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Frequently Asked Questions

Victor Chan :: photo by Manuel Bauer

Victor Chan: photo by Manuel Bauer

A Conversation with Victor Chan

1. As an outsider, how did you gain such unlimited access to the private life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama considers me an old friend; our first meeting was in March, 1972. He agreed to co-author a book with me because he believes that the book will have an impact on ethnic Chinese’ understanding of him, that it will provide a more nuanced, more accurate portrait of who he is—hopefully this will reduce suspicion from ethnic Chinese. He takes the co-authorship very seriously. He knows that the book will be a better one if I have good access to him. Also, I guess over the years he got used to me being around him; I’ve been on so many trips with him that he takes me being around him for granted. I’d like to think that he’s somewhat fond of me. Although I don’t really know this for sure. From what I could see over the years, he treats most everyone equally. Perhaps he gave me a little bit more leeway than others.

2. When you two first met, you asked him a brave question, considering your Chinese heritage; you asked him if he hated the Chinese for destroying his homeland. How did he respond?

It is amazing how clearly I remember that snippet of the conversation three decades later. Maybe it is because the answer was so unexpected, so unlike the picture Jin Yong, my favorite author, had painted with his stories. Every one of his tales has revenge as a recurring theme. A man’s honor is defined by the heroic and simple credo: an eye for an eye—much like the samurai code of feudal Japan. I marveled at the idea that the Dalai Lama forgave the Chinese for what they had done to his people.

As I relate it in the book: The Dalai Lama seemed subdued in his interchange with Cheryl, my traveling companion. Now he straightened up in his chair. His reply was immediate and succinct. And it was in English.

“No,” he said.

His eyes held mine. His expression was solemn. There was no hint of gaiety left. I looked away and stared at the carpeted floor.

After an interminable silence, he spoke quietly and slowly to Tenzin Geyche in Tibetan.

The Private Secretary translated: “His Holiness does not have any bad feelings toward the Chinese. We Tibetans have suffered greatly because of the Chinese invasion. And as we speak, the Chinese are systematically, stone by stone, dismantling the great monasteries of Tibet. Nearly every Tibetan family in Dharamsala had a sad story to tell; most have lost at least one family member due to Chinese atrocities. But His Holiness said his quarrel is with the Chinese Communist Party. Not with ordinary Chinese. He still considers the Chinese his brothers and sisters. His Holiness doesn’t hate the Chinese. As a matter of fact, he forgives them with no reservations.”

3. You first met the Dalai Lama in the early seventies. What changes have you observed in him over the years?

First, his command of English has improved dramatically. But he still relies significantly on his translators when it comes to giving Buddhist teachings. This is perhaps because he is unfamiliar with the English Buddhist terminology. More importantly he wants to express himself in a precise way when it comes to dharma. Nowadays, in a one-on-one situation, he holds his own quite capably, especially if his interlocutor speaks sufficiently slowly.

Secondly, the basic message that he conveys has been essentially the same over several decades. He is nothing if not consistent. He basically focuses on a few key topics: secular human values, interfaith dialogue, non-violence, and the need to co-exist with China. He has grown more confident in delivering speeches; he had done so many over the years. He is more adept in telling jokes. The thing that he takes the most seriously, when he goes on tour in the west, is when he gives teachings on the dharma—not because he wants to proselytize but because he takes this responsibility very seriously. If people want to know about certain aspects of the dharma, he feels it is incumbent upon him to instruct them to the best of his ability. So I have seen him totally absorbed, in advance of a teaching, in going over the text thoroughly and seeking out the best commentary to present its essence.

Also, as he himself has said frequently, he has managed to tame his temper (he used to be quite a bit of a hot-head when he was young). He gets irritated very rarely and I’ve certainly never seen him lose his temper.

4. What effect has your friendship with the Dalai Lama had on you personally?

I feel extremely blessed to have been able to be so close to His Holiness for such an extended period of time.

He has talked to me often about motivation being a key in one’s behavior. So I’m more conscious about examining my own innermost motivation when I undertake a new project or when I make a pronouncement about something. I’ve heard him talk about the idea of ‘wise selfish’ many times. So the idea gradually sinks in: when I act with a certain degree of altruism, I feel good; I feel good about myself and I’m more at peace. And I subconsciously use him as a model; when I’m about to do something or if I encounter a difficult situation with a friend or family, I ask myself: what would the Dalai Lama do in this case? How would he behave or react? And since I’m more familiar with his mindset, his behavior after being with him for so long, I have some ideas what he’ll likely do in the same circumstance.

5. In writing this book, what was the most surprising thing you learned about him?

That he is really significantly different from me, more so than anyone I know. His perspective is incredibly all encompassing, very wide, very long term. He could come up with a viewpoint that is totally unexpected, totally surprising, this is because he has spend half a century in intensive mind-training, in taming his so-called destructive emotions like jealousy and attachment. I’m also surprised by his consistency and his persistence. For example, he has been getting up everyday at 3:30 to meditate and practice for four five hours before he gets into other activities. I’m blown away that he has been doing this without exception, unless he was seriously ill, for so long. Even when he jets all over the world, the moment he arrives at a new time zone, it’s business as usual for him: get up at 3 or 4 and start meditating. He has never taken any time off that I know of. Because he is always 100% present, he is genuinely content with his lot; he has authentic peace of mind.

6. You have referred to the Dalai Lama's "magnetism." Can you describe it? Explain it?

This magnetism is not so much a function of what he says as how he says it. When he talks about simple things like being kind, thinking more about the welfare of others and less about your own needs, these platitudinous homilies sound downright simplistic on paper. But if you happen to be there when he said these things, you get the feeling that he totally believes in what he says. You also get the feeling that he comes to these insights through direct, personal experience. It’s not book knowledge. There is powerful conviction and knowledge behind these seemingly simplistic words. And I feel this through his body language, through his uniquely expressive face. The power comes in the way he laughs, the way he scratches his eczema itch, the way he looks you in the eyes. His real feelings and emotions show through his face with no filter. When I said his words are not the most significant thing, I’m saying: ‘Watch his body, watch his face when he talks. And feel his magnetism.’

7. What's the biggest misconception that people have about the man or his message?

That his message of peace and non-violence is the irrelevant ruminations of a man past his prime. That for half a century he has been ineffective in looking after the welfare of his people. That people mistake his stance of forgiveness as being weak and ineffectual.

8. In the Dalai Lama's public appearances, what is the most common question he is asked?

He gets asked a lot about China and Tibet.

9. Can you help explain his concept of "interdependence"?

From the book: The Dalai Lama said, “My middle-way approach: not separate from China—economically bound to the PRC. Meanwhile, full autonomy, self-government. Culture, education, environment, spirituality: these things we Tibetans can manage better. I’m quite sure that our Tibetan traditions, Tibetan spirituality, can help millions of Chinese. Already some Chinese artists, some Chinese thinkers are showing interest in Tibet, in Tibetan Buddhism. So China and Tibet. Not separate. Help each other, interdependent.”

Like so many of the issues he deeply cares about, his Sino-Tibetan policies are driven by his Buddhist view of the interdependence of all things—insights that he had internalized, like a cloth soaked in oil, when he was in his late twenties. To him, the reality of life is like the celebrated Indra’s Net of ancient mythology. The universe is looked upon as an enormous web woven of innumerable strands of thread. A diamond is affixed to each juncture. Any one diamond, with its countless facets, perfectly reflects all other diamonds—like an infinite array of halls of mirrors—and each has an ineffable relationship with all others. Disturbances in one area of the net galvanize a ripple effect that impacts, however subtly, on other parts. It is like the Butterfly Effect. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Beijing could cause miniscule atmospheric changes which over time could affect weather patterns in Vancouver.

On a human level, my daughters will not sleep safely in their beds, if kids in Kabul or Baghdad are not safe in theirs. For the Dalai Lama, the reality of life is an integrated whole: all things are interrelated and nothing exists independently. There is a well-known Tibetan saying: all beings have at some time been our mothers, just as we have at some time been theirs. It encourages us to work hard at self-restraint and to cultivate consideration for the welfare of others.

10. What fuels the Dalai Lama's interest in quantum physics and relativity?

He is excited and intrigued that in the ultimate analysis, there is apparently much in common between quantum mechanics, relativity and the Buddhist view of reality. He is intrigued that in cutting edge, Western science, the basic foundation in this scientific view of reality is so close to a theory expounded twenty five thousand years ago. His approach to Buddhism is a rational one, based on rational analysis. He is interested to know if this Buddhist view of reality is a correct one based on current scientific thought. If science proves that the Buddhist view is wrong then he would not hesitate in revising it. Since there is so much parallel between the two views he is pleased that so far, the Buddhist view has proved solid. He also feels that Tibetans, through the ages, have never taken an interest in science. He feels this is a deficiency, a narrow view and a mistake in this day and age. By taking a keen interest in science himself he hopes he can spurs his countrymen to be more involved. He also has a keen scientific, rational mind. Even as a small boy, his rigorous Buddhist logic training, in a very analytic sort of way, is similar to the training of scientists.

11. What does the Dalai Lama think of the throngs that turn out for his appearances?

I think he is gratified that there is increasing interest in the west. He wants to help, to be of use. He considers his messages of compassion important to the well-being of everyone. When giving a general talk (as opposed to giving Buddhist teachings) he stresses the importance of secular ethics to help us reduce anger and aggression, to help understand each other and find non-violent solutions to conflict. He likes to interact with people from different backgrounds.

As I have noted before he is justly proud of a system of thought that has evolved unchanged for over twenty five thousand years. The last thing he wants to do is to proselytize, but since he believes with all his heart the efficacy of Buddhism to transform one’s mind, and thus be a happier person, he’s glad that more people are turning away from consumerism and embracing a more grounded, authentic way of life.

He also knows that he holds more of a bargaining trip in his dealings with world leaders: since so many people in the west take to his message, the politicians could not easily sideline him, as Canada has proved recently. Paul Martin, the current Prime Minister became the first one in Canada to officially meet with him; this came about because of intense public and media pressure, and also because huge crowds throng to hear his talks.

12. What is the most important thing you've learned from the Dalai Lama?

To be truly happy and contented, to have real peace of mind, altruism is the most effective key.

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Intimate Conversations and Journeys
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan
Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 5, 2004

Stephanie Sorensen
Associate Director of Publicity