It had been on the radar for months, but it didn’t really sink in until I saw the lush and green Scottish mountains and felt the plane descending. As I touched down in Inverness just before dawn, I pictured the Dalai Lama and his entourage, making their way up through these stunning landscapes by car. Just one night remained before I would embark on one of the most special reporting duties of my career.
That evening I met my favourite Scottish photographer Simon Murphy in a local bar. Over a pint, we tried to pin down our luck. How on earth had we managed to get ourselves a 40-minute private audience with one of the most respected spiritual leaders on earth?
The Dalai Lama wasn’t doing many media appearances during his UK trip in June 2012, but he had agreed to speak to us. He was delighted by the idea that his interview would directly support people who experienced homelessness. The reason for this was that I had secured the story for the International Network of Street Papers. Through its news agency, street papers - sold by homeless people in over 40 countries - can republish global and exclusive content for free. Vendors buy magazines for half the cover price and sell them on, keeping the proceeds for themselves.
The next morning, we made our way to a historical castle outside of Inverness. We were welcomed by some of the travelling party who pointed to the next room, where we caught a glimpse of the Dalai Lama having his lunch. Once rested up from his morning travels, he came through to the reception room and shook our hands. “Welcome,” he said in a warm voice, as if he was fully at home in these Scottish surroundings.
The photographer took some snaps, the aides took their seats quietly in the corner in case of any translation issues and I took mine on the sofa alongside the Dalai Lama’s cream-coloured armchair. I pressed the button on my voice recorder and he smiled and nodded, inviting me to ask him what I wanted to know.
“If you had one question you could ask the Dalai Lama, what would you ask?” I asked friends, family and colleagues in the weeks before the interview. Many wanted to know about hope, happiness and purpose in life, in some way or another. I also asked the street paper editors and readers around the world what they’d like to know. After all, I was writing for them, rather than having a personal conversation fuelling my own curiosity alone.
As it happened, the entire 40 minutes that followed fuelled my curiosity in ways I could not have imagined. They also sparked more questions, thoughts and ideas, even long after the interview was over. I had a list of about 11 questions I wanted to ask, but I hadn’t anticipated just how much of an orator the Dalai Lama is. Basically, as soon as I asked him the first question, he started talking and I started writing, nodding along and taking it all in.
I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way to think about spirituality and ethics beyond religion all together.
It wasn’t until I transcribed the tape at home that I fully appreciated the wisdom and insights within each answer. When researching for the interview, I had been amazed to find that the official Dalai Lama Twitter account had 4.5m followers (this has since almost tripled to a mind-boggling 11.8m) and 4m on Facebook (currently 12m)! One of his then recent popular tweets read: “I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way to think about spirituality and ethics beyond religion all together.” I was intrigued by that and asked him why he believed that.
Here’s what he said, word for word.
“Obviously, among 7bn human beings there is quite a big portion of people who have not much interest in religion. And within the group of believers, again I think there is quite a big portion of people not very serious about it. For many, religion has become just a daily ritual, but is not taken seriously. So the indication that they may attend Sunday church or a temple, including Buddhist, does not mean much. They pray to Buddha or God, but in their real life they have no hesitation to get involved in creating injustice, telling lies, corruption, bullying and cheating. These activities are, I think, against every major religion and traditional teaching. That indicates that a group of religious believers has a lack of conviction.
“Traditional spiritual teachings and principles are an immense benefit to oneself. The people who do not take their religion seriously lack this knowledge, and religion is of no relevance to their lives. Therefore, we need a wider way to spread the conviction that moral ethics are really the basis of a happy life. This is true on an individual level as well as on a family, community and humanity level. That is something common for all major religions and traditions, as well as non-believers. Everybody wants to be happy and have a happy family.
“Many people have the attitude that if you have money or power, your life becomes something meaningful and makes you happy. That is a mistake. Happiness and sorrow itself are part of the mind; they are a mental experience. The real way to reduce pain and sadness and increase happiness and joyfulness must be found through mental training. Some of my friends are very rich, they have plenty of money. And of course, because they are a wealthy person, they are also quite influential in society. But as a person, they are very unhappy, I noticed that. That shows that money, vanity and power are not an adequate source of happiness.”
And that was just one question. Needless to say, I didn’t have time to ask all the ones on my list, but I still got quite a few in.
I have listened to many of his public speeches and interviews since, and often find that I recognise his words from answers he gave me. Rather than repeating himself, I think it is a testament to his world view that so many “low level” issues can be resolved, or at least better understood, by looking at the bigger picture.
Interviewing him and feeling his calm and spiritual presence in a quiet room has changed the way I look at some bigger picture issues, too. It is hard to put into words, but it is about an interconnectedness that I hadn’t necessarily appreciated enough before.
It was one of the street paper vendors in the US who said it better than I could have myself.
A total of 72 street magazines in 27 countries published the interview, with translations into many languages, including Japanese, Norwegian and Slovak. Homeless vendors made £1.1m cash profit from sales of the special edition.
Robert, vendor of Groundcover News in Michigan, felt that the Dalai Lama’s perspective really conveyed some of the emotions he felt, including those of what it means to be homeless. “He does a good job providing a whole world view,” he said.
And I agreed.
[Photo: Simon Murphy]