Dharamshala: This morning His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited to take part in a dialogue with Prof Andreas Roepstorff of the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University, Denmark on the theme ‘Cultivating our Common Humanity amidst Uncertainty’. His Holiness was welcomed by Dr Amy Cohen Varela, Chairperson, Mind and Life Europe. She thanked him for accepting the invitation and assured him that Mind & Life, Europe, is well established and is working hard to fulfil his vision. Lately this has entailed closer cooperation with colleagues in Russia.
His Holiness responded by showing a photograph he keeps on his desk of Francisco Varela, Amy Cohen Varela’s late husband, who, he said, introduced him to modern science. “He was one of the people who helped develop a serious dialogue between His Holiness and modern scientists. As a result, many more modern scientists are now learning about psychology and the science of the mind. One of the things I admired and always remember about him was that he would say, ‘Now I’m wearing my scientist’s hat and, at another point, I say this with my Buddhist cap on’.”
Ven Matthieu Ricard, moderator for this session, informed His Holiness that they had four major questions about interdependence and common humanity in relation to personal feelings, such as loneliness, as well as other global issues. With regard to loneliness, Ricard reported that many people have felt uneasy in the enforced isolation that has accompanied responses to the pandemic. He asked Andreas Roepstorff to explain what he has discovered in this research.
Roepstorff observed that people in isolation have been unable to meet others in the ways they have been used to. He and his colleagues have been exploring how they felt about this. They found that isolation has not only led to sorrow and regret, but enabled people to develop a keener sense of what is important to them. He asked His Holiness if he could recommend tools for dealing with isolation.
“In the past,” His Holiness replied, “the nations we live in were more or less independent of each other. People lived in villages that were fairly self-sufficient. So, the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ referred to a small circle of people. Today, the reality is different.
“Global warming tells us that we are all the same in living on this one planet. The global economy tells us there is little difference between us whether we come from east or west, north or south. The idea of limiting our concern to just a small circle of people is out of date.
“We Buddhists talk about all sentient beings as mother sentient beings. Christians, Jews and Muslims say we are all created by one god, so again there’s no difference between us. We are all brothers and sisters. This is why I try to promote the idea of the oneness of all human beings and that we have to live together.
“Clinging to strong feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ creates problems because in the end it leads to conflict and war. Some scientists have found evidence that it’s basic human nature to be compassionate. We have a natural sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’. As social animals we can’t survive alone. We depend on the community we live in. As human beings we essentially belong to the same family and we have to think of each other as part of ‘us’. To develop peace in the world, we have to educate people to understand that we are all the same in being human. In this context, weapons are useless because they can only be used to kill and eliminate others.
“As human beings we are intelligent, we develop different points of view, but we have to respect that because we have to live together. Different religions, for example, take different philosophical positions, but still convey a common message of love, forgiveness, tolerance and contentment. They all encourage the development of compassion. There are ways in which we are distinct from each other, but we should not sacrifice our basic compassionate nature because of superficial differences.”
Ricard asked Roepstorff what he had discovered about the way people are responding to uncertainty. He answered that in general people don’t know what’s going to happen next and although it travels fast, they don’t know what information to trust. People read newspapers to help them understand the world. But to be news, stories need to be unpredictable, not continuously the same. News needs to have some novelty. He reported that, in his experience, once the virus reached Denmark and a lockdown was imposed, there was no news other than what was reported about the virus. People, he suggested, didn’t know who or what to trust. And they didn’t know how to cope with this uncertainty.
His Holiness told him that in today’s world, the education system tends to focus on external and material things, ignoring the workings of our minds and emotions. “We employ physical hygiene to preserve our physical health, I believe we need to observe a corresponding emotional hygiene to maintain our mental health. If we are to develop a working understanding of our mind and emotions, we have to pay attention not to our sensory consciousnesses such as our visual or aural consciousness, but to our mental consciousness.
“We also need to understand something that quantum physics points out, which is that things don’t exist as they appear. Simple investigation of physical things reveals that they consist of particles. There is no independent entity to be found. Negative emotions are based on appearances, that is the appearance that things exist independently from their own side. Positive emotions like compassion don’t depend on appearances, they are developed on the basis of reason. We need to add secular training about the nature of the mind and how to achieve peace of mind to our general education.”
Andreas Roepstorff asked His Holiness what people are to do with their negative emotions. What are they to do with the anger they feel about inequality and injustice, the sense that they do not belong to the ‘we’ or ‘us’ they used to feel part of? He replied that the cause of many problems we face is that our existing education doesn’t teach us how to deal with our emotions, nor how we can achieve peace of mind. He suggested that some people may think a stern face shows that we are calm and that a smile is something trivial. However, we all know that everywhere people respond positively to a genuine smile.
He suggested that education should include explanations of how to cultivate positive emotions on the basis of reason. Similarly, we can learn to recognise that anger is mostly just a spontaneous response to something based on a distorted view of whatever it is.
Matthieu Ricard intervened to point out that in times of crisis the poorest people always suffer the worst. It is they who experience the greatest injustice. In the 30 wealthiest countries in the world the gap between rich and poor has grown. Meanwhile, since 1970 the world has lost 65% of wild animals. Shouldn’t these other creatures also be part of our concern?
His Holiness replied that greater attention to human values will lead to the gap between rich and poor naturally being reduced.
“If we human beings were more compassionate, we would be more concerned about the suffering of animals. In American there are huge cattle farms. In India there is now a vast poultry industry. Not only do so many animals suffer, but such farming contributes to climate change.
“It would be helpful to encourage more vegetarian eating. In the major Tibetan monasteries in South India, as well as in many of our schools, the common kitchens only serve vegetarian food. India’s vegetarian cooking is both delicious and suited to a hot climate.
“Then there’s fishing. Millions upon millions of fish are caught, but many people have no appreciation of the degree to which they suffer pain, fear and anxiety. This is something else that could be included in a revised education system.”
Ricard introduced the final topic — the role of young people today. In some ways young people have been able to raise a strong voice about what will happen to them if action on climate change is not taken now. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who addressed the UN and forthrightly told the delegates that they had betrayed the next generation by their inaction. Some young people have been able to speak out. Others feel desperate about the future. He wanted to know what advice His Holiness has for them.
His Holiness reported that scientists have told him that if nothing is done there will be disastrous consequences. The key thing, he said, is more realistic education. However, if disaster cannot be avoided, it will be much better if we try to live happily and peacefully together in the meantime.
Ricard pointed out that the climate crisis is caused by human activity and young people are understandably upset that there is so little prospect of change. Roepstorff added that young people don’t want to hear more words, they want to see action. His Holiness agreed that many of the problems we face are of our own creation. He recommended that the young people can learn from the previous generation’s mistakes and adopt a much more realistic approach to what needs to be done. He declared that he thinks young people are much more open minded about this.
Ricard alluded to the Buddhist notion of the importance of valid cognition. Science too, he suggested, has tried to bridge the gap between appearance and reality. Therefore, science needs to be part of the correct solution. His Holiness responded that he had been educated in the Nalanda Tradition that values investigation, constant questioning and not taking things for granted. These are qualities, he said, that he recognises in the scientific approach. He reiterated his observation that while older people tend become fixed in their ways of thinking, younger people remain more open.
Amy Cohen Varela began to thank the panelists, but His Holiness had more to say.
“Compassion is the basis of our survival,” he declared. “We human beings survive because of our concern for each other. Where anger is a destroyer, compassion is a preserver. Compassion is the key thing.”
Amy Cohen Varela thanked him for giving them a more thorough understanding of what it means to say ‘we’ and ‘us’. She expressed the hope that they can continue the dialogue in the future. His Holiness told her he was ready and recited his favourite verse from Shantideva’s ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
His final words were, “The purpose of life is to serve others and to help them. Thank you.”