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Ethical Mindfulness: An Interview with Tibetan Buddhist Monk and Scholar Geshe Lhador

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Ven. Geshe Lhador. Image courtesy of the author

Ven. Geshe Lhador has served His Holiness the Dalai Lama as his translator and religious assistant since 1989, and has translated numerous books by His Holiness from English into Tibetan and from Tibetan into English. He is now the director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and head of the Science Education Project. He is also a widely sought-after speaker on contemporary Buddhism, known for his ability to communicate the Buddhist teachings in common, everyday language. Buddhistdoor Global recently caught up with Ven. Geshe Lhador during a conference at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India.

Buddhistdoor Global: What can Buddhism teach us about leading happier lives?

Ven. Geshe Lhador: When I ask from where do you get long-lasting happiness, then everybody usually points the finger to themselves, which is to say that lasting happiness comes from within, which is absolutely correct. But we need to define what we mean when we say that long-lasting happiness comes from within. It means that lasting happiness is dependent on your own mental outlook and how you perceive things. Therefore, everyone needs to lead a life where your mind conforms to reality. 

In Buddhism, we talk about realities such as impermanence, suffering, and the interdependent nature of things. Greater awareness of universal truths, such as the wish be happy and have a better understanding of reality, will ultimately help us lead happier lives. Many of our current problems are caused by emotional burnout, or sometimes even due to emotional explosions, which can be overcome by simply being more aware. This has nothing to do with Buddhism as a religion—even a non-believer can use these techniques to overcome destructive emotions. The first thing you have to do is to understand yourself and your emotions, especially destructive emotions, and how negative they are for us. The more you know the destructive ability of poisonous emotions such as anger, the higher the chance you have of distancing yourself from them, and hopefully doing away with them altogether.

BDG: The idea of secular ethics is being increasingly embraced and implemented around the world. Can you tell our readers what it means?

VGL: Secular ethics, as the name itself signifies, has nothing to do with one particular religion. It takes universally applicable messages from any religion but is not based on a specific religion. Secular ethics is based on personal experience, common sense, shared experiences, and scientific findings, and is evidence-based. Based on your own experience and your evidence, you can find out what is useful for you and what is not helpful. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama launched his secular ethics program, many universities in India and in America, Brazil, and many European countries, are taking this very seriously, because everybody realizes that there really is a shortage of happiness. Despite our material development, the world is seeing more depression, loneliness, addiction, and attention-deficit disorders. Since there are so many problems, His Holiness considers it extremely important to not only teach secular ethics academically but to implement them as universally applicable values. There are many practices, but the main focus is on compassion. Compassion is really at the heart of many of the positive emotions and mindfulness meditation.

BDG: Could you please elaborate on mindfulness?

VGL: Mindfulness, like secular ethics, does not have any religious connotation. It is merely about remembering what you are doing and being aware of what you are doing. For example, if you are becoming angry, be aware that you are angry. If you watch it with a calm mind, in that moment, the anger will dissipate. Also, being mindful about your physical state, whether one is well or not, and, importantly, realizing the mind and how fragile it is. The more you recognize the mind’s fragility, the higher the chance of taking good care of it. Also, recognizing the need to understand your emotions, such as feelings of happiness and suffering. If you have feelings of joy and happiness, then you can develop attachment, and if you develop a sense of disliking or suffering, then you build hatred and anger. When you develop a feeling of equanimity, then you don’t care what happens, which induces lethargy and ignorance.

BDG: Please tell us a little about the different types of mindfulness meditation.

VGL: When we are talking about meditation, people often talk about one-pointed meditation which is good, but the second type of meditation is even more critical. One-pointed meditation is really important because it is like a laser beam—if the rays of the laser beam are scattered, it does not have power, but if the rays are concentrated and focused it has the power to cut through steel. Similarly, when your mental capacity is scattered, you can’t do anything. When your mind is concentrated, then you can achieve anything. But what is even more important is analytical meditation, in which you don’t have to sit down to meditate. This is actually something that we do all the time when making decisions about everyday life, for instance what to eat for lunch. We need to invigorate and strengthen this analytical habit we already have to analyze the nature of reality so that we can find solutions for all the problems we face. So analytical meditation is really like a lamp, and through analytical meditation practices, you develop wisdom, and through that wisdom, you do away with ignorance, which is the root of all suffering.

BDG: How can Buddhism be made more relevant to the modern world, in which we are increasingly becoming more networked and interconnected?

VGL: His Holiness has been talking about the need to become a 21st century Buddhist. To become a 21st century Buddhist, you must know the features of the 21st century. Some of the features of the 21st century, whether we like them or not, are that we are hurled into the face of each other through technology and social media. So when we are all so closely connected, naturally we are going to affect one another. It is therefore natural that what touches all must affect all. Since we are all so connected, we need to learn how to appreciate that pluralism and diversity rather than be threatened by it, and through that appreciation, there will be richness and harmony.

BDG: What can Buddhism offer a world that is seemingly becoming more polarized and in which secularism is perceived to be under threat?

VGL: Human beings have a natural tendency to boost their egoism. We have this natural inclination to focus more on one’s self and not so much on others. This kind of narrow-mindedness is very dangerous, not only in terms of manifesting harmony in the world but also in terms of one’s own well-being. Therefore, we need to come out of the shell and learn to fly high like the birds. I heard a story about chicks that are initially frightened to fly from high up in the mountains, and what the mother bird does is to push them so that they will learn to fly. Once they learn to fly, they learn to enjoy the expansive nature of space and the beauty of the landscape, such as trees and mountains. Similarly, if we come out of our narrow-minded shells, we will really learn so much from others and begin to enjoy the richness of the world.

BDG: Ven. Geshe Lhador, thank you very much for sharing your time!

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