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Absolute Compassion

The BBC’s chief inquisitor Jeremy Paxman interviews the Dalai Lama.

JP He’s a short man dressed in maroon and gold robes. He’s wearing glasses and has a wrist-watch on his left arm. He’s His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the living embodiment of Chenrezig the Lord of Compassion. The Dalai Lama was born to a family of peasants; discovered by monks when he was still a toddler; pronounced the reincarnation of the 13th Lama – being born when the latter died – and installed in a thousand-room palace at the age of four. If things had gone to plan he’d have become Tibet’s absolute monarch; final authority on all things spiritual and temporal. Instead, notoriously, the Chinese took his country. He fled into exile and this morning finds himself in Wembley where he’s been teaching at the Conference Centre for three days. With no marketing, all the tickets sold out in a week. He’s also produced a book, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for a New Millennium in which he argues that the route to personal happiness is absolute compassion.

JP Dalai Lama, I’ve never interviewed a living god so, firstly, what should I call you?

DL Simple – human brother.

When you became Dalai Lama you were a child. Do you remember anything about how it came about?

Yes, some I remember quite clearly. They came to look for you and you were one of several children born to a poor family in a remote part of Tibet. How did they know that you were the Reincarnation?

That is the part that is mysterious. (Laughs) In Tibet we have established certain methods – this is where to go and search, which direction and things like that.

They asked you to find things that had belonged to the previous Lama and you managed to do that although you were three or four at the time.

Then finally when they find the place and the house of the child – then they carry out a test.

Oh I see! The monks were looking in a particular area because they had been indicated they should look in a particular area.

That’s right. That’s right. So when they reached my place, then they carried out some sort of examination on me and other candidates also. I think there were two or three so I sort of passed the test the most successfully. So I win!

And this was because you had a particular shape of ears and you had moles on your torso and, I read somewhere, a vestigial piece of skin on your shoulderblades?

At that time these are not important. But important is the basic behaviour of the child and their response to the test. So I got through very favourably, very correctly. In the meantime my attitude – it seems the search-party were satisfied. The other children were not so impressive.

And you were at one point asked to go and choose between things that had belonged to the previous Lama and things that had not and you always chose the right object. And I read somewhere a story about you finding a pair of false teeth that had been lost which had belonged to the previous Lama. Is that right? Do you remember that at all?

That I do not remember but later my mother told me about it. Then we were already in Lhasa. So one day I insisted I want to go to the room of the previous Dalai Lama and then I insist to open one box. And finally they found one with the teeth. Then I said ‘this is mine’. This was what my mother told me! I can’t remember.

Were you excited to become Dalai Lama?

It seems before the search-party reached my place, my home, I always said ‘this is not my place. I want to go to Central Tibet and Lhasa. There is my place there’. I always said this. So the day the search-party reached there I was very much excited – very happy. So that means I can go when they decide. When they choose me as the re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama it seems I feel happier – I felt happiness.

And there you were then installed in this huge palace. Did it really have a thousand rooms?

Of course, the Potala was not just the house of the Dalai Lama but there are many offices and also store-rooms and many temples and also there is a school and a monastery. So naturally there were a lot of rooms there but my own household rooms – there were ten.

We will talk a little about what has become of your country later, but first I would like to understand the moral principles that dominate your life. In this book of yours you argue that compassion is the key to improving the world and improving ourselves and I was very struck by a sentence at the end of the book in which you say ‘if you can, try not even to think of yourself as better than the humblest beggar – you will look the same in your grave’. And it struck me that for a man who had been chosen so young in life to lead such an extraordinary, privileged existence, this was quite a remarkable thing to say.

It’s truth! This is true. Of course from the Buddhist viewpoint, unless you have some very deep experience as a result of serious or rigorous sort of practise or training, everyone, when we reach the Gate or the Door then everybody will go the same way, same manner.

But you say at another point in the book that religion itself is not that important. What is important is being good. How do you know whether you’re being good if you have no sense of religion?

You know, that book is mainly addressed to the general public. I believe without religious belief you can be a good human being; a warmhearted person; a sensible person, so that is my aim. Now out of 5.7 or now almost 5.8 billions of human beings, the majority have in a real sense not much serious faith. Although they belong to that religion or this religion, in day to day real life, on that the religious belief has very little influence. I feel that people usually, when they have religious faith, show some interest about these deeper human values. A person who has no special sort of interest about religion, then they also, see, neglect these basic human values. I think this is the problem.

You don’t want to convert anyone to Buddhism?

No, no. That’s no use.

Why not?

If my side tried to propagate my own religion. The other side also, you see, has a similar attitude. Sooner or later there will be, I think, some difficult sort of position – they have to fight and there will be a clash – and also you see it’s not right to impose one’s own faith to others. It’s entirely up to individual freedom.

You look at unhappiness in the world in your book and you say ‘We make much of this unhappiness ourselves’. What do you mean by that?

Firstly, many problems which today we are facing, are essentially man-made, our own creation. Secondly, there is some, what shall we say, basic human suffering which we can’t avoid but even these cases, some cases are exaggerated. Take physical illness, for example a headache. Of course it is bad but with too much anxiety, too much worry, then mentally it increases. Actually you see – I think it is very much related to that sort of mental projection. So therefore if we have right kind of attitude, mental attitude, I think with awareness of the holistic view or wider perspective then certainly we can reduce this kind of problem. As far as man-made problems are concerned, if we have the right kind of attitude and take every sort of preventive measure – individual problems, family problems or nationalinternational problems suddenly we can reduce or some cases we can eliminate these kind of problems.

You obviously don’t believe that either money or sexual freedom can bring happiness and you describe sexual urges as ‘an itch we have to scratch. It would be better not to have the itch’, you say. You’ve never been troubled by sexual urges yourself?

Sometimes you see there is some sort of desire and, I believe mainly since I have been a monk since childhood, curiosity. Oh, what kind of feeling? What kind of experience? But then, of course, the Buddhists’ whole concept is through training of the mind to try to eliminate all afflicting emotion, such as desire. Attachments, such as sexual attachments, involve very strong desire, so therefore many religious traditions encourage the practise of celibacy and what you call the prohibition of adultery, sexual misconduct. So especially in the case of Buddhism even if they let out, what do you say, semen, it is very harmful for practice.

You have a particular emphasis on your book on the need to control anger and I found this quite a difficult idea. Have you never felt anger?

Oh quite often – particularly when I was young, I was very short-tempered.

You say it is only destructive, anger.

Theoretically speaking, some anger comes out of a sense of caring. Such anger, you see, sometimes is positive but basically, better none.

But shouldn’t we be angry when we see what, for example, Mr Milosovic has done to those poor Albanians in Kosovo. Isn’t that a just cause to be angry?

Now here, I think, disagreement – anger is something different. You totally oppose that – disagree, disapprove and then you have to take appropriate measures on the matter to counter it, but without anger. That’s possible.

So is the mechanism here to suppress anger or somehow to get yourself to a state where you never feel anger?

(Pause) In the initial stage, the best method is to avoid all those things which cause anger – that’s the best way. Then, eventually you have some experience of the practice of compassion, love, forgiveness, tolerance, these things. You then have sufficient force to counter the anger. Then, you see, even if the circumstances as such would cause anger, because of the other factor you can remain without anger.

But you talk in your book about something which you call ‘patient forbearance’. That’s just a way to get walked all over, isn’t it?

Just now I mentioned that patience or tolerance should not be considered a sign of weakness. You can disapprove, and not only disapprove but also you have every right to take countermeasures. But your motivation should be concern for the other person or other people – they are indulging in unjust or harmful activities so they themselves have to face the consequences. So out of a sense of concern about their own futures take countermeasures – that’s the proper way.

But if you look at what happened to your own country, the Chinese invaded your country. The Tibetan Buddhists are a famously peaceful people. The Chinese behaved appallingly. They made children shoot their parents. They made celibate nuns and monks have sex in public. They destroyed almost all the monasteries. Don’t you feel any anger at that?

Now here in my own personal experience – yes sometimes there is a little agitation. Sometimes anger also – but on the other hand – anger remain continuously and also some kind of hatred feeling. That almost none.

But, as you know, there are many younger Tibetans who accuse you of being too compassionate. They say that you are too ready to make a deal with the Chinese. So that the only way the Tibetan people will regain their country is by being much more militant.

Yes, there are people inside and outside who say my way of approach is too sort of – too much concession. So, they are critical. But for example the Tibetan youth organisation is today opposing my approach, but still they agree with me in supporting the principle of non-violence. But then some individuals also you see acting from emotion. They express the way of a more violent approach. This of course is self-destruction. That’s no good. Basically I believe the best way to solve problems is through dialogue. If you use violence then you may solve one problem but often you create another problem. So therefore the best way of solution of problems is dialogue.

We’ll continue with Tibet in a second but it follows importantly from what you have just said that you believe that NATO is wrong to be bombing in Serbia.

The original intention or motivation, came out of a sense of caring about the suffering of the Kosovan people and trying to stop what you call ethnic cleansing activities. The motivation is good, I think, but the method as just I mentioned, the violence – one of the aspects of violence is that it is very unpredictable. So originally your intention is to use limited violence but then once you are committed it creates some unexpected sort of situation. Now I see that exactly happening here.

Now your own proposal in the case of Tibet is some sort of autonomy, in which your country would remain under Chinese rule but you would have internal freedom as regards domestic law. Isn’t that a bit of a sell-out? Isn’t that too much of a compromise?

Yes, some Tibetans used to say – my approach involves too much concession. Like my own eldest brother – sometimes he has told me, hopefully it’s half a joke, “the 14th Dalai Lama has sold out Tibetan rights!”

Your older brother says this? [laughter]

But my belief is, after all, that the most important thing is that people should have maximum benefit. Now here, the national boundary is not so important in modern times. I don’t think it is too important. No single Tibetan is wishing or thinking to restore the old system or the old way of life. So therefore what we want is a Tibet joined in the modern world. So we need a lot of material development. And Tibet is a land-locked country – materially very backward. Even today, the Tibet area is the poorest in the People’s Republic of China. So therefore I believe if we join with a big nation we might greater benefit for the remainder of the material progress.

Is there any….?

Provided the Chinese Government gives us meaningful self-rule, which is the best guarantee for the preservation of Tibetan culture, Tibetan spirituality.

And is there any sign that the Chinese are prepared to give you that?

In the early eighties there were good signs – but since then… You see, I think they have ups and downs of attitude. Nowadays I think they are quite, quite sort of set-back. The Chinese Government’s whole policy now is more hard-line, so they are stepping-up accusations to me and also towards Tibetan Buddhism. But I feel that things are changing. If you think properly or sensibly then my approach is of mutual benefit because I feel the Chinese Government’s top priority is stability and unity. There my approach is actually helpful to achieve genuine stability and unity.

Do you ever feel that you yourself may be an obstacle to a settlement?

Sometimes it looks like that but then on the other hand I think as far the Tibetan people is concerned the entire population irrespective of whether they are communists or religious believers or just neutral – they are all hoping on me and trusting me so I feel I can serve to some extent. Until the situation improves I want to carry this responsibility. Then on the day of our return, when a certain degree of freedom comes, I have decided I will hand over all my legitimate authority to the local Tibetan Government. That local Government should eventually be an elected Government and then I will no longer be Head of Government. Then I truly will become a simple Buddhist monk. That’s my ambition.

And do you believe that when you die there will be another Dalai Lama?

If I die tonight I think most probably Tibetans will want another Dalai Lama but if my life lasts another three or four decades, the situation alters as such. If the Tibetan Dalai Lama institution is no longer relevant then automatically the institution itself will cease. I made clear as early as ’69 the institution of the Dalai Lama whether it should continue or not is up to the Tibetan people.

And what do you believe will happen to you when you die?

Mmmm – that’s my private business. That’s why, you know, I am telling people now I am getting older I also have more time to make preparation for my next life.

But there will be a next life?

As a Buddhist there is no question, no doubt.

I read somewhere that you used the expression that you wanted to retreat like a wounded animal away from everyday life. Is that really how you feel?

Yes, that’s it. Our tradition is that the serious practitioner usually they express – remain like wounded animal in remote area-without any disturbance. That is a sort of saying. Whenever I read this expression I always feel ‘Oh, I wish I should have that kind of opportunity’.

Well, I hope you’re here for a very long time to come, Dalai Lama. Thank you very much indeed.

[Jeremy Paxman is the BBC’s top interviewer, renowned for demolishing Henry Kissinger and innumerable other statesmen and politicians.]

• This interview was originally broadcast on Radio 4’s Start The Week programme, on 10th May. Many thanks to the BBC, Jeremy Paxman and the Office of Tibet, London, for agreeing to its publication in Philosophy Now.

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