In February of 1993, the French film writer Jean-Claude Carriere traveled to Dharamsala, India, in order to speak frankly with His Holiness the Dalai Lama about problems confronting the modern world. As Carriere now recalls, “We wished to discuss Buddhism in relation to our everyday life, to politics, to other religions or traditions, laying special emphasis on violence, the environment, and education… Neither of us wanted to publish a new catechism. On the contrary, we wanted to try to set up a real dialogue, constantly open and unexpected, drawing us into rarely traveled territory.” The resulting conversations will be published by Doubleday this January in a book entitled Violence and Compassion. ln the text that follows, italics indicate words spoken by Jean-Claude Carriere. Photographs by Marcia Keegan, from the book Ocean of Wisdom, courtesy of Clear Light Publishers.
In the West religions have lost their dominance; the political ideologies have at the very least deteriorated. But happiness is still far off; and we are, when all is said and done, quite sadly the same.
I would add that in the face of this disarray racist anathemas and fundamentalism of every stripe are finding fertile soil.
Whoever excludes others will find himself excluded in turn. Those who affirm that their god is the only god are doing something dangerous and pernicious, because they are on the way to imposing their beliefs on others, by any means possible.
And to proclaiming themselves the chosen people.
Which is the worst of all.
Democracy thought it had established a strong barrier by putting into practice the very important idea of separation.
If you are referring to the separation of Church and State, that strikes me as an excellent principle.
Yet you yourself are an example to the contrary, since you unite all the power in your own hands.
No! The very notion of power is quite different. The title itself, the institution of the Dalai Lama, could disappear overnight. It wasn’t established forever by some force outside human beings and the earth. There’s no contradiction between Buddhism and democracy.
To return to fundamentalism, to the fragmentation of beliefs, to the self-styled “chosen peoples,” this is no doubt one of the reasons why Buddhism has always shied away from affirming the existence and omnipotence of a creator god. When asked about that point and several others, the Buddha Sakyamuni kept silent.
Didn’t he say that we must avoid “courting strange gods”?
He did. And all the Buddhist schools agree on that point today. Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that we have rationalized our beliefs, in the sense you give that word. We recognize the existence of superior beings, or at least of a certain superior state of being. We believe in oracles, omens, interpretations of dreams, reincarnation. But these beliefs, which for us are certainties, are not something we try to impose on others in any way. I repeat: We don’t want to convert people. Buddhism’s main attachment is to the facts. It’s an experience, a personal experience even. Recall the celebrated saying by Sakyamuni: “Expect everything from yourselves.” A global view of things is developing, don’t you think?
Still, we have never manufactured so many goods, and yet destitution is at our gates. Never have we so widely flaunted our bodies and our sexuality and never has death been so close to sex. Never have we invented such prodigious techniques for making contact with one another, and yet solitude has never had more bitter accents. The list goes on.
All that is true. But nothing can be settled in a hurry, as if by magic. You need time, there has to be slow progress in people’s minds. Look at this, for example: in the first part of this century the inhabitants of the earth had no sense of responsibility toward their planet. Bit by bit factories covered the earth, especially in the West, dumping their wastes into all the elements. For some strange reason nobody paid any attention to this. This resulted in a massive wave of extinction of species, the most terrible we’ve known in 65 million years. For a Buddhist this is a perfect abomination.
The extinction continues worse than ever.
I know. But at least today we’ve gotten some awareness of this danger. We’ve even seen the formation of political parties, often called Greens, whose platform is built on defending the environment.Thirty or forty years ago, this first step was inconceivable. Another thing, more and more frequently I meet groups of businessmen who once upon a time, as you can well imagine, never showed any interest in Buddhism; but now they come co meet us and ask questions. They show a keen interest in our values. They even look for places to meet or make a retreat, to lead a spiritual life under our direction, at least for a week or two.
Isn’t it too late?
I hope not. And in any case it’s better than nothing. We always run a greater risk of losing touch with the rest of the universe. We must do everything to maintain those ties and even to reinforce them.
The real changes are slow and invisible. For example, it seems to me that the attraction the West has felt toward Buddhism for some years now is tied in with two particular notions, which have nothing spectacular about them, but which are very deeply felt. The first is ahimsa, non-violence, which is gradually becoming an established force. The second is the notion of interdependence, which has been a part of Buddhist thought from time immemorial.
And which is bound up with our ecological concerns?
The concept of the independent existence of living creatures and things has always been rejected, from the first, in the very words of the founder, by practically all Buddhist schools. Nothing exists separately. On the contrary, everything is connected to everything else. Everything is held together in the immense net of Indra, the king of the gods in Hindu mythology.
No species—not even the human species—can place itself outside the world, outside the wheel of the universe. We are one of the cogs on that wheel.
A wheel that’s squeaking louder and louder. Are you troubled by the population explosion of the 20th century?
Very troubled. It’s an extremely important problem.
Maybe problem number one.
Yes, l think so. Since 1987, the population has passed five billion. Seven or eight hundred million people have been added since that date. In less than thirty years, this global figure may double. People have to be clearly informed, without hypocrisy, without prejudice. We have to say clearly: Six billion inhabitants is too much. Morally it’s a grave error, because of the aggravated disproportion between the rich countries and the poor countries. And as a practical matter it’s frightening.
So you are for birth control?
Absolutely. It has to be publicized and promoted.
Some religious traditions are opposed to it.
That’s right, even within Buddhism. But it’s time to break down those barriers.
Let’s look at our attitude toward human life, since that’s the issue. Even though subject to suffering, human life, in our eyes, is a precious phenomenon, because of the intelligence that animates us and that can rise in quality. From this standpoint birth control is pernicious, because it prevents human lives from existing.
From an individual point of view.
Exactly. Each individual is a marvelous opportunity. And abortion is a violent act, which we reject. But if we look at things from a certain distance, if we make an effort (which isn’t easy) to achieve a global viewpoint, then we see quite simply that there are too many of us for this planet. And tomorrow that overload is going to get worse. Now it’s no longer a matter of self-satisfied fascination with the complex beauty of our minds; it’s really a matter of survival. At this moment we number more than five billion precious lives on earth. These five billion precious lives find themselves directly threatened by other precious lives. To which we are adding millions and millions more.
So it’s not just human life that’s threatened.
Of course not. The wild animals, the trees, everything has to give way to our precious lives. In Tibet deforestation has been fierce for the past thirty years. This has led, as it does everywhere, to the impoverishment of the land. And most of the wild animals that I admired in my childhood have vanished. You know well how many species have been annihilated by the spreading of our precious life!
So if we want to defend life, and more particularly the five billion precious lives now pressing on the planet, if we want to give them a little more prosperity, justice, and happiness, we have to forbid ourselves to go on multiplying. Isn’t that logical?
Could it be that life has become the enemy of life?
Human life, yes. Since it threatens all life.
On this point traditional thinking is scarcely any help.
No, because it dates from a time when human life was rare and much sought after. Many kinds of dangers lay in wait for it. Infants die at a young age. Today everything has changed, especially in the last fifty years.
What can we say about what the genetics of the next century promises? Cloning—the easy duplication of any human being—leads to the ultimate dream of immortality.
Yes, but this easy, accurate reproduction implies that we are putting an end to our evolutionary possibilities. We declare that we’re perfect, and we stop there. And, on the other hand, if we do attain immortality, that is if we suppress our death, by the same token we will have to suppress birth, because the earth would become too rapidly overburdened.
Everywhere you look the simple prolonging of the average human life poses insoluble problems. How should one treat these new old people? Keep them busy? Pay their pensions?
Yes. What to do with immortality, then? In our relations with life, the change is radical. The change in our thinking, and consequently in our attitudes, has to be just as radical.
You’re not strictly attached to the letter of your scriptures?
On the contrary. You’d have to be crazy to maintain them with all your might in a world swept away by the movement of time. For example, if science shows that the scriptures are mistaken, the scriptures have to be changed.
For centuries, the Catholic church fought a long and sterile fight to safeguard the historical truth of the Bible, even in the face of scientific discoveries. That must seem absurd to you?
Useless, in any case, since Buddhism tells us exactly the opposite. It’s a central theme, which all the schools accept: We are willy-nilly plunged into impermanence. Like the essence of beings, their stability is an illusion. Reality slips between our fingers, and we can’t hold onto it.
Sometimes it seems to me that the Pope would like to stop the wheel of this world. Isn’t the real answer given by the Buddha’s silent gesture?
Undoubtedly. The Pope, which is only normal, is directly influenced by the religious traditions that he represents. Thus he becomes attached to a principle: Human life being a precious good, the greatest number of people must benefit from it. But that runs counter to another principle, which is another form of respect for life, and not just human life. Yes, life isprecious, but its quality has to be defended. So it’s one principle against another. For us slavish obedience to a principle constitutes no choice at all. It seems to me that our intelligence is there precisely so that we can be flexible and adapt. Everything is relative. A blocked intelligence is not an intelligence. If I have to cut off one of my fingers to save the other nine, l don’t hesitate. I cut it off.
l believe deeply that we must find, all of us together, a new spirituality.
Which wouldn’t be “religious”?
Certainly not. This new concept ought to be elaborated alongside the religions, in such a way that all people of good will could adhere to it.
Even if they have no religion, or are against religion?
Absolutely. We need a new concept, a lay spirituality. We ought to promote this concept, with the help of scientists. lt could lead us to set up what we are all looking for, a secular morality. I believe in it deeply. And I think we need it so the world can have a better future.
Every day I experience the benefits of peace of mind. It’s very good for the body. As you might imagine, I am a rather busy man. I take many responsibilities upon myself, activities, trips, speeches. All that no doubt is a very heavy burden, and still I have the blood pressure of a baby. What’s good for me is good for other people. I have no doubt on that score. Good food, a struggle against every excessive desire, daily meditation, all that can lead to peace of mind; and peace of mind is good for the body. Despite all the difficulties of life, of which I’ve had my share, we can all feel that effect.
And the path is still compassion?
Exactly. Compassion. The logical feeling that we find in ourselves if we search deeply enough and that has to be exercised toward all other living creatures. Even if sometimes that seems hard. Thus, at this moment I’m striving to feel compassion for those who are called my enemies, for the Chinese who have invaded Tibet. The actions they have committed, and that they continue to commit, contribute to their bad karma, for which one day or another they will be punished.
Is it still a sign of negative karma to be reborn in the body of a woman?
In the past women were undoubtedly looked down upon. Like other countries Tibet established a clear-cut male dominance. Then little by little things changed. Today if we compare ourselves with India or China, the condition of women in Tibet is certainly better. But things remain to be done.
In Buddhism, and especially in the Mahayana tradition the two sexes are theoretically equal. After ordination Bhiksus and Bhiksunis have in principle the same rights and duties. And yet discrimination persists. lt’s hard to specify the reasons and the limits, but the Bhiksunis aren’t viewed with the same good will and the same respect as the Bhihsus. Even though they theoretically observe the same rules.
I don’t see it clearly, but I’m aware of this discrimination, and last year I called for a conference about it. It lasted four days. Teachers came from all over the world, from the West and from Japan. All together we discussed a large number of problems, specifically concerning the condition of women, sexual life, and other problems occurring periodically everywhere in the world. One Bhiksimi spoke out on the inequality that weighs down on the nuns. Another, an elderly European woman, told her own story of difficulties quite simply. Her story touched me quite deeply, and I started to cry. Yes, without a doubt, the situation can be improved.
If birth control is indispensable, which seems to be the case, women necessarily have to have a controlling hand in the process. They have to recover the right to give or refuse life.
I believe so too.
I imagine that the existence of “masculinity” or ”femininity” must seem impossible from the standpoint of impermanence.
Like any existence that would claim to enjoy a stable quality. These notions have no meaning for us. They are simply attached to conditions, to circumstances (that is, to the cultural and historical environment), and these circumstances can change.
Could a woman be one of the next Dalai Lamas?
ln theory there is nothing against it.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.