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No Independent Existence

An interview with His Holiness The Dalai Lama
by Amy Edelstein


His Holiness
the Dalai Lama

If you had the opportunity to interview anyone alive today to learn what the heart of the Buddha's teaching of enlightenment truly is, it would most likely be to the monk Tenzin Gyatso that you would turn.

And so began a string of faxes and phone calls to the mountain enclave of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and home of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. Perhaps one of today's most sought-after public figures, the Dalai Lama is besieged with requests for his time by everyone from New York Times reporters and Hollywood film producers to United Nations officials and heads of state. In the midst of all his worldly responsibilities, the Dalai Lama is also the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, acting head of the four principal sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the figure to which this beleaguered nation turns for faith, inspiration and guidance.

The Dalai Lama was ordained in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by the great scholar Je Tsongkhapa in the fourteenth century, the Gelugpa lineage is most noted for its scholarly interpretations of the Buddhist teachings. Its monastic training includes many years of rigorous study, memorization and debate.

Tenzin Gyatso began his own training as a young child, and although he writes of himself that he was a poor student, he excelled both in debate and in his arduous examinations. He now gives teachings and tantric initiations [esoteric Buddhist practices] to Buddhist practitioners, sometimes drawing assemblies of over 100,000 monks, nuns and laypeople eager to receive his interpretation, instruction and initiation. When we sent his advisors information about this issue of WIE, they were intrigued. We were endeavoring to ask the essential questions about the Buddhist goal of enlightenment—questions, they agreed, that His Holiness would like to respond to. We were granted an interview at his residence in India and excitedly began our preparations.

India at the end of May is always hot, but this year an unusual heat wave was sweeping across the nation. In New Delhi it was 113 degree and even the night breeze felt like a roaring tandoori oven. The town of Dharamsala is perched on a rocky ridge by the Dhauladhar mountain range in the Himalayan foothills. Once a British hill station and refuge from the summer heat, its slopes are covered with fragrant evergreen trees and wild crimson rhododendron. Monks are hidden away in caves in the shadow of the snow-covered peaks. Under the guidance of the Dalai Lama and other teachers, these recluses do intensive meditation practices for many years at a time. The land is still wild and rugged, and sadly, one long-term ascetic lost his life several winters ago when he was attacked by a mountain bear.

In the time since the Dalai Lama settled here, Dharamsala has grown from a disorganized and haphazard refugee village into a thriving community. Fifteen years ago there were only a handful of restaurants, like the dark and smoky "Tibet Memory," where newly arrived Khampa refugees would sleep on the floor on pungent bed rolls next to Western hippies and dharma seekers. Today, clean new hotels, often operating as income generators for the monasteries, offer hot water, fax machines, mountain views and even email. Volunteer centers have been set up where Western tourists teach English and Microsoft Word to Tibetans, aid with recycling programs or watch Kundun or the latest documentary about the Dalai Lama at regular video showings.

The day I arrived there were over five hundred Westerners at the Tsuglakhang, His Holiness's temple, waiting to meet the man many think to be a living Buddha, shake his hand and perhaps receive a red, knotted blessing cord. In the space of a few hours he personally greeted several thousand people, including local residents and new refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet. Then, at midday, almost everyone in the entire town lined the narrow, winding mountain road, chanting peace slogans and prayers as five hunger strikers arrived from New Delhi. Several days before, in a desperate move to call the world's attention to the untenable situation in the Tibetans' homeland, one hunger striker had self-immolated. The Dalai Lama, an avowed proponent of nonviolence and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, was caught in a difficult position as the strikers called for his support. These are the kinds of painful dilemmas this "simple monk," as he refers to himself, has been faced with since he assumed rule of the Tibetan people when he was fifteen years old. Now, with his ever increasing popularity as the leader of a nonviolent resistance movement, millions from the East and West look to him for guidance and direction in finding a clear answer to the question, "What is the path that a Buddha would tread?"
The day before our interview, I met with his private secretary, Tenzin Gyeche, a soft-spoken man who has assisted His Holiness for many years with everything from international affairs to dialogues with Western spiritual teachers. As we sat and discussed this issue of WIE, Tenzin Gyeche became both deeply thoughtful and animated. "His Holiness never gets asked questions like these," he said with interest, pondering what his answers might be. "Very recently in teachings with His Holiness, something finally got through this thick head of mine," he reflected, tapping his head lightly with his knuckles. "His Holiness was explaining how once you get a true glimpse of emptiness, even the most basic of Buddhist practices, like taking refuge in the Triple Gem [Buddha, dharma and sangha], take on a very different meaning. . . . Yes, these are important questions." I left this meeting filled with excitement and anticipation about what our interview might bring.

The following afternoon, as I walked through his courtyard past three hundred monks reciting memorized prayers as part of a week-long prayer ceremony, I hoped that I would be able to learn as much about His Holiness's personal experience as about the traditional and methodical Gelugpa teachings on emptiness, enlightenment and Buddhahood.

At 1:00 p.m. a beautiful chuba-clad Tibetan woman escorted me up the flower-lined drive to His Holiness's offices. We had just finished a passport check and thorough body search, measures to preserve the tenuous security around this individual whose unshakable religious conviction is regarded as a significant threat by one of the most powerful governments of our time.

I was ushered straight into a meeting room, expecting to have a few minutes to set up my tape recorder. It was a surprise then, when the monk fiddling with the air conditioner turned around to greet me. The familiar face and bright black eyes met mine and, not standing on ceremony, the Dalai Lama motioned me to sit down. He was ready to begin. Here was a man, serious and self-contained, the cares that rested on his crimson-robed shoulders completely invisible. What did this extraordinary man think about the goal of the Buddhist path?

Traditional Tibetan teachings follow a systematic and predictable structure. Like highly stylized thangkas [religious paintings depicting the Buddhas], these teachings on the nature of the human condition and the way out of the suffering of cyclic existence have been codified in a precise and methodical form. And while they represent a very refined science of spiritual endeavor and a complex and subtle explanation of the nature of the human mind, they can often seem more like technical formulas than the outpourings of the highest aspiration of the human heart. In preparing for our interview, one of the challenges we considered was how to ask the Dalai Lama about his own experience of these subjects, classical definitions aside—how to ask someone so thoroughly schooled in the art of debate, logical deconstruction and analysis to tell us what he thinks "emptiness" is.

Interviewing this man whom millions consider to be a living saint was an extraordinary experience. Simply while sitting with him, one experiences his rare sense of goodness, deep faith in humanity and joy. Looking into his gentle face just a few feet from my own and listening to his unforgettable laugh was like being swept up into one of the thousand arms of Chenrezig [the Buddha of compassion], which the Dalai Lamas are said to be incarnations of. Throughout the course of our interview, while his translator and foreign religion advisor, the venerable monk Lakhdor, was interpreting his Tibetan, he would laugh and look at me warmly, as if wanting to communicate more than his classical answers were conveying.

But in the end, what was communicated by his disarming sweetness was not communicated in his customary responses, which were, more often than not, disappointingly abstract. They were, I guess not surprisingly, the classic Gelugpa teachings—erudite and prescribed explanations of the stages and categories of enlightenment and emptiness for which this school is known. To my questions about the very core of the Buddhist path, the Dalai Lama had presented the straight Mahayana doctrine according to its fifteen-hundred-year-old tradition. His academic definitions and carefully measured descriptions seemed to convey more concern with giving the traditional view than with a simple, unguarded expression of his own experience.

It was perplexing and fascinating to try to reconcile His Holiness's irresistible, infectious and radiant compassion with his often dry and technical explanations about the very heart of the Buddhist teachings. Tibetan Buddhism, despite its growing popularity in the West, still remains something of an enigma; the contrast between the great stature of some of its revered lamas and the memorized teachings that they so often present once again raises the very challenging question: What is enlightenment?

Reflecting on our interview, I again wondered what the Dalai Lama really thought. For as I stood in the waiting room afterwards, packing away my tape recorder, still feeling the warmth of his hand pressed on my arm, his translator turned to me with excited eyes and said, "Very good questions, very clear. I think His Holiness really enjoyed this."


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This article is from
Our Advaita and Buddhism Issue