrong. The Chinese word for "lama" means "living Buddha." But in Tibetan, the word "lama" is a direct translation of "guru." So "guru" and "lama" have the same meaning-someone who should be respected because of his wisdom, or because of the indebtedness one owes to him. So the rough meaning is "someone worthy of respect." No implication of "living Buddha." Some Western books also sometimes say "living Buddha" when they describe me, or "god." Totally wrong!

I remember you once said that among the Buddhist virtues, humility was perhaps more easily practiced in Tibet than in the West. I was wondering whether there are other values that are more difficult to practice in this new context?

In a Western society, it might be difficult to undertake a good meditation practice because of the fast pace of life there. But then you see, the solitude of some Christian monks and nuns is more remarkable than in Tibet. These monks and nuns live in their monasteries or nunneries all the rest of their lives, with no contact with the outside world. One monastery in the south of France has no radio, no newspaper. Completely cut out! And meals also are quite poor. And no proper shoes, only sandals. So most of them, for the rest of their lives, remain there almost like a prisoner. Wonderful!

So eventually Buddhist monasteries in the West can establish a similar pattern to some of these Christian monasteries. Then I don't think there will be any difficulties. They can spend all day on meditation.

These days you probably spend more of your time talking to non-Buddhists than to Buddhists, because you travel so much and you're speaking to so many different audiences.

Perhaps yes, perhaps yes. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk or speak outside the Tibetan community, my basic concern is with secular ethics. I make a distinction between spirituality with faith and spirituality without faith-simply to be a good human being, a warm-hearted person, a person with a sense of responsibility. Usually I emphasize the secular ethics, and it seems this is beneficial. I explain the basic human values, or human good qualities, such as compassion, and why these are important. I explain that whether one is a believer or a non-believer is up to the individual, but even without a religion, we can be a good human being.

I notice the majority of the audience appreciates this-with or without faith, just being a good human being. They're more receptive. That is important. The majority of people in the world are non-believers, and we can't argue with them and tell them they should be believers. No! Impossible!

Realistically speaking, the majority of humanity will remain non-believers, and it doesn't matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost or ignore the deeper human values, such as compassion and a sense of responsibility. Then we really are faced with a problem. That is our big concern. Wherever there is a society or community or family without these good human qualities, then even one single family cannot be a happy family. That's perfectly clear.

Certain emotions, such as hatred, create such a clear demarcation of "we" and "they." Immediately, there is a sense of enemy. There is so much competition, so much negative feeling towards your neighbor, and on your neighbor's side, also a negative attitude towards you. Then what happens? You are surrounded by enemy, but the enemy is your own creation!

Recently I am emphasizing that due to the modern economy, and also due to information and education, the world is now heavily interdependent, interconnected. Under such circumstances, the concept of "we" and "they" is gone: harming your neighbor is actually harming yourself. If you do negative things towards your neighbor, that is actually creating your own suffering. And helping them, showing concern about others' welfare-actually these are the major factors of your own happiness. If you want a community full of joy, full of friendship, you should create that possibility. If you remain negative, and meantime want more smiles and friendship from your neighbors, that's illogical. If you want a more friendly neighbor, you must create the atmosphere. Then they will respond.

So we need to be reminded of our most basic, most fundamental, responsibilities.

That's my main emphasis. I really feel the important thing is the promotion of secular moral ethics. That's what we really need. Those emotions or actions which ultimately bring happiness or satisfaction, they are positive. Because we want happiness. Those emotions and actions which ultimately bring suffering, we should consider negative. Because we do not want suffering. These are basic human values-no connection to Creator, no connection to Buddha.

Do you worry that in the Tibetan community, so much responsibility falls on you personally that even if you try to spread the responsibility among more and more people, they're reluctant to take it because they hold you in such high regard? It's hard to change those age-old beliefs.

Yes, that's true. I often tell people "You should carry your work as if I didn't exist." Sooner or later, that day will come, definitely.

You must be concerned about what happens when you are not around anymore-the likelihood of the Chinese just choosing their own Dalai Lama.

No, there isn't much problem! In the long run, yes, the Chinese want to control the future selection of the Dalai Lama. There is also the possibility there will no longer be any Dalai Lama-according to some information, the Chinese are thinking like that. Okay. Whatever they like, they can do. Nobody can stop them. But that won't affect the Tibetan mind. So it doesn't matter.

There's nothing you can do to protect your incarnation from the Chinese?

The Chinese certainly may recognize one Dalai Lama, but to the Tibetan people, that won't be the Dalai Lama. They will not accept him. So I am not much concerned. And the very institution of the Dalai Lama-whether it should continue or not-that's up to the Tibetan people. At a certain stage, the Dalai Lama institution will cease. That does not mean the Tibetan Buddhist culture will cease. The Tibetan Buddhist culture will remain, and should remain, I think, as long as Tibetan people remain. But institutions come and go, come and go.

Nowadays, so many people want to talk to you and they may have a whole variety of different motives. Is that a difficult thing?

For me there is no difference. Of course, sometimes they have different motivations, that's possible, but for me that's no problem. I treat every human being the same, whether high officials or beggars-no differences, no distinctions.

Along similar lines, you always stress that it's important to put everything to the test of reason, and not accept things automatically. I wonder if more and more people are inclined to take you as a teacher, and just to accept everything that you say.

Yes. A kind of blind faith! Yes, that also is happening. But I never feel that I'm a teacher. I never accept anyone as my disciple, including Tibetans. I usually consider them as my dharma friend. In a few exceptional cases, if we've known each other many years-if there's some kind of genuine trust on the basis of awareness-then sometimes I accept to be their guru, and they consider themselves as my disciple. But usually I consider them as my spiritual friend. So many foreigners ask me to accept them as my disciple. And I say, no need for that kind of acceptance. Just to be a dharma friend is much healthier, much better, and I also feel much more comfortable. Usually that is my response when someone requests me to accept them as a disciple.

One of the English poets once said, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." I wonder if Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism are more subject to distortions, because lots of people in the world now know just a little bit about them.

Yes. There are some new opportunities to exploit this location. In the field of Tibetan medicine, in some Tibetan arts, and in Buddhism also, some people are making claims for themselves without having the proper knowledge. Some Tibetans lived in India or Nepal with no record of any teaching, but after a few years in the West, they became very great lamas. I think some foreigners are a little bit surprised. They consider their lama very great, but when they reach India or Nepal, they inquire of some Tibetan, "Such and such a lama, where is he?" The Tibetan doesn't know, and sometimes says, "That's not a lama, not a great teacher." It happens, but okay, no problem. So long as it benefits someone, that's good.

There are lots of movie stars who are interested in Buddhism, and, as Your Holiness knows, there are even Tibetan monks represented in advertisements and fashion magazines. I wonder if, as Tibet has become better known, that has become a difficulty because people associate Tibet with rich and famous people?

If there are people who use Tibetans or the Tibetan situation for their own benefit, there's very little that we can do. The important thing is for us not to be involved or associate with these people for our own interest.

Some reporters are curious about actors who are showing a keen interest about Buddhism. In fact, they imply that I'm becoming almost a celebrity myself. But my feeling is that I don't care about people's background, so long as they have sincere motivation, honest, clean desire. Then, of course, I will give them an opportunity, and I will treat them as a friend. I do not pay importance to what their background is.

The important thing is that on our side, our motivation should be very clear, should be very honest. Personally, I am a Buddhist monk. I am a follower of Buddha. From that viewpoint, meeting one simple, innocent, sincere, spiritual seeker is more important than meeting a politician or a prime minister. These reporters usually consider politics as something most important, so meeting with a politician becomes something very significant for them. But for me, meeting with ordinary people, making some contribution to peace of mind, to deeper awareness about the value of human life-that, I feel, is very important. When I see some result, then I feel, "Today I made some small contribution."

Your Holiness has such a complicated life, because there are so many different roles you have to play. What do you find most difficult?

Meeting with politicians is one experience I feel is rather difficult. I have to meet these people and appeal to them, but there's nothing concrete that I can tell them about Tibet because the situation is so complicated. The problem is so big that even if these leaders sincerely want to help, they can't do anything! But if I don't meet with them, that also is wrong. It's better to meet.

The worst thing is that occasionally some formality is also involved. That, I don't care for. Once, at Salzburg, they invited me to speak at a festival, and I told them some of my usual thoughts, about the difficulties, the gap between rich and poor, and these sorts of things. Afterwards, the Austrian chancellor said that I broke all the taboos. It was a festival, so I suppose some praise, some nice words, were expected.

It's a good thing, to broach some serious topics.

I felt, here everything is very nice, very beautiful, but at the same time, human beings in some other part of the world are still facing starvation. So this is the gap-rich and poor, south and north-that I talked about. It seems my informality-my radical informality-sometimes helps people. Some of these problems are in their minds also, but they do not find it easy to speak out about it. Perhaps.

Are you disappointed by what the governments of the world have managed to do for Tibet?

Of course, I do feel they could do more, but at the same time, I see clearly their difficulties. China is a big nation, a very important nation, so you cannot ignore China. You have to deal with China.

To isolate China is totally wrong. China must be brought into the mainstream of the world community. In the economic field, the Chinese themselves want to join, but we in the world community also have the moral responsibility to bring China into the mainstream of world democracy, which the Chinese people themselves also want. When we deal with China, we need to create genuine, mutual trust, and within that, we should make these wrong things clear. Certain matters of principle should be very firm, within the friendly atmosphere.

I feel the greatest obstacle is Chinese suspicion, over-suspicion. So long as this suspicion remains, you can't solve this problem. So first remove suspicion, then close relations, close contact. Not confrontation, but rather persuasion and interaction.

So you see, relations with China for these Western nations are very delicate, very complicated. Under such circumstances, I feel the amount of support we receive is very, very encouraging. We have no money, we have no oil, we have nothing to offer. Tibet is a small nation, we are bullied by the Chinese, and we have suffered lots of human rights violations and destruction. The world's concern comes not from economic or geopolitical interest, but purely from human feeling and concern for justice. I think that is very encouraging. It is genuine support that comes from heart. I think it is a great thing.

I tell audiences a few reasons why they should support Tibet. One is ecology. Because of Tibet's high altitude and dry climate, once the ecology is damaged, it takes a longer time to recover. The Chinese are very eager to exploit Tibet and the possibility of damage is great. Because so many important rivers have their source in Tibet, this would eventually affect large areas in this part of the world.

Second, Tibetan culture, Buddhist culture, creates a certain way of life, based on peaceful relations with fellow human beings, peaceful relations with nature, peaceful relations with animals. I think that kind of culture is necessary, useful, for the world at large. Such a cultural heritage, which can help millions of people, is now facing extinction.

Finally, if we believe in peaceful solutions through non-violence, then we should support the success of the Tibetan struggle, which has been a non-violent approach right from the beginning. If it fails, then it's a setback on a global level for a new pattern of freedom struggle through non-violence. The only way to solve conflict is through dialogue, through non-violent principles. Once the Tibetan non-violent struggle eventually succeeds, it can be an example of that.

Do you think Your Holiness will see Tibet again?

Oh yes, certainly! Certainly. If I don't die tonight, or in the next few years. Oh, definitely. Another five years, ten years, I think things will change. I think there's real hope.

The challenges that you have had to face over the last 30 or 40 years-would those be part of the Dalai Lama's karma?

Yes, of course. And also, I think, common karma.

So does that mean there's a kind of purpose or a reason for the difficulties being faced?

Purpose, I don't know. That's very, very mysterious, very difficult to say. These karmic consequences-in some cases, they have some meaning, some significance.

But it is useful to look at tragedy from a different angle, so that your mental frustration can decrease. For example, our tragedy-becoming refugees, a lot of destruction in our country-this also brings new opportunity. If still we were in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism would not be known in the outside world like it is. From that viewpoint, the more exposure, the better.

For the world, it has been a great gain, because before we didn't have access to Tibet.

The knowledge about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism now existing in the world is because of the tragedy that happened to Tibet. So there is one positive result of that.

And that inevitably means that some people with sincere hearts can learn a lot, but there will also be distortions.

Truth has its own strength. So as time goes by, something truthful starts to grow, becomes stronger and stronger. Like the Tibetan cause, or also my position regarding Tibetan Buddhism, or some of our activities in India. At the beginning, perhaps it wasn't very popular, but as time goes on, it becomes well accepted. When something is truthful, its truthfulness becomes clearer and clearer.

My last question: Your Holiness has always been so good at finding a blessing or a teaching in anything that happens, even in suffering. I was wondering, what is the saddest thing that's happened to you in your life ?

I think when I left the Norbulingka for exile that late night, and I left behind some of my close friends, and one dog. Then another was the final farewell when I was passing over the border into India. Saying farewell to my bodyguards, who were determined to return to Tibet-which meant facing death, or something like that. So these two occasions were of course very sad. But also, some occasions now when newly arrived Tibetans explain about their life stories, and tortures, and there are a lot of tears. Sometimes, I also cry. But usually, my tears come on a different occasion-that's when I talk about compassion, altruism, and about Buddha. I quite often become so emotional that tears come.

But I think sadness is comparatively manageable. From a wider Buddhist perspective, the whole of existence is by nature suffering. So, suffering is some symptom of samsara. That, also, is quite useful. That's why I sustain peace of mind!

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Copyright ツゥ 2003 Shambhala Sun Magazine Last modified: 01/23/03

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