Interview with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Part 1

‘Combine ancient Indian knowledge with modern education, then China will pay attention’

Shoba Narayan, Bangalore

In spite of the swirling controversy surrounding his recent statement about Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is remarkably calm as he sits by the window in his Bangalore hotel room. He receives guests with a warm hand-hold (not a shake) and a smile, putting them at ease instantly. Then again, His Holiness is a person like no other in today’s world.  Statesman, Nobel Laureate, spiritual leader of the Tibetans who view him as God, or at least the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of compassion. After assuming this mantle at age four, the Dalai Lama has become a global teacher, part-time politician, leader of exiled Tibetans, right-royal celebrity, torch-carrier of a tradition dating back millennia, and perhaps most important to him, Buddhist monk.

The Dalai Lama is in Bangalore under the auspices of the Vidyaloke Foundation. Over two days, he lectured to standing-room only crowds of some 1000 people each day about “courage and compassion.”

At 83, the Dalai Lama exudes a stillness that comes from long hours of practicing what he preaches. His face is radiant, his stance erect, his speech clear, his eyes effulgent.

His day starts at 3 am and ends in the late afternoon or early evening. He speaks English fluently but with the cadence of his native tongue. Every once in a while, he reaches for a word and his English interpreter supplies it. (The cadences of his answers have been preserved without regard to grammar.)

Back Story

Some things, you strive for. Some things happen because of divine grace. You know what they say– the universe conspires to make things happen. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a person like no other in today’s world. I didn't expect to meet him. I heard from a friend that Vana, a wonderful organisation was bringing His Holiness to Bengaluru. I met the founder, Veer Singh, who has an amazing aesthetic, energy and grace. The Vana team wanted to promote His Holiness's talks in Bengaluru. So I did what I could.

And then it happened

I requested an audience with His Holiness with a view to writing about it for Hindustan Times and Mint. I was not sure it would happen.  Veer made it happen and for that, I will remain grateful to him.  Vinay Kamat, the editor-in-chief of Mint also instantly suggested that I do a “Big Interview” or a “Long Story.”  So here it is, in Mint today. I asked His Holiness’s office whether I could share my interaction with him on social media.  They kindly agreed.  It was on their public page anyway which you can see here.

Q: How does the average person move towards enlightenment?

A daily practice of meditation is good. A very important thing is to do it in the secular way. Not thinking about the next life, God, or heaven but to do it in this very life. To analyze these questions: How to be more stable in your mind? How to reduce destructive emotions such as anger or jealousy? Try to increase the loving-kindness meditation — what we call karuna.  

In India, for thousand years, ahimsa has been there. Ahimsa as a concept is very much combined with karuna. First you have karuna, then ahimsa comes. Ahimsa is not out of fear. You have to go in with full confidence and strength. There is the possibility of harming others but you restrain it. That is ahimsa. So that kind of action is out of your mental attitude, because you respect others. That is compassion. That is karuna.

Q: What about the rising shrillness and anger in today’s world? How do you as a person tackle anger? What do you do when you are angry?

Hit yourself.  When strong anger come, go like this (he hits the side of his head and laughs).

I had a  friend. One day, he was repairing my car, working underneath the car.  Somehow he hit his head on the undercarriage. Then he lost his temper. So he further hit and banged himself. What was the use? When real anger comes, there is no room for reason.  Just madness. The other day in Zanskar, one day I lost my temper. In my car. So I use some strong words.

The next day, in the early morning, as soon as I wake up, I felt really shy.  (“Ashamed,” says the interpreter.) Ashamed. Some officers came to see me. When they came to see me, I expressed myself and said, “I am really sorry.  Yesterday I burst out. Today from early morning, I really feel…ashamed.” So these are negative emotions. But you can control them.

Q: Do you have regrets?

Regrets? (long pause) I think all the major decisions in my whole life since age 16 — at the time when the decision was taken, some people, including some of my friends, had a little doubt.  Then time passes. All those major decisions which we decided become the right decision. So no regret.

The other day in Goa, I was talking to a student management group. I said that a self centred attitude actually bring more difficulties. Then I mentioned Mahatma Gandhi-ji. I heard that he was totally against division — Pakistan separation. I heard that Gandhiji was willing to give Prime Minister-ship to Jinnah in order to combine and not separate the two countries. Then I heard that Pandit Nehru — because of his own personal ambition or something, self interest or self centred attitude — did not allow that to materialize. I just mentioned that, but it seems now that it caused some problem. So I apologized for hurting sentiments. That is the way to move forward.

I am one of the admirers of the European Union. These different nations, mainly France and Germany, through centuries were fighting and killing each other. During the war time (Charles) De Gaulle and (Konrad) Adenauer, you see, they were arch enemies.  After the Second World War, they realized that common interests were more important than France or Germany. They came together for a higher cause. So these are sort of the background (of my comments). Usually I feel that. Occasionally, I express my feelings. So if the India-Pakistan Union had happened, than the Indo Pakistan conflict that has happened two or three times would have never happened. As far as as the Muslim population is concerned, in India, the Muslim population is much bigger than Pakistan. In the last decades, Pakistan has had a lot of problem.  If India and Pakistan were together, they would have a population of over 2 billion. Then, of course, Bangladesh would have been a part of India.

(If this had happened, if the countries had stayed together) then I think China (would have paid attention). Otherwise, China manipulates Pakistan very easily. If one country remains united, it will give stability to this continent, and it will be much much better. This is my thinking.  Occasionally, I mention this. I heard that Vinoba Bhave-ji had this idea of ABC. A is Afghanistan. B is Burma. C is Ceylon. Sri Lanka. Then India and Pakistan — some kind of federation. I think these are wonderful ideas. If that had materialized, then today Afghanistan would be more peaceful.

Q: How do you make wise choices? Between two paths?

Of course, firstly, you have to weigh the benefits — which one is the better path.  Then you have to see if realistically you can achieve your choice or not. I am always telling Tibetans — if we still remained inside Tibet, then we would have simply carried our old way of life.  Now we lost our own country.

Here in that situation, Pandit Nehru was really of immense help.  The first time I met him was in Peking in 1954. It was on Chinese National Day.  Pandit Nehru was invited. I had a strange experience at that time. One day, Zhou Enlai gave a luncheon to the Indian prime minister.  At that time, I was one of the deputy chairman of the National People’s Congress. So at lunch time, all the Chinese dignitaries — like those in my position — we stood in line. Then, Zhou Enlai and Nehru came.  Zhou Enlai introduced all the Chinese officials, the leaders to Nehru. In my case, Zhou Enlai introduced Pandit Nehru to me and said, “This is the Dalai Lama.” At that very moment, Pandit Nehru became motionless.  He remained completely silent and still, like this (The Dalai Lama goes motionless).

Zhou Enlai is very smart.  He immediately moved on. He introduced the man next to me and said, “This is Panchen Lama.” At that time also, I felt that Pandit Nehru’s mind…and Sardar Patel’s protection (can help us). And that China may create problems for India. I think Pandit Nehru reflected on all this too because since then, traditionally, we have had close relations between India and Tibet.

In 1956, we discuss on several occasions our request about Tibet. At that time, amongst my own people, there were two groups. One group said that it was better to return and the other group said, No. This is the best opportunity and now we must remain in India. So I discuss this with Nehru. He listened very sympathetically and advised me that it was better to return to Tibet.  And then one day, he carried a copy of the 17-point agreement. He made some marks at the various points, and told me– this, this, and this point you can struggle with China. So he was very kind.

In 1959, when we approach the Indian border, we had doubts about whether the government of India would allow us in or not. We sent two groups of officials — one to the Bhutan border and other to the Indian border. The group that went to the Indian border sent a message that the Indian side was ready to receive me. I felt very happy. I stayed a few days in Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh because at that time, my physical condition was very weak. Dysentery had made me very weak.  I stayed around ten days and took the long train to Mussoorie.

Around April 24, Nehru came.  Although he had some official function there, mainly he came to see me.  At his advice, we returned to Tibet. But then the Chinese — month by month — they became much more arrogant. So finally we realized that there is no other possibility except escape. When we reached Southern tibet, the Chinese government announced that the Tibetan government was abolished. So we hurriedly set up a temporary Tibetan government in some historical bordertown.  I casually mentioned this to Nehru. He lost his temper. He said, we cannot accept your government (imitates angry person and laughs). So he was so close and sympathetic to us. Sometimes he lose his temper. So it was like that.

After many years, (late diplomat) Jagat Mehta came specially to see me in Dharamsala. He wanted me to know about 1959, when the government of India received information that Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa and was coming to India. So, there was a cabinet meeting. Krishna Menon said we should not give asylum to Dalai Lama. Nehru said that we must accept him.  That was the record. This shows that Nehru knew that in the long run, Tibet was very important to India. He considered us close, as a friendship.

Q: What are some of the tough decisions that you took?

The day I escaped from Norbulingka — I think in my lifetime that was the hardest decision. On March 17th, 1959, I left from Norbulingka. In the mind, I didn’t know whether I would see the next day or not.  We were passing very near the Brahmaputra river. We cross the river. Then we went along the riverside. Across the river, on the other side, the Chinese military was camped. We could see Chinese soldier everywhere. It was a clear night. The moon was shining brightly. So there was real danger. But then also we have some mysterious way to investigate things including divination. So we carried on.  No regrets.

Q: What are your thoughts about climate change?

Tibet is a supplier of water to China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Now, decade by decade, snow in Tibetan mountains has reduced. Even in Dharamsala also, I notice this. Within my lifetime, I notice the change in the last few decade. Unless the American president (Donald Trump) has some miracle power, it continues to go down. He doesn’t care about global warming. Actually we experience this even when I fly over Afghanistan. There are traces of what was originally some lake.  Now it is dry. Earlier there used to be some small small lakes. Now the whole country is a desert. I don’t know about South india.  But in the North, the snowfall has reduced. So global warming is a very very serious matter. But how to work on that, i don’t know.

Q: What are your thoughts about the future?

America is a leading nation of the world– very important. In Europe too, I have many many good friends.  But they are basically a Judeo Christian culture. Unlike in the Indian tradition, nothing is mentioned (in Judeo Christian cultures) about meditation. It is just about pray, pray, pray to God.  Therefore, only India can further has the potential to further develop these things, because in ancient India, over 3000 years ago, they practiced the training of the mind besides prayer. We have to revive ancient Indian knowledge, because India is the only nation that can combine modern knowledge — materialistic sort of knowledge– with ancient Indian knowledge about how to tackle our emotions. No other country can do that. Because ancient Indian thought is not alien to modern Indians. So I see great potential in India.

So first, we have to revive this combination of ancient Indian knowledge which brings inner peace and wisdom with modern education that brings us physical comfort and material development.  So, we combine these two things. If we attain success here, then China with another one billion human beings will definitely pay attention. Reason: the Nalanda tradition is not alien for the Chinese Buddhist mind. In China, historically Buddhism has been practiced according to the Nalanda tradition. Today China has the biggest Buddhist population in the world with over 400 million Buddhists. Recently, in some meeting, Xi Jinping also mentioned that Buddhism is useful for Chinese culture and helpful to the Communist party. If China follows, then Japan, Korea, Vietnam will all show interest in these things. The whole of Asia can follow.  

In ancient time, in the spiritual field, India was the imperialist. Buddhism came from India.  Buddha, Nagarjuna, all the Nalanda masters are India. Their message covered the whole of Asia. That training your mind is the key thing, not just prayer. The way of training is not by faith but by investigation. You have to analyse, analyse. It is very much similar to the scientific way.  Investigation and experiment. In ancient India, this tradition of mental training went side by side with modern science. I feel that in modern India too, we can revive India’s ancient wisdom. That is my priority.

Q: What about the future?

I have four commitments. My first commitment is to bring unity among all humans in this earth.  To bring a sense of oneness among all 7 billion human beings. The second is to bring a sense of harmony among religious traditions. In that context, I always mention India because it has many homegrown religions– Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism– and many religions that found a home here. My third commitment is the preservation of Tibetan culture and language because of the ideas they hold. My fourth commitment is the revival of ancient Indian wisdom. I want to do it in a strictly secular way so that non-believers can get as much as the believers.  

So to do these three things, I may have ten years.  I am 83 now. Perhaps till I am 93. After that, too old (laughs).


How I met him

Some things you strive for, some things happen because of divine grace.

The Back Story

Thanks to Veer Singh of Vana for helping me get a one-on-one audience with His Holiness.

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