An Audience With His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1991)

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India

An audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India, May 17, 1991.

His Holiness discusses a range of topics, including reincarnation, karma, meditation and other religions. Edited by Sandra Smith, February 2013.

Question: The Buddha said we shouldn’t believe anything unless we can prove it to be true according to our own experience. Since we cannot prove the existence of past lives, why should we believe in reincarnation?

His Holiness: There are two kinds of experience. There is one kind of experience where everyone can come to an unanimous agreement that something is true, and there is another deeper level on which we can’t share an experience together, but the proof is our individual experience.

There are certain factors, the external objects. Once someone proves something through investigation, then anyone who adopts the same method can see that. That’s the usual scientific way.

Then there’s another kind of proof that comes through awareness, through experience. In that case, it becomes clear and acceptable through our own individual experience. Some kind of conviction is developed, however, it’s difficult to share this with other people, for example, the theory of rebirth and certain spiritual experiences. If an individual actually experiences this or at least has some traces of those experiences, they have proof through their experience, but this can’t necessarily be proven collectively by everybody.

From the Buddhist point of view, the objects of knowledge are divided into three categories. One is the object can be perceived through direct perception. Another is the object of knowledge that is slightly hidden but can be proved through reasoning, and the third, which is more hidden and subtle, can be known through the experience of other people.

When the Madhyamaka texts speak about how to define the existence of something, they say that it should be qualified by three characteristics. First, it should be close to conventional mind and it shouldn’t be contradictory to the conventional truth and to the knowledge of the ultimate truth.

It shouldn’t only be proven or become clear through our own experience. It also shouldn’t contradict other conventional experiences. Sometimes through strong emotion we may experience something which may not be true in reality. In that case we have to compare it with other conventional experiences. If that experience has happened only due to our own wrong ideas or misconceptions, it doesn’t exist. For example, we feel there is a strong “I”. If this I truly exists, when we compare this feeling with some kind of conventional investigation, there shouldn’t be any contradiction. There is a contradiction, so despite there being a strong feeling that the I exists, it does not exist.

So it doesn’t seem to be easy. We have to think in various ways. For me, there’s not much of a problem with the acceptance of rebirth, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to accept it.

Question: Does karma determine everything or do we have free will? Do we ever have the freedom to make choices?

His Holiness: I think both. There are certain elements in this body that have been fully ripened from previous karma. These are usually difficult to change. But cases such as heart transplants or transplanting other body parts are possible, because according to the Buddhist point of view there is a connection from a previous life. Although that body part belonged to a certain person for some years, it belonged to another person later due to previous karmic connection. This can be explained. Generally such things are difficult to change, because they are already fixed due to previous actions or karma.

On the other hand, the experiences we’re going to have in the next few years are already basically predestined. However, they can be changed if we create even more powerful negative or positive action today. This may affect our experiences of the next few years. So on that level everything is in our hands and we can change things. Basically we create our karma or action, therefore, ultimately, karma is our own creation. From that viewpoint, of course, the prime mover or the ultimate decision-maker is oneself.

Question: Why are realized beings not allowed to reveal their extraordinary psychic powers?

His Holiness: There are a few points involved in this question. According to our system of Sarvastavada, a fully ordained Buddhist monk has 253 vows, which are divided into five categories. In the third category of 90 points, one point mentions that even if you achieve liberation or moksha, you shouldn’t express it to ordinary people. This is due to particular events of that time, when some monks claimed they had certain realizations and achievements, and people criticized them for doing that. So Buddha then made the vow. This is the historical factor.

Another point has to do with the person who is still in progress on the path. Particularly while practicing tantra, expressing your achievements or progress without keeping them secret may cause obstacles to further development. Therefore, it’s considered important and worthwhile to keep them to yourself.

Another point is that in the Kadampa tradition, tantric practice was always kept in secret. The Kadampa practitioners kept their external appearances as simple Buddhist monks and they never showed their tantric practice. Therefore, there’s a teaching that says externally you adopt the discipline of a shravaka (monk) and internally you do tantric practice.

If someone claims to have spiritual qualities, it may cause controversy. That is unnecessary, so it’s better to remain an unknown person. Help others whenever you can, and remain silent and quiet. That’s much better. Sometimes I myself as a Buddhist monk feel uncomfortable when some people claim they have high spiritual experiences. It doesn’t look so nice. It’s better to stay like an ordinary person and serve others as much as you can. That’s much better.

Also for me it’s a good excuse to say that there’s no special quality, although there’s something there...

Question: Wouldn’t it increase people’s faith if they demonstrated their powers?

His Holiness: That’s also possible. I think it shouldn’t be done publicly, but rather, individually, in particular cases. If it’s certain that it’s definitely going to benefit that person, after comparing the benefits of revealing the realizations or not, then I think it can be done, even by monks.

Perhaps it’s like the story of Marpa, the famous teacher. Marpa was really an extraordinary master for his disciples, Milarepa, Ngok Chöku Dorje and Tsurtön Wangi Dorje, but publicly he appeared to be a trouble-maker. He never showed his deep, spiritual experiences; he only showed them to a limited number of genuine disciples and to ordinary people he appeared as a very quarrelsome person.

His wife, Dakmema, kept a big turquoise. One day she gave it to Milarepa so he could offer it in request for receiving an initiation from another lama. Later Marpa found out and asked his wife why she did that. She explained that the turquoise didn’t belong to Marpa, because it was hers. When she first came to his house to live, her parents told her that since Marpa was such a troublesome person, she might have a fight with him one day. They said the turquoise would come in very handy, so she should keep it. I think this story is a clear demonstration of not revealing his realizations.

Question: If the nature of the mind is pure and clear, how can ignorance exist and what is its cause? Why does this cause exist? Why can’t we be buddhas from the beginning?

His Holiness: When we say mind, we’re not speaking of just one mind. There are so many kinds and different levels of mind. Only a certain level of mind is contaminated. As you go into deeper and deeper levels of mind, the deepest level is called the innermost subtle, clear mind. That subtle mind can never be contaminated or polluted by gross levels of delusion.

The meaning of this contamination is a great field of study and there are different opinions about it. One explanation is that the basic nature of mind cannot be contaminated, because negative emotions can be separated from the basic mind.

Another reason is that the ultimate definition of mind is that it is clear and knowing, illumination. In that clarity there is no point at which it is contaminated. So when we say mind, there are millions of different minds. Some minds are contaminated, but at the deepest level the mind is not contaminated. Therefore, generally speaking, we say that the mind by nature is not contaminated.

Question: These days it is very difficult to find the conditions for engaging in intensive meditation. Are there other ways to gain realizations or should we concentrate on creating merits that will bring about these conditions?

His Holiness: Practice whatever you can, according to circumstances. Doing some social work in health or education is spiritual work. Doing practical work is a great service. In that way you accumulate very positive karma. And then some individuals may find the opportunity to practice more deeply.

Some people might find it difficult to find the conditions to do long-term meditation, but generally speaking, if you divide history into periods and find that this particular time is not good for meditation, then that is difficult to say. The Buddhadharma is divided into sections. Certain times are special periods for practice and certain times are for study. This is a rough explanation and it doesn’t mean that after completion of the period of practice that no-one can gain realization.

Generally, I think that the best thing is that in a year, a few months are spent in your normal, productive work. You can make some money, and also make yourself useful in the community. Then for a few months of the year, you should go to a quieter place to engage in deeper practice. Many people do this.

Question: How realistic is it to work for the unity of religions?

His Holiness: We should accept that there are many different religions and that each one is valuable. Each religion has a special technique and message for humanity. Naturally among humanity, there are so many different kinds of thinking and mental dispositions. Therefore in reality the more different religions there are, the more benefit for people.

There are big, fundamental differences in the various religions. For example, in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and certain ancient Indian religions, the basic belief is in God, the creator. At the same time, Buddhism, Jainism and some other ancient Indian religions deny the existence of God, a creator. In spite of these fundamental differences, all these different religions teach us to be good human beings. Their main message is the practice of love, compassion and forgiveness.

A clear example is if we look closely and in an unbiased way, we can see many good people in those different religious groups. That clearly shows that despite having different philosophies, all religions have the potential to produce good human beings. Therefore, we can see the usefulness of these different religions to humanity and on this basis, we can generate genuine harmony and mutual respect.

According to my own experience, personal contact is essential and very effective. Although we can learn through books, I think that personal contact is very, very useful. In my own case I have met Thomas Merton and other Christian brothers and sisters, as well as some Jews and people from these different religions. When we have close contact, we see that each religion produces many good human beings.

When we were in Tibet, we felt that Buddhism was the best and particularly we thought that our type of Buddhism was the best. But when we met different people from different traditions, this attitude eventually changed. So personal contact is very, very helpful and very effective.

I’m happy to notice in recent years that there has been some exchange. Some Tibetan monks and nuns have visited Christian monasteries and nunneries, and some Christian brothers and sisters have come to Tibetan monasteries and nunneries to spend a few weeks and actually participate in their daily life. Then they really get a deep impression and experience of the other religion. This is very, very useful.

Even if you want to eliminate other religions, it’s impossible to do so. Also, no matter how much effort you put into it, you can’t convert an entire population to one religion. That is reality. When Buddha himself was in India, all the Indian people didn’t convert to Buddhism. Many people remained non-Buddhists in India. That is a fact.

Today there are big differences in political systems in the various countries. The situation a few years ago was that East and West had very different political and economic systems, however, practically, they have to live side-by-side to co-exist.

So why can’t we people from different religious traditions find ways and means to co-exist? By working together, I have learned many positive things from other traditions.

Some Buddhist traditions and theories in the scriptures and on paper are very beautiful, but sometimes we Buddhists are lacking in action. Our Christian brothers and sisters do many good works, they really implement the teachings. I think the Buddhist community, especially Buddhist monks and nuns, are very much lacking something. We’re content to pray and meditate, and we lack very much action. I think Christian brothers and sisters are very, very useful. So there are many things we can learn from their tradition.

At the same time, in the Buddhist practice of single-pointed concentration, there are certain techniques to sharpen or discipline our minds. Some Eastern philosophies and traditions, and certain methods available in Buddhism as well as in Hinduism, are very good. So Christian brothers and sisters can adopt some of those methods according to their own traditions. This is very good.

Question: One main point in Christianity is the belief in the mercy of God and the forgiveness of our sins to give us new confidence each day. Can we experience this kind of mercy in the Buddhist teachings on karma and dependent arising?

His Holiness: Generally, the method of purification of sins or negative actions is the same in both religions, because if you repent the negative actions you have done, they can be purified to some extent, but due to differences in the definition of sin, the methods may be presented and interpreted differently. Sin, as well as love and compassion, may be presented differently.

Question: How can the idea of liberation from samsara be combined with the idea of saving the earth?

His Holiness: There is a big difference between these two. Salvation or moksha is concerned with the individual and one’s own individual liberation. By purifying one’s own mind, then that state of mind is salvation. This has nothing to do with ecology, but when we talk about benefiting all sentient beings, in particular humankind, then ecology is more important than self-liberation, isn’t it?

Sometimes I tell people that we, as Buddhist practitioners, always pray for all sentient beings, but sometimes we pray for all sentient beings and forget about our own people. We’re supposed to serve and help, but we fight everyone on earth as enemies. This is wrong, of course. When we talk about sentient beings, our own neighbors are the main sentient beings we’re supposed to serve and help.

Therefore if we’re really concerned about all of humanity, then we are automatically concerned about ecology. We’re not only talking about human rights, but also about the rights of animals and insects. If we disturb the environment, ultimately we will also suffer.

When we talk about all sentient beings, this includes the coming generations. This is very serious. Our present generation has a particularly heavy responsibility to our children and to their children and to their children’s children. Our human potential due to scientific technology is so immense. Unless we behave well today, there is the danger of disturbing the entire balance of nature. Then not only will our generation suffer, but many future generations will also suffer.