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It's Time to Listen Print
Shambhala Sun | January 2002

It's Time to Listen

By: You are reading this in December, but I have written this just a few days after September 11. I am trying to imagine what the world feels like two months later-what else might have happened, what has changed, how each of us feels, whether we are more divided or more connected.

In the absence of a crystal ball, I look to the things I believe to be true in all times and for most situations. And so I've chosen to write about an enduring truth: great healing is available when we listen to each other. No matter what we have experienced in life, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present (and that takes practice), but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise or coach or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen, and if we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available.

A young black South African woman taught some of my friends a profound lesson about listening. She was sitting in a circle of women from many nations, and each woman had the chance to tell a story from her life. When her turn came, she began quietly to tell a story of true horror-of how she had found her grandparents slaughtered in their village. Many of the women were Westerners, and in the presence of such pain, they instinctively wanted to do something. They wanted to fix it, to make it better, to do anything to remove the pain of this tragedy from such a young life. The young woman felt their compassion, but also felt them closing in. She put her hands up, as if to push back their desire to help. She said: “I don’t need you to fix me. I just need you to listen to me.”

Many women that day learned that being listened to is often enough. If we can speak our story, and know that others hear it, we are somehow healed by that. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa, many of those who testified to the atrocities they had endured under apartheid spoke of being healed by giving testimony. One young man who had been blinded when a policeman shot him in the face at close range said: “I feel what has brought my eyesight back is to come here and tell the story. I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story.”

Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates a relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing resources.

In the web of life, nothing is alone. Our natural state is to be together. Though we keep moving away from each other, we never lose the need to be in relationship. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story in order to connect. In English, the word for “health” comes from the same root as the word for “whole,” which comes from the same root as "holy." We can’t be healthy if we’re not in relationship, a part of the whole.

Listening moves us closer; it helps us become more whole, more healthy, more holy. Not listening creates fragmentation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes the current era as a time of “radical brokenness” in all our relationships. Everywhere we look in the global family we see disconnection and fear of one another. How many teenagers today, in how many places throughout the world, say that no one listens to them? They feel ignored and discounted, and in their pain they turn to each other to create their own subcultures. I’ve heard two great teachers, Malidoma Somé from Burkino Faso in West Africa, and Parker Palmer from the United States, both comment that a culture is in trouble when you see its elders walk across the street to avoid meeting its youth.

This is an increasingly noisy era-people shout at each other in print, at work, on TV. The volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen. Most of us would welcome things quieting down. We can do our part to begin lowering the volume by cultivating our willingness to listen.

Think about whom you might approach-someone you don’t know, don’t like or whose manner of living is a mystery to you. What would it take to begin a conversation with that person? Would you be able to ask them for their opinion or explanation and then sit quietly to listen to their answer? Could you keep yourself from arguing or defending or saying anything for a while? Could you encourage them to just keep telling you their version of things, their side of the story?

It takes courage to begin this type of conversation. But listening, rather than arguing, is also much easier. Once I’d practiced this new role a few times, I found it quite enjoyable. And I learned things I never would have known had I interrupted or advised. I know now that neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned, passionately-presented arguments. Things change when I’ve created just the slightest movement toward wholeness, moving closer to another through patient, willing listening.

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., is president of The Berkana Institute. She is author of Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.

It's Time to Listen, Margaret Wheatley, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.
Take the Big View Print

Take the Big View

By "Our habit is always to return to a small view of our experience. meditation trains us to return again and again to a larger view of our existence."

In my two previous columns, I wrote about the first two elements in a very beneficial threesome: hearing, contemplating and meditating. We are always learning and remembering things that interest us (hearing); considering things that capture our attention (contemplating); and returning to those things that particularly hold our minds because they are familiar, if not always healthy, reference points (meditating).

What about using this dynamic to train our minds, so that we are able to choose what we remember, contemplate and meditate upon? Wouldn't it be nice if we could control when and how we do these activities? The way to achieve that—to strengthen these powers of the mind—is to sit down on the meditation cushion.

In order to begin on the path of meditation, we need confidence in our understanding of the instructions. How do we develop that confidence? Through hearing those instructions from a reliable source, through contemplating them over and over, and through accurately remembering them. To sustain the path of meditation even when the mind feels difficult, boring or irritating, we have to understand firmly the significance of meditation. We develop this firm understanding through contemplating the meaning of the meditation instructions and how they could be helpful to us. Simply saying, "Oh, if I focus my attention on my breathing I'll feel more relaxed," is not enough.

If meditation were about stress relief, we could forgo having to understand our own minds and simply get a good massage. Instead, it's crucial to consider the implications of guiding our mind away from the pursuit of every little thought that pops into our head. This is what we do in meditation practice: gently guide ourselves toward observing thoughts and emotions from an ever-larger perspective. We use the natural tendency we refer to as meditation to return us again and again to a more open view of our experience, rather than our usual habit to return again and again to a smaller view.

Initially, when we consider our habitual confusion, we see it as something happening to us. We think, "My day got ruined," or "Such and such made me late." Even if we're not especially self-centered people, we tend to think, "Oh no, it's raining, I'm going to get wet," instead of something like, "It's raining, what effects might the rain have?"

Whenever we begin meditation, we have to go beyond this view of things happening to us. It's important to ask ourselves what we are doing. For most of us, the honest answer is that we yearn to be content. Finding contentment is hard, though, because so much of our existence is uncomfortable. Meditation practice helps us to see the thought processes we employ in a vain attempt to find comfort and satisfaction.

When we meditate, we acknowledge that we're thinking but try not to follow the thoughts. Instead we bring our attention back to the sensation of the breath going in and out. We recognize we are caught in a thought or fantasy, and then we bring the attention back to the breath. That's what meditation is—returning our attention to the object. The object is the breath, in the form of meditation I'm discussing here, but it could also be something you look at, something you visualize, or a phrase or mantra you repeat to yourself.

When we ask ourselves what we're doing, we shouldn't be afraid to be honest about the answer. We do want to feel good and to be happy. The honesty need not stop there. We can see that it takes a great deal of effort just to keep it together most days. Each day there are so many conditions that must come together in a certain way for us to feel happy. First of all we need water, food and sleep. Then the list starts to lengthen. "I went shopping and they had my size! I feel good." We constantly fluctuate between feeling big or small, feeling accepted or rejected. Even though we are intelligent, our self-confidence is riding on the whim of chance. Will things go well today? We never know.

The untrained mind travels from thought to thought, from emotion to emotion. When we ask ourselves, "Who am I, what do I really want in life, what is the state of my mind?" then we realize how fragile the sense of peace is within our mind. We see how fragile our stability is. So how can we live in a way that is sane, humorous and dignified? We could start by viewing life as the phenomenal display of all beings trying to be content. Meditation enables us to take such a larger view and to understand that all beings are searching for the same contentment.

Once we can squarely recognize the condition we're all in, it's natural to say, "Well, I don't want to drift at the whim of conditions coming together just right. I want to be able to feel content even when things don't go exactly my way." Stabilizing and strengthening the mind through a regular meditation practice can help accomplish this. The more we understand ourselves, the more chance we have of working our way out of the trap of our habitual tendency to look for satisfaction in all the wrong places. And the more we feel inspired to stay with the great journey of taming our own mind.

As we go on this journey, our perception of the meditation path—and of our own mind—changes. At first, there's a tendency to think we need a teacher to give us a path. Although that is true, when we look closer we see that every situation presents us with the challenge of working with our mind. We see the display of the weather and we see the display of our own thoughts. That is the path. For instance, we could allow the changing weather to be a nuisance: "I want it to stop raining! I want the sun to shine." This attitude keeps our possibilities small. It prevents freedom and it entrenches the fear that things won't go our way and the hope that they will.

Instead, we could appreciate the weather as a display of uncontrollable beauty. The rain comes chattering down. It brings us an opportunity to open up and appreciate the simple quality of being, whether too cold or too hot or too wet. That experience is liberating—and that opportunity is always present. Meditation is our way to gain access to it.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Take the Big View
, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

Precious Jewels Print
Shambhala Sun | November 2001

Precious Jewels


In mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an enlightened being who forgoes nirvana and vows to take rebirth again and again in order to save all sentient beings from suffering. In the vajrayana tradition preserved in Tibet, the rebirths of enlightened Buddhist masters are traced from lifetime to lifetime. A letter written before a master dies, or the clairvoyant visions and dreams of a living master, help to locate a young child who is the emanation of the deceased master. While they may remember little or nothing of their previous life, these children show remarkable learning abilities and concentration powers. With diligent practice and study, and proper training usually given by chief disciples of their previous incarnation, they have the potential to become extraordinary teachers. These masters, known as "Rinpoches" ("precious jewels"), are at the heart of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

In the typical Tibetan home, there are photographs displayed of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other incarnate masters. Generations of family members have been disciples of several incarnations of the same master. The Rinpoche is a source of faith to the family, giving teachings, divinations and guidance for their life, including guiding them through the process of dying.

Whether a lama is recognized as the incarnation of a previous master is not paramount to Tibetans. There are some extraordinary lamas who, from many years of monastic training or retreats, are venerated as much as, if not more, than incarnate lamas.

I have felt an urgency to photograph the last of the Buddhist masters who received their training in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. I am profoundly moved by the qualities of kindness, compassion and equanimity of these extraordinary beings. From these masters, we receive the unbroken transmission of dharma that was passed on from master to disciple in the pristine, Tibetan high plateau.

-Don Farber

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India, 1997
As I was photographing His Holiness by a window in his residence, I told him about my wife's mother. A beautiful young maiden from a respected family in eastern Tibet, Lhaga escaped with her husband Wangyal to India in 1959, but shortly after arriving, she contracted polio and her legs became paralyzed. This disease was practically unknown in Tibet. They loved each other very much and, despite Lhaga's paralysis, they had two children together. One day they were at a hot spring in northern India and they met Taring Amala (founder of the Tibetan Homes Foundation, a boarding school for Tibetan refugee orphans). Taring was so touched seeing Wangyal carrying this beautiful young woman on his back that she invited them to live at the school. Wangyal became the school's handyman and their children attended the school. As I told this story to His Holiness, he was deeply moved. He said to me, "All the Tibetan people have suffered so much."

Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Los Angeles, 1990
Born in 1930, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche was recognized at the age of two as the incarnation of the abbot of Chagdud Gonpa, a Nyingma monastery in Kham, eastern Tibet. A meditation master, poet, storyteller, artist and physician, he inspires his many western students to practice diligently and to learn and maintain traditional Tibetan Buddhist arts and rituals. After living in northern California for many years, he recently moved to Brazil, where he directs a vital dharma community. Nowadays he is entering old age and his health is fragile. On his rare visits to the United States, there is a feeling among all of us who have received his teachings and spiritual guidance that each moment with him is precious. He is a living link to the great Buddhist tradition of Tibet.

Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk Rinpoche, Himachal Pradesh, India, 1997
Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, a highly revered master of the Sakya lineage, trained under the late Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro at Dzongsar Monastery in Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has received teachings and empowerments from him. He is the head abbot of the Dzongsar Institute, but in recent years has been mainly in retreat. He shared with me the following: "The main merit of the practice of Buddhism is in the improvement or the evolution of the mind and the way of thinking. It stops evil thoughts and instills the power of positive thinking. This will bring, in this life, a harmonious coexistence with all sentient beings. It will end the will to harm, it brings peace, and it instills the will to help and to be compassionate and caring. This thought will grow during a man's life, during his death, after his death, even when he is reborn, and through many other rebirths until finally reaching the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, enlightenment, which will be devoid of any suffering of the body or of the spirit. These are the merits of Buddhism, which are not only for this life but also for all the coming lives until the attainment of buddhahood."

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzongzar Institute, Himachal Pradesh, India, 1997
In many of the homes of Tibetan refugees from Kham, eastern Tibet, there is a large black and white photograph over the altar of their root guru, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, who died in 1959. He was the incarnation of the great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892). While of the Sakya tradition, both were masters of all four Tibetan Buddhist lineages. They established the nonsectarian Rime tradition at Dzongsar Monastery in Derge, Kham. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the main incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, is a gifted teacher and filmmaker. His 1999 film Phörpa (The Cup) won several film festival awards and was featured at Cannes. He also oversees the Dzongsar Institute, which gives advanced training for monks, many of them escaped from Tibet. Especially for the people of Kham, Dzongsar Khyentse is seen not only as a man in this present life, but as a continuum of lifetimes keeping alight a brilliant spiritual tradition.

Khandro Tsering Chodron, Gangtok, Sikkim, India, 1997
In Sogyal Rinpoche's book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, he describes his childhood being raised by Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and his spiritual wife, Khandro Tsering Chodron. She was much younger than her husband, who died in 1959. Sogyal Rinpoche describes her as the foremost woman master in Tibetan Buddhism. At the invitation of the royal family of Sikkim, she has been quietly living for many years in a small house located on the beautiful grounds of the royal temple atop a hill in Gangtok. She never remarried and she lives like a nun, usually doing meditation practice. I asked if she would mind being interviewed, but she preferred not to. However, just being in her presence, experiencing her warmth and kindness and seeing how she lived, was a great teaching and blessing in itself.

His Holiness the 11th Mindrolling Trichen, Dehra Dun, India, 1997
Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche is revered by many Tibetans as one of the greatest living Buddhist masters. He received extensive teachings and empowerments from great masters in Tibet and spent more than 14 years in retreats. His father was the 10th Mindrolling Trichen and head of the influential Mindrolling lineage of the Nyingma school. In 1962, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche and H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche performed the formal enthronement ceremony for Rinpoche to become the 11th Mindrolling Trichen. He worked closely with the 16th Karmapa, Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and others as a leader in preserving the Tibetan Buddhist way of life. In 1976, Rinpoche moved to Dehra Dun, India, to head the Mindrolling Monastery in exile, where he lives today with his family and sangha. I photographed him in the room where he normally does his practice, with light coming from a window. He joked around, exuding tremendous joy and vitality through his eyes.

Tenga Rinpoche, Kathmandu, 1997
The Venerable Tenga Rinpoche was born in 1932 and at age 7 was recognized as the third incarnation of Tenga Rinpoche by the previous Tai Situ Rinpoche. After many years of training under Situ Rinpoche and other great masters in Kham, and after completing a three-year retreat, he escaped to India in 1959 and settled at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. There he studied with the late 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyü sect. Rinpoche lived at Rumtek for 17 years, the last nine of which he served as the Dorje Loppön (Vajra Master).

In an interview, I asked him to share briefly something of the dharma that he considers most important, and he replied: "The essence of the Buddha's teachings is contained within the two types of enlightened mind, or bodhichitta. [Shantideva describes bodhichitta as the wish to bring all sentient beings to the level of enlightenment.] Basically, you pray, 'May I be able to give birth to the sincere and genuine enlightened mind of bodhichitta.'
At the same time, you pray, 'May all sentient beings be able to generate, give birth to this genuine mind of bodhichitta.' That thought is the crucial point of the path. The essence of Buddhism is to cultivate, over and over, that mind of bodhichitta, praying in this manner. At the same time, you try to think that whatever you are doing, may it benefit sentient beings. In this way, whatever you are doing, whether you are praying or you are engaged in some activity, your wish is to benefit others. That is the real enlightened mind of bodhichitta, which is the essence of all the teachings of the Buddha."

Togden Amting, Himachal Pradesh, India, 1997
When the Tibetans escaped to India in 1959, among them were the togdens, or mountain yogis. Having lived isolated in caves in Tibet, they built huts or found caves in the Himalayan foothills of India, where they could continue their many-year retreats. Traditionally, the form of yoga they practice has been kept secret and has only been practiced by togdens. This is because of concern that these practices could be harmful if used without long preparatory training. They also practice meditation and recite Buddhist scripture, keeping the vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Togden Amting has lived for many years in a tiny hut under trees, high on a hill in Himachal, Pradesh.

Her Eminence Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding, Los Angeles, 1992
It is said that Tibet has always had many accomplished female Buddhist practitioners, but out of modesty, few have emerged as prominent teachers. Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding is one of the most respected female teachers of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in 1938, Jetsun Kushola is the sister of the Sakya Trizen, head of the Sakya lineage. Beginning at an early age, she received intensive training, alongside her brother, from Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and other great masters. After escaping from Tibet in 1959, eventually she settled in Vancouver with her family in 1971. Struggling to care for her children and make a living in a new country, and at the same time maintain her intensive practice, often left her without sleep. At the urging of her brother, she started teaching in Vancouver in the early 1980's. She now teaches all over the world, incorporating her broad life experience into her teaching.

Don Farber is best known for his widely seen photographs of the Dalai Lama. In 1997, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to research and photograph Tibetan Buddhist life in India and Nepal.Visions of Buddhist Life, showcasing Farber's 25 years of photographing contemporary Buddhism, will be published by the University of California Press in 2002.

This photo essay is selected from the portfolio, When the Light Shines Through: Portraits of Tibetan Masters. Information on this portfolio and other work by Don Farber is available at

Precious Jewels, Don Farber, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.


Living the Compassionate Life Print

Living the Compassionate Life


This teaching by the Dalai Lama, adapted from The Compassionate Life published in 2001, explains how the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion lead inevitably to feelings of self-confidence and kindness.

As human beings we all have the potential to be happy and compassionate people, and we also have the potential to be miserable and harmful to others. The potential for all these things is present within each of us.

If we want to be happy, then the important thing is to try to promote the positive and useful aspects in each of us and to try to reduce the negative. Doing negative things, such as stealing and lying, may occasionally seem to bring some short-term satisfaction, but in the long term they will always bring us misery. Positive acts always bring us inner strength. With inner strength we have less fear and more self-confidence, and it becomes much easier to extend our sense of caring to others without any barriers, whether religious, cultural, or otherwise. It is thus very important to recognize our potential for both good and bad, and then to observe and analyze it carefully.

This is what I call the promotion of human value. My main concern is always how to promote an understanding of deeper human value. This deeper human value is compassion, a sense of caring, and commitment. No matter what your religion, and whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever, without them you cannot be happy.

Kindness and a good heart form the underlying foundation for our success in this life, our progress on the spiritual path, and our fulfillment of our ultimate aspiration: the attainment of full enlightenment. Hence, compassion and a good heart are not only important at the beginning but also in the middle and at the end. Their necessity and value are not limited to any specific time, place, society or culture.

Thus, we need compassion and human affection not only to survive; they are the ultimate sources of success in life. Selfish ways of thinking not only harm others, they prevent the very happiness we ourselves desire. The time has come to think more wisely, hasn't it? This is my belief.

Developing Compassion

Before we can generate compassion and love, it is important to have a clear understanding of what we understand compassion and love to be. In simple terms, compassion and love can be defined as positive thoughts and feelings that give rise to such essential things in life as hope, courage, determination and inner strength. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of same thing: compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness.

The next matter to be understood is whether it is possible to enhance compassion and love. In other words, is there a means by which these qualities of mind can be increased, and anger, hatred, and jealousy reduced? My answer to this is an emphatic, "Yes!" Even if you do not agree with me right now, let yourself be open to the possibility of such development. Let us carry out some experiments together; perhaps we may then find some answers.

For a start, it is possible to divide every kind of happiness and suffering into two main categories: mental and physical. Of the two, it is the mind that exerts the greatest influence on most of us. Unless we are either gravely ill or deprived of basic necessities, our physical condition plays a secondary role in life. If the body is content, we virtually ignore it. The mind, however, registers every event, no matter how small. Hence we should devote our most serious efforts to bringing about mental peace rather than physical comfort.

The Mind Can Be Changed

From my own limited experience, I am convinced that through constant training we can indeed develop our minds. Our positive attitudes, thoughts, and outlook can be enhanced, and their negative counterparts can be reduced. Even a single moment of consciousness depends on so many factors, and when we change these various factors, the mind also changes. This is a simple truth about the nature of mind.

The thing that we call "mind" is quite peculiar. Sometimes it is very stubborn and very resistant to change. With continuous effort, however, and with conviction based on reason, our minds are sometimes quite honest and flexible. When we truly recognize that there is some need to change, then our minds can change. Wishing and praying alone will not transform your mind; you also need reason—reason ultimately grounded in your own experience. And you won't be able to transform your mind overnight; old habits, especially mental ones, resist quick solutions. But with effort over time and conviction grounded in reason, you can definitely achieve profound changes in your mental attitudes.

As a basis for change, we need to recognize that as long as we live in this world we will encounter problems, things that obstruct the fulfillment of our goals. If, when these happen, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face these difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that not just we but everyone has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and our capacity to overcome troubles. By remembering the suffering of others, by feeling compassion for others, our own suffering becomes manageable. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind, another opportunity for deepening our compassion! With each new experience, we can strive gradually to become more compassionate; that is, we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.

How to Develop Compassion

Self-centeredness inhibits our love for others, and we are all afflicted by it to one degree or another. For true happiness to come about, we need a calm mind, and such peace of mind is brought about only by a compassionate attitude. How can we develop this attitude? Obviously, it is not enough for us simply to believe that compassion is important and to think about how nice it is! We need to make a concerted effort to develop it; we must use all the events of our daily life to transform our thoughts and behavior.

First of all, we must be clear about what we mean by compassion. Many forms of compassionate feeling are mixed with desire and attachment. For instance, the love parents feel for their child is often strongly associated with their own emotional needs, so it is not fully compassionate. Usually when we are concerned about a close friend, we call this compassion, but it too is usually attachment. Even in marriage, the love between husband and wife—particularly at the beginning, when each partner still may not know the other's deeper character very well—depends more on attachment than genuine love. Marriages that last only a short time do so because they lack compassion; they are produced by emotional attachment based on projection and expectation, and as soon as the projections change, the attachment disappears. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be flawless, when in fact he or she has many faults. In addition, attachment makes us exaggerate small, positive qualities. When this happens, it indicates that our love is motivated more by personal need than by genuine care for another.

Compassion without attachment is possible. Therefore, we need to clarify the distinctions between compassion and attachment. True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion. For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe. Of course, developing this kind of compassion is not at all easy! Let us consider this point more closely.

Whether people are beautiful or plain, friendly or cruel, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and to be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others; you wish to help them actively overcome their problems. This wish is not selective; it applies equally to all beings. As long as they experience pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.

One point I should make here is that some people, especially those who see themselves as very realistic and practical, are sometimes too realistic and obsessed with practicality. They may think, "The idea of wishing for the happiness of all beings, of wanting what is best for every single one, is unrealistic and too idealistic. Such an unrealistic idea cannot contribute in any way to transforming the mind or to attaining some kind of mental discipline because it is completely unachievable."

A more effective approach, they may think, would be to begin with a close circle of people with whom one has direct interaction. Later one can expand and increase the parameters of that circle. They feel there is simply no point in thinking about all beings, since there is an infinite number of them. They may conceivably be able to feel some kind of connection with some fellow human beings on this planet, but they feel that the infinite number of beings throughout the universe have nothing to do with their own experience as individuals. They may ask, "What point is there in trying to cultivate the mind that tries to include within its sphere every living being?"

In other contexts, that may be a valid objection. What is important here, however, is to grasp the impact of cultivating such altruistic sentiments. The point is to try to develop the scope of our empathy in such a way that we can extend it to any form of life with the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness. It is a matter of recognizing living organisms as sentient, and therefore subject to pain and capable of happiness.

Such a universal sentiment of compassion is very powerful, and there is no need to be able to identify, in specific terms, with every single living being in order for it to be effective. In this regard it is similar to recognizing the universal nature of impermanence: when we cultivate the recognition that all things and events are impermanent, we do not need to consider individually every single thing that exists in the universe in order to be convinced of it. That is not how the mind works. It is important to appreciate this point.

Given patience and time, it is within our power to develop this kind of universal compassion. Of course our self-centeredness, our distinctive attachment to the feeling of a solid "I," works fundamentally to inhibit our compassion. Indeed, true compassion can be experienced only when this type of self-grasping is eliminated. But this does not mean that we cannot start to cultivate compassion and begin to make progress right away.

Since compassion and a good heart are developed through constant and conscious effort, it is important for us first to identify the favorable conditions that give rise to our own qualities of kindness, and then to identify the adverse circumstances that obstruct our cultivation of these positive states of mind. It is therefore important for us to lead a life of constant mindfulness and mental alertness. Our mastery of mindfulness should be such that whenever a new situation arises, we are able to recognize immediately whether the circumstances are favorable or adverse to the development of compassion and a good heart. By pursuing the practice of compassion in such a manner, we will gradually be able to alleviate the effects of the obstructive forces and enhance the conditions that favor the development of compassion and a good heart.

Global Compassion

I believe that at every level of society—familial, national and international—the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in a particular ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities. I believe that the cultivation of individual happiness can contribute in a profound and effective way to the overall improvement of the entire human community.

We all share an identical need for love, and on the basis of this commonality, it is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances, is a brother or sister. No matter how new the face or how different the dress or behavior, there is no significant division between us and other people. It is foolish to dwell on external differences because our basic natures are the same.

The benefits of transcending such superficial differences become clear when we look at our global situation. Ultimately, humanity is one and this small planet is our only home. If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal altruism and compassion. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centered motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another. If you have a sincere and open heart, you naturally feel self-worth and confidence, and there is no need to be fearful of others.

The need for an atmosphere of openness and cooperation at the global level is becoming more urgent. In this modern age, when it comes to dealing with economic situations there are no longer familial or even national boundaries. From country to country and continent to continent, the world is inextricably interconnected. Each country depends heavily on the others. In order for a country to develop its own economy, it is forced to take seriously into account the economic conditions of other countries as well. In fact, economic improvement in other countries ultimately results in economic improvement in one's own country.

In view of these facts about our modern world, we need a total revolution in our thinking and our habits. It is becoming clearer every day that a viable economic system must be based on a true sense of universal responsibility. In other words, what we need is a genuine commitment to the principles of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. This much is clear, isn't it? This is not just a holy, moral or religious ideal. Rather, it is the reality of our modem human existence.

If you reflect deeply enough, it becomes obvious that we need more compassion and altruism everywhere. This critical point can be appreciated by observing the current state of affairs in the world, whether in the fields of modern economics and health care, or in political and military situations. In addition to the multitude of social and political crises, the world is also facing an ever-increasing cycle of natural calamities. Year after year, we have witnessed a radical shifting of global climatic patterns that has led to grave consequences: excessive rain in some countries that has brought serious flooding, a shortage of precipitation in other countries that has resulted in devastating droughts. Fortunately, concern for ecology and the environment is rapidly growing everywhere. We are now beginning to appreciate that the question of environmental protection is ultimately a question of our very survival on this planet. As human beings, we must also respect our fellow members of the human family: our neighbors, our friends, and so forth. Compassion, loving-kindness, altruism, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood are the keys not only to human development, but to planetary survival.

The success or failure of humanity in the future depends primarily upon the will and determination of the present generation. If we ourselves do not utilize our faculties of will and intelligence, there is no one else who can guarantee our future and that of the next generation. This is an indisputable fact. We cannot place the entire blame on politicians or those people who are seen as directly responsible for various situations; we too must bear some responsibility personally. It is only when the individual accepts personal responsibility that he or she begins to take some initiative. Just shouting and complaining is not good enough. A genuine change must first come from within the individual, then he or she can attempt to make significant contributions to humanity. Altruism is not merely a religious ideal; itis an indispensable requirement for humanity at large.

Adapted from The Compassionate Life, by the Dalai Lama. © 2001 Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Available from Wisdom Publications.

Living the Compassionate Life, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.


Over Tea with the Dalai Lama Print

Over Tea with the Dalai Lama


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. 

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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Yes. Very early.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: Every day?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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!

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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!

Pico Iyer: 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?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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."

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: Do you think Your Holiness will see Tibet again?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Yes, of course. And also, I think, common karma.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

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

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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.

Pico Iyer: 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 ?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 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!

Pico Iyer: Thank you so much.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Thank you.

For twenty-five years, Pico Iyer has covered His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan situation for Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Op-ed page. 

Over Tea with the Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

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