In the early 80s my mentor, Dr George Gallup, told me that (based on polls his organisation had been doing all across America) the #1 question haunting people’s minds was, “Will there be a nuclear war?”
Many people believe that this unthinkable question is back again haunting us in 2018.
In the 80s, when I lived in America, the main fear was that “the actor president”, Ronald Reagan, might go ahead and press his self-proclaimed ‘Star Wars’ nuclear button.
Today, the fear is not only that “the TV star president”, Donald Trump, might press his self-proclaimed ‘mine-is-bigger-than-yours’ button but there is also the palpable fear that a poorly trained and poorly paid nuclear functionary might press the wrong button due to cellphone distraction or “Chelsea Manning” disenchantment or simply by accident.
Is this all just so much bluffing and gamesmanship or is it really possible? What are your own thoughts on the matter?
On this question, here are the viewpoints of three of the world’s eminent thinkers: the atomic scientists’, the Pope’s and the Dalai Lama’s …
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The board of atomic scientists (first established by Albert Einstein) which is comprised of a select group of globally recognized leaders with a specific focus on nuclear risk have been keeping track every year for 70 years. Their 2018 bulletin (January 25) now rates the current chances of nuclear war as being the highest in history. They call this “2 minutes to midnight”.
Pope Francis is another recognised world leader who is known for his direct and frank talk and saying it like it is. This week he said, “I think we are at the very edge.” He told reporters aboard his plane when asked about the threat of a nuclear war in the wake of a recent string of tests by North Korea and a false missile alert last week in America that sparked panic in the US state of Hawaii. “I am really afraid of this. One accident is enough to precipitate things,” he said.
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I’ve not had the chance to speak to him lately, but back in the 80s, when the imminent threat of nuclear war was top of mind, I asked the Dalai Lama what he thought and his answer is in the record of this meeting which I am republishing here and now …
In our relatively short human history there have been many leaders who have claimed to be divine and no doubt many more who have acted as though they were. Only a few like Jesus, Caesar and Kundun, the Dalai Lama, have ever had their claim of divinity widely acknowledged by their constituencies.
In 1933 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet died. As is the custom, there began a search throughout the nation to find the new Kundun. Born on July 6, 1935 in the small village of Takster, Tenzin Gyatso was only four when he ascended the Lion Throne in Lhasa. As the Fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, he became the ‘precious one’, the supreme spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet.
From his early years as Kundun, he received what is considered to be the most comprehensive and exhaustive regimen of training and preparation in the world, all for his role and position as Tibetan leader. His tutors reported him to be a most talented student. Beyond his Buddhist studies, he learned English, Physics and Mathematics.
After the Chinese army occupied Tibet, he led an escape into India with a hundred thousand refugees in 1959. There at Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama still heads his government-in-exile.
On July 28, 1981, on his first tour of the United States, I had a private meeting with the Dalai Lama at Kingston Manor, New York, where we discussed controlling anger, nuclear war, worry, mindfulness, happiness and pain and I also asked him to design a strategy for “a new improved religion”.
July 28, 1981 …
We had been waiting about thirty minutes now so I had plenty of time to take in the unusual surroundings which set the scene for my meeting.
There were diplomats, aides and a surprisingly large number of security people probably because he was giving an audience to the Governor of New York in the adjoining room. This room was obviously once the ballroom of this enormous French-styled mansion but now was the state reception room elegantly arranged to receive the wide range of visitors attracted to this unique and mysterious leader-in-exile of a remote and little-known people.
At last, the large double doors opened and there was Kundun, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and god-king of the Tibetan people. He entered and smiling warmly he held out his hands with a warm greeting … …
Your Holiness, I know you have many friends from the West who come to visit you in India and of course, the ones you meet on your visits to Western countries. What do you think is the difference between the Eastern way of thought and the Western way of thought?
When you say the East and the West, there are a big number of sub-groups in each, a great variety, so it is difficult to say. Perhaps one of the clear differences is that in the East, most countries are underdeveloped, except Japan. In the West, most of the countries are more developed in the material sense. Due to that, I feel there must be some differences in their thinking … in their attitude towards life, maybe some differences.
You mention that the West is more developed than the East in the material sense. Is there some area where the East might be more developed than the West?
Well, regarding religion and philosophy take, for example, India. Over the many centuries their country has developed many schools of thought. Not just one system of religion but there are many. Many different thoughts and philosophies. Also look at Chinese history as well as Indian history as well as the Middle East, Northern Africa or Egyptian history. These all have a very long history of civilizations. So you see, they may be more developed in certain fields.
For example, in a kind of Relativity Theory. In the West generally, this is regarded as a new theory but in the East it has already existed more than a thousand years! Also, I think, in explanations about the human mind.
Do you feel there may be a greater interest in thinking and in the mind in the East than in the West?
That is difficult to say! (Laughs) Now you see many Easterners very much rushing about and copying Western civilization (laughing). Also in the West, because you have reached a certain stage of material satisfaction people are now increasing their curiosity to investigate more about their minds. More about mindfulness. So it is difficult to say.
Perhaps we can look at religion as a system to help us achieve happiness. Many Western religions have constructed a theology with a particular doctrine regarding particular beliefs. One is then told to accept the beliefs on faith , follow the rules and this is the path to happiness. I understand that Buddhism uses a different approach. You seem to advocate a technology or method which when practised leads to happiness. In other words, you seem to recommend a method for thinking which one practises and applies rather than a particular belief which one accepts and then moves into. If this is true, it would seem Buddhism is as much science as it is religion but I’m not sure if my understanding is clear.
Yes … Yes … I think so. In Buddhism we emphasize reason. Belief through your own investigation rather than through faith. Buddha himself said that you are your own master and you should think things for yourself. Once you become convinced that something is right … then follow. Now, I tell all our monks and scholars that you must not accept my word out of respect for me but you must analyse it carefully just as a goldsmith analyses gold by scorching, cutting and rubbing it. So we emphasize the importance of thinking for yourself.
So, people doing their own thinking rather than just accepting the thinking of someone else.
That’s right, Michael.
Well we may be catching up with you, Your Holiness. It seems today there is a trend along these lines in the West. Dr George Gallup showed me research carried out by The Gallup Poll which indicated that there is a reduction, amongst young people, in their interest in the established religions and doctrines but at the same time there is a growing interest in spirituality. It would appear that young people are now saying they are more interested in spiritual matters than their counterparts of twenty years ago but they are less interested in accepting the traditional approaches to these matters. Can you comment on this research?
The increase in spirituality may be due to the realization that material things alone cannot be the full answer for human life or happiness. If so, I think this is a positive phenomenon. Recently the Pope told me that compared to fifteen to twenty years ago, the general public today is more interested in spiritual things. So perhaps this may be the same thing. In Tibet, the young people born even after I left in 1959 seem to have a very strong devotion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama. So I think this is positive.
What does the Dalai Lama see as the prime cause, the Number One reason for suffering in the world today?
Anger. Hatred too, of course … but hatred is caused by anger.
Well, what can we do about this?
I’m sure that most people would agree with you that if there is hatred and anger then we need more compassion and self-discipline in general. But at any particular moment it can be quite difficult to actually practise these. Something can be desirable by everyone all the time but not at any particular moment. For example, “In general, everyone should be more tolerant and have more self-discipline but not me now when this man just pushed me on the subway”. It seems to me Your Holiness, that this is where the problem lies on a daily basis.
Then that is the time to control! When we have no anger, we have nothing to control. But when we feel some irritation, that is the time to control. Of course it is difficult but if we try, try, try … gradually it will develop. We need to constantly think about the negative effects of anger and hatred. Then think about the positive effects of compassion. Think! Think! Think! Now, this does not actually control anger but this awareness helps build up your own conviction that anger is useless. Then this conviction becomes stronger, stronger, stronger.
This is how to fuel self-awareness and self-control. Now when you have a strong conviction that anger is of no use to you this will help you when you actually do get some irritation. Because of our continuous conditioning or exposure to anger, anger will come. Now … sieze that moment! Because of your utter conviction you have built up, you can now make an attempt to face it. Perhaps a kind of fighting will take place in your mind. One side with its determination to try to control, will try to overcome the anger. This is your conviction. One thought will fight the other in your mind. In the beginning you will not control … you will not win. But in a month, in a year, gradually your anger becomes lesser, lesser, lesser. That is the way to control!
Are you saying that controlling anger is a skill like playing tennis? You may not win when you first start but if you practise for a month or a year then, not surprisingly, you would get better and gradually you would begin to win more often.
That’s right … like that.
I think, Your Holiness, that this is probably the most important matter we shall discuss today, so I would like to go into it further with you. Can we look at a specific example? Suppose I go back to New York City tonight and, for some reason, I get on the subway. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Someone pushes me down. What advice can you give me to help control my anger at that moment? Is there any specific technique or tip?
There are steps. OK. The best thing:
1. Immediately! Mindfulness. Recognize the situation. Catch the moment immediately. “Now, anger is coming. I must be cautious. I must be careful”. This awareness or mindfulness itself will have some influence to minimize anger.
2. Then you remember to think about the uselessness of anger. You bring to bear the conviction that you have built up that anger is always useless. This, your conviction, will also help to minimize anger.
3. Now, don’t think any more about the cause of your anger. Try to turn your attention to some other object. This also helps to reduce anger. Remove the cause of it.
So first you consciously recognize the situation as an “anger-producing situation”. Second you recall your past experience and conviction that anger is, shall we say, counter-productive. Third you remove the cause of your anger by switching the focus of your attention onto something else.
Yes … exactly.
Well, thank you. Now, how does this work? If a specific incident causes me anger and, as you suggest, I switch my attention to something different … how does that work to reduce the anger I feel?
You are not giving anger a chance. So if you leave that moment and move on, anger will not come. That was anger’s moment of opportunity. If you avoid that moment … it has no opportunity to enter.
This is one method. This may not control anger immediately, it takes practise – but the effectiveness of anger will certainly be reduced.
When you have the confidence that although anger has come, you are aware of it and are acting on it, then anger should not stay too long. Also, as soon as your anger goes away, your attitude towards that person can return to normal. Anger usually changes your whole emotional attitude towards a person but if you very quickly return your attitude to what it was before the anger, then the effectiveness of anger has been neutralized.
If at first you cannot control anger you can at least reduce its effectiveness. Gradually anger becomes less, less, less. That is the way to practise, practise, practise.
I see. Well, if the only time you can really practise the control of anger is in these irritating situations, could one look upon the person who causes the irritation (like the man on the subway) as a person who has actually provided you with the opportunity to practise self-control? Couldn’t this be a plus point in these anger-producing situations?
Yes … Yes. The only opportunity to practise patience or tolerance is when you are actually facing enemy. If someone is going to hurt you, that is the golden chance to practise tolerance … patience. Without that there is no chance to practise … so your enemy gives you the opportunity to practise. From that viewpoint, if you can take advantage of it, it can be a useful opportunity.
If you can learn to think along these lines, then gradually you can learn to grow respect for your enemy. But this is not new, is it? This is, after all, how you practise anything. This is why some people used to go deliberately to a place where they get irritation so that they might have a chance to practise control of irritation. Also in a similar way, one can practise the control of fear. Go purposefully to a fearful place or situation and try to control your fear.
Rather like a gymnasium where one goes in order to deliberately struggle with weights to develop muscular strength through resistance.
That’s right Michael … like that.
So the way to build patience, respect, tolerance, self-discipline et cetera is not to avoid situations, but to actually immerse oneself in them and practise until one becomes proficient.
Quite right. Practise is the main thing!
Does it mean, Your Holiness, that one can actually choose to view unpleasant situations as, say, opportunities for growth and development? … That one does not have to be bullied into fear and anger by them, or do you think that is stretching it a bit too far?
That is difficult to say. If it’s bad … it’s bad. Suffering is suffering. Nobody wants suffering and we have to try to overcome that suffering. You can’t change pleasure or pain entirely just by a change in attitude.
Right. But one can change one’s attitude towards it. One can change the way one chooses to view a situation, can’t one? Given the same situation, one might choose to view it as a hassle or undeserved problem and yet another chooses to see it as a challenge or opportunity. Isn’t it largely a matter for perceptual change?
To a large extent, yes. I think I will explain something. Now, you see … pain … and happiness. In reality there are certain things which we do not want and there are certain things which we want – that’s reality. Now, when we actually face some pain or problem we realize this is something we do not want, but it’s too late. We are already facing it. We are already having it. Now, instead of worrying, having tensions or unpleasant feelings, you just decide to take it easily since it is already happened.
No use too feel too much regret or too sorry or too much self-pity. It is something that has already happened! It is better to accept.
That does not mean that you do not realize that this is something unwanted. You can still regard it as an unwanted thing and you still very much want to overcome it. But now the better way to overcome it is to decide to change your attitude towards it. You decide to take it easier. You decide to feel no regret, not too much sorrow. Now … you see … already you will feel better. Already this will help to overcome or deal with the problem more easily.
Take, for example, pain. Some physical pain has already happened. You do not want it but if you feel too much anxiety, that will not help. So, instead of increasing anxiety and adding that on to your pain, now you say, “I’ve got this illness. It has happened! That I cannot change. So now I will take my medicine or whatever it is that I can do to take care of myself. Now this illness, this unfortunate thing happened to me due to my own previous ’cause and effect’ – this is now the consequence. So I must accept it.” Now, already you feel much more at ease. Meanwhile you take your medicine, you listen to doctor’s advice and you take every possible care, but mentally you are not disturbed so much now. You are not too much anxious.
Yes … yes. Detached! You try to detach your own self from the suffering.
So we can say, “If it’s fixable, then there’s no need to worry about it. And if it’s not fixable, there’s no need to worry about it either.” (Much laughter)
Worry can never help anything. So that is the way our choice of attitude toward suffering can help it or make it worse. But suffering is still suffering.
Yes, that’s very good. If it isn’t fixable, worrying will just make it worse. And if it is fixable, you should spend your effort and your time thinking out how to fix it, not worrying about it. In a sense then, worry is the absence of thinking.
Yes. That’s good! (laughs)
Is this all Buddhist philosophy or is it your own personal philosophy?
This is Buddhist philosophy and I practise these things as well.
And are you saying that with practise one can get better at this?
Of course! Of course!
It’s like a skill, in other words. Like golf or carpentry, you can practise and improve.
Like that! Like that! First you should learn these things through your own investigation and think, think, think, to build up your conviction. Now, that is the right way to challenge a problem. Once your conviction is strong enough, now you try to handle in daily life.
At the beginning, it is not at all easy but when you get used to these things it gets easier and easier. Soon you control. Maybe six months, maybe a year. Soon you can control but you must practise, practise, practise.
And it’s when you get problems or hassles, that is an opportunity, if you choose it to be, to practise what you have been working on – controlling anger, self-discipline, stress-reduction and so on.
Yes, that is so. But of course, I am not saying that just because it can be helpful, in practise, to voluntarily accept your suffering, that we therefore need more suffering. No! No! If someone hit on you, that is an occasion to practise more compassion, more tolerance, but not therefore do we need more people to be beaten and hit upon! (laughter)
Your Holiness, if you were asked to design a new religion, what would be some of the features that you would want to include in this new religion?
(Laughing) I cannot answer that!
Look at it as a design project.
There is no need to ask me such questions, Michael. (laughing)
(Laughing) Yes. It is a trick! It’s a trick question, Your Holiness, but you have my permission to answer it.
Oh, a trick! (laughing) Then I will answer … Hmmm.
More simpler, more effective religion. I think that I already, you see, have made an effort to promote the “Universal Religion” – that is, the practise of COMPASSION.
Irrespective of whether you are a believer or a non-believer, if you are a human being you do need kindness.
Kindness … compassion … this is my universal religion.
Simpler. Without any philosophy. You know through your own experience how much is the value of your parents’ kindness. When your mother showed a kindly attitude toward you, you appreciate it very much. Without your parents’ compassion, you would not survive, you could not live. You see, here there is no need to prove!
No need for logic!
No need for religion!
No need for temple!
So now, that is the real religion. I am trying as hard as I can to propagate that … to teach this simpler approach. Compassion, more compassion!
Before we met, Your Holiness, I called a number of my friends and acquaintances. I chose people who were leaders in their respective fields. Names aren’t important, but they are leaders in business, education, entertainment, law, military, government and so on. Most are well known public figures. I spoke to over twenty of them and asked them all the same question. “If you could ask the Dalai Lama just one question of personal importance to you, what would that question be?”
To my surprise there was one question that was asked more than any other. A leading national media consultant confirmed that their research also showed that the same question is on the top of peoples’ minds in America, even if they are not talking about it. It’s to do with the threat of nuclear destruction. Will there be a nuclear war?
So! Given that for the first time in human history we now all know that we can actually annihilate ourselves, erase the whole program, as it were, what message can you give to us? What does the Dalai Lama say to the people of today who will spend their whole lives under this nuclear Sword of Damocles?
Yes. Let me begin with a simple message.
CONTROL YOUR ANGER!
That’s it. This is what I believe. This is what we have been talking about. There is no escape from this – WE MUST CONTROL OUR ANGER, each one of us. It is an individual matter. There is no alternative!
You can talk too much in summit meetings but this can never work. This will never provide solution. Only getting worse and worse. Every individual must learn self-control, self-discipline. Then they can practise kindness and compassion.
Only then can there be hope for the future. This is what we have been discussing before, how to do it.
I see. What about you personally? For myself, sometimes when I am working very hard and I suddenly think, “What if it all goes up in smoke in three years? Is all this effort really going to be worth it? Shouldn’t I just go and lie on the beach and relax?
The beach?? (laughter as an aide explains in Tibetan about ‘the beach’)
Then I shrug and say, “If it happens, it happens!” How do you deal with this threat, personally? Do you often think about it?
(Long pause – 16 seconds.) Nothing. Nothing much to say. No special idea.
Sometimes we say jokingly to each other that firstly Tibet has a high altitude, and second, around Tibet there are many, many big snow mountains and so we will be safe. (much laughter)
So we should all go to Tibet? (laughing)
Oh yes. Welcome. Welcome. Without any food. Just eating snow. (much laughter) Just drinking snow, like that!
But, I don’t think this will happen. No guarantees, as I said before, but we can hope. Again, what can we do? A simple message … we, each of us, must control our anger. That is the need to practise, practise, practise.
Can we bring everything we have talked about down to one basic piece of advice you could give me? In, say, the form of two questions. What two questions should I be asking myself? What two basic questions should I always be asking myself on a daily basis?
I don’t know, Michael. (laughing)
One question maybe is: Self-inspection. Self-check. Am I doing what I really want? Constantly you must check yourself by yourself.
You mean watch what I do? Notice my behaviour? My feedback, as it were? Then check it – “Is this what I want?”
Yes. Yes. External police force may not be sufficient. You must have the FBI inside your head.
Check your thoughts!
Check your motivation!
Check your behaviour!
Is this what I want? Is this what I meant? Live your life in such a way that on the final day, you have no regret. That is important! That’s one question you can put to yourself always. Then I think the other question is, of course; “What is the meaning of life?”
These two go together. What is life for? What is my purpose, my goal? What should I be doing? And then … Am I actually doing it?
Constant check! Back and forth! These are the two questions you can use.
Thank you, Your Holiness.
Now, if these words are useful to you, then put them into practise, practise, practise. But if they aren’t helpful, then there’s no need for them.