Exclusive interview: 'Reincarnation' isn't important, says the Dalai Lama

Exclusive Interview/ The Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader

At the age of 16 you lost your freedom; at 24 you lost your country. You have been living in India for the past 60 years. What was on your mind when you fled Tibet, carrying the hopes of so many people?

As Buddhist monks, in our daily meditation, we think as sentient beings, what we also call mother sentient being. So, my daily prayer is, “So long as space remains, so long as sentient beings remain, I remain in order to serve them.” Acharya Shantideva (one of the great ancient acharyas) said these words.... There are other galaxies in this universe where we have no connections and we can only pray for them (the beings there). But we have a connection with this galaxy; within the galaxy, with this world. And within this world, with the human beings, animals and birds. We can communicate with human beings but not so much with animals. ...The human mind can [help us] communicate with each other. So when we pray, [we pray for] all the sentient beings; [for] the seven billion people on this planet. I am one of them. My effort is to make a small contribution towards the wellbeing of the seven billion human beings. By wellbeing, I mean not just at the physical level, but also at the mental level.

You have personally known several Indian leaders, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru. How close have you been to them?

Pandit Nehru was very kind to me; he advised me under difficult circumstances. I followed his advice, and it was very practical. I came to India in 1956, during Buddha Jayanti. At that time, many Tibetan officials told me that I should stay in India and not return. They were fearing the Chinese troops. I discussed with Pandit Nehru, who said that it was better if I returned to Tibet. He carried a copy of the 17-point agreement [of 1951 between the Tibetan leadership and the Chinese government]. With his own pen he marked a few points and told me [that] on those points [I] could struggle within Tibet. I followed his advice. I had also been carrying out my own investigations through divination. I returned to Tibet in 1957. I tried my best [to maintain peace with the Chinese], but after some time... there was uprising in eastern Tibet and then northeastern Tibet. These gradually spread to the whole of Tibet. In 1959, things went out of control and I decided to escape from Tibet.

Why did you choose India?

Pandit Nehru was very kind to me; he advised me under difficult circumstances. I followed his advice, and it was very practical..
The rich people in India should pay more attention to the study of Indian philosophy and texts rather than just uttering ‘Ram Ram’ and doing puja.

When I was close to the Indian border, I sent two groups of emissaries to India and Bhutan. The quickest and more favourable response came from India. When the Central government in India came to know that I had already left from Tibet, the Indian cabinet held a meeting. One cabinet member expressed concern that if they accepted the Dalai Lama, it could impact India-China relations. But Pandit Nehru decided that they must receive the Dalai Lama. It was Nehru who himself took a stand. Many years later one old Indian official, before his death, came here and [told me] this.

How was the reception in India, politically?

In 1959, I became a refugee in India. President Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, whom I knew since 1956, and Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant were all wonderful persons. In the opposition, there were politicians like Acharya Kripalani and Ashok Mehta, who were all staunch supporters of Tibet. All of them helped me. After I had taken refuge, Nehru advised me that in order to keep the Tibetan issue alive, raising the matter in the United Nations was all right, but what was important was to give proper education to the young generation of Tibetans. Over lunch at Nehru's house, education minister K.L. Shrimali was called, and Nehru gave him instructions that a committee be created for the education of young Tibetans. The entire expense was borne by India. Second was the issue of our settlement. Nehru wrote to chief ministers to find out who had the land available. The best response came from S. Nijalingappa, the chief minister of Mysore. I knew him since 1956. So it was Nehru's initiative in all these matters, and all the great Indian leaders supported me.

How did you know Nijalingappa?

In Bangalore, there is a garden in which there is a Glass House (Lalbagh). Once I was having lunch there with a Chinese delegation, and Nijalingappa was sitting next to me. During our discussions with the Chinese, Nijalingappa whispered to me that he supported Tibetan independence. I was surprised and afraid of what would happened if the Chinese sitting there had heard him (laughs). So, me and Nijalingappa go a long way back. Today, Mysore has the biggest refugee settlement in Karnataka. Then there are settlements in Bhandara in Maharashtra, Odisha and, of course, Himachal Pradesh and other states as well.

Nehru had said dialogue with China was important to resolve the Tibet issue. Earlier, your envoys used to meet Chinese officials, but for the past several years there have been no talks with China. What is the way forward?

There is a growing feeling among the top leaders in China that their policies have not been able to solve the Tibet issue in the last 70 years. So they should follow a more realistic approach. Even though Tibet was an independent country, politically China occupies Tibet today. Under the given circumstances, I have been saying for some time now that there is a need to focus on preservation of Tibetan culture, religion and identity. It is no longer a struggle for political independence.

Why not?

Political independence is mainly meant for the happiness of the people. But, does it alone guarantee happiness? As long as the Tibetan people can preserve their thousands of years old cultural heritage, religion and identity, it will bring them inner peace and happiness. For this, I really admire the Indian Union for its unity in diversity. In a similar way, the People's Republic of China and Tibet can coexist keeping Tibet's cultural, linguistic and religious identity. Independence, on the other hand, will also mean demarcation of the border. Historically, Tibet was a large kingdom, but recent history shows that some Tibetan areas had come under Chinese jurisdiction. For example, my village may not fall under Tibetan jurisdiction, and the Chinese can then say, “Send the Dalai Lama back to China.” I feel Tibet should be governed by one administration. So, both China and Tibet [would benefit] if they co-exist peacefully and learn from each other. Tibet will get economic benefits from China while the Chinese will benefit from our knowledge. In China, particularly [among] the scholars, there is a realisation today that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the authentic Nalanda tradition.

Help and guidance: The Dalai Lama, exiled in India, visiting Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi in 1959 | Getty Images Help and guidance: The Dalai Lama, exiled in India, visiting Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi in 1959 | Getty Images

The Tibetan spirit inside Tibet is very strong. As refugees in India, we are keeping the Tibetan spirit, language and knowledge alive. Before we came to India, many scholars thought of Tibetan Buddhism as Lamaism, not genuine Buddhism. In the last 60 years, the whole world has come to recognise Tibetan Buddhism as Buddhism of the Nalanda tradition. There is a saying in Tibet, “When unfortunate things happen to you, sometimes they are a blessing in disguise.”

Have you met Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Yes, I have met him before and once after he became prime minister. I have known him very well. It is understandable that he has to think seriously about good relations with China. I have not had a formal meeting yet, but that is all right. Recently, after the elections, I wrote to him and I received a very good reply. We are in no hurry. I know I am anyway a refugee. I am the longest [staying] guest of the Indian government. Sometimes, I jokingly tell Indian officials, “If you say one day that Dalai Lama is no longer a guest of the Indian government, then I will have to think of my complicated future.”

Do you get that feeling?

No. I consider myself a son of India because my entire way of thinking has been shaped by the works of the great masters of the historical Nalanda university, which I have studied since childhood. My body has been nurtured by Indian rice, dal and roti. Therefore, I feel a real bond with this great country and a constant concern for its welfare. I am fulfiling three commitments—promoting human values, promoting religious harmony and reviving ancient Indian knowledge. I want to help people develop inner peace, and strengthen the concepts of ahimsa (nonviolence) and karuna (compassion). So many Indians are showing genuine interest. I feel India is the only nation that can combine modern education and ancient learning. The modern education developed by the British does not know how to deal with emotions. But people like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Radhakrishnan knew how to deal with human emotions. Nehru may have been more westernised (laughs).

Do you think Modi is more Indian than western?

Perhaps yes. But I need to research closely to comment. I do not know.

What are your commitments today?

My first commitment is to try and promote basic human values. Some scientists say the basic human nature is more compassionate. When we are born, without the mother's love and affection, we cannot survive. Mother's milk is a symbol of affection. Our life started that way. Some scientists say that constant anger and fear are eating our immune system. When we are angry, our peace of mind is lost. Our face does not look beautiful (laughs). That is part of human nature. When we are children, we appreciate warmheartedness. Children do not care about nationality, caste or religion, and consider human love, affection and friendship as the key factors. But once they join the educational system, impressions are created in their mind about different nationalities, castes and family backgrounds. As a result, basic human values are neglected. I always tell people that [along with] physical hygiene, it is equally important to inculcate hygiene of emotions in children. This should be done not as a religious matter, but as an academic subject for improving health, for creating a happy individual, a happy family, a happy community and happy humanity.

That is one commitment. What else?

My other commitments are promotion of religious harmony and revival of ancient Indian knowledge. I am a Buddhist monk and I live in India where different spiritual traditions have developed over 3,000 years. Later, different religious traditions also came in from middle-eastern countries. In India, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jains, all live together. Take the example of Parsis who follow Zoroastrianism. They are less than a hundred thousand, but this very small community has its own religion and lives without fear. They are very peaceful people and, from that community, people like Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and the Tatas have made significant contributions to the country. Mumbai city is another example of religious co-existence. This is India.

On the other hand, we have our next door neighbour where Muslims are killing each other in the name of Shia and Sunni. In Egypt, there is problem between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, in Burma, there is the Buddhist-Muslim problem. When I hear these things, I feel sad. All different religious traditions, despite different concepts of philosophy, carry the message of peace, forgiveness and love. That is why I feel India's centuries-old tradition of religious harmony stands out as a great example.

If all religions promote peace and nonviolence, why are human beings killing each other?

It is when religion becomes superficial and only concerned with ceremony that such things happen. It is because of the kind of education we impart that sometimes religion becomes more like a fashion symbol and the people lead a materialistic life.

Waiting for a glimpse: People outside the Dalai Lama’s Temple in Mcleodganj. Waiting for a glimpse: People outside the Dalai Lama’s Temple in Mcleodganj.

When did you first learn ancient Indian texts?

Historically, in the Tibetan minds, India is the land of the Noble ones. It is a sacred and holy land. For a Tibetan, a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya once in a lifetime was considered important. This kind of a mental attitude has existed over hundreds of years. So, India and Tibet have very close links. As a Tibetan, I studied and learnt texts written by the Nalanda masters. I feel we are the students of the Nalanda tradition. At a very young age, we memorised different texts and received explanations with commentaries of Nalanda masters. In my case, I learnt them at the age of six. On my own, I had little interest in memorising them, but it was compulsory and my teachers were strict (laughs). The writings of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, Shantarakshita and Dharmakirti were considered very important. Some of these texts on logic are available in Tibetan language and not in Chinese. Among the Buddhist countries, only Tibet and Mongolia have the tradition of learning from these Nalanda masters.

Are Buddhism and science compatible?

Buddha asked his followers not to accept his teachings simply out of devotion or faith, but after thorough investigation. While science also propagates research, investigation and experiment, it has its limitation. But Buddhist teachings have no limitation. It inculcates [in us] three different learnings—understanding the obvious through our empirical experience, the second by reflection and inference, and the third by resorting to testimony. So there is a lot of common ground with modern science.

Do monks learn science? Can modern science co-exist with traditional learning?

Nearly 40 years ago, I started discussions with modern scientists and noticed that science is something useful. I felt that it should be introduced in our monastic institutions. So now, in important monastic institutions, science is included as a subject. Today it is widely appreciated but in the beginning, when I expressed the idea, there were sceptics who felt that learning science was dangerous, especially in English. But now they feel that many useful things are learnt from modern science and [vice versa]. The wider knowledge provided by the Nalanda tradition provides greater understanding of subjects like physics and psychology.

Millions of lives have been touched by your teachings and people continue to seek your guidance. Will there be a 15th Dalai Lama, your reincarnation?

I can only be concerned about this life; the next is not my concern. What is important are the teachings, the institution of Dalai Lama comes after that. The teachings of the Buddha are important. If reincarnation was so important, then why did the Buddha not have a reincarnation? All these Nalanda masters' reincarnation should have been there. However, despite [there being no reincarnations of the masters], even after thousands of years, their teachings are still relevant. So we should give more importance to the teachings. Sometimes, I also feel the lama institution has some connection with the feudal system and isn't relevant today.

Why do you say it is feudal?

If we take the example of some countries, their kings sometimes carry twin responsibilities. Political and religious. Their king is the final authority on religion. So I feel it is something like the feudal system. But it is up to the will of the people. Tomorrow if one child expresses convincingly about past life, then people may realise that this is a reincarnation of a particular person, but there is no certain institution for it. If you investigate, there are some lamas who are not properly qualified, but they take the name of the higher lama. Since the reincarnation system started in Tibet, there have been many good reincarnated Lamas who served Buddha dharma, but sometimes there have also been cases where someone recognised as a reincarnation turned out to be a disgrace, which is very sad. The point is that the guru may sometimes give teachings of a very dignified nature but if you investigate deeper, he may be looking to gain something.

Is Tibet the final frontier of Buddhism?

Buddhist history is the real holder of Buddha Dharma. In Tibet, the big monastic institutions have done rigorous study, and I think like Nalanda, they really hold Buddha dharma, which is why the Drepung Monastery in Tibet is called the second Nalanda university. The second Dalai Lama joined that monastery, and since then the Dalai Lama institution became one important institution of that monastery. In Tibet, we have complete knowledge of Buddha dharma because of these institutions, and not because of an individual Lama who carries on a funny way of life (laughs). Some old Tibetan people, when I met them, requested me to return. But some other Tibetans said they feel it is better that the Dalai Lama remains in a free country and spreads Tibetan culture.

Holy encounter: The Dalai Lama meets visitors at his residence in Mcleodganj. Holy encounter: The Dalai Lama meets visitors at his residence in Mcleodganj.

Will the people of Tibet ever get freedom?

Once I was in Manipur and someone mentioned to me that Manipur wants independence. Should the Union of India dissolve east India and grant freedom to Manipur? Or to south, west or north? It is better they remain a part of the Union of India. If you go to any part of the country, there are different languages, different scripts, but they all remain happily within the Union of India. If India separates any part, it will become weak. Today, this country is the most populated democratic country in the world. The recently concluded general elections have demonstrated that spirit of freedom, despite political parties criticising each other.

But how can Tibetans expect China to give them freedom to practise religion?

The reality of China is changing. From being a socialist country, China's reality is very different today. Once when I met Israel's president Shimon Peres, a Nobel laureate and a staunch socialist. He expressed a strong sympathetic feeling towards China and, in some cases, was even ready to defend it. After several years, I met him in Jordan in 2009. This time I asked him whether he still thought of China as a socialist country. He said that it is no longer a socialist country and suffers from the worst kind of capitalism.

Is Buddhism compatible with Marxism?

I have always admired original Marxism. Karl Marx stood for workers' rights and against exploitation. So, as far as socio-economic theory is concerned, I am a Marxist. But I think it was Lenin who spoilt the original and pure Marxism. With the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin became more negative and militant, and emphasised ruthless suppression, which led to totalitarianism. Then came Stalin and so on. Chinese communists consider Lenin and Stalin as their teachers. Once a Chinese friend recounted a meeting between Mao Zedong and Stalin and joked whether it was Mao Zedong who was learning from Stalin. I think what both of them learnt was totalitarian suppression. So, with time, Communism will also not survive. We must remember that for any human being and country to develop, individual freedom is very important. There cannot be any progress at the national level without individual freedom because it hampers creativity. So, [freedom] starts from the individual to the national to the international level.

You recently said US president Donald Trump has a lack of moral principle. Has egotism become a dominant trait in world leaders like Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

I recently heard Russian president Vladimir Putin saying that the western style of democracy has become outdated. I do not know what he exactly meant. But when US president Donald Trump says “America First”, I feel it is wrong. America has been the leading nation of the free world. When we talk of ego, it has a deeper meaning. Generally, we see the entire human evolution is [driven] with ego, else you remain like a vegetable and there will be no progress. The feeling of survival of an individual or community is the prime mover of human evolution. But human beings have a brain and they must use ego with wisdom.

Is selfishness a negative emotion?

Genuine socialism, which is altruism (concern for others) is the best way to fulfil your own interest. So, I usually say that if you are selfish, you should be wise-selfish [rather] than foolish-selfish. More practice of altruism is the best way to fulfil your own interest.

You have expressed concern about climate change.

Today, global warming is becoming a major concern for countries. The other day I was told that animals were dying in Mongolia. In Tibet, I am told by the elder people that the snow-capped peaks no longer have a lot of snow. I was concerned when president Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord.

Tibet is known as the world's third pole as it holds the largest number of glaciers and snow after the Arctic and Antarctic. If Tibet becomes a desert, India will face a lot of problem. Sometimes, I describe Tibet as the supplier of water to India. It is from the Himalayan mountains that the rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus are flowing. Today, politically, Tibet is a part of China. But there are also millions of users of these rivers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and these countries have a right to express concern over Tibet's ecology. The concern should be not only at the government level, but at the public level [also].

Today, the young Tibetans are going to the west. Is that a concern?

I think that is also one sign that modern education is creating a desire for more money and economic wellbeing. So, young Tibetans are going to America, Canada and Europe. Some of them settle down there, but a lot of them are also returning after making some money. I see nothing wrong in that. I think as far as preservation of Tibetan identity and culture is concerned, we have preserved it quite well here as refugees.

Do you get emotional when you see suffering?

Yes, I feel sad. Compassion or karuna is also a kind of emotion, but compassion combined with wisdom is good. However, compassion combined with ignorance is wrong. So, a certain level of attachment is good, like feelings of loving kindness, but attachment with anger, hatred or fear becomes harmful. Eventually, loving kindness should be extended to all seven billion human beings.

Do you think India is doing enough to learn about and preserve its ancient culture and tradition?

In India, there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Once, when I was in Gujarat, I came to know that so many farmers were committing suicide as there was shortage of water. There are so many rich families living in big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata and if those people decide to help, they can certainly make a change.

The rich people in India should pay more attention to the study of Indian philosophy and texts rather than just uttering 'Ram Ram' and doing puja. I was crossing some villages once and I saw temples where people were worshiping various gods. I do not think doing that alone is much helpful. It is better to create small libraries and learn about ancient Indian philosophy and psychology than just praying without any knowledge and performing rituals without understanding them.

In Tibet, we have over 300 volumes of all Indian texts translated into the Tibetan language. In the seventh century, the Tibetan emperor married the Chinese princess and she brought the most important Buddha statue to Lhasa. I feel that while the Tibetan emperor enjoyed all the material pleasures from China, ate the Chinese food and married the Chinese princess, he found the Chinese mode of writing too complicated. So he preferred that they use the Indian Devanagari script to develop their own Tibetan script. Then, in the eighth century, the Tibetan emperor whose mother was Chinese decided that he wanted to learn about Buddha dharma directly from India. He invited the topmost scholar Shantarakshita of Nalanda. Shantarakshita accepted the invitation to visit Tibet and he advised the emperor that since they had their own writing, they should translate all the 300 volumes of Indian texts into the Tibetan language, so that they could study through their own language all the sophisticated Indian philosophy.

Do you have a message for India?

I am grateful to the Indian government [and leaders such as] Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Narasimha Rao and the [later] generation of leaders, and also Indian officials who have been very sympathetic towards Tibet. Today, India and Tibet are very close not only for political or economic reasons, but also spiritually and emotionally. I always say, historically, we consider India as our guru and we Tibetans as chela (follower). Through centuries of shared history, Tibetan people have showed India that they have kept its tradition safe, especially at the time when British rulers in India neglected it. So, we have showed India that we are not only chela, but the most trusted and reliable chela.

What do you want to tell the Tibetan refugees today?

For over 60 years the Tibetan refugees have carried the Tibetan spirit with them. Wherever they have lived, in America or Europe, the Tibetan spirit has been strong and has served as an example to the rest of the people who have praised them. They have shown the world that we are honest, truthful and peaceful.

China has called you a separatist. Even after 60 years, they look at you with suspicion.

Let them say I am a separatist. That will be helpful as I will continue to live in India peacefully. If they sincerely ask me to return—although on many occasions to some Chinese individuals I mentioned that I prefer freedom—and if I return to China, I [will be] put in a big house with no freedom. There is no use. I am happy to live in India for the rest of my life. I can live in this country and utilise the Indian freedom to fulfil my commitments towards immediate revival of ancient Indian culture, and promotion of human values and religious harmony. India has shown to the world that it is a great nation, historically. Among all civilisations—whether it is Chinese or Egyptian—it is the Indus Valley civilisation that has produced the best thinkers and philosophers. I consider Buddhism and Hinduism as twin brother and sister. India's civilisation is something wonderful and should be known for its contribution to the world.