Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – The happy chatter that filled the meeting room next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s office fell silent when he walked into the room and scanned the faces of the students waiting for him. He smiled broadly, wished them “Good morning”, and sat down. There were 51 students belonging to classes 11 and 12 from Woodstock School, who are visiting Dharamsala during their extra-curricular ‘activity week’. His Holiness first made friends with Woodstock School at the beginning of his life in exile when he lived in Mussoorie, the hill-station where the school is based.
After asking how many Tibetans and Bhutanese there were in the group, His Holiness wanted to know where the rest of the students came from. The majority were Indian, but among a total of seven nationalities there were also students from Palestine, Syria and Afghanistan.
His Holiness reported that he had just been talking to a group from Indonesia about how sad he feels to witness friction between Shia and Sunni Muslims. To him it is unthinkable that people who worship the same Allah and follow the same Quran should fall out as they seem to do.
“However, I’ve never heard of such quarrels between Sunni and Shia adherents here in India,” he told them. “Indeed India is unique in that all the world’s major religions, those indigenous to the country, as well as those that came from abroad, all live here happily together. India’s long-standing tradition of inter-religious harmony is exemplary and now the time has come to share this practice with the rest of the world.”
The first of several questions from the students concerned His Holiness’s pastimes.
“When I was a boy I used to enjoy taking things apart,” he replied with a laugh, “I examined my toys and watches to see how they worked. I dismantled and reassembled a movie projector that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama to make it work. Since I was young I’ve also enjoyed growing plants. I grew beautiful tulips in the Norbulingka garden in Lhasa. These days, however, as I get older, I have less interest in these things.”
Another student wanted to know who decides what’s moral. His Holiness told her that all the world’s major religions teach about love, compassion, tolerance and self-discipline. Some traditions, like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, believe in a creator God and regard us all as children of that God. Other Indian traditions like Jainism and Buddhism see beings themselves participating in creation, so responsibility for change rests on our shoulders.
“We should not let ourselves be dominated only by sensory awareness,” His Holiness advised, “we should also pay attention to mental consciousness, develop a single-pointed mind and use it to analyse the nature of self and the nature of reality.
“What we experience is the result of our own actions. If it brings joy, we regard what we’ve done as positive; if it leads to misery we think of our action as negative. Just as we can’t say that one particular medicine is the best on all occasions, we cannot say that one religious tradition is best. We need our different traditions because of people’s different dispositions and therefore we need to treat all religious traditions with respect.
“Many problems we face we bring on ourselves because we are prey to destructive emotions. We tend to think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with little sense of the oneness of humanity. And yet, climate change, for example, because it affects us all, means we have to take a more global view. We can’t neglect it. We are interdependent. Consider how Tibet and its rivers are the source of much of Asia’s water. But snowfall has been drastically reduced as a result of global warming.”
His Holiness told a student who asked how to overcome apathy and be more inspired that there’s a need to improve our education systems. We’re used to instructions about observing physical hygiene to preserve our health, but we need to add to it a sense of emotional hygiene. This means learning to tackle destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred. By training our minds, rather than turning to drugs or alcohol, we can change our emotions.”
Ancient Indian psychology has much to say about this and although he says modern India is quite materialistic, His Holiness considers India to be the only country that could pioneer a combination of modern education with ancient Indian understanding of the workings of the mind and emotions
Asked if he’d ever had doubts about the Buddha’s teachings, His Holiness replied that the Buddha advised his followers not to take what he taught at face value but to question and investigate it. Consequently, Buddhism in general and the Nalanda Tradition in particular take a realistic approach grounded in reason and logic. He explained that it’s on such a basis that he has been able to engage in dialogue with scientists for almost forty years.
“Nalanda University is now in ruins, but the traditions of study that flourished there Shantarakshita established in Tibet in 8th century. He was a great scholar and logician, as well as a pure monk, and we have kept alive what he taught us.”
Before the meeting came to an end, His Holiness drew a distinction between the generations of the 20th and 21st centuries. “I belong to the 20th century, a time that has gone. You, however, all belong to the 21st century and you need to think about how to avoid repeating the errors of the past. Where the 20th century was filled with violent conflict, there is now a need to disarm.
“At a meeting of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome several years ago, we discussed the importance of eliminating nuclear weapons. I suggested that just talking about it isn’t enough. We need to set a timetable and stick to it. I believe it can be done because in general people are fed up with violence.
“In addition to eliminating nuclear weapons, we need a broader sense of demilitarization. Key to this is making the determination to resolve conflict and other problems through dialogue. Following such steps, you who belong to the 21st century have the opportunity to build a better, more peaceful world. Thank you.”
The students posed eagerly for photographs with His Holiness, following which he walked back to his residence for lunch.