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Thoughts on Today's Society and the Future of the World
HH. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama

-- Your Holiness, you have the rare privilege of being familiar with both the West and the East, the so-called affluent societies and more traditional sciences. Both are actually in the midst of an unprecedented moral crisis. We would like to hear your opinion on this subject and benefit from your advice. We would also like to know your feelings regarding the future of the planet. First, however, so that we might better follow your train of thought, we would appreciate it if you would outline the essential elements of Buddhist philosophy for us.

-- I do not claim to be able to give advice, which would help those in difficulty to find an immediate solution to their mental suffering, or any other kind of suffering. I, too, find on occasion that my mind is troubled or confused, or I encounter internal difficulties that I must contend with. Nevertheless, I think it will be very useful for us to share our different points of view and our diverse personal experiences.

It is my habit to emphasize the importance of happiness and satisfaction -these are, I believe, the very purpose of human existence. For example, someone who sets off on a spiritual journey at the cost of great effort and extreme difficulties does not do so with the simple purpose of becoming a martyr, but rather in the hope of eventually attaining lasting happiness. In order to reach this essential goal, he might neglect his present well-being. In my opinion, the way in which we think is very important in the quest for happiness. It is obvious that our mental attitude is one of the prime factors involved in our quest for happiness.

Reflection and logical analysis enable us to develop a more correct way of thinking. The more open our minds are, the more expansive and relaxed, the easier it is to have an accurate view of things. There are two advantages to this. If we keep our mind open, we will remain serene and at ease with ourselves. And the more far-reaching our vision is, the easier it will be to find solutions to problems and difficulties.

As we are all human beings living on earth among countless other human beings, our happiness is intimately connected to that of others. It is hard to imagine personal happiness detached or separate from the happiness of others. For it is certain that if we aspire to happiness, we must be deeply concerned about the happiness of all humankind. This is why I always stress the importance for the future of developing a universal sense of responsibility.

In our religions and in our prayers we often speak of "the well-being of all humankind" or "the happiness of humanity." But when I speak of the necessity for universal responsibility, I am not referring to a religious ideal alone, but to action, to participation in such a reality.

Great transformations have, of course, changed our world, particularly where communication among people is concerned. For example, let us consider Tibet and the peoples of the Himalayan region. There was a time when it was possible to live high up in the mountains and remain self-contained. But because of changes around the world, this situation is no longer possible. Even if we wanted to remain isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, we could not.

Think for a moment now of the aspect of economic development. It is inconceivable nowadays for a nation or a continent to live in complete autocracy. Clearly, not only single nations but entire continents depend on each other economically.

Regarding the exchange of knowledge and information, distance is hardly an obstacle anymore; communication around the planet has become virtually instantaneous. When I was young, India and China seemed very far away because it took months to get there. Nowadays' to go from India to Europe or from Europe to America is merely a matter of a few hours. Of course these journeys by airplane are tiring, but that doesn't alter the fact that the other side of the planet is within arms reach. The world has become a smaller place and each part of the world depends on every other part. Where the environment is concerned, for example, one nation alone, no matter how powerful, cannot solve massive environmental problems, such as the depletion of the ozone layer.

The reality today is that our globe has become tiny and all people and aft countries depend closely upon one another. But our mental and spiritual attitudes have not kept pace with reality and are not in harmony with this increased dependency. Are the borders between countries visible from outer space? Of course not! If we think carefully about the interdependence of all earthly phenomena, our little local problems lose their gravity and naturally we begin to see things globally, in terms of humanity as a whole.

In this context, the idea of "me" and 'You" loses its primacy When we realize this fact, this thought spontaneously brings about a deep feeling of responsibility for the common good. Therefore, the more we become involved in the affairs of the world in general, the calmer and happier we will feel in our private lives. In fact, the more we care for others and feel concern for their well-being, the less we will he inclined toward jealousy, pride, or malice. Without a doubt, it is such feelings as these, along with the spirit of competition, that make us more unhappy with each passing day. But if we concern ourselves with the well-being of all, we quite naturally find a feeling of great inner peace.

Only recently the world was still divided into two blocs, one in the East and the other in the West. This division was based less on economic factors than on politics and ideology. As long as nuclear weapons were directed from each side toward the other, one could not help but have a vision of the world based on the ever-present reality of the idea of "me" and "You," "us" and "them." The world was divided by ideology and power. Both sides were prepared to risk a nuclear holocaust to defend themselves, and each aimed their nuclear weapons at the other. Under such circumstances, we are obliged to think in terms of ourselves and others. This era may now be over and we can envision a new world order.

When I met President Bush several years ago, I told him that this new world order would be an excellent thing, provided it was accompanied by compassion. If it did not include compassion, I doubted it could be a success. I think we have come to a very propitious and important moment in the history of our world. We now have the opportunity to work together for the good of humanity.

When one thinks of universal responsibility and tries to have a long-term view of things, birth control becomes essential. From a Buddhist point of View, human existence is very precious. It is not right, therefore, to prevent a birth. But we are now confronted with an excess of precious lives, with far too large a world population. When it comes down to choosing between the survival of humankind as a whole and a few potential human births, the necessity for implementing birth control becomes obvious. But I must insist that birth control be exercised in a non-violent fashion.

Because of the changes in the world, nuclear weapons have been reduced and even destroyed-a wonderful thing. Disarmament is essential. All existing weapons must be reduced, one after the other, conventional weaponry as well as chemical and nuclear weaponry. It is true that to cease production of arms will likely cause serious economic and industrial problems. But to give up because of such difficulties is not worthy of our humanity, while seeking a solution to this quandary is.

Different religious traditions are an important part of our world, and I believe that religious pluralism is necessary It is true that different religions express different metaphysical viewpoints, but it is also dear that at least among the major religions, the fundamental Message is the same. Favourable conditions do exist, therefore, to learn to live in harmony and work together.

The Cold War is a thing of the past and there is no longer any opposition between the countries of East and West. But a significant gap in economic development between North and South remains. This considerable economic disparity creates enormous problems for the developed countries. The difference in the standard of living is not only unacceptable from a moral point of view, it also creates serious problems in the developed countries as a result of the emigration of workers from Africa, the Middle-east, and the Far East who come to France or Germany, for example, to find work.

Among the various solutions that might he imagined, however, to refuse immigration or attempt to deport immigrants are untenable. Moreover, such an attitude offers no long-term solution. A better method would he to create jobs in the countries of origin in order to encourage an increase in the economic standard of living among the local population, who would then no longer need to emigrate to find relative prosperity elsewhere.

To be sure, countries of the former Communist bloc are now confronted with great difficulties, but I believe they have more potential to succeed economically than some other countries. The same applies for countries of the Far East, China, or India. I believe the most difficult case is that of Africa, a vast continent that must contend with enormous difficulties. Not long ago I went to Gabon and visited the place where Albert Schweitzer had lived. Schweitzer was a Frenchman and a great man who showed extraordinary courage helping those who were in poverty and need. If the gap between North and South is to be reduced, it is the people of the South above all who must make a major effort. Wealthy countries can offer their assistance, but the populations of the poorer countries must take responsibility for their own destinies.

Another extremely regrettable a-nd unfortunate state of affairs is that at the very heart of these developing countries there is a great divide. An elite consisting of only a very small number of people control all the country's resources, while the immense majority of the population remain totally dispossessed. I feel deep regret over this. I am not a specialist on African issues, but what was immediately apparent to me during my visit there was that a fundamental need for education exists. I was also struck by how the population of a single country is fragmented into a multitude of ethnic groups, tribes, and languages. This creates a host of problems for which I feel incapable of offering any solutions. Faced with so many apparently insoluble difficulties, one feels almost tempted to implore the protection of Buddha!

Where international affairs are concerned, I often say to my friends: "You live in democratic countries and consider the exercise of democracy within your country as precious and essential, as no doubt it is.

But however much importance you might attach to it where your internal affairs are concerned, you rarely do the same in your international relations!"

Certain scientific thinkers have suggested that there is no need anymore to distinguish between internal and foreign affairs; that we are all equal now, members of one and the same family, and that, in fact, the affairs of the entire world are now "internal" affairs. I find this vision very vast and noble. The adoption of such an attitude will facilitate our task at hand, which is to resolve our common difficulties.

When we talk about providing aid to Third World countries, we impose all sorts of conditions or restrictions that limit it. Our perception is restricted because priority is given to national interests, and this in turn creates a host of obstacles that hinder the smooth functioning of nations among themselves. Such limited vision must be eliminated, and a major factor involved is political will. For political will to achieve its goal, it must be founded on humanitarian feelings and very solid moral principles- those of altruism and a desire to provide genuine well-being to all people and to relieve their suffering.

If political will is underscored by principles such as these, I believe it can be a very powerful tool. Politicians do not drop out of the sky. They are not born in space, but are the product of society, like ourselves. If the entire population possesses moral and ethical values that are just and noble, the politicians produced by that society will quite naturally respect those same values, for they themselves will have developed them. If, on the other hand. a society on the whole is morally corrupt and its members do not respect the ethics of their own lives, they undoubtedly are unjust in criticizing their politicians.

Some people automatically associate morality and principles such as altruism with a religious vision of the world. Such logic implies that those who practice a religion are observing a certain moral code, and that those who do not practice a religion hold that moral principles are useless and are of no interest. I believe it is a great mistake to believe that morality is merely an attribute of religion. One can envision two types of spirituality: the first is tied to religion, while the second is born spontaneously in a human being, and is expressed simply by the love for our neighbour and the desire to do good for them. This is also spirituality. The practice of religion is a good thing, but people also have a right to live without religion. However, without that quality basic to human beings, without that secular spirituality, the individual cannot be happy within himself and risks doing harm to the society to which he belongs.

How can we define this fundamental quality? I would say it is the tenderness and affection found in every human being. This natural love is present from the very first day of our existence. You have only to watch a mother nursing her child: her natural love is obvious; without it she would not offer her breast, perhaps she would not even have any milk. As for the child, it is naturally drawn to the mother's breast, and is moved by spontaneous tenderness and affection for the mother; without these he or she would surely not seek nourishment.

So at the very beginning of life we display the tenderness and affection which are at the very core of human nature. No religious guides have instructed us in that love, no laws have imposed it, no schools have taught it. Love appeared along with our body at birth. It is an inborn trait of all human beings. Since the first day, our life is already marked by this aspect of love for others, and it is essential to preserve this fundamental nature of humankind throughout our existence.

This is also why I maintain the conviction that human nature is basically affectionate and good. If our behavior follows our kind and loving nature, then, quite naturally, immense benefits will result, not only for oneself but also for the society to which we belong. I generally qualify this love and affection as a universal religion. Everyone needs it, believers as much as non-believers. This attitude constitutes the very basis of morality.

If you agree with what I have said about this altruistic love, try to make it a part of yourself as much as possible. On the other hand, if you think differently about it, you can get angry as often as you like, it does not matter, everyone is free! Thank you very much, that is all I have to say.

-- His Holiness remark make us aware of how important humanist thought can be. As a doctor, I have prepared a series of questions which might further the discussion about the biological and spiritual future of humankind. Obviously I have drawn these questions up in the context of the predominantly monotheistic religions of the West-judaism, Christianity or Islam.

Recent advances in medicine, biology and genetics have made possible the infinite replication of the same biological object- that is, the reproduction of living beings endowed with the same physical and intellectual characteristics-and whose behavior can be predetermined. In the future we can expect to influence our own posterity through assisted procreation, which will determine the number and characteristics of individuals. For many years the animal embryo and perhaps the human fetus will be ground for experimentation.

Regarding such experimentation- which is receiving a great deal of coverage from the media- when does His Holiness believe that the fertilized object is endowed with any spiritual or divine sign of life?

-- Buddhism holds that consciousness penetrates a being at the very moment of conception, and that consequently the embryo is already a living being. This is why we consider abortion to be the same as taking the life of a living being and as such is not a just action. That is what I meant when I spoke of the necessity for non-violent birth control. However, there can be exceptional situations. I am thinking, for example, of a case where it is certain that the child will be born with abnormalities or where the mother's life is in danger. I am, of course, expressing the Buddhist point of view. In any action one must always consider the good and the bad, the advantages and the disadvantages. Basically, it will all depend upon the intention and motivation behind the action.

-- What about genetic manipulation, which is a very real prospect by changing the rules of the human condition, is humanity going against divine will?

-- One could go along with the idea of genetic manipulation to improve the human body, the brain, for example, and so forth.

Buddhism does not entertain the notion of a God of creation, so this problem is treated under another realm, that of karma- actions from former lives, and the consequences of those actions. If a person is subjected today to genetic manipulation, it is because of acts he committed in the past. Once we acknowledge this series of causes and effects, we have to take into account principally what good and evil can arise as a result of such manipulation. Does it, for example, offer positive therapeutic results?

Then there is the following problem: in order to know whether something is good for humanity or not, it is necessary to experiment with it. In carrying out such experimentation, we are playing with human life. This is indeed a complex problem, difficult to solve. Experimentation with animals gives rise to the same considerations and is equally difficult for Buddhists to accept.

-- The study of genetics aims to reduce the number of illnesses and human suffering. If, according to His Holiness, suffering is inexorably part of the human condition, might we hope that efforts on the part of human beings will eliminate suffering?

-- It is difficult to say. But first I would like to ask you something: do you think that genetic manipulation might one day make human beings immortal? I think it would be very difficult.

-- First of aIl I'm not sure it's something to strive for.

-- Should we not? I really do not know. Imagine that it were possible. After a certain time any further births would have to be prevented, or there would be a serious demographic problem. On the other hand, if we were thus able to put an end to new births as well as to death, we would be setting up an equilibrium which we would have to maintain; failing to do so would lead to catastrophe.

-- Allow me to rephrase my question. In monotheistic religious philosophies, suffering is often perceived as a means to salvation. What is the position of Buddhism in this regard?

-- I think that the position of Buddhism is similar. Through observation and reflection on the suffering of human beings, the desire to be liberated from suffering will arise.

-- Your Holiness, I would like to ask you a question about relations between China and Tibet. You seem confident that the West will put pressure on China. Do you really believe that the West would jeopardize a market of a billion consumers in order to defend the autonomy of a few million Tibetans? Would it not be more important and, in the long run, more effective to develop your spiritual influence in China itself rather than remain in opposition to that country? Also, do you think that the economic evolution of China is compatible with the survival of its political system? Do you think that Tibetan values will resist economic progress brought by China? Isn't the development of the Chinese economy the greatest danger to Tibet?

-- For fourteen years we have been trying very seriously to negotiate with China on the Tibetan question, but even after making many concessions our efforts have been in vain. It has become clear, therefore, that pressure on China from the international community is indispensable. Our own experience has shown that our efforts have yielded no concrete results; hence the importance of such world-wide pressure. That does not mean, however, that we are handing everything over to others.

The reason we choose to follow a non-violent path, despite considerable criticism, is that in the end the solution must be found between Tibetans and Chinese. Such a solution can only be worked out between our two countries directly. The support of the Chinese people in particular Chinese intellectuals, is therefore essential. This is why we have adopted a non-violent stance from the very start, despite all the difficulties. In this way more and more Chinese people, both in China and abroad, are beginning to take an interest in and show sympathy for our cause. Some have even thanked us for having chosen this path. In any case, the choice of the path of negotiation toward resolution of the problem is, for me, a spiritual act.

For nearly fourteen years, we have been witnessing considerable economic development in China, thanks to a liberalization of the economic system. However, on the political level there has not been the slightest liberalization, not the slightest improvement. I think that in the long run economic liberalization in China may lead to political liberalization as well; it is possible.

The way things stand at the moment, one could say that Chinese society is made up, roughly, of three categories. There are, first of all, the leaders and those faithful to the Communist party; then there are the intellectuals and students; and finally, the masses. If we analyze what interests each category we come to see that for the first category it is power and control over the country. The Communist party leaders want to remain in power at any price and do not hesitate to use any means at their disposal to do so. They have shown quite dearly what they are capable of at Tiananmen Square.

The second category is the influential minority of the country which will, in the end, establish democracy there. As for the third category, the people -they are more concerned with everyday life, with their standard of living, how to find food, housing, a bicycle, or perhaps a motorcycle, a refrigerator, or even a washing machine. I do not think they are concerned about whether the country will become democratic or not. Economic development has given confidence to the first and third groups, and the third may be content with that. But the second group is isolated and at a disadvantage, and there is a risk they may become demoralized. If that were the case it would be a disaster, not only for a billion Chinese but also for the entire planet.

Look at China: it is the most populated country on earth. The Chinese people live under the yoke of a totalitarian system and an ideology that glorifies the machinery of war. Moreover, China has nuclear weapons. If the economy continues to develop under the same circumstances, I think we might see some very severe consequences, not only for bordering countries like Tibet, but also for a large country like India, and ultimately the entire planet.

To respond to the second part of your question, I do not think that economic development per se is necessarily a threat to the culture and spirituality of Tibet, if, in its implementation, it takes into account the pre-existing conditions in c country. Economic development may coincide with cultural development. When we speak of happiness in Buddhism, this also implies material well-being.

Where we are concerned, China's economic development raises the serious question of the colonization of Tibet by bringing in a large, number of Chinese. The greatest threat for Tibet is that of a transfer of population, of massive Chinese immigration. The influx of Chinese colonists has created an atmosphere of extreme tension all over Tibet, which gives rise to continual human rights violations. In addition, it is causing considerable damage to the environment. Whether it is deliberate or not, a sort of cultural genocide is taking place in Tibet and this is the most grave danger for the future of the country.

-- You said on a recent broadcast that you still felt like a Marxist. What exactly did you mean by that? You have in many ways a great faith in democracy since you intend to abandon political power in an autonomous Tibet. What in your opinion is the existing type of democracy closest to Buddhist values? Is there not a certain contradiction between those values and the rules of a democracy?

-- I find certain aspects of Marxism most praiseworthy from an ethical point of view, principally in its treatment of material equality and the defense of the poor against exploitation by a minority. These aspects are quite acceptable. I believe one might say that the economic systern closest to Buddhism, and more particularly to the Great Vehicle, would be a socialist economic system. Marxism is based on very noble ideas, such as the defense of the rights of those who are most disadvantaged. But the energy given to the application of these principles is rooted in a violent hatred for the ruling classes, and that hatred is channeled into class struggle and the destruction of the exploiting class. Once the ruling class is eliminated, there is nothing left to offer the people and everyone is reduced to a state of poverty. Why should this be so? Because there is a total absence of compassion from the start.

Regarding the future of Tibet, it has already been decided that it will be a democracy. I do not know of any contradictions between democracy and Buddhism. I would even go on to say that Mahayana Buddhism is the religion of democracy. Let me give you an example. We say that a monastic community (Sanskrit: sangha) exists when a group of four monks is formed. When there is an important decision to be taken, the group of monks as a whole must resolve the question and not just the one who heads the group. For the future of Tibet I would say that the ideal would be a mixed economy. If you question me any further on what type of economy I would advocate, I think my answer might be very brief.

-- I would like to ask you a question regarding the relations between North and South which you have already spoken o fat length in your previous response. Given the fact that in France and in the Western world 80 percent of Western aid granted to developing countries is lost through corruption, what type of relations would you like to see between the industrialized nations and the Third World?

-- I believe I did touch on this question when I said that it was necessary to reduce the gap between the nations of the North and those of the South. The very first thing to do is to reduce the gap between the elite of the developing countries and the general population. As I said earlier, above all the countries themselves must make the effort to progress. That is obvious. Aside from that, to stand there all the time with ones hand outstretched is no solution. We Tibetans have received considerable aid during our exile. In the beginning we relied heavily upon that aid. Having said that, we also, above all, exerted a great effort ourselves to insure our survival. And now, not only do we meet our own needs but we are also working on all kinds of projects to preserve the identity and culture of Tibet.

Therefore, the effort must above all be made by the Third World countries themselves. At present these countries are presided over by an elite class, generally educated in the West, and the gap between them and the general population is considerable. I think, therefore, that the first essential step to reduce these disparities is to educate the people, which would enable the disadvantaged classes to raise themselves to a higher level of knowledge.

During my visit to Gabon I said to my African hosts that they lived on an immense continent with a wealth of history, enormous potential, and vast reserves of natural resources, but that they lacked confidence in themselves. That confidence must be developed, great determination must be fostered, and then every effort must be made to bring about a real transformation of the present situation. Look at Mahatma Gandhi: even though he had a very high level of Western education he never forgot or estranged himself from his own culture.

Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for transcription of this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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