Love, Laughter & Good Karma

When talking with Tenzin Gyatso, there is another presence in the room: joy. For this simple Buddhist monk greets life with good humour that finds voice in frequent peals of deep, reverberating laughter.
Born into a family of farmers in 1935, Tenzin Gyatso was identified as the 14th Dalai Lama at the age of two. Three years later he became the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists.
For centuries, a succession of Dalai Lamas has ruled this "land of the snows," nurturing a deeply religious society. But in 1950, armies from the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China invaded the territory. The Dalai Lama remained for nine years, trying to negotiate with China. But when a 1959 uprising for independence was brutally suppressed, he fled to India along with 80,000 Tibetans.
In the decades since, the Dalai Lama has remained the spiritual and political leader of his people, and a symbol of hope for a free Tibet. He is a religious leader admired by followers of all faiths.
We sat down with him early one morning in a reception room in the Theckchen Choeling monastery in Dharamsala, his base for most of the year. While we talked, the pine-scented air of the Himalayan foothills outside echoed with the deep chant of hundreds of red-robed Buddhist monks.
RD: Your assistant says you are half-vegetarian. How can one be "half-vegetarian?"
Dalai Lama: [laughs] In the early 1960s I became a vegetarian, and for almost two years I remained a strict vegetarian. But then I developed hepatitis, and my body turned yellow-my eyes, my nails all turned yellow. I became, really, truly living Buddha-but from sickness, not spirituality!
So I returned to my previous diet, then for a while it would be vegetarian one day, non-vegetarian the next.
Since last year my main kitchen is totally vegetarian. But that doesn't mean I am complete vegetarian, for when I visit different places and the hotel puts meat on the table, then I take. So, occasionally I take non-vegetarian but otherwise vegetarian food… that seems to help reduce the size of my stomach.
RD: We understand that after a long day you often relax by watching television. What are your favourite programmes?
Dalai Lama: Nature programmes-National Geographic, Discovery Channel.
RD: Do you have a favourite animal?
Dalai Lama: Birds maybe. I feed birds, peaceful birds. I'm a non-violent person, but if a hawk comes when I'm feeding birds, I lose my temper and get my air rifle.
RD: You have an air rifle?
Dalai Lama: Yes, although I shoot only to scare the hawks.
RD: You get up each morning at three and spend three hours each day meditating. If you don't get enough time for meditation, do you get grumpy?
Dalai Lama: Grumpy? Yes, if I have busy days continuously for several months. Also, when I have an audience with people who are not serious. But I'm also eager to go to new places and to meet new people.
RD: Which people have you most enjoyed spending time with?
Dalai Lama: Other religious leaders, of course. The Pope. [Czech] President [Vaclav] Havel-he's one I think I'm closest to. He has a very spiritual background.
Another political leader I respected was the first Indian President, Dr Rajendra Prasad. He was a wonderful man.
Then there was Pandit Nehru.
My first meeting with Pandit Nehru was in 1954, in Peking, at a banquet I think. All the Chinese dignitaries were there. The then Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou En-lai, introduced me. Nehru seemed taken aback; he didn't say anything, and quickly Zhou introduced him to someone else.
RD: He was surprised?
Dalai Lama: Yes. And at that moment I felt that the situation in Tibet [The Chinese invasion in 1950] had happened because, in a way, of India's weakness. It was very understandable. Naturally as an Indian, Pandit Nehru had very close feelings for Tibet, but India had been a very young, newly independent nation then, and on top of that there had been Partition, and there was the problem with Pakistan over Kashmir.
Anyway, in 1956, when I visited India, I had several meetings with him, and he gave me advice on how to deal with the new Chinese masters. Then in 1959, during our first meeting after I'd become a refugee, he lost his temper!
RD: Why?
Dalai Lama: I told him about the Chinese atrocities and casually mentioned that we had re-established the Tibetan government in Mussoorie. He maintained that he couldn't recognize our government. I said okay, but asked if he could do anything to stop the atrocities. He became angry and banged his hand on the table. I think he felt that even though we'd set up our government and were fighting for our independence, at the same time we were also putting pressure on him and asking him to solve our problems.
Later, I told him about our intention to raise the Tibetan issue at the United Nations. And he said, there's no use, America would not force China to leave Tibet. He advised very strongly that we should not raise the issue at the UN. But we decided to do so anyway, and found some sponsors. So at my next meeting with Nehru I was afraid of what was going to happen. But I found no indication of anger. I felt that this was true democracy, he accepted my decision despite disagreeing.
Pandit Nehru also took special interest regarding the Tibetan settlement as well as the Tibetan education programme. So in terms of personal friendship and also in terms of issues relating to Tibet, I had the closest interaction with him.
I also came to admire [West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt. Throughout the Cold War the situation was very difficult, but he gained some trust from the leaders of the Soviet Union without great cost to his own country's rights. That's the proper way. Stand for your own rights, your own values, but at the same time be a good friend.
RD: Anyone else?
Dalai Lama: Chairman Mao. Our first meeting was very formal and I was very anxious. But later, at official dinners he made me sit beside him and treated me like his own son, even sometimes feeding me with his own chopsticks! I was afraid that since he coughed so much I would catch something! [laughs]
He used to tell me that it was very good that I didn't smoke. He couldn't stop. I liked the way he confessed this to me, and I think we developed a close friendship. I also had a great deal of respect for him. He was, no doubt, a great revolutionary. But at the same time, his personal behaviour was often that of a peasant. Other than that, very nice.
RD: Are you hopeful that progress can be made between Tibet and China?
Dalai Lama: In September last year, our representatives travelled to China and the atmosphere of the meeting was quite positive. Previously, the Chinese would lecture, harshly, but the last meeting was not that way. They expressed themselves much more gently.
China is changing and will keep changing. The Communist authoritarian system sooner or later also will have to change.
RD: Slowly change?
Dalai Lama: Yes, I prefer that. If there is dramatic change, then a chaotic situation may develop, and that won't be in anyone's interest. I feel some Chinese individuals, including some leaders, may feel that eventually the central authority will become weaker and more decentralized. The present situation in Tibet is not very safe for the Chinese. That's why they have to suppress and brainwash people. I think the Chinese intellectuals and intelligent Chinese leaders will try to find a more reasonable way, a more realistic way. But how soon, I don't really know.
RD: Do you think that if there is not a successful negotiated agreement that young people in Tibet will turn to violence?
Dalai Lama: The danger is there.
RD: What would your response be if Tibetans took the path of violence?
Dalai Lama: Simple. I would resign.
RD: Resign as head of the Tibetan government or resign as Dalai Lama?
Dalai Lama: [laughs] As a reincarnated Dalai Lama I can't resign-unless I change my body!
But since 2001 we have a political leadership, through election. So I am already semi-retired. My commitment to the promotion of human values, to inter-religious harmony and the protection of the environment-that will remain to my death.
RD: As a monk, what experiences do you think you've missed that ordinary people have?
Dalai Lama: I obviously missed this work [points to groin-and laughs].
RD: Are you sorry to have missed it?
Dalai Lama: No. For monks and nuns, the practice of celibacy is not just a rule. Our main target is to try and reduce negative emotions. Sexual desire and sexual attachment are enjoyable, but these actually act as a basis to anger, hatred and jealousy.
Monks fast, and clothes are limited. All these practices are not for just getting more peace of mind, but for Moksha.
RD: More than 40 years ago you were forced to flee your homeland. Since then, Tibet's culture has been suppressed, and many Tibetans have died from persecution. You must feel anger or hatred about this.
Dalai Lama: Anger-I think sometimes. But hatred, almost none. We're trained not to.
I recently met an old monk from Tibet who spent almost 20 years in the Chinese gulag. While he was explaining his suffering, he mentioned that he was faced with a difficult situation on a few occasions. I thought of some danger to his life, but he explained that he faced the danger of losing his compassion for the Chinese. He knew that he suffered because of his past lives, his past karma. And now these persons who create this suffering, they are creating new karma and they have to face long-term negative consequences as a result. So this is reason to feel concern for them.
But reducing anger does not mean we give in. We carry on our struggle for our rights, for justice, but without anger. I think the real meaning of non-violence, the demarcation between non-violence and violence, is not action alone, but mainly motivation.
In one of his previous lives, the Buddha, to save the lives of 499, killed one person. This person was planning to eliminate 499 companions and take away their belongings. So the Buddha thought that if the person were allowed to continue, not only would 499 people be killed, this person will get sin. So the Buddha took the sin by killing him-purely out of compassionate motivation.
RD: What special message do you have for parents?
Dalai Lama: Firstly, I would say that they themselves must have a very close relationship, respect one another. That, I think, has a positive impact on the child's mind. On top of that, parents must provide every occasion for genuine human affection to the child. I think that's very important.
[Pause] Though I'm not sure that if I was a father I would be very good as I have a bad temper . . . My father also was quite short-tempered.
RD: Did he punish you and your brothers?
Dalai Lama: Oh, yes.
RD: What do you think is the most important lesson for parents to teach their children?
Dalai Lama: Human compassion, human affection, and the proper way is not by words but by action.
RD: What parents do, not what they say?
Dalai Lama: Correct. Family life is often becoming more mechanized-if both parents work and there's very little communication. Parents talk about money, the daily routine-this atmosphere is dry. Or occasionally they're fighting or, worse, divorced. These impressions, I think, enter the child's mind, day by day, week by week. I think this is harmful.
Today children spend much time in school, from kindergarten, so their teachers too must show affection, not just introduce their daily lessons.
RD: Religious intolerance seems to be a major source of violence in the world today. What can be done to reduce it?
Dalai Lama: I have four suggestions. One is meetings of scholars to discuss the differences and the similarities between religions. Second is meetings between practitioners from different religions. This exchange of spiritual experiences is very helpful to understand the value of other traditions.
The third is to make pilgrimages to different holy places. I have visited Jerusalem, Lourdes in the south of France and Fatima in Portugal. And, here in India, I visit churches, synagogues, mosques and Hindu and Jain temples. I don't believe in God. I don't believe in the Creator. But I have respect.
For example, a few years ago some Catholics from England came to India, to Bodh Gaya, to attend a seminar. Each morning under the Bodhi tree, Christian and Buddhist brothers and sisters, then some Muslims and some Jains, came together in silent meditation. All have different beliefs, but we are all seeking inner peace and trying to be good human beings.
My fourth suggestion is to hold conferences where religious leaders from different faiths come together and speak from one platform.
Now the fundamentalists, I think one of the main causes [of their intolerance] is because they remain isolated. Many Tibetan Buddhists when we were in Tibet, including myself, felt Buddhism is best. But after meeting other people, now my feeling is we must respect other religions. To try to convert them is counterproductive and creates a lot of problems.
You can see, because there are a lot of Hindus, lot of Sikhs, lot of Jains in India, the attitude of Indian Muslims towards other religions is much more open than Arab Muslims, who are isolated. More contact with other traditions helps to reduce this extreme fundamentalist sort of attitude.
RD: Do you find there's a shared spirit of ecumenism among religious leaders?
Dalai Lama: Yes, most religious leaders respect pluralism.
But one Catholic priest in Paris many years ago, he actually tried to convert me to Christianity. That's impossible! [laughs]
RD: Do you have a favourite saying that you use in life?
Dalai Lama: Yes, it is this prayer. If I feel a little discouraged, sad or ask "What is the meaning of this life?" this verse gives me purpose of life and inner strength:
So long as space remains,
So long sentient beings' suffering remains,
I will remain,
In order to help, in order to serve…
And when things are okay, and people are praising the Dalai Lama, again this poem helps me: I am nothing but a servant to provide to others. Otherwise you may get like, "Oh, I'm quite important." And that creates arrogance and exploitation.
So, if you provide some happiness, some comfort to others, then your life becomes meaningful. If your life creates problems or suffering to others, then there's no meaning to your existence.