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True Expression of Non-Violence is Compassion

The 14th Dalai Lama Speaking in India:

“The true expression of non-violence is compassion”

My ideas about universal responsibility have evolved from the ancient traditions of India. As a Buddhist monk my entire training has its roots in the culture of this great country. In a letter he once wrote to me, Mr. Morarji Desai expressed the situation very beautifully,” One Bodhi tree has two branches, that is India and Tibet.” From a cultural and spiritual point of view we are like one people. Emotionally too I feel very close to this country. In ancient times India produced many great thinkers, whose insights contributed much to humanity’s spiritual evolution. Even today, India is an inspiration, for in the face of great odds, democracy thrives.

Ahimsa or non-violence is a powerful idea that Mahatma Gandhi made familiar throughout the world. Non-violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful than that. The true expression of non-violence is compassion. Some people seems to think that compassion is just a passive emotional response instead of rational stimulus to action. To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare. True compassion develops when we ourselves want happiness and not suffering for others, and recognize that they have every right to pursue this.

Compassion compels us to reach out to all living beings, including our so-called enemies, those people who upset or hurt us. Irrespective of what they do to you, if you remember that all beings like you are only trying to be happy, you will find it much easier to develop compassion towards them. Usually your sense of compassion is limited and biased. We extend such feelings only towards our family and friends or those who are helpful to us. People we perceive as enemies and others to whom we are indifferent are excluded from our concern. That is not genuine compassion. True compassion is universal in scope. It is accompanied by a feeling of responsibility. To act altruistically, concerned only for the welfare of others, with no selfish or ulterior motives, is to affirm a sense of universal responsibility.

As a Buddhist monk, the cultivation of compassion is an important part of my daily practice. One aspect involves merely sitting quietly in my room, meditating. That can be very good and very comfortable, but the true aim of cultivation of compassion is to develop the courage to think of others and to do something for them. For example, as the Dalai Lama, I have a responsibility to my people, some of whom are living as refugees and some of whom have remained in Tibet under Chinese occupation. This responsibility means that I have to confront and deal with many problems.

Certainly, it is easier to mediate than to actually do something for others. Sometimes I feel that to merely mediate on compassion is to take the passive option. Our mediation should from the basis for action, for seizing the opportunity to do something. The meditator’s motivation, his sense of universal responsibility, should be expressed in deeds. Whether we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, whatever our nationality, colour, social status or ideology may be, the purpose of our lives is to be happy. For this, material development plays an important role to cultivate a corresponding inner development. Unless our minds are stable and calm, no matter how comfortable our physical condition may be they will give us no pleasure. Therefore, the key to a happy life, now and in the future, is to develop a happy mind.

One of the emotions most disturbing our mental tranquility is hatred. The antidote is compassion. We should not think of compassion as being only the preserve of the sacred and religious. It is one of our basic human qualities. Human nature is essentially loving and gentle. I do not agree with people who assert that human beings are innately aggressive, despite the apparent prevalence of anger and hatred in the world. From the moment of our birth we required love and affection. This is true of us all, right up to the day we die. Without love we could not survive. Human beings are social creatures and a concern for each other is the very basis of our life together. If we stop to think, compared to the numerous acts of kindness on which we depend and which we take so much for granted, acts of hostility are relatively few. To see the truth of this we only need to observe the love and affection parents shower on their children and the many other acts of loving and caring that we take for granted.

Anger may seem to offer an energetic way of getting things done, but such a perception of the world is misguided. The only certainty about anger and hatred is that they are destructive; no good ever comes of them. If we live our lives continually motivated by anger and hatred, even our physical health deteriorates. On the other hand, people who remain calm and open-minded, motivated by compassion are mentally free of anxiety and physically healthy. At a time when people are so conscious of maintaining their physical health by controlling their diets, exercising and so forth, it makes sense to try to cultivate the corresponding positive mental attitudes, too.

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So far I have mentioned how a positive outlook can affect an individual. It is also true that the more compassionate a society, the happier its members will be. The development of human society is based entirely on people helping each other. Every individual has a responsibility to help guide the community in the right direction and we must each assume that responsibility. If we lose this essential humanity that is our foundation, society as a whole will collapse. What point will there then be in pursuing material improvement and from whom can we demand our rights? Action motivated by compassion and responsibility will ultimately bring good results. Anger and jealousy may be effective in the short term, but will ultimately bring us only trouble.

Fear is another major obstacle to our inner development. Fear arises when we view everyone else with suspicion. It is compassion that creates the sense of trust that allows us to open up to others and reveal our problems, doubts and uncertainties. Without it we cannot communicate with each other honestly and openly. Therefore, developing compassion is one of the most effective ways of reducing fear.

Compassion is fundamentally a human quality; so its development is not restricted to those who practice religion. Nevertheless, religious traditions have a special role to play in encouraging its development. The common factor among all religions is that, whatever the philosophical differences between them, they are primarily concerned with helping their followers become better human beings. Consequently, all religions encourage the practice of kindness, generosity and concern for others. This is why I find conflicts based on religious differences to be so sad and futile.

It is my belief, for the world in general, that compassion is more important than “religion.” The population of our planet is over five billion. Of these, perhaps one billion actively and sincerely follow a formal religion. The remaining over four billion are not believers in the true sense. If we regard the development of compassion and other good qualities as the business only of religion, these over four billion, the majority, will be excluded. As brothers and sisters, members of our great human family, every one of these people has the potential to be inspired by the need for compassion can be developed and nurtured without following or practicing a particular religion. Today, we are faced with many global problems such as poverty, over-population and the destruction of the environment. These are problems that we have to address together. No single community or nation can expect to solve them on its own. This indicates how inter-dependent our world has become. The global economy too is becoming increasingly integrated so that the results of an election in one country can affect the stock market of another.

In ancient times, each village was more or less self-sufficient and independent. There was neither the need nor the expectation of cooperation with others outside the village. You survived by doing everything yourself. The situation now has completely changed. It has become very old-fashioned to think only in terms of my nation or my country, let alone my village. Universal responsibility is the real key to overcoming our problems. Modern India is confronted by many problems. New initiatives and ideas will respect its stature and ancient heritage. India has responsibility not only to ensure the future happiness of its own people, but also to provide leadership in the world. When India was struggling for freedom, Individuals who really cared for the welfare of the people came forward at enormous personal sacrifices to take the lead. They possessed the courage and determination to face hardship. Now, maybe more than in the past, there is great need for such kinds of dedicated and honest people. It is not a time for such individuals to retire in search of their own narrow happiness. India needs people who can integrate its rich heritage with the modern world, and who have the courage to forgo immediate personal concern for the greater good. This would indeed be a fitting expression of universal responsibility.

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Excerpts from a 1991 interview…

Have there been moments in your life when your faith in human goodness was tested?


You’ve never felt in danger of becoming cynical?

No. Of course, when I say that human nature is gentleness, it is not 100 percent so. Every human being has that nature, but there are many people acting against their nature, being false. Certainly there have been sad moments for me. The Chinese suppressions in Lhasa in 1987. 1988, now that was sad. A great many people were killed. I always try to think at a deeper level, to find ways to console.

I understand that you were very angry during the 1990 Gulf War, as angry as you’ve ever been.

Angry? No. But one thing- when people started blaming Saddam Hussein, then my heart went out to him.

To Saddam Hussein?

Yes. Because this blaming everything on him- it’s unfair. He may be a bad man, but without his army, he cannot act as aggressively as he does. And his army, without weapons, cannot do anything. And these weapons were not produced in Iraq itself. Who supplied them? Western nations! So one day something happened and they blamed everything on him- without acknowledging their own contributions. That’s wrong. The Gulf crisis also clearly demonstrated the serious implications of the arms trade. War- without an army, killing as few people as possible- is acceptable. But the suffering of large numbers of people due to a military mission, that is sad.

Did you say that killing is sometimes acceptable?

Comparatively. In human society, some people do get killed, for a variety of reasons. However, when you have an established army, and countries with those armies go to war, the casualties are immense. It’s not one or two casualties, it’s thousands. And with nuclear weapons, it’s millions. For that reason, the arms trade is really irresponsible. Irresponsible! Global demilitarization is essential.

You have spoken, as few religious leaders have, of the dangers of global overpopulation.

Well, the population problem is a serious reality. In India, some people were reluctant to accept birth control because of religious traditions. So I thought, from the Buddhist viewpoint, there is a possibility of flexibility on this problem. I thought it might be good to speak out and eventually create more open space for leaders in other religious traditions to discuss the issue.

How do you feel, then, about Pope John Paul II’s continued opposition to birth control?

That’s his religious principle. He is acting from a certain principle- especially when he speaks about the need to respect the rights of fetuses. Actually, I feel very touched that the pope has taken a stand on that.

Can you also understand the needs of a woman who might not be able to raise a child?

When I was in Lithuania a few years ago, I visited a nursery and I was told, “All these children are unwanted.” So I think it is better that that situation be stopped right from the beginning- birth control. Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.

Understand you’ve experienced a major change in thinking about the role of women in the world?

It’s not so much a change. I’ve gained an awareness of the sensitivity of women’s issues; even in the 1960s and 1970s, I didn’t have much knowledge of this problem. The basic Buddhist stand on the question of equality between the genders is age-old. At the highest tantric levels, at the highest esoteric level, you must respect women: every woman. In Tibetan society, there has been some careless discrimination. Yet there have been exceptional women, high lamas, who are respected throughout Tibet.

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In a recent issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, the actor Spalding Gray asked you about your dreams, and you said you sometimes dreamed of women fighting.

Women fighting? No, no…What I meant was that, in my dreams, sometimes women approach me and I immediately realize, “I’m bhikshu, I’m monk.” So you see, this is sort of sexual.

In your dreams, you realize this and you “fight” the feeling?

Yes. Similarly, I have dreams where someone is beating me and I want to respond. The, immediately I remember, “I am monk and I should not kill.”

Do you experience rages? Even Jesus had rages.

Don’t compare me with Jesus. He is a great master, a great master…But as to your question, when I was younger, I did get angry. In the past 30 years, no. One thing, the hatred, the ill-feeling, that’s almost gone.

So what are your weaknesses and faults?

Laziness…Other weakness are, I think, anger and attachments. I’m attached to my watch and my prayer beads. Then , of course, sometimes beautiful women… But then, many monks have the same experience. Some of it is curiosity: If you use this, what is the feeling? (Points to his groin.) Then, of course, there is the feeling that something sexual must be something very happy, a marvelous experience. When this develops, I always see the negative side. There’s and expression from the Nagurajuna, one of the Indian masters: “If you itch, it’s nice to scratch it. But it’s better to have no itch at all.” Similarly with the sexual desire. If it is possible to be without that feeling, there is much peace. (Smiles.) And without sex, there’s no worry about abortions, condoms, things like that.

I once read that as a little boy in Lhasa, you liked war toys.

Yes, very much. I also had an air rifle in Lhasa. And I have one in India. I often fed small birds, but when they come together, hawks spot them and catch them- a very bad thing. So in order to protect these small birds, I keep the air rifle.

So it is a Buddhist rifle?

(Laughs) A compassionate rifle.

Let me ask you a difficult question: you are indispensable to your movement. Are you ever afraid you might suffer the same fate as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.?

The thought sometimes crosses my mind. As far as being “indispensable,” people can carry on without me.

Asian scholars say the Tibetans nation wouldn’t have survived after 1959 if you had not been such a skilled political leader. That being the case, aren’t you concerned that the Chinese might try to finish off the Tibetan independence movement by killing you?

Some Chinese have frankly said to Tibetans: “You only have one person. If we take care of that, the problem is solved.”

Have you prepared yourself for the possibility?

Not really, although in general, as a Buddhist, my daily meditation involves preparation for death. Death by natural causes, I’m fully prepared for. If sudden death comes, that is tragic- from the viewpoint of practitioners.

In September, the Palestinians accepted a compromise for regional autonomy. If the Chinese offered such a deal, would you accept?

Actually, for the past 14 years, my basic position has been very similar. There is one difference: In the Palestinian case, virtually every government viewed the territories as occupied and showed concern. In the Tibetan case only the U.S. Congress and some legal experts consider Tibet an occupied land with the right of self-determination.

What was your feeling when you watched the recent signing of the Middle East peace agreement?

It is a great achievement. This issue is just one year older than the Tibetan issue. Our problems started in 1949, theirs in 1948. In those years, a lot of hatred developed. Imagine: Palestinians were taught to hate from childhood. That was seen as good for the national interest. In fact, it was rather negative. A lot of violence took place. Now both sides came to an agreement in the spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of nonviolence. This is wonderful.

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You once wrote that the Chinese want to rule the world. Do you still think so?

I didn’t mean it that way. The remark was related more to the Marxist world intention, rather than Chinese national historical expansionism.

Do you still think that is the case?

It’s changed, I think. That kind of spirit…perhaps in the 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution, it was there. On the Soviet side, Khrushchev realized around 1956 that that kind of goal was not realistic. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970s, the Chinese realized that it was out of the question. Now I think the issue is Chinese nationalist historic chauvinism. To them, all other people are barbarians.

Including you?

Oh, certainly! Of course! They are a proud nation. With Marxism gone, the strategy is to reach the economic levels of Western countries. They consider themselves a champion of the Third World, particularly after the Soviet Union collapsed. They see Russia as having become a part of the West. So what you have is the most populous nation, the worst kind of totalitarian system, the rule of terror- with nuclear weapons and with an ideology that force is the ultimate source of power. Their economy was poor, but now it is improving- without changing those other things. Time magazine has called them “the superpower of the next century.”

Does that scare you?

We have already lost our country. But I’m concerned about the world! The world community has the moral responsibility to see democracy in China. Now, how to bring it about? The Chinese intellectuals and the students, they are already a strong political force, and very essential. The world community must give every encouragement to that force. We should not indulge any act which discourage them.

Did you think at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising that the democracy movement would succeed?

Yes. Actually, the events of the fourth of June shocked me. I did not expect them to fire on their own people.

But if the Chines Communists have been as ruthless against Tibetans as you charge, why not against pro-democracy demonstrators?

Because it was their own people! How could they shoot them? During the Cultural Revolution, this was understandable. Tiananmen Square proved that a regime that would have no hesitation to shoot their own people, such a regime…there should be no doubt about their attitude towards other nationalities.

Given that not-so-optimistic assessment, what possible scenarios for China and Tibet do you see?

Basically, the Chinese Communist regime, it’s only a matter of time: It will change. World wide today, there is a growth of freedom and democracy. And the democratic movement, inside and outside China, is still very active. Once the Chinese are willing to listen to others’ problems, the Tibetans will not be against the Chinese nation. My approach is in the spirit of reconciliation. Certainly we can have an agreement. In the meantime, the international community must support Tibet and put pressure on China. Without that, our own approach, according to the last 14 years of experience, has no hope of response.

In closing, I read somewhere that you are predicting that the 21st century, unlike the 20th, is to be a century of peace and justice. Why?

Because I believe that in the 20th century, humanity has learned from many many experiences. Some positive, and many negative. What misery, what destruction! The greatest number of human beings were killed in the two world wars of this century. But human nature is such that when we face a tremendous critical situation, the human mind can wake up and find some other alternative. That is a human capacity.

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