My Talk with the Dalai Lama
by RAGHAVAN IYER 1961
LONDON, EAST AND WEST LTD. 1961
I MUST warn you at the very outset that I propose to
speak to you this afternoon not as former President of the Oxford
Union, nor as an Oxford don. I want to abdicate this role and speak to
you as a seeker and a pilgrim, because that was the way in which I went
to the Dalai Lama. That is the only justification for my trying to tell
you what he said to me during that memorable and moving interview which
he graciously granted me last March, exactly a year after his exile
from Tibet into India. I feel that I must share with you my
recollections of what he said to me, particularly in view of his own
feeling about this country. He regarded England as a force for good in
the world of to-day, as playing a most unique role in the West. He said
that London was the spiritual and ethical centre of Europe and when I
asked him whether this meant that many wise souls had begun to take
incarnation in this country, he assented. He also stated that even the
Government in this country was more aware of the position of Tibet than
perhaps in any other country of the West. I feel, therefore, that I
ought to tell a sympathetic audience of this sort, as faithfully as I
can recall it, what the Dalai Lama said to me in answer to a number of
questions that I put to him.
I must first make some preliminary remarks about the distinctive significance of the interview, and the difficulty of reproducing it this afternoon. The Dalai Lama is a remarkable man by any standards, rare in any age but perhaps unique in ours. He is five years younger than I am, and yet throughout the interview I knew I was in the august presence of a man who is ageless, who could assume a variety of poses, utterly without affectation. He was wise and benevolent, but also art-less and child-like; he was intensely involved, yet deeply detached, in every utterance; he was a most lovable man of a divinely meek disposition but he was also something else. He was an impassive, impersonal presence. He spoke as a pure vehicle, as something greater and grander than normally manifests to man. He did not claim to be, one never thought he was, perfect or infallible, but in his company I felt the freshness of immense personal purity, a visible holiness that shone out of an inner wholeness. And not only that I felt that almost for the first time I was communicating effectively and adequately with another human being, and I want to say this at the beginning because it is so difficult to bring back to this kind of atmosphere or perhaps to any other the manner of the communication that took place between the Dalai Lama and myself. All distinctions of personality vanished. There was not the slightest consciousness of the tricks or even the inappropriateness of language. He spoke in Tibetan; I spoke in English with the help of a competent interpreter. He under-stood my English, but I did not understand his Tibetan. Yet right through the interview I felt that here was a man who was articulating every single relevant thought that he had in his mind. If his language was careful and succinct his thought was controlled and precise. Far from merely trying to do the right thing by his interrogator, far from being simply polite all that, he was wholly absorbed in the strenuous process as exactly, as pointedly as language would allow, each significant thought that arose in his mind in reference to each enquiry that I raised. This, I suggest, was a most uncommon method of communication. Throughout we both felt that we were human beings beyond peculiarities that affect the limitations of personality. He gave me a sense of equal participation, a sense of something more glorious than either of us, which I have never before had, and which in fact contrasted soon after this interview with other imposing personalities that I had the privilege of meeting in India.
I now invite you to consider two statements of Eastern wisdom. There is a passage in the Bhagavad Gita, the classic scripture of the Hindu tradition, in which Krishna says to Arjuna, In whatsoever way men approach me, in that way also do I assist them.” There is also an aphorism in a Tibetan text, “Thou canst not travel on the path before thou hast become that path itself” This is a paradox—how to put oneself in advance in that very position in which alone one could properly receive and which one aspires to attain. This was the challenge that I faced.
To translate this into more familiar terms. I urge you to show “a willing suspension of disbelief.” in a Wordsworthian sense, in receiving what the Dalai Lama had to give me.
As I have said something about my own attitude to him and to Tibet surely I must show how I came to a position where I felt this special sanctity about the Dalai Lama. Twenty years ago, sometime after the conferment of the traditional sacred thread, I began to feel dubious about decadent orthodoxy of present-day Brahmanism, I gradually became more and more aware through Theosophy of the inner identity, the harmony between primeval Hinduism and pure Buddhism, been largely forgotten in India through the centuries, and I drew increasingly to Tibet. I was fortunate to have as a spiritual teacher in India who spoke to me several times, in the fifties, of what the tragedy that lay ahead for Tibet and for the whole world. He told me that after the tragic events that were about to take would be a new and unprecedented coming together of India and Tibet, that we would enter a new phase of history for Asia and the world. Before the end of this century active centres of initiation would be set up in India.. Orthodoxy Would everywhere retreat. A new spiritual force would emerge with a profound message for the world as a whole.
So I had been prepared, in a manner of speaking, for the recent events in Tibet that have troubled us all. But although I had been told these things I must assure you that I took these remarks with due deference but without, of course, any burning sense of urgency. In May, 1958, my mentor wrote to me from India: “‘Night cometh ‘ no man shall work,’ and this aphorism has several implications.” In August he passed away, at the age of seventy-seven.
In March of last year, two weeks before the great descent of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama into India, there came into my hands by the strangest of coincidences (what we in the East would call karma or destiny) a little book by the Russian painter and traveller, ‘Nicholas Roerich, called The Heart of Asia, published thirty years ago in 1929. In that book Roerich did not just repeat well-known travellers tales about Tibet. He spoke freely and frankly about some of the ancient prophecies that he had, heard during his enchanting expedition to Mongolia and Tibet. He spoke about the end of the old: order and the second Reformation in Tibet, about the thirteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama and about the taking over of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, and, above all; about the new incarnation of Shambhalla, and the terrible troubles that were bound to take place before this great event.
Now I Want every one of you to put yourself in my position. If a book of this sort came into your hands and you read it with intense interest, and then two weeks after that event, without any warning or expectation, you heard the sudden news of the tragic events in Tibet and the providential escape of the Dalai Lama into India, I think it would give you, as it gave me, a feeling that one was ready for anything, that one had entered into a new and strange phase of history that would, affect the world in ways unknown to us at present. Having felt this, I also conceived the desire to see the Dalai Lama during my next visit to India. I was able to arrange my trip early this year.
As soon as I arrived in Delhi last March, I thought that perhaps the best way of contacting the Dalai Lama would be though the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India. Having been myself briefly in Government service, I thought that would perhaps be the easiest way to manage it. But very soon I found out that this was really unnecessary and even undesirable, that the best way for me to see the Dalai Lama was to write to him directly. The Government did not want to act as an intermediary or a bridge or in any way come between the Dalai Lama and those who wanted to see him. I therefore wrote directly to the Dalai Lama without any expectation of reward or result. I wrote about my own interest for twenty years in Tibetan Wisdom, and the work I was now doing and left it entirely to his convenience to give me an opportunity to see him if he thought fit. Frankly, I was mildly pessimistic because I had been told that the Dalai Lama was then about to move from Mussoorie in the hills near Dehra Dun further north to Dharamsala. I also gathered that he had not been seeing almost anyone for about a month. I was fortunate to hear from his private secretary very soon. I was told that I could see His Holiness at 11 a.m. on 28th March. It was, of course, almost exactly a year since he had entered Indian territory.
I went on the 27th to Dehra Dun and left on the 28th morning for Mussoorie. I asked a number of people about the formalities, and I must say that in most cases I was greeted with surprise and scepticism. In fact, very few people in the Indian cities could see the unusual if not unique significance of the Dalai Lama. This depressed me because I knew that in Oxford itself, and in England. when he left Tibet, even cynics and scoffers as well as the popular press preserved a due deference towards this remarkable man. And yet here in India I found many people not to mention some scurrilous weeklies, pouring scorn upon the Dalai Lama who, at the very least. was a helpless exile with an excellent cause. Much fuss had been made about the physical treasure that he was supposed to have removed from Tibet.
In Mussoorie I bought a white silk scarf, as was the custom, to present to the Dalai Lama. I went straight to Birla House where he was staying. I was told by the Government clerk there that the Dalai Lama had not granted such an interview for some time, and that it was not likely to last long. The moment I saw his secretary and was conducted straight into the presence of the Dalai Lama, all my concern about the interview vanished. I was greeted by this most radiant personality with outstretched arms and from then on I was completely in his hands. He beckoned me to a comfortable chair on his left. Straight opposite him sat his courteous interpreter and secretary. Opposite me on his right sat a most distinguished looking Lama with a powerful countenance and gentle yet penetrating eyes; and I felt completely disarmed by the Dalai Lama whose utterly restful and benevolent manner came so naturally to him. Throughout the interview I was aware of the encouraging response of the venerable Lama seated opposite to me.
When we were seated, there was a long pause, a spell of silence during which time itself seemed to have come to stop. I suddenly found that the questions which I had intended to ask him I could not raise. And then I looked at him and said that I was deeply sorry to belong to a people who did not at present appreciate his true significance, who did not understand the inner meaning of his descent into India. His Holiness was visibly moved, and then be seemed to concentrate his gaze upwards on one particular spot on his right, at which he looked while formulating his answers to all my questions. When I spoke (in English) he looked at me. When he spoke (in Tibetan) he looked at this point in space so that he could be wholly attentive to what he wished to say. He said that he understood how I felt. But we must be patient. People had begun to see the significance of what had happened. These things would take time. We were dealing here not with governments and officials, but with common people. Awareness was already to be found among them of what had happened. This would increase. Then he turned to me and asked me how long I planned to stay on in Delhi. When I said that I was going to stay on until the beginning of April, he wondered whether I might attend the Afro-Asian Convention on Tibet, organized by Jaya Prakash Narayan I said that I hoped to if I was in Delhi, at the time.
Then I asked him straight away, without any waste of words, about the Panchen Lama, whether he was in touch with him, and about his own role in relation to the events that were then taking place. He paused and said with complete conviction that the Panchen Lama was not a free agent, but he would not go against the needs of his own religion, his own people, his own country. When I asked him whether recent events were going to lead towards a far reaching Renaissance of Buddhism, of Bodhi-Dharma or the Divine Wisdom, and whether we were entitled to expect the new incarnation from Shambhalla, he assented but also cautioned me most gently against any kind of determinism. Of course we might know what was due to happen, but we must wait upon events. We must not expect things to happen exactly in the order that we might formulate in our own minds. He stressed that we were really at the beginning of a process that was going to take quite some time, that there was now even more evil in the world than had been expected by the wise Lamas of Tibet. When he said this, he gave me the impression that all the time the initiates with whom he was connected had to come to terms with human free-will, and could not in advance lay down any limits to the depths of human degradation in this dark age.
I must say that throughout the interview, as at this
point, when he spoke about evil in Tibet or anywhere else, he did not
speak as a man with a cause, he did not speak as a Tibetan, not even as
a custodian of an ancient community. He spoke entirely as a human being
seated on some kind of invisible summit but speaking about humanity,
about human nature, about the level to which it had begun to sink. As
he spoke I felt that any of the customary categories which we apply to
describe the contemporary malady would be misleading, not only that, to
do this would savour of spiritual conceit I then asked him a direct
question about the way in which the cause of Tibet could be advanced,
for example, in this country and generally in the West. He spoke with
feeling and joy about the work of the Tibet Society. He said that it
had done very good work in England, that it was a step in the right
direction, and it was in this connection that he said what I mentioned
at the very beginning about England and about the British Government.
Having said this, he went to suggest that I should keep in touch with the Tibet Society with which I have been slightly connected from the beginning, and he also spoke very warmly about Mr. Beaufort-Palmer, who initiated the work of the Society. Then I asked him as to whether in the work of the Society and generally in support of the cause of Tibet, the political or the spiritual side of Tibet should be stressed. Human rights violated. Should attention he drawn to this and to the cause of Tibetan independence, or should one stress much more the spiritual role of Tibet and the less obvious obstacles that had been raised by intruders into Tibet? He said in answer to this that it entirely depended upon circumstances, because we must not lose sight of either aspect of the matter. He said that when people came to stress entirely the political side, then it was the time for us to speak about the indestructible aspect of Tibet. But when on the other hand we had to speak about the spiritual “Tibet we must not underplay the political importance of what had happened. He said with absolute confidence that truth would ultimately triumph, but in our own sphere there was great need to convey to the public around us the full significance of events. He implied that this was not usually to be found, that it was not only necessary not to exaggerate it was equally necessary not to underestimate or play down, the true significance of events.
Then he spoke about the significance of such events to the whole world. He refered to a tremendous awakening that was taking among large masses of people everywhere, quite independent of ideology or the of states. He said that these newly-awakened forces all over the world must find suitable focal points for effective expression. This represented not merely the conscience of humanity but also the new political awareness on a world-wide plane, the indispensable and indivisible nature of the moral solidarity of mankind. I asked him in this connection about the present predicament of Tibet, and about conditions in Tibet. The Dalai Lama then spoke most movingly about what was happening. He said that monks have been forced to marry, there was desecration of monasteries and of shrines, that although there was much to be reformed in Tibet the method of reformation was wholly violent and wholly materialistic, and there was no recognition of the moral law or the significance of Tibetan tradition. He spoke with complete conviction about the inevitability of the ultimate triumph of truth. I think he meant this in two senses. Anyone who speaks about the cause of Tibet should do so with as much purity as possible, that is, without bringing in irreverent epithets derived from the language of the cold war. If one spoke simply and directly about what was being done to human beings by human beings in that part of the world, then the truth would shine. People would see. Further, if more people began to do this on a world-wide scale the truth in Tibet would shine, the truth of the great tradition that was being torn apart by people to whom it meant nothing.
Then I asked him about his attitude to Communism, and here, without pronouncing about Communism in general, he turned to me and said with serene satisfaction that the danger of communism in India had completely passed in the last few months. I thought perhaps he was referring to what had happened in Kerala. In fact, he meant much more than that—there was a new awareness among the common people all over the country of the dangers of Communism in India. The sacrifice and the ideation of unseen seers had helped large numbers of people to see clearly, more clearly than before, the nature of Communism in India.
At this point when talking about how we should combat evil on the political plane. I mentioned to him my own interest in Gandhi and that was writing a book on Gandhi. He spoke of him almost as a forerunner of the new enlightenment. He said that the truths which Gandhi embodied in his life were being increasingly recognized, especially with the advent of nuclear weapons, by people in many parts of the world. It was our duty to uphold the truth as we knew it even in the company of people whose selfishness and short-sightedness prevented them from seeing it. We must always attempt to do this as the mind of man was mutable and the soul of man was unpredictable. We never could say in advance when a person might respond to a genuinely moral and spiritual appeal, based upon personal sacrifice and a clear formulation of the truth as we understand it. However, we must recognize that there were people conditioned to regard themselves and to behave simply as animals, who showed no recognition of truth or the moral law or any of the fundamental decencies of politics and of humanity. When such men were ruthlessly opposed to our non-violent efforts, we must be ready to realize, and have the courage to see, that to persist in them would be a form of self-murder.
Then I turned to him and asked him whether he was referring to the Dugpas, to sorcerers and to ‘soulless men.’ When I said this, his interpreter could not translate it because the word ‘Dugpa’ has two senses. Literally, it refers to an inhabitant of Bhutan, and using that meaning his interpreter could not make sense of what I was saying. There is another meaning to the word, meaning an evil being, or even a sorcerer, and to my surprise this seemed to be unfamiliar to the interpreter. But the Dalai Lama showed that he understood exactly what I had in mind. The Dalai Lama hinted at an important point which was understood by Spinoza in Europe but which is often ignored. There is no real distinction in the long run between the true self-interest of a person and an unpleasant duty. There were unfortunately people who persisted in doing things which were going to harm them above all as well as others. He spoke with quiet compassion about these ignorant though cunning evil-doers. It would be most wrong for us, he implied, to condemn them or to dismiss them out of the horizon of our sympathy, as they did more harm to themselves than to other human beings, although they could not see it. Sometimes people were able to see the truth but through selfishness they could not apply it. There were also people who were utterly misguided in their view of what was in their own interest. If only they could know, if only they were not so short-sighted through their own desperation and through their own false concepts, they would see more clearly what was in their interest and that this could not be so very different for different peoples. In all conflicts the combatants ought to realize that their ultimate interests were the same, but this was exactly what was so difficult. Therefore, it was always the people who could stand outside a violent conflict in any part of the world to-day, who, by their awareness of this ultimate identity of interests between both sides in terms of their common survival and in relation to the whole of humanity, could be an active force for good. They could act as a check on the recurrent and ever-increasing nature of evil, generated by folly, selfishness and above all short-sightedness.
Then I turned to the important question of the relations between Asia and Europe in our time. I mentioned my own feeling that there had been for a long time some sort of glass curtain between Asia and Europe, which was in great danger of being reduced in the coming years to something like the Iron Curtain. He was very interested in this and kindly promised a message for a book that I am editing on this subject. Then he asked me what I thought would be, in terms of my analysis, the likelihood of serious conflict. He asked me this in such a way that I could not refrain from answering. I said, I thought there was a real danger that certain fanatics in the Far East and in Western Europe would play upon these traditional prejudices, and suddenly the old, obscurantist clichés about Asia and Europe would gain greater currency and be put to dangerous uses. He gravely indicated that he shared this fear of growing antagonism. Although in India Communism had receded, if Communism spread elsewhere, it would link up with this ancient antipathy, and that would be a disaster.
The Dalai Lama then spoke with compelling concern about China as an ancient civilization that had been going down for centuries. He said it had been going down for a long time and it was now in a militant mood. I asked him whether he feared that it would in fact become more aggressive and move out into other areas of the world, and even come to Europe. He said that though we must be prepared for the worst, we must not be carried away by our pessimism. We should go on speaking a language that was still understood by some people in China. This I thought was most moving. We must not write off China and adopt the hostile posture of the angry anti-Communists. There was still in China a potential response to an ancient language that was part of Chinese tradition, and we must go on speaking it in order to avoid war or in preparation for the period after the great cataclysm.
Then he spoke in answer to another question about the submerging of the spiritual tradition in Tibet which was taking place at the same time as the subtle diffusion of spiritual teaching on a much wider level in the outside world. He said that there had been a time in the history of Tibet when a similar darkness prevailed. For sixty to seventy years not a text was seen in public, not a monk was allowed to move openly, and spiritual life was driven underground. To-day there was a similar attack in Tibet upon the traditional system of spiritual teaching, but this, of course, would not affect the teachings themselves or their true custodians who would go into retreat. At the same time in India and elsewhere, in India initially, because that is where Tibetan thought was now beginning to move, there would be a revival and a diffusion of Tibetan Buddhism. I must say here that he never once used the phrase ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ because he was not speaking about any ism. He used words signifying gnosis or wisdom, the spiritual life, the Divine Religion or the Ancient Teaching. He also referred, with utmost reverence, to the teaching and the name of the Buddha, but he never used any word with a sectarian sound. Then he spoke once again about a world-wide awakening that was now becoming evident, not only on the political plane but even more on the religious plane. There was a beautiful balance in his answers between the bright and the darker side. He ever had his eye on the essentials. It was not so important that people should call themselves by any partisan label as that they should reveal in their lives an awareness of the teaching of great spiritual instructors like the Buddha regarding the moral law and the means to enlightenment. When I asked him about the pledge* of Kwan-Yin and the choice between salvation and renunciation, he said that true liberation must be for all and was, therefore, inseparable from renunciation.[ * ‘Never will I seek nor receive individual salvation; never will I enter final peace alone; but forever and always will I strive for the redemption of every single creature from the bonds of conditioned existence.”]
I then asked him about the spiritual treasures of Tibet. The eye of the world being attracted to the externals of life, was focused on the so-called physical treasure. But there must be spiritual treasure which must have come with His Holiness into India. Was I right in this surmise? He replied that priceless texts had been moved out of Tibet well in time; these had never before left Tibet. Now that these precious texts were on Indian soil, this land was blessed thereby.
Then I asked him about the belief that the Reformation of Tibet in the fourteenth century was connected with the Reformation in Europe and that Tibet was also linked up with the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. Perhaps the time had come for a new Enlightenment and Reformation in Asia, similar to the secularization of spiritual teaching in the West. He agreed and said that we need to translate spiritual and religious truths into a political and social form.
The interview then ended on a personal note. I told him again about my own work, and I also told him about my little son who had shown intense interest in the Dalai Lama. He very kindly asked his secretary to give me pictures of himself for my son, and also copies of a Hindi translation of a Tibetan text, to which he had written a short but extremely significant preface. In that preface he spoke about the coming together of Tibet, the Land of Bodhi or Divine Wisdom, and India, the Land of the Aryas (using the word in the original, pure sense), the Land of Nobility. The last thing that he uttered was in answer to a specific enquiry of mine for a last word, a last bit of advice, and he said only this, that he was very glad that I was keeping in touch with Jaya Prakash Narayan, for whom he had high respect.
The interview was over. His Holiness gave me back the white silk scarf that I had presented to him, as was the custom. The security officers were puzzled at the length of the interview because it went on for almost an hour and a half, but they were assured that this had been entirely in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s wish. Then they turned to me and said that not many people besides his disciples came and talked about spiritual matters with His Holiness. When I explained the nature of my interest in the Dalai Lama, one of them, who had looked rather cynical about everything, said, “Actually, for us too, although we do not show it, we find it deeply significant that we are in his presence, and the more we see him and the people round him, the more we respect him and his mother.” This I thought was a very good note on which to end my own visit to Birla House and I left in a state of exaltation and extreme gratitude.