In 1991, Tricycle asked Spalding Gray (1941–2004) to interview the Dalai Lama, who had recently received the Nobel Peace Prize. The interview laid the groundwork for Tricycle‘s unorthodox approach to Buddhism in the West. The issue featured a Herb Ritts portrait of the Dalai Lama on its cover.


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Photograph by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people and the 1989 Nobel Peace Laureate. Born to a peasant family in 1935, in the northeastern province of Amdo, His Holiness was recognized at the age of two, in accordance with Tibetan tradition, as the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In 1959, he escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet and lives now in Dharamsala, India.

The Dalai Lama completed 18 years of monastic study with a final examination by 30 scholars of logic in the morning, by 15 scholars on the subject of the Middle Path in the afternoon, and in the evening, by 35 scholars of the canon of monastic discipline and the study of metaphysics. His Holiness the Dalai Lama then passed the exacting oral examination with honors and soon completed the Geshe Lharampa—or the highest level of scholarly achievement in Buddhist philosophy.

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Photograph by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

Spalding Gray, born in Rhode Island in 1941, calls himself a writer and performer who has been “circling my meditation cushion for almost twenty years.” His best known performance is the stage and film version of his monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.”

Gray’s interest in transcendental philosophy began with his early exposure to Christian Science. (“My mother the Christian Scientist was extremely radical and my father wasn’t. My inner dialectic is the pull between my father, the rather pragmatic doubter, and my mother. My mother killed herself and my father, the materialist, survived.”)

Around the time that the Dalai Lama prematurely assumed full political and spiritual leadership of Tibet in the face of the communist Chinese invasion, Spalding Gray was banished to boarding school being branded a “juvenile delinquent” with “very bad, anti-social behavior.”

The paths of the revered Buddhist leader and the avant-garde performer crossed in a hotel suite at the Fess Parker Red Lion Inn in Santa Barbara, California, on April 8, 1991. The Disney-like resort, sprawled over half a mile of ocean-front property is the namesake of Frontierland’s own “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”

With assistance from translator Thubten ]inpa, and the Dalai Lama’s private secretary, Tenzin Geyche, His Holiness and Gray began by comparing the Dalai Lama’s own marathon U.S. visit that stretched from Boston to the West coast and Spalding’s cross-country tour of his stage performance of Monster in a Box, following its successful run at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Spalding Gray: We’ve both been traveling these last weeks and the most difficult thing that I find on the road is adjusting to each location, each different hotel. And I don’t have the centering habits you do. I have a tendency to want to drink the alcohol, which, as you said in an earlier interview, is the other way of coping with despair and confusion. I have a feeling that you have other methods for adjusting. Just what are some of your centering rituals and your habits when you come into a new hotel? 

The Dalai Lama:
I always first inquire to see “what is there.” Curiosity. What I can discover that is interesting or new. Then, I take a bath. And then I usually sit on the bed, crosslegged, and meditate. And sometimes sleep, lie down. One thing I myself noticed is the time-zone change. Although you change your clock time, your biological time still has to follow a certain pattern. But now I find that once I change the clock time, I’m tuned to the new time zone. When my watch says it’s eight o’clock in the evening, I feel sort of sleepy and need to retire and when it says four in the morning I wake up.

But you have to be looking at your clock all the time. That’s right (laughs).

Do you dream? Yes. A few days ago, for three nights in succession, I had some very clear dreams. One night in my dream I met my teacher from when I was a young boy. He was seventy-five years old then. And in my dream he was wearing a Western suit. It was something unexpected (long laugh). As usual, he was very kind. Another night my mother was in my dream with my elder brother, my younger brother, and myself, three of us there in Dharamsala where I live now. I was in my room and my mother was there. In my mind, my mother already prepared one momo (a Tibetan dumpling). So then I felt, “Oh, my mother will give us those momos made in Amdo style, which are especially delicious.” Amdo is the province where I was born. So you see, this is a very happy dream.

Do you ever try to make your own dreams or control them? No, that I can’t do. Actually you see, occasionally I experience an awareness that I am dreaming in the dream itself, like a lucid dream.

Do you try to create that? No, not deliberately. But sometimes I have these experiences of lucid dreaming where I have the mindfulness that it is a dream state. Sometimes it depends on the physical posture that you adopt.

In sleep? Actually there are some methods for experiencing lucid dreaming. You should not be in a deep sleep. Not quite awake, not deep asleep. Then there is the possibility of having a clear dream. Also it is related to what you eat. As a Buddhist monk, I usually have no solid meal after lunch, no dinner. So that is also a benefit.

When I passed your room last night, I saw six empty ice-cream sundae dishes outside your door.

Translator Thupten Jinpa: (After much laughter) It was members of the entourage.

Spalding Gray: Did you do a meditation this morning?

The Dalai Lama:
As usual, from around 4 A.M. until 8.

Where did you do it, in this room? First I take a bath, then I sit on that bed (in the other room) cross-legged.

And when you go into the meditation, is it similar every morning? Similar, yes.

And can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like? (Sigh, laugh) MMMM. If you make categories—the first portion is the recitation of a mantra. There are certain mantras aimed at consecrating your speech, so that all your speech throughout the day will be positive. These recitations should be made before speaking. I observe silence until they are finished and if anyone approaches me, I always communicate in sign language. Then I try to develop a certain motivation—shaping my own mind. I try to develop the motivation, or determination, that as a Buddhist monk, until my Buddhahood, until I reach Buddhahood, my life, my lives including future lives, should be correct, and spent according to that basic goal. And that all my activities should be beneficial to others and should not harm others.

How long does that take? Some ten, fifteen minutes. And then I do a deeper meditation where I mentally review the entire stages of the path of Buddhist practice. And then I do some practices aimed at accumulating merits, like prostrations, making offerings to the Buddhas, reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha.

Is there a special visualization going on? Oh, yes. Along with these are some cases of visualization. We call this guru yoga. The first part of guru yoga means dedicating yourself and your practice to one’s own teacher. The second part is deity yoga, transforming oneself into a particular deity. Deity yoga refers to a meditative process whereby you dissolve your own ordinary self into a sort of void and emptiness. From this state your inner “perfected state” potential is visualized or imagined as being generated into a divine form, a meditation deity. You follow a procedure known as the meditation of the three kayas—dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. These correspond to the experience of natural death, the intermediate state, and rebirth as described in the Buddhist literature. With each different deity, there is a different mandala in my daily prayer. All together there are about seven different mandalas involved. These deity yogas, they involve visualization of mandalas. That takes two hours.

You can see the deity very clearly in your mind with your eyes closed? Sometimes very clear, sometimes not clear (laughs). My physical condition makes a difference, I think. It also depends on the amount of time that I have. If I feel that all my prayers must be completed before eight, then it affects my awareness. If I have a whole morning free, then my concentration increases.

Is there a time in your meditation where you are only watching busy things that don’t have to do with a mandala? Do you ever just watch chaos? In my practice, part of it always deals with meditation on emptiness, and mahamudra which has a very strong element of that kind of mindfulness meditation. I also undertake a specific meditation on thoughtlessness—nonconceptuality.

Do you ever entertain the distractions, invite them into your meditation and let all of these women in bikini bathing suits that you must see here out by the pool come into your meditation? As a monk, I have to avoid that experience, even in my dreams, due to daily practice. Sometimes in my dreams there are women. And in some cases fighting or quarreling with someone. When such dreams happen, immediately I remember, “I am monk.” So that is one reason I usually call myself a simple Buddhist monk. That’s why I never feel “I am the Dalai Lama.” I only feel “I am a monk.” I should not indulge, even in dreams, in women with a seductive appearance. Immediately I realize I’m a monk. Then sometimes in my dreams I see fighting with a gun or a knife, and again I immediately realize “I am a monk, I should not do this.” This kind of mindfulness is one of the important practices that I do the whole day long. Then your particular point, about beautiful things or men, women, things that attract: the analytical meditation counters that attachment.

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Photograph by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

For example, the sexual desire. It is very important to analyze, “what is the real benefit?” The appearance of a beautiful face or a beautiful body—as many scriptures describe—no matter how beautiful, they essentially decompose into a skeleton. When we penetrate to its human flesh and bones, there is no beauty, is there? A couple in a sexual experience is happy for that moment. Then very soon trouble begins.

I know that kind of thinking, because I do it all the time. But I consider it neurotic. What is that?

Neurotic, ummm. Mental illness in myself. Because I see it as a dissection rather than looking at the whole. Pulling things apart. I keep thinking what I would like to have is a vision of the whole. In a way, the Buddhist approach of overcoming attachments and attractions is holistic in the sense that it does not see certain attractive objects existing on their own right but as part of a wider network which is neither undesirable or attractive. Rather it is part of a whole way of existence which is to be transcended. So you don’t see any phenomenon alone.

You see, when you contemplate the lack of permanence of another’s body or its attractiveness, when you examine being attached to its attractiveness, then you yourself contemplate your own body possessing the same nature. You are aiming toward a goal, so you can transcend all these temptations and attachments. There are meditations that are known as mindfulness on body, mindfulness on feeling, and mindfulness on the mind.

So the procedure is to channel our own energy or our whole mental attitude toward what we call the salvation, or the moksha or nirvana.

Mindfulness on the mind? What mind is being mindful of what mind?
Generally when we say “mind,” it gives the impression of one single entity. But within the mind there are many different aspects and factors. So when you talk of mind examining mind, there could be many different cases. In one case you could reflect on a past experience, which is a memory of the previous mind. You can also examine your present state of mind. You have different factors within the mind, in some cases you have a sense of recognition that contemplates your own present experience. Mind is not a single entity.

How do you experience emptiness? What is that physical experience like? You’re having an experience of emptiness yet it is not nothing, it is an experience. So it is something. When we talk of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, it should be understood in terms of “empty of independent identity.” Emptiness of intrinsic reality. As you progress in your meditation, you get to a point where you loosen your grip. Your attitude becomes more flexible and you realize the absence of an intrinsic independent reality of phenomena.

Is that happening in your body as well as your mind? Is it integrated within you physically? How does your feeling of your heart and stomach and eyes change, physically, when you get closer to that? Do you begin to feel as though you are disappearing or getting closer to being here? Not disappearing, but of course, this is on the personal level. When I was in my thirties, for a time I really concentrated my studies on the nature of emptiness. We call it shi-ne. One day I was doing analytical meditation while I was reading. Then a certain strange experience occurred and afterwards I had a new outlook. I had an intensive experience of emptiness. After that, things and objects appeared as normal, just as they appeared before, but there was this strong underlying awareness that they did not possess intrinsic reality.

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Photograph by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

Are you always in touch with your body and your breath when you’re having this experience? Not in this kind of meditation. In other kinds of meditations you concentrate on certain nerve centers or on specific energy points within the body. This type of meditation requires a kind of solitary retreat that needs to be undertaken for a longer period of time. It is difficult for me to find time now.

Recently I read a book written by a Westerner, Stephen Batchelor, called The Faith to Doubt. He questioned a lot of things about Tibetan Buddhism. I bought the book because of its title. And when I talk to you now, I have a sense that your most solid identity is as a simple Tibetan Buddhist monk. And I have no identity, although I told you I tell stories, that’s my job. But I don’t feel like anything, and it’s very disconcerting at times, but I am always doubting. And I’m trying to have the faith to doubt and look at doubt as being something positive as well, not just existential angst. Don’t you ever doubt? There may be a variety of doubts, but no explicit doubt. If you accept that the whole mind is just the product of brain, of this body, then there are many new questions there, many doubts. Even if you accept the big bang theory, you say “why did this happen?” “Why did so many galaxies happen?” And with each changing moment, “why are these things happening?” A lot of questions arise. If you accept that the big bang happened without any cause, that also is very uncomfortable, and still more doubts arise. With the Buddhist explanation, there are sentient beings who utilize these galaxies and these worlds. This is the foundation that leads to the Buddhist concept of rebirth or the continuity of consciousness.

So doubt becomes a mystery. Death in the Western sense, the concept of death, can be finally mysterious. One Western writer called Ernest Becker, who wrote The Denial of Death, said “We don’t know anything beyond it. We must bow down to that mystery because there is no way of knowing what is coming next,” and the thing that has always confused me and interested me about Tibetan Buddhism is the extremely complex system of knowledge about after-death states and reincarnation. The most subtle consciousness is like a seed and it is a different variety of consciousness than the consciousness developed by a physical being. A plant cannot produce cognitive power. But in every human being, or sentient beings with certain conditions, cognitive power develops. We consider the continuity of the consciousness to be the ultimate seed. Then once you understand this explanation, subtle consciousness departs from this body—or we say subtle consciousness departs from grosser consciousness. Or we say the grosser dissolves into the most subtle mind.

There are some cases, very authentic, very clear, where people recall their past lives, especially with very young people. Some children can recall their past experience. I do not have any sort of strong or explicit doubts as to this possibility. But since phenomena such as after-death experiences, intermediate states and so forth, are things that are beyond our direct experience, it does leave some slight room for hesitation. For many years in my daily practice, I have prepared for a natural death. So there is a kind of excitement at the idea that real death is coming to me and I can live the actual experiences. A lot of my meditations are rehearsals for this experience.

Do you have one predominant fear that you often struggle with, the thing you fear the most? No, nothing in particular.

You are feeling not fearful? Because of the political situation, sometimes I have fears of being caught in a kind of terrorist experience. Although, as far as my motivation is concerned, I feel I have no enemy. From my own viewpoint, we are all human beings, brothers and sisters. But I am involved in a national struggle. Some people consider me the key troublemaker. So that is also a reality (pause). Otherwise, comparatively, my mental state is quite calm, quite stable.

How do you avoid accidents? (Laughs) Just as ordinary people do, I try to be more cautious. One thing I can be certain of is that I won’t have an accident because of being drunk or being stoned by drugs.

But you are flying a lot and the pilots are drinking. That’s what I’m always afraid of. I’ve always said I would never fly on a plane where the pilot believes in reincarnation. When you get on a plane to fly, do you have to work with your fears? Oh, yes. Yes.

And do you meditate on the flights or do you feel that you can help keep the plane up? Do you have more power than the average person flying on the plane? I believe that about myself sometimes, that if I concentrate on a particular image that I have in my mind that the flight will go better. I used to have a lot of fear when flying. Now I am getting used to it. But when I get very afraid or anxious, then yes, as you mentioned, I recite some prayers or some mantra and also, you see, the final conclusion is the belief in karma. If I created some karma to have a certain kind of death, I cannot avoid that. Although I try my best, if something happens, I have to accept it. It is possible that I have no such karmic force, then even if the plane crashes, I may survive.

You walk out. Yes. So that belief, also you see, is very helpful. Very effective.

I first read about Tibet in John Blofeld’s book The People Flew. Did you ever see anyone flying in Tibet? No, but one thing surprised even me. One elderly nun who lives now in Dharamsala told me that when she was young, she spent a few months at a mountain place quite near Lhasa. She met there an elderly practitioner, around eighty years old, living in a very isolated area. She discovered he was the teacher for around ten disciples, and two monks among them were flying through the air off one side of the mountain. No you see, they would fly using this part (holding up the sides of his robe).

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Photograph by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.

Like a hang glider. Yes, you see, she said they could fly one kilometer, with their arms out like this. She told me last year that she actually saw it. I was surprised, very surprised (laughter). Have you ever been to India?

Yes, for five months in 1972, I toured all around India, performing in Mother Courage, a play by the German playwright Brecht. I’m sorry we have to stop now. I appreciate your time, thank you.
Very good questions. I enjoyed your questions. Thank you very much.

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