The Purpose of Life — a Conversation Organized by IIT Bombay
December 15, 2020
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – This morning, during an event organized as part of Techfest IIT Bombay, His Holiness the Dalai Lama scanned the faces of twenty students on the screens in front of him, folded his hands and greeted them.
“Namaste. I feel really happy to be talking to you, because India has upheld the concepts of ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, and ‘karuna’, compassion, for thousands of years. Great Indian thinkers have promoted these ideas. I respect all our religious traditions and I’m committed to promoting inter-religious harmony, but these ideas of non-violence and compassion make logical sense and are of practical benefit in the world today. They are a fundamental expression of secular ethics. If people paid more attention to these ideas in their day to day lives, the world would be a better place.
“It’s a great honour for me to speak to people who belong to this country, because we Tibetans are followers of ancient Indian thought. More than a thousand years ago, you were the ‘gurus’ and we were the ‘chelas’ or students. In the 7th century the King of Tibet had close relations with China. He married a Chinese princess, who brought an important statue of the Buddha with her and so introduced Buddhism to Tibet. However, when it came to commissioning a Tibetan form of writing, he dismissed Chinese characters and chose instead to base a Tibetan alphabet on an Indian model.
“In the following century, the then Tibetan king was inclined to turn to Indian sources to establish Buddhism in Tibet. The great monk and scholar of Nalanda University, Shantarakshita suggested that since Tibetans had their own written language, they should translate Indian Buddhist literature into Tibetan.
“The Nalanda Tradition that was established in Tibet in this way was rooted in taking a logical approach. This was consistent with the Buddha’s advice to his followers not to accept what he said at face value, but to examine and investigate it. Today, ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’ are relevant and of universal benefit to the whole world.”
His Holiness pointed out that India is one of the two most populated nations in the world, but by and large its people live in peace and the major religions live in harmony with each other. ‘Ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’, he said, are the basis for happiness. In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi showed how effective adopting a non-violence stance could be. In the present century, India can demonstrate how effective non-violence and compassion can be in interpersonal relations.
These motivations can be combined with the philosophical insight that nothing exists as it appears. His Holiness reported that the Indian nuclear physicist Raja Ramana once told him that although quantum physics seemed to be something new in the west, several of its insights were anticipated in Nagarjuna’s thought. His Holiness ended his introductory talk by confirming that one of his personal commitments is to encourage the revival of interest in ancient Indian knowledge in India.
He invited questions from the virtual audience of students across the world. The first concerned competition. His Holiness clarified that when competition results in an expansion of knowledge and widespread benefit we can think of it as beneficial, but when it’s a question of winners and losers, the result is less positive.
He drew attention to the links between physical and mental well-being, pointing out that finding peace of mind means you’re not subject to anxiety and fear, but that you also tend to have low blood pressure. When your mind is at ease, you experience less physical stress. Non-violence and compassion lead to peace of mind, which in turn brings you a sense of physical well-being. On the other hand, a self-centred attitude attracts problems, but it can be countered by cultivating altruism.
Things appear to exist independently from their own side, but they appear that way due to several factors, including your own view point. The view of ‘pratityasamutpada’, dependent arising, shows that things come about due to many other factors.
His Holiness emphasised not only the importance of contentment, but also the fact that inner values are more important than clinging to physical possessions.
Asked how to reconcile ultimate truth with relative truth, His Holiness made clear that this relates to how things appear to exist — independently from their own side — and how they actually exist. He noted that some Indian schools of thought refer to a self that exists independently of the body and mind as ‘atman’. When we talk about ‘my body’, ‘my mind’ or ‘my life’ we imply that there is a ‘self’ or ‘atman’ who is the owner. However, Buddhist schools of thought do not accept this. They assert ‘anatman’ — the absence of an independently existent ‘I’ or self.
Chandrakirti, a student of Nagarjuna, was forthright in his assertion that nothing exists as it appears. Thinking deeply about this is an effective way of reducing ignorance, which in turn undermines destructive emotions. His Holiness stated that the moment he wakes in the morning he repeats to himself lines from Chandrakirti that are indicative of reality, while also cultivating a sense of altruism. He finds this a very useful way to start the day.
He reiterated that the notion of dependent arising is not just a matter of knowledge, but functions as an effective weapon for reducing negative emotions.
His Holiness conceded that the current pandemic is a severe problem, but mentioned that things change and nothing stays the same. He observed that global warming is also a serious threat to human well-being. He spoke of his concern for the ecology of Tibet, because the major rivers of Asia rise on the Tibetan plateau and should they dry up, as some scientists have predicted they might, the consequences will be far-reaching for a large number of people.
He praised the material and technological developments that have taken place across the world. He warned however of such developments being taken to extremes, with little regard for their side effects. He encouraged taking a more holistic approach.
A question about panic and anxiety prompted His Holiness to mention the importance of learning more about our inner world. He observed that it’s when fear is exaggerated that it causes us problems. He recommended reading Shantideva’s ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’. Chapter six explores how damaging anger can be and how positive patience is instead. Chapter eight examines in detail the drawbacks of self-centredness.
We need to analyse the problems we face, investigating whether they can be solved. If they can, then implementing the solution is what we should do. If there is no solution and nothing can be done, we have to accept that. Worrying about it won’t help.
His Holiness told a student, who felt that his inclination to act out of compassion was too often contrary to his own interests, that we are social animals. From the moment of our birth our life depends on others. He suggested that in this context, helping others is actually the best way of looking after our own interests. Taking care of others is to take care of ourselves.
Invited to comment on the existence of God, His Holiness admitted that Muslims, Christians and Jews all believe in God, a creator God characterized by loving kindness. That makes all of us, he said, children of a loving God — and so brothers and sisters.
His Holiness laughed and recalled an episode that took place when he was with his good friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu declared that as a practising Christian he is looking forward to going to heaven when he dies. He lamented that when the time comes, the Dalai Lama will go somewhere else. His Holiness remarked that some people have said that where the Dalai Lama goes, they hope to go too.
“I have great respect for Christianity,” His Holiness added. “But I haven’t found an answer to why, in a world created by God, there is so much trouble. I find it easier to understand the idea of karma, that what happens to us is a result of our actions. Helping others brings positive results; harming them is a source of suffering.”
The organizers of Techfest Bombay thanked His Holiness for taking part in a conversation with them. His Holiness responded that he is looking forward to a time when restrictions related to the pandemic are relaxed and he’ll be able to visit different cities and discuss with Indian educators how to combine the insights of ancient Indian thought with modern education.