The Heart of Nonviolence: The Aurora Forum Interview with the Dalai Lama

by Rev. Scotty McLennan

Portrait of the Dalai Lama; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: This interview was conducted on November 4, 2005, at Heyns Lecture Memorial Church, Stanford University, under the auspices of the Aurora Forum. Scotty McLennan is Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. Please consult the note at the end for links concerning the Dalai Lama, and Aurora Forum. JG

Rev. Scotty McLennan: Why should one be nonviolent?

Dalai Lama: Why is there destruction? If we analyze its opposite — construction — we realize that we love creation and growth. Even something like a flower with no consciousness is a living thing, whenever we see flowers growing, we feel happy. Furthermore, we are a part of nature. Monkeys in trees still better. We prefer real flowers than artificial flowers. Therefore, we love living things. When we destroy living things, that’s violence. So we practice nonviolence.

SM: But human nature has violence. It’s fight or flight, isn’t it?

DL: Part of violence is also part of life. Look at the beginning of our life: love, compassion, and affection from our mother. That’s the basis of our life. Aggression and hatred are negative energies. Life is based on positive things. If we have hatred — that leads to killing. Then there’s no worry about human population growth. Affection brings about a sense of community. Source of violence is hatred. When our mind is dominated by negative emotions like hatred, then our vision of reality is obscured.

SM: Is violence justified to defend one’s family or friend when attacked? Isn’t it our reaction to attack when confronted with violence?

DL: Definition of violence and nonviolence. We can’t take surface or appearance. Real definition depends on motivation. Violence and nonviolence: any action based on concern or compassion is nonviolent. Recently I mentioned mother is important for a child. Then some young student wrote to me that he appreciates his father more! But also there are bad fathers. (The Dalai Lama grabbed Scotty’s arm, bringing a roar of laughter from the audience.) When I was very young, I was deceived by one of my teachers. I crawled over some texts on the floor. He hit me with a rod. Since then, I have a little hatred for that person. You want to deceive someone, exploit and cheat them — too much praise, not genuine smile or some gesture — these are violent actions even if there’s no physical harm. Actions out of concern and compassion are considered nonviolent. One can understand that protection of family, friend, or some principles you cherish — one can take countermeasures that seem violent. But it’s done with a deeper sense of compassion.

Attachment could also be a negative emotion. Attachment looks nice, it brings together. Hatred and anger are repelling forces. By nature, if we examine the nature of human psyche — hatred and attachment have roles to play. Anger and hatred are repelling forces that threaten us. Now, these afflictions tend to obscure the nature of reality. When seen from a wider perspective — be aware of excesses of these mechanisms. Once you recognize these excesses, how to react to these situations? You see the creation of cycles and their chain reactions. Fulfilling same role without negative emotions. Bring positive conditions by wisdom and understanding.

SM: There are three positions in the Christian tradition. The first is that of the Crusades response to evildoers. The second is the just war theory. We must respond to violence. The third position is pacifism, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The just war position is meant to restore order.

DL: Violent method is just a method. To justify the whole, do something beneficial . . . Now today, there is a new reality. Mobilized violence is more serious than individual violence. Destruction of enemy: in ancient times, enemy is one’s neighbor. Destroy the enemy and there’s victory for yourself. But today, we have a global economy and environment issues. The whole world is one body. Destroy other part of the world is destroying yourself. Morally, the new reality is that destruction of the enemy is not justified.

SM: President Bush started the war in Iraq allegedly to find weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, it was claimed, was not fully accounting for its weapons. Wouldn’t it be better to stop Iraq from destroying the world?

DL: In the past century we had World War II and the Korean War. History say that World War II save Western civilization and democracy. Korean War enable South Korea to enjoy democracy. I met some students who disagree with this view. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. fought with this view of saving democracy, but it was totally wrong and it failed. In the case of the Iraq War, history will show whether this war is justified. At least, motivation to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq is good. American causality always clear. Iraqi causality not so clear.

SM: Is any war just that ultimately leads to destruction of civilians?

DL: Absolutely we should examine this. War is out of date and obsolete. Through war, real solution is difficult. It’s hard to handle the present problem in Iraq — counter-insurgency. If we handle it not properly, then there will be 10 Iraqs and 100 Iraqs possible. From a holistic way, it’s very complicated, this solving peace through war.

SM: There is a spiritual dimension to nonviolence. How do we defend nonviolence, spiritually speaking?

DL: In Buddhist practice, we have five inner values: love, compassion, forgiveness, contentment, and self-discipline. Buddhism emphasizes deep inter-connectedness of human well-being, and the cause and effect relationships underlying their connectedness.

SM: In Christian tradition and Gandhi’s approach the ultimate reality is that God is within us. And that leads to the Christian pacifist’s position, such as the Quakers, that we can’t harm any human being because God is within all of us. In some sense, there is transcendence within.

DL: The image of God is a Christian tradition. Buddhist tradition is not theistic. Sanskrit tradition has important spiritual principle. Indebtedness to all sentient beings. The term “Mother” is used for others. Buddhism deals with ego centeredness. Destruction of ego and self-centeredness. My Muslim friends tell me that all things are created by God. If we love God, we must love all of creation. These concepts are very powerful.

SM: Can you condone certain kinds of violence such as peace marches to defend your beliefs?

DL: If they behave in a nonviolent way, I want to join them!

SM: What about economic boycotts?

DL: In the case of South Africa, it worked. But economic boycott causes the country as a whole to suffer. The leaders are well-fed but innocent people suffer.

SM: What about fasting techniques. Gandhi tried this. Cesar Chavez fasted.

DL: Gandhi calculated on fasting for effect. I admired a Tibetan fasting to protest. It was unrealistic approach if it leads to suicide. Limited fasting like Gandhi is good for health. We all need to fast. [laughter]

SM: What about standing in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square or sleeping in giant trees to protect the redwoods?

DL: Those who rope themselves to trees to protect them, if it works, very good. But if you lose your life, maybe not too good.

SM: No reason to die for the cause if you’re not successful?

The very purpose of nonviolence is to bring peaceful effects.
If you bring contrary effects, then you need to change the tactics.

DL: An 8th century Buddhist teacher said: “When you initiate an action to assist something, have awareness of your act.” The very purpose of nonviolence is to bring peaceful effects. If you bring contrary effects, then you need to change the tactics.

SM: During Gandhi’s marches in India and the Civil Rights marches in America, some did die to achieve their goal.

DL: In Buddhism, we do have sacrifice of one’s life.

SM: Let’s look at the situation in Tibet. Is nonviolence the way to help Tibet?

DL: We have two options. First, nonviolence. Second, violence, but violence is suicide. We have to live with the Chinese side by side. It is very essential to carry on this movement of nonviolence, so that later, we can live happily. If we adopt violence on the Chinese, then Tibetans will also suffer. Some positive outcome: quite a few Chinese became sympathetic of Tibetan people. They came to me and express sympathy. Nonviolence is the best method. Not seeking independence or autonomy.

SM: If you look at guerilla activity of North Vietnam against the French and the United States, it succeeded. Why not Tibet?

DL: Inside Tibet, they criticize my approach of nonviolence. The violence approach — we need substantial weapons. Not easy to buy weapons and explosives. It’s impossible to ship them through Nepal and India. Or through Burma, through airdrops via CIA. Easy to say Jihad, but actually much limitations — too hard and risky. I truly believe that nonviolent method is the best. The Chinese government is still suspicious, but the Chinese people are sympathetic to us. With help of famous universities and professors like here maybe we’ll succeed (applause).

SM: If you go back to Tibet, will your presence give them hope and unity?

DL: Yes. In early 1980′s, there was real hope. In the West, they suggested to me that this was the prime opportunity, the right time to return and carry on work in Tibet. We discussed it seriously. We have six million Tibetans. A few years ago, I expressed this hope. If Chinese government looked at the situation closely, with open eyes, they see we don’t want autonomy. Spiritually, we are very advanced, but can’t fill our stomach. We must develop economically. We will get clear benefit from Chinese materialistically. Now, all the decision-making in Tibet is done by Chinese, not Tibetans. They re-named Tibetan places in Chinese language. All of this done by Chinese with total ignorance of Tibetan culture.

Autonomy is best way to preserve Tibetan culture and ecology. For example, Tibetans know winter wheat is impossible to grow in lowlands. But in highlands it’s possible. The Cultural Revolution damaged the Tibetan way of life. But the way to develop unity and prosperity is Tibetan autonomy, and I can serve in that capacity. The Chinese are building a lot of buildings. The Central government is employing imported Chinese labor, not local Tibetans. The economy in Tibet is a Chinese economy, not Tibetan economy. I can’t serve much under those conditions. I wanted to visit Tibet in 1983, to see situation for myself. The Chinese government didn’t respond favorably. In 1992, I wanted to go. Again no response. In China, they have one privilege — allowing old age people to visit their homeland. But they call me Satan, anti-Tibetan, and anti-Buddhist. It will take time for me to return to Tibet.

The following is a question from the audience.

Q: Does a steady stream of violence sent to children on TV and in video games produce more violence in society? Why are violent images so pervasive on television? Should we turn off television for our children?

DL: Turn off TV, this is foreign to this society! TV news is always shocking news — murder, violence, starvation, scandals. They should report some balance — positive activities of humanity such as compassion, community, and tolerance. Thousands of sick people, children, and old people are taken care of in the world. These are positive things. TV gives out the wrong message. It’s in everybody’s interest to have compassion. Important to cultivate from kindergarten, to develop compassion — feeling of sincerity and community. Have compassion in one’s profession and field of work. Television as education program is OK. Then go to sleep with education.

EDITOR’S NOTE: There is a comprehensive website devoted to the Dalai Lama, containing his biography, a list of his publications, news, and a library of video talks that can be used for further study. We are grateful to Mark Gonnerman at the Aurora Forum for permission to publish this slightly shortened transcript of the interview.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi