Interview with Ven. Lama Dondrup Dorje by Vana Prentza for Alpha TV, Greece - 1st June 2008, Athens
Q. We would like to ask, Athens as a place, to a Buddhist, what does it mean?
Athens is a very good place for Buddhist practice because there are many people.
Q. What are the problems in Athens and how can a Buddhist practise with these problems?
Problems are a matter of perspective. To a Buddhist, it’s not a problem; in fact it is a most precious place for practice. Because in a city as big as Athens, with so many people, the conditions can be very challenging, so a place like this is a perfect place to practise compassion, patience and generosity. From the point of Buddhist practice, to practise in a forest or somewhere quiet of course could be seen as preferable; this is for novices, for people who are perhaps beginners, because there is nothing to distract you. But the real practice is actually among people. Some people say: “I’m very patient when people are nice to me.” In reality, patience really comes into usefulness when people are not so nice to you. So in such a big city like Athens, there are a lot of people and a lot of traffic, everyone is busy, everyone is rushing everywhere, so it’s a very stressful place in many ways. So come the weekend, they like to go to beaches, they like to go to islands to relax. But if you actually are a Buddhist practitioner and have proper guidance in Buddhist practice, then no matter where you are, whether you are in the city or elsewhere, your mind is still at peace. Whether the conditions are challenging or not, you can turn it into an opportunity to practise Dharma. For that reason I think Athens is a perfect place to practise Dharma. Where else can you find so much opportunity to develop perfections in patience, and generosity and compassion? And one thing I notice whenever I come to Greece by the way how you conduct yourself, you can always bring out the better part of people. So how conditions change really depends on how you respond to them. So I think this is a perfect place for practice. I think Greek people are very fortunate. What better place to benefit the practice of compassion and patience and understanding.
Q. Talking about the practice, how easy is it for Greeks to receive the teaching and put it into practice?
People are ready for the teaching whenever they come upon problems, that’s generally the reason why they come to see me. When they have no problem, they don’t come to see me. It’s like a doctor, no one ever goes to say hello to a doctor when he is well. When they are sick, they say: “Doctor, doctor, please help me.” When they are well, you don’t see them again until the next time they get sick.
Q. What is the greatest need that people come to you for?
All the problems are different. During the time of Lord Buddha, he gave 84,000 different teaching because there are 84,000 different problems. So each person’s need is very different, and the prescription that helps really has to depend on what they need.
Q. I would like to ask you about the two disasters that happened in Myanmar and in China. Would like you to say something about them?
These two incidents are most unfortunate. Just as if someone has been shot by a poisoned arrow, the most important thing is to remove the arrow and apply treatment. This is not the time to intellectualise if it is right or wrong or that this thing happened or that thing happened. The first focus should be to bring help to the people who need help right now; so on this level it is very good. People are coming from all over trying to help. In the case of Burma, it is moving a bit slowly, but it’s slowly, slowly opening. There is a difference between China and Burma; China now has a very open relationship with many countries in the world, they have trust and confidence in each other, so they are very happy and willing to ask for help and then grateful for the help they receive because they have a lot of interaction with the countries around the world. In the case of Burma, the relationship they have with other countries is limited. And so without that kind of interaction there is not enough trust between the country that suffered from this and other countries that want to help. For that reason, action in China has happened much faster, the relief action, support and help came much faster and in the case of Burma is a lot slower.
Our focus now should be how to bring help to people and bring support to the people. This should be our main focus. Because whenever something like this happens, then such things as Greek, Chinese, or English all change. In a sense it is no longer important where you are from, it’s human hearts touching human hearts. When you are aware of people’s suffering like this, the only appropriate response is compassion; this is important. It’s not the time to say about all the buildings not being built correctly or this thing happening, none of these things are important right now, so we should not distract our minds with anything else. Many people need help, not just children, but people of all ages. Five million people have lost their homes. Sixty-eight thousand people have died already and the rubble has not been completely removed, so the figure is hard to say. So it’s important that anyone from anywhere whatever they do can help. The help has been very good and many doctors from around the world have volunteered to go to China and help. So, from my point of view, whoever thinks they can help people from these two countries, please help.
Q. So what should a Buddhist not do?
Always help others when you can offer help to others, but sometimes it’s not possible to do that, then at least don’t cause harm. For example in Athens, some people have a habit of taking drugs, not everyone, but some. I know that because I’ve seen that. So when they ask for money, they will say they are asking money for food. And I have been approached like this before. He asked me: “Can I have some money for food?” [I replied,] “In this part of town, why do you come here for food? This is not the place to ask for food.” And he asked if he could have some money. I said, “If I give it to you, you will do things not helpful to you.” And he said: “I understand completely,” and he left. The key is, when you cannot help people by giving them money, because the money they receive is only going to cause them harm, but we don’t have to be judgemental about that, nobody wants to be like that. And at this point of time they may not even be ready for help.
Be ready to help those who are ready for help but don’t do things that are unneeded. When you see an old lady standing by a zebra crossing, don’t help her across the road, she might just be taking a rest. Before you do that, ask her: “Do you want to cross the road?” She may have no wish to cross the road. You think she’s standing there waiting to cross the road, and take her across thinking you did a good job and now she doesn’t know how to get back to the other side. So, always make sure you have some insight and understanding.
There is a difference between sentimentally, which is to do with emotion, and compassion. Sentimentally has a lot to do with attachment and aversion; compassion is without condition, without anything in return. You do what is right because it is helpful to do that, not because it’s convenient or because you want others to think that you are helping others and how wonderful you are. I always encourage students to remember it’s good to do what is right; there’s no need to look for recognition. That way you will be totally stress-free in the way you apply yourself. Stress comes about because you say: “Well I just did a good thing, how come no-one noticed?” You end up more angry this way. So, I always say, if you are driving on the road and people give way to you, smile at them and say ‘thank you’; you have the chance to bring the best out of them or the worst out of them, the choice is up to you. So whenever you can do better, why do less? Maybe that’s the way you used to do some things, but now you know better, you should do better. So Buddhist practice is very simple, it’s about being a good person. If you’re not being a good person and you say you’re a Buddhist, then your hiding behind a label of a Buddhist or something else is not helpful.
Q. How often and where do you travel to?
I travel pretty much every week. For example, after Athens, I’ll be in Ireland, then I’ll be in Italy, then in England, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, then back to England, then Spain and then back to Greece.
Q. Of all the places that you have visited, which places do you think need the most Buddhist practice?
Buddhist practice can be used by everyone. It’s about how to create harmony in their life. Buddhist practice is about first generating harmony within yourself, then extending that harmony to others around you and then to the community, this is the real practice, but if you cannot swim yourself, it’s no good to offer yourself as a lifeguard on the beach. First you must practise, develop patience and then compassion and that way we can always bring help to others.
Q. A last question: what is the biggest affliction people have and the biggest curse that exists in the world today?
The biggest problem is our obsession with self-interest. The world that we see today, to most people, does not add up, in the sense that we were told by some people how it’s good to be, how to behave and what we should do, but they find that the world outside isn’t quite like that. So after some time they become cynical. So people don’t even have trust in themselves. Say they want to get up at seven o’clock in the morning, they set the alarm at seven o’clock in the morning and the alarm goes off at seven, then they open their eyes and say: “Oh, maybe I’ll stay a few more minutes.” So in a way, you don’t even have confidence with yourself and then you start extending that to everyone else. For example, it’s common in Greece for people to say: “I’ll meet you in the afternoon.” You never quite know at what time of the afternoon they mean, it could be any time from 12 to 9 o’clock. And most times you are not even sure what day that will be, so after a while you won’t take anyone seriously. So the biggest problem is people don’t have trust and confidence in themselves. That’s because they try to control things that can’t be controlled.
So you must first develop a good relationship with yourself. That relationship with yourself is not about self-centredness, but about knowing your place, knowing who you are and what you are. For example, you have a father and mother, so to your father and mother your place is their daughter. The way you interact with your parents is of course different with the way you interact with your friends. The way you interact with your father, your husband, your boyfriend is of course different to the way you interact with other people. So within, say, a get-together of people, you can have 3 or 4 generations or more; one must know one’s place, in that way there is harmony. Without harmony, then you are a daughter and you talk like a parent to your parents - that’s not good. If you have children and you treat them like your friends or your playmate, that’s not helpful. Children need parents not playmates, and your job as a parent is to nurture the children; their job is to protect children from harmful things. It’s not about giving them what they want, but about giving them what they need. So how can you do that when you don’t even know what they need?
So the biggest problem is, in general, people have lost a sense of who they are, what they are. That is why we get engaged in lots of distraction, activities which distract our minds from problems that we find difficult to face. So, the key remedy for that is to be authentic, to be exactly as you are, without judgement, without pride, just as you are. Just as you see things in nature, the trees are not jealous of the flowers, the flowers do not think they are superior to the grass; seven days a week, 24 hours a day they know exactly who they are. The trees don’t go off at 9 o’clock and go to a taverna, no, they just say: “I’m a tree.” And then at 9 o’clock they don’t say: “Hey, people are coming, let’s pretend we’re trees.” The common problem is that people all pretend to be something they are not, all the time just following opinions.
So Buddhism, simply put, has never been a religion; when Lord Buddha gave this teaching 2,500 years ago, he said: “This is the truth.” The truth has one characteristic, it is the same for everyone. Opinions and logic are different; no two people ever share the same opinion, even your husband or wife, your opinions and theirs are different, and they will change from morning to night, it’s never reliable and no one shares the same as you. So whenever someone shares an opinion with you, you are really happy. You say, “Oh this is my soul mate, this is the ONE I have been looking for,” which is very sad. When you think that there are so many people in the world, and you have to find that only one person understands you, that’s very sad. And when you get married with that person, you find out that he actually doesn’t always subscribe to what you’re thinking. Because most times in our relationships, we just say things that other people want to hear because we want them to like us.
So the most important thing is to develop a proper relationship with yourself, this is where Buddhist teaching can be of great help. When you have a good relationship with yourself, you will have a good relationship with everyone else.
I would like to thank you very much and to say that I could sit here and listen to you talk for hours.