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A Conversation With the Dalai Lama

While touring northern India in January, Update board members Johannes Aagaard, Fritz Haack, and Moti Lai Pandit, editor Neil Duddy, and Rüdiger Hauth interviewed the Tibetan Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, a Tibetan refugee community. The Dalai Lama is the political and religious leader of Tibetans in exile.

Once an independent country with large Buddhist monasteries, Tibet was invaded by Communist China in the 1950s. During that invasion, Tibetan monks were severely persecuted, both institutionally and personally, when many of their ancient monasteries were destroyed. The Tibetan communities in exile reflect their homeland traditions which blend religion and culture. The Dalai Lama, who is believed to be the 14th reincarnation in a line of political, religious Tibetan rulers, has accomplished much in preserving the cultural traditions of the exiles.

While in Dharmsala, Update representatives were graciously hosted by the winsome Dalai Lama in his palace. The conversation focused on Buddhist meditation practices which are becoming increasingly more popular in the West. Though one of the most important religious figures in the world as the recognized leader of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama commented in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine that he may be the last Dalai Lama. Excerpts from the Update conversation follow.

Johannes Aagaard: In the West in the tradition to which you belong, the dangerous journey within has created experiences wherein people go amok in themselves, so to speak. Our problem quite often is how to help them.
Fritz Haack: When friends and relatives of disturbed meditators ask our advice, how should we respond?
Dalai Lama: There are persons who have some interest in Eastern philosophy or religion but cannot make adjustments. I believe the Western human society is interested in religion, in human religion. For those people who do not understand the meditation, who have not analyzed the depth, there will be an adjustment problem. I think that type of person may need further teaching or further practice, and explanation may be helpful. Or, right in the beginning, say "no contact." If you know the basic ideas, the basic teaching, I do not think there is a problem in adjustment.

Haack: Does that mean that one should be better trained before going into meditation?
Dalai Lama: That is the general practice of the Tibetan tradition. First, you should learn the proper teaching.

Haack: How many years would it take?
Dalai Lama: That depends on the subject. If it is the simpler meditation, maybe a few weeks or a few months. If it is deeper, more complicated, years, several years.

Haack: For young people who go too quickly into the deeper meditations, could we advise them to wait?
Dalai Lama: Yes, they need more knowledge. It is definitely a problem when you have a deeper meditation. Certain physical or mental trouble appears. It is not only Westerners who face those problems, it happens to our own people as well. There is a teaching we call the secret teaching. Here, the proper guidance and the proper experienced instructor are always required. Generally, these Tantric teachings are not for common people. A person who works at Tantric meditation should have an experienced instructor with whom to learn and practice. It is not just from books, not just infrequent contact with the teachings.

Neil Duddy: Many Buddhists write that the personality is a composition of intransient or impersonal elements coming together in life and parting in death. Therefore, it is not the personality that is reborn again through reincarnation but rather a determination, some kind of will. You are the full Buddha and we are considered embryo Buddhas. When we die our personalities are not transferred. But in your case it is. Why?
Dalai Lama: There are many different kinds of consciousness. Different layers, including the rough consciousness, the cleared-up consciousness. There is an end, there is a beginning. But the basic consciousness always remains there. Matter cannot produce consciousness. Consciousness must come from consciousness. So long as the consciousness is there, the person or any being, any form of being, will continue their birth, their life in a different way.

Duddy: Is personality consciousness?
Dalai Lama: Can you define personality? There is no beginning, there is no end to consciousness. For example, a combination of the human consciousness and the human body we then call the human being. That person’s consciousness at birth is due to the previous life, previous human consciousness. At the same time, it is a new body, with new physical features, new parents, new genetics. So, you see, personality may be different.

Duddy: And as a fully realized Buddha...
Daiai Lama: No, no. That is the general law. Whether a person believes or not, whether a person accepts the next life or not, that is the Buddhist belief. That is the law of God. That is natural law. Natural process. The reincarnated person can choose their own next person, birth, destination. Usually, we take rebirth but not our own choice. It entirely depends upon our own karmic force. Our own previous actions. Ultimately, it is action created by ourselves, and from that viewpoint, we control our own rebirth. But not directly. So, now you see, a person who reaches a certain stage can control their own rebirth. The indication is when, as a very small child, they can express notions about their previous life very clearly. Just a few months ago a small child quite near here had total recall of a previous life.

Moti Lai Pandit: Can we use at all the term the self? When I reach Buddhahood, who is actually receiving salvation?
Dalai Lama: Self. Buddhists do not accept Atman.* Self. That does not mean for the Buddhist denying oneself. If you deny yourself, that means that without yourself there is no base for other selves. In order to have existing others, there must be oneself.


Pandit: What is the self?
Dalai Lama: The self is sentient being.

Pandit: In its impersonal sense or in the individual sense?
Dalai Lama: Individual. An Atman. There is no self theory. According to certain theories, Atman is permanent. It is oneness, always living, unchangeable. From this life to the next life, permanent Atman is there. Buddhists criticize that theory of Atman. Self is always changing. Not permanent. Self is a combination of consciousness and body. There is no independent permanent entity of self. That does not mean that the Buddhists do not accept oneself. I am here. I am a monk. I am a Tibetan. I am a human being. On that basis we can discuss the self. On that basis we can discuss suffering, problems. If there is no self, then all these questions are meaningless. We are discussing these things quite seriously because there is self, there is a human being.

Aagaard: When we search for the actual person, we find that he is neither the body nor the mind and that there is no third person existing as separate from body and mind.
Dalai Lama: Yes.

Aagaard: What is the result of that perspective, because you speak as if you don’t have any difficulty of knowing where the person, the self, is.
Dalai Lama: But you see, I can very easily describe myself as a Tibetan, as a human being. In this moment, without investigation, there is quite enough evidence to justify saying "I". Because, you see, the I exists only on the relative level. So we should not investigate. Now, if we go to investigate the physical body and the consciousness, there is something wrong. They don’t meet. The real under component seems to be I, myself. But if we investigate which is the real under component, then we can find no answer, no "I". If I go to investigate my physical body, I say this is my hand, these are my legs, this is my head. But none of those individual parts is the whole that we call the physical body. All of those parts belong to the whole body but they are under it as well.

Aagaard: Could the I not be the combination of the two?
Dalai Lama: No.

Aagaard: Why not? The I could be the combination that cannot be reduced further. In the interplay, the I comes into existence as a historic reality. I think that would be the Western understanding of the personality.
Dalai Lama: Now, here you see, is a question of consciousness. Mind, consciousness is a very very subtle energy, a type of energy. But consciousness itself has no color, no form, no body. Only just pure knowing.

Aagaard: Without anyone knowing.
Dalai Lama: Yes, something like that. After you meditate on it many years, you can relax.

Aagaard: There comes my question. If you meditate on the supposition that there is no I, will the person then be able to continue to keep the I together?
Dalai Lama: Oh yes, of course.

Aagaard: That is our problem, because it does not always so happen.
Dalai Lama: Here we must make clear two different levels of truth. In Buddhism, you see, there is one relative level and then the ultimate level. On the relative, conventional level, things seem interdependent through cause and effect. In ultimate truth, however, there is no interdependent identity. That is the whole argument of the law, including the human being, human body, human consciousness. Or the ultimate reality itself.

Note: *Atman is the Sanskrit word for breath, universal soul, Supreme Spirit.