DEAR BROTHERS AND SISTERS, I am very happy to be here with you. I always believe that we human beings are all essentially the same—mentally, emotionally and physically. Of course, there are minor differences, such as shape and color, but we all have two eyes, two ears and one nose. Therefore, I am always happy to interact with and talk to my fellow human brothers and sisters. In this way, I learn new things, mainly when I receive a question on something entirely unexpected. Audience members come up with new concepts or points, which gives me the opportunity to reflect and analyze. It’s very useful.
I want to make clear, however—perhaps even warn you—that you should not expect too much. There are no miracles. I am very skeptical of such things. It is very dangerous if people come to my talks believing that the Dalai Lama has some kind of healing power, for example. I myself doubt those who claim to have the power to heal. Some time ago, at a large gathering in England, I said the same thing. At that time I told the audience that if there is a real healer out there, I want to show that person my skin problems. Sometimes it can be quite pleasant to scratch the itch, but as the Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said, “It’s better not to have the itching than to have the pleasure of scratching.” Anyway, so far, I have never met such a person. However, if you are here simply out of curiosity, that’s perfectly fine. I’m very happy to have this opportunity to talk to you and would also like to express my deep appreciation to those who have organized this event.
The fundamental thing is that everyone wants a happy, successful life. This is not only our goal but our legitimate right as well. The question then arises, how do we achieve this happy life? It seems that in these modern times, when technology and material facilities are so well developed and freely available, we get the idea that material things are the ultimate factor in the satisfaction of our desires and the fulfillment of our goals. Thus, we have too much expectation of material things and put too much trust in them; our strong materialistic beliefs give us false hope in that which truly lacks a firm basis. As a result, we neglect our inner values and state of mind.
By relying so much on external things to make our lives meaningful, we move further away from basic human values. Of course, material development is essential and very useful, but it is wrong to expect that all our problems can be solved through external means. When material and spiritual development are combined, however, we can achieve our goal of a happy life. Therefore, while focusing on material development, it is essential that we pay attention to inner values as well.
When I use the word “spiritual,” I don’t necessarily mean religious faith. It is quite obvious that there are two levels of spirituality—spirituality with religious faith and that without. Obviously, an individual can manage to lead a meaningful life without religious faith, but you can’t be a happy person without the spirituality of basic human values. As long as we remain human, there is no way that we can neglect this.
What are these basic human values? There are two levels. On one level, there is the sense of caring for one another, sharing with one another—the sense of oneness that comes from seeing all people as brothers and sisters in a single human family, bringing respect, tolerance and self-discipline. We even find some of these qualities in the animal kingdom. However, on another level, because of our human intelligence and understanding of far-reaching consequences, we can deliberately increase certain qualities and try to restrain others. In this way, humans are much more sophisticated than animals.
Human beings and animals equally have the same basic desire for happiness or satisfaction. This is common to all sentient beings. The unique thing about us, however, is our intelligence. The desire to attain happiness, pleasure and satisfaction mainly through the five senses is not a uniquely human thing; there is not much to distinguish us from animals in this regard. What does distinguish us from animals, however, is our ability to use our faculty of intelligence in our quest to fulfill our natural desire to be happy and overcome suffering. It is this ability to judge between the long- and short-term consequences of our behavior and actions that really distinguishes us from animals; utilizing our unique human qualities in the right way is what proves us to be true human beings.
Another important factor is that there are two kinds of pain and pleasure—pain and pleasure on the physical, or sensory, level and those on the mental level. If we examine our daily lives, it will become clear that we can subdue physical pain mentally. When we are happy and calm, we can easily ignore physical discomfort, such as pain and unpleasant sensations. When, however, we are unhappy or disturbed, then even the best of external factors, such as good companions, money and fame, cannot make us happy. This suggests that no matter how powerful our sensory experiences might be, they cannot overwhelm our state of mind; mental experience is superior to physical. It is in this mental realm of happiness and suffering or pain and pleasure that the application of human intelligence plays a tremendously influential role.
Human intelligence itself is neutral; it is just an instrument that can be utilized in either destructive or constructive ways. For example, many of our sufferings come about as the result of the power of our imagination and ability to think about the future, which can create doubt, expectation, disappointment and fear. Animals don’t have these problems. If an animal finds good food and shelter and there are no immediate disturbances, it can exist quite peacefully, but even when we human beings are well fed and surrounded by good companions, nice music and so forth, our sophistication and expectations don’t allow us to relax. Human intelligence, in other words, is a source of worry and problems. The unhappiness that arises from an overactive imagination cannot be resolved by material means.
Human intelligence, there f o re, can be very influential either negatively or positively. The key factor in directing it more positively is having the right mental attitude. To have a happy life—happy days and happy nights—it is extremely important to combine our human intelligence with basic human values. If our minds are peaceful, open and calm during the day, our dreams will reflect these experiences and be happy. If during the day we experience fear, agitation and doubt, we will continue to encounter troubles in our dreams. Therefore, to have happiness twenty-four hours a day, we must have the right mental attitude.
Instead of thinking about money and material things every minute of the day, we should pay more attention to our inner world. It is interesting to ask ourselves such questions as, “Who am I?” and “Where is my I?” Usually, we take our “I” for granted. We feel that within us there is something solid and independent that is the owner of our mind, body and possessions; if we reflect on and examine where this so-called powerful and precious self actually resides, it will prove to be quite useful. We should also ask, “What is the mind? Where is it?” because the greatest of all disturbing forces are the negative emotions. When these destructive emotions are fully developed, we become their slave; as if mad. Therefore, when negative emotions arise, it is useful to inquire, “Where does all this come from?”
The key factor in developing and increasing basic human values — the sense of caring for and sharing with one another—is human affection, a feeling of closeness with one another. This quality is present within us from the moment of our conception. According to some medical scientists, the unborn child can recognize its mother’s voice. This indicates that even then, the child feels close to and dear towards its mother. Once the child is born, he or she spontaneously sucks its mother’s milk. The mother also experiences a feeling of closeness to her child. Because of this, her milk flows freely. If either side lacked that feeling of intimacy, the child would not survive. Each of us started our life that way and without human affection would definitely not have survived.
Medical science also teaches us that emotions play a very important role in health. Fear and hatred, for example, are very bad for us. Also, when negative emotions arise strongly, certain parts of our brain become blocked and our intelligence cannot function properly. We can see from our daily experience as well that strong negative emotions can make us uncomfortable and tense, leading to problems with digestion and sleep and causing some of us to resort to tranquilizers, sleeping pills, alcohol or other drugs.
Furthermore, when certain negative emotions develop they can disturb our body’s natural balance, resulting in high blood pressure and other kinds of disease. One medical researcher presented data at a conference showing that people who frequently use words such as “I,” “me” and “mine” have a greater risk of heart attack. Thus, it seems that if you want to have a heart attack, you should repeat these words like a mantra and all the time say, “I, I, I, I, I, I.”
If we think of ourselves as very precious and absolute, our whole mental focus becomes very narrow and limited and even minor problems can seem unbearable. If, however, we can think more holistically and see our problems from a broader perspective, they will become insignificant. For example, if we switch our mental attitude from concern for our own welfare to that of others, our mind automatically widens and our own problems appear much less important and easier to face.
The actual beneficiary of the practice of compassion and caring for others is oneself. We may have the impression that the main beneficiaries of the practice of compassion are those on the receiving end; that the practice of compassion is relevant only for those concerned about others and irrelevant for those who are not, because its main benefit goes to others. This is a mistake. The immediate benefit of practicing compassion is actually experienced by the practitioner.
Because our mind broadens and we feel more comfortable when we think about humanity and the welfare of others, if we can generate this kind of mental attitude, whenever we meet someone, we will feel that here is another human brother or sister and will immediately be able to communicate with ease. When we think only about ourselves, our inner door remains closed and we find it very difficult to communicate with our fellow human beings.
The practice of compassion and caring for others immediately brings us inner strength and inner peace. Of course, compassion may also benefit others indirectly, but what is certain is the benefit that we ourselves experience. It is quite clear, therefore, that if we are really concerned about our own future and the happiness of our own life, we should develop a mental attitude in which the practice of compassion plays a central role. I sometimes jokingly tell people that if we want to be truly selfish, then we should be wisely selfish rather than foolishly selfish.
This is the reality. Think about these points and experiment with them. Eventually you will develop greater awareness of what I’m talking about.
I am a sixty-four year old Buddhist monk and in a few days I will be sixty-five. The greater part of my life has not been happy. Most people already know about my difficult experiences. When I was fifteen I lost my freedom; at the age of twenty-four I lost my country. Now forty-one years have passed since I became a refugee and news from my homeland is always very saddening. Yet inside, my mental state seems quite peaceful. Bad news tends to go in one ear and out the other; not much remains stuck within my mind. The result is that my peace of mind is not too disturbed.
This is not because I’m some kind of special person. I joke with my Chinese friends about the Chinese term huo - fo, which means “living buddha.” The very term itself is dangerous; it’s completely wrong . The Tibetan word is “lama”; in Sanskrit, it’s “guru.” There’s no hint of “living buddha” in these words, so I have no idea how the Chinese got “living buddha” out of them. Anyway, whether people call me a living buddha, a god-king or, in some cases, a devil or counter-revolutionary, it doesn’t matter. The reality is that I’m just a human being; a simple Buddhist monk. There are no differences between us, and according to my own experience, if we pay more attention to our inner world then our lives can be happier. You can achieve many things as a result of living in a materially developed society, but if, in addition, you pay more attention to your inner world, your life will become much richer and more complete.
There are many parts of the world where whole communities are still struggling to achieve basic living standards. When people have to fight for their daily sustenance, almost all of their energy and concentration needs to be directed towards that end, which does not really allow anxiety and mental problems to come to the surface. By contrast, there is less of a struggle for daily survival in the more affluent Northern countries because these societies have reached a relatively high level of material development. This, however, gives people there the opportunity to pay attention to problems that are more emotional and mental in nature.
Through training our minds we can become more peaceful. This will give us greater opportunities for creating the peaceful families and human communities that are the foundation of world peace. With inner strength, we can face problems on the familial, societal and even global levels in a more realistic way. Non-violence does not mean passivity. We need to solve problems through dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the real meaning of non-violence and the source of world peace.
This approach can also be very useful in ecology. We always hear about a better environment, world peace, non-violence and so forth, but such goals are not achieved through the application of regulations or United Nations resolutions; it takes individual transformation. Once we have developed a peaceful society in which problems are negotiated through dialogue, we can seriously think about demilitarization—first on the national level; then on the regional level; and finally, on the global level. However, it will be very difficult to achieve these things unless individuals themselves undergo a change within their own minds.
Question and answer period
Question. What can Americans do to counteract the violence that is so prevalent in our society?
His Holiness. I think I just answered that! Otherwise, I have no special answer to your question. However, transforming our mental attitude is our main task. How can we accomplish that? How can we carry that work into the family and school? He re, education is essential. Not through prayer or religious meditation and so forth but through proper education. The various levels of educational institution have a very important role to play in the promotion of the human spirit in the form of secular ethics. I’m not an educator, but people need to talk more seriously about how to improve and expand the educational curriculum to make it more complete. The media can also play an important role in the promotion of human values. Otherwise, I’m not sure what can be done.
Question. In this materialistic and consumer-driven society, how does one overcome the desire for and attachment to material goods?
His Holiness. If you think deeply in terms of the spiritual practice of cultivating modest desires and contentment, I would say that in some respects there are more opportunities for people living in materially affluent societies. People in less materially developed societies haven’t had the opportunity to really experience the limitations of material conditions and facilities. If you live in a materially affluent society, it is easier for you to see the limits of material facilities in terms of providing satisfaction. So I would say that in a materially enriched society, there are, in fact, more opportunities for spiritual practice. Of course, it all depends upon the individual’s own attitudes and thoughts.
However, this deeply embedded idea of the West being a consumerdriven, materialistic culture may contain an element of imagination. People make these categorical differences between Eastern and Western cultures and then, as Westerners, you start to believe in them. You think that your lives are driven by materialistic values; you project a certain image of your own culture and begin to believe in it, perpetuating a certain mindset.
Among my Western friends, I know individuals with a tremendous commitment and dedication to the practice of Buddhadharma. They also have quite a high degree of experience based on prolonged meditative practices and live according to the experiences they have gained. We can find such people in both the East and the West. The basic nature of all human beings is the same.
Question. Lately, many Americans have become dependent on anti-depressant drugs. To some it is a serious medical concern but to others it may be just an easy way out. What is Your Holiness’s opinion on this question?
His Holiness. When we talk about medication such as anti-depressant drugs, of course there are different conditions. In some cases, depression may be caused by physiological or biological conditions due to imbalances within the body. Under such circumstances, using an anti-depressant drug can actually help the individual and is an effective way of handling that medical problem. However, there may be other instances where the mental distress or depression does not have a biological basis but comes from psychological factors. It is then m o re effective to rely on internal methods such as mind training or meditation.
As to the question of people using anti-depressant drugs simply as a way of gaining some kind of relaxation or some kind of easy way out, that’s clearly an abuse of the substance. The relief that individuals get from using drugs in this way is only temporary. While the drug retains its potency in the body, the person remains in a pleasurable state, but the moment it loses its potency, the person is back to where he or she was before. Therefore, it is more effective to rely on internal techniques. With these, you can later recall the relief you gained as a result of your meditation and the relief itself will last longer.
Question. How would you recommend that Americans practice Buddhism if they feel called to it, without adopting the Tibetan culture as well?
His Holiness. This is definitely possible. There is nothing uniquely Tibetan about the Four Noble Truths, for example. Fundamentally, there is no particular reference to Tibetan or Indian culture in Tibetan Buddhism. It is not about East or West.
Question. At the moment of death, how can a layperson remain in peace instead of fear?
His Holiness. As I mentioned earlier, if you are calm and peaceful during the day, your dreams will also be calm and peaceful. By extension, if your day-to-day life is peaceful and friendly, so too will be your death. That’s the best preparation for a peaceful death. If your life is filled with cruelty, fear and hatred, you will find it very difficult to die in peace.
As a Buddhist monk, I believe that there is a next life. The Buddhist practice of tantra, in particular, contains many unique preparations for death and it is very important for practitioners to familiarize ourselves with them so that we can actualize these practices when we die. Therefore, in my daily practice, I meditate on my own death and rebirth repeatedly. This is supposed to prepare me for death, but I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll be equipped to handle it when it actually comes. Sometimes I feel that when it does, I might start getting excited about whether or not I’ll be able to implement these practices effectively.
Question. Now that Communism has been discredited, how can we control the growing gap between rich and poor?
His Holiness. This is a really important question. Everybody can see that on the global level there is a huge gap between the rich nations and the poor; we find a similar divide within individual countries as well. In America, for example, the number of billionaires is increasing, while the poor remain poor and in some cases get even poorer. Just the other day, I met an old friend who told me about the work she is doing in Washington DC. She said that the living conditions of some of the families she has visited are so desperate that they are unsuitable for any human being to live in. While she was explaining her experiences, she began to cry, and I also felt very moved.
This is not only morally wrong but also impractical. We have to think seriously about how to reduce this problem. I’ve heard that a number of affluent families are now willing to share some of their wealth. Last year, some friends in Chicago told me that some of the wealthier families now have more courage to share. This is good news; the more we develop this compassionate attitude, the more we can diminish the gap between rich and poor.
On a global level, however, I feel that the initiative must come from the poorer countries, largely through education. During recent visits to South Africa and other African countries, I found a great divide between the elite and the masses and that many poor people lacked self-confidence. It is very important for the poor to make an effort to transform their mental attitude through education. The wealthy can assist them in this by providing educational and training facilities and equipment.
This, then, leads us to the question of population. There are now more than six billion human beings on this planet. This is an extremely serious matter. If we try to raise the standard of living of the poor and undeveloped countries to that of countries in the Northern hemisphere, it’s questionable whether the world’s natural resources will be sufficient for everybody. Problems such as this are caused by a lack of awareness and a failure to use human intelligence properly. All countries, but poor ones in particular, tend to look only at immediate problems instead of thinking long-term. Nevertheless, through education, solutions will eventually be found.
Question. Your Holiness, with so many wars being declared in the name of religion, can you explain why Tibet has not taken a more violent approach towards attaining freedom?
His Holiness. First, I believe that humans are basically kind and gentle and that the use of violence goes against our fundamental nature. Second, it is difficult to find in human history examples of military solutions leading to lasting resolution of whatever the problem was. Furthermore, these days, national boundaries are becoming less important; for example, in the modern economy, there are basically none. Moreover, information technology and tourism are turning the world into a single human community. Therefore, the concept of independence has less meaning these days.
Things are highly interdependent. The very concepts of “we” and “they” are becoming irrelevant. War is out of date because our neighbors are part of ourselves. We see this in economic, educational and environmental issues. Although we may have some ideological differences or other conflicts with our neighbor, economically and environmentally we share essentially the same country, and destroying our neighbor is destroying ourselves. It’s foolish.
Take Kosovo, for example. America’s military campaign was seen as some kind of liberation on humanitarian grounds entailing the use of limited force. Perhaps the motivation was good and the goal also justified, but because of the use of violence, instead of hatred being reduced, in some cases it might have increased. Right from the beginning, I personally had reservations about the use of force in that situation, despite the positive motivation and goal. Basically, violence is obsolete.
In the case of Tibet, whether we like it or not, we have to live side by side with our Chinese brothers and sisters. Tibetans have had relations with China for almost two thousand years. Sometimes they have been happy; sometimes not. Right now we’re going through an unhappy period, but regardless of this, we still have to live together as neighbors. Therefore, in order to live peacefully, harmoniously and with friendship in future, it is extremely important that while carrying on our struggle for freedom, we avoid using violence. This is my fundamental belief.
Another thing is that to find a solution to the problems between China and Tibet, the support of the Chinese public is essential. There is growing support and solidarity for the Tibetan cause among Chinese people and this is very encouraging. But if we resort to violence and cause Chinese people to shed blood, even those Chinese who intellectually recognize that Tibet’s struggle is just and that the Tibetan people have really suffered during the so-called peaceful liberation of Tibet will withdraw their support because their own brothers and sisters are suffering. Therefore, it is extremely important that throughout our struggle we continue to rely on non-violent means.
Question. How does someone maintain a spiritual diet or spiritual nourishment in such a busy world? Is there a very quick and simple mantra one can say when first arising or something to focus on during the day to feel calm?
His Holiness. You can do this through training your mind. Start by getting up early in the morning. The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, got up at 2:30 in the morning and went to bed at 7:30 in the evening. My schedule begins one hour later; I get up at 3:30 and go to bed at 8:30. So, you need to be able to sacrifice staying up late and nightclubbing. If you really enjoy that, maybe you can do it once a month.
Then, getting up early, examine your daily life and some of the points that I have already mentioned. Examine and analyze. This is the proper way; I don’t know any simpler method. Furthermore, I’m very skeptical of those who claim that problems can be solved just by closing your eyes. Problems can be solved only through developing your mental attitude properly, which takes time and effort.
Question. You spend every moment dedicated to others. If you could take a vacation for yourself alone, what would you do?
His Holiness. I would have a long sleep! The other day, I arrived in Washington DC from India. It’s a very long flight and I was exhausted. I went to sleep around 5:30 p.m. and woke up the next morning around 4:30 a.m.—I slept more than eleven hours. I found it very useful. So, if I do take a vacation, I’ll have a ten-hour sleep. Then, of course, in my daily life, meditation is also a method for relaxation. In meditation, we think about and analyze life, mind and self. If your analytical meditation goes well, you feel relaxed; if it doesn’t, you just get more tired.
Question. What single action can each of us take to demonstrate universal responsibility?
His Holiness. One thing that we all can do as individuals is to ensure that our concerns for the environment become a part of our lives. I myself never take a bath; just a shower. Baths waste a lot of water; in many parts of the world, there’s a serious shortage of drinking water. It’s also important to conserve electricity. Whenever I leave a room, I switch off the light. This has become so much a part of my life that I do it without conscious thought. Such actions are part of my own small contribution to the environment.