Q: How is this book different from your previous book, Inner Revolution?
A: It goes further in the direction of empowering the individual to practice the inner transformations that underlie the social-historical changes tracked out in Inner Revolution. It’s a sort of "how to make the Inner Revolution happen within yourself" follow-up. It also can work for someone without their having read Inner Revolution, though some might naturally want to.
Q: Your title refers to the Buddhist belief that our lives continue in some way for eternity. Why is this belief so critical? Isn’t it a big stumbling block for many Westerners?
A: Some modern people, Eastern as well as Western, might think the idea of personal continuity beyond death a "stumbling block," since they’ve been sold on the idea of death as a terminal disconnect by the scientific culture of the last few centuries, which pretends to have the keys to "the good life." But this idea is more imprisoning than liberating.
Q: There’s a popular misconception that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to become so enlightened that one then withdraws in bliss from the rest of the world. Yet you say that this is simply not so. Please explain.
A: There is an elementary form of Buddhism for individuals who feel intimidated by the vastness and complexity of life that allows them to think (although it is careful not to directly say so) of Nirvana as a final withdrawal into a disconnected bliss. The mainstream form of Buddhism teaches that ultimately Nirvana is not a place apart from the relative world, but rather a way of being in the world. When your wisdom has seen your selflessness, you become full of the bliss of ultimate freedom, which then naturally enables you to overflow with the universal love that wishes such bliss for all other beings. In short, in mainstream Buddhism you can have your bliss and share it, too!
Q: You write that people don’t necessarily need to become Buddhists to apply Buddhist teachings to their own lives, that the teachings are compatible with other religions or no religion. How does this work?
A: "Becoming a Buddhist" implies adopting some sort of conventional identity and label that associates you with a historical institution. Such identities and associations don’t always help everyone. The aim of the Buddha was to provide people with an education in ethics, mind, and wisdom, which would help them become freer, less selfish, and happier. Once they feel better and do better, they can choose their ways of being and their associations, depending on what best serves self and other in particular circumstances. In most societies, it is best to be harmonious with the mores and beliefs of the other people, and try to make things better within the existing forms of life.
Q: You are a passionate supporter of Tibet and a founder of Tibet House in New York, which seeks to preserve that nation’s endangered civilization. Aside from humanitarian concerns for the Tibetan people and their welfare, what is unique about Tibetan culture?
A: Tibetan culture is based on a set of principles from the heart of the Buddha’s movement individualism, nonviolence, educationalism, altruism, and egalitarianism and could be said to have made not the perfect but the best effort so far in embodying those principles in social reality. This is what makes it so specially worthy of preservation and restoration though all human cultures are of great intrinsic value.
Q: You have been a close friend of the Dalai Lama for several decades. What is he like?
A: The Dalai Lama is a great guy highly intelligent, kind, and good-humored. He is also invariably illuminating and inspiring. It is a privilege to know him and an honor to try to help him.
Q: You became the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk back in 1965, ordained by the Dalai Lama himself in India. Then you returned to the United States and became a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University. But you are often in the public spotlight as an advocate for Tibet, and you’ve been called the most influential voice of Buddhism in the West. You regularly hobnob with movie stars like Richard Gere, and your own daughter, Uma Thurman, is a famous actress. How do you reconcile these very different sides of yourself? Or aren’t they very different?
A: Though I do have different sides and am still a highly imperfect individual, I don’t see any dichotomy between aspiring to practice Buddhist virtues, studying and teaching about the nature of the mind, reality, and history, and having good friends, whether famous or not. Of course, having a wonderful daughter like Uma is a special bit of good karma and we are very proud of her.
Q: When you were a young man, it seemed as if you were headed for a rather conventional future as the well-educated son of a prosperous and socially prominent New York family. Then you lost an eye in an accident, and turned in an unexpected direction. What did that event mean to you, and how has it caused you to change?
A: "Conventional" was certainly the heading I was on, though I also had a lot of fun as a wild youth. The accident was a deep shock, an introduction to mortality and suffering, and it helped me awaken to the deeper possibilities of life. My old teacher used to tell me to go ahead and answer this question by saying that "the loss of that one eye helped me to develop the sight of a thousand eyes"! I think he meant the thousand eyes associated with the wisdom of selflessness and the universal compassion that cares for all beings.
Q: What do you think accounts for the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West? Can Westerners really understand Buddhism and practice it fully?
A: The Buddha encouraged us all, especially human beings, that we do have the capacity to understand not only Buddhism, but ourselves, and even all reality fully and completely. Of course, we have to develop that capacity, and that takes work and sustained effort. However, in no way should it be specially hard for westerners to gain such understanding and put it into practice. "Baby steps, baby steps," as Bill Murray says in his funny film What About Bob?
Q: In your book, you give very specific instructions about how to practice the Buddhist virtues. Can you explain what the main virtues are, and speak a little bit about their roles?
A: Wisdom is the key to unlocking the ability to practice all the other Buddhist virtues: generosity, just morality, patience, creativity, concentration, and artful activity. Explaining how to practice them and how they help you reach true happiness is what the book itself is about. First, understand what is real about you and your world. Then give to others as much as you can. Be sensitive to their needs and feelings, and interact with them fairly, justly, and harmoniously. When they step on your toes, be patient and don’t add to the stress by getting mad. Be creative in expanding your own happiness and in sharing it with others. Learn to concentrate your attention and mind to develop a deeper appreciation of and insight into life. And as your wisdom itself gets deeper and deeper, you will become more and more artful in your way of living and sharing.
Q: The title of your book also refers to the Buddhist belief that all life is interconnected, and that we each bear some measure of responsibility for enlightening and improving the whole world. How does one begin to go about such a daunting task?
A: The task is not at all daunting once we realize that "We are the world," as the song says. There is no escape. We will keep on experiencing it all. It is possible to ensure that we experience happiness for ourselves and those we love. And so we just do it. An ancient proverb says that the journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step. It is every step. We change the world every day, with every breath. Might as well see to it that it’s as much as possible for the better!
Interview provided by Riverhead Books, publishers of Infinite Life.