Higher Calling: 15 Minutes with the Dalai Lama

On July 6, 2019, the 14th Dalai Lama turns 84. To pay tribute to the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, here is an exclusive interview he granted Reader's Digest in 2015.

Dalai LamaPhoto: Naegele/Laif

In conversation with the Dalai Lama

Reader’s Digest Canada: After the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, you said, “There are days when I think it would be better if there were no religions.” What did you mean?

Dalai Lama: The knowledge and the practice of religion have been helpful, but today they’re no longer enough. This is true of all faiths. They’ve been—and still are—frequently intolerant. Wars have been waged in the name of religion. In the 21st century, we need a new ethic that transcends religion. Far more crucial than organized faith is our elementary human spirituality: a predisposition toward love, kindness and affection that we all have within us, whatever our beliefs. In my view, people can do without religion, but they can’t do without inner values, without ethics.

What led you to this conclusion?

I’ve been in Indian exile for 56 years. I was forced to flee Tibet as a result of the conflict that arose after China occupied the country in 1950. India is a secular society that lives by a secular ethic. Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly religious, but he was also a secular spirit. That’s why he’s my role model. Gandhi embodied religious tolerance, which is deeply rooted in Indian society. With very few exceptions, we find not only Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs living in peace, but also Jainists, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics and atheists.

Among the six billion “believers” in the world, there are many who don’t take their own religions seriously.

Among those six billion, there are many corrupt people who pursue only their own interests. But achieving global peace requires harmony within countries. This is true of all conflicts going on now-in Ukraine, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Nigeria.

Studies suggest altruistic behaviour is more rewarding than egoism. People don’t have to be selfish. They can just as easily be altruistic and gear their activities to the welfare of others. Altruism makes us happier.

Happiness isn’t just a coincidence; it’s a capacity that every individual has at his or her disposal. Everyone can be or become happy. Research tells us what factors have a bearing on happiness. Step by step we can transform the factors that create barriers to joy-this is true of individuals and the whole of society.

You attach great importance to modern brain research. Why?

Our brain is a learning organ. Neuropsychology tells us that we can train our brains like we train our muscles. In this way, we can overcome what is negative. We can change for the better. This is revolutionary progress.

Thanks to this progress, we’re now more certain of the fact that ethical behaviour and compassion are things we are born with, while religion is something that is instilled in us. The conclusion we can draw from that is that ethics run deeper and are more natural than religion.

How can we further develop our capacity for compassion? What questions should we ask ourselves?

Are we open-minded or narrow-minded? Have we considered the whole situation or are we concerned only with certain aspects? Do we genuinely look at things in a long-term perspective or only in the short term? Are our actions truly motivated by sincere compassion? Is our compassion limited to family and friends?

We must reflect, and we need research and more research. Ethics have mainly to do with our spiritual condition and not with formal membership in a religious community. We must overcome our self-imposed restrictions and learn to understand the views of others. 

In the present conflict in Ukraine, this means that eastern Europe needs western Europe, and western Europe needs eastern Europe. So talk to each other! Realize that we are living in an age of globalization. The new motto must be, “Your interests are our interests.” Fundamentalism is always harmful. Yesterday’s ideas will get us nowhere.

Climate change is another thing we can only come to grips with globally. I hope and pray that the next climate summit in Paris later this year will

finally produce concrete results. Egoism, nationalism and violence are the wrong course. The most important question for a better world is, “How can we serve each other?”

Every day, we wipe out 150 animal and plant species and blow 150 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air. What can a secular ethic do to stop this?

In the last century we made huge progress in material terms. All in all, this was a good thing. But it also crippled the environment. In the 21st century we must learn, cultivate and apply inner values such as mindfulness, education, respect, tolerance, caring and non-violence at all levels.

There are two ways of looking at human nature. One of them says that human beings are inherently violent, ruthless and aggressive. The other view is that we are naturally attuned to kindness, harmony and living in peace. I stick to the latter. I don’t consider ethics to be a collection of commandments and prohibitions for us to observe and to which we must adhere. Instead, it’s a natural inner drive that can inspire us to seek happiness and satisfaction for ourselves and others, to the greater good of humanity and the living world.

Education changes everything. People are capable of learning.

What can each of us do to make the world a better and more peaceful place to live?

If we want to make this world a better place, then we have to become better ourselves. There is no easy route. First of all, we have to see our enemies as human beings. It’s in our own best interest to do everything in our power to ensure that all living beings can thrive. For that, we need spiritual schooling and education of the heart.

The real enemy is the enemy within, not the external one.

External enmities never last, and the conflict between China and Tibet is no exception. If we respect our enemies, they can become friends.

This is why my allegiance to non-violence is unwavering. We have a real chance of making the 21st century a century of peace, a century of dialogue, a century of caring,

responsible and compassionate humanity. This is what I hope for. This is what I pray for.7

German journalist Franz Alt has met with the Dalai Lama 30 times over 33 years.

Next, check out these inspiring and wise quotes from the Dalai Lama.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada