FEW journalists have been as close to the Dalai Lama as Rajiv Mehrotra. He has been a personal student of the great Tibetan leader for more than a quarter of a century and presently is the secretary and trustee of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, established by His Holiness. He had the privilege of travelling with His Holiness on his visit to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize. The Foundation was set up with part of the prize money then received.
The first volume is collection of recorded conversations that Mehrotra had with the Dalai Lama over a long period of time, which remain valid even years later, and surely would remain so for ever. The second book is an introduction to the Dalai Lama’s teachings and philosophy in his own words. And that is its unique strength. One can go through both books within a couple of hours. But both can be companions for a life-time, considering the depths of thought that are explored. As the spiritual leader puts it, “to practice Buddhism is to wage a struggle between the negative and positive forces in one’s mind”.
The subjects treated in the first volume speak for themselves. They deal with Compassion and Happiness, Suffering, karma, Re-incarnation, nirvana, moksha, shunyata etc in language simple to understand, but rich in thought. At one point Mehrotra asks a question that many have asked in the past and few have received a satisfactory reply. Asked Mehrotra: “If every individual carries his personal karma into the next life, how do we explain the increase in the world population? There must be a finite number of individuals who carry forward their karmas into future lives. Even if we accept the idea that many of them will be in Karmic transition as other forms of sentient beings, the total number of sentient beings also seems to be growing”. The Dalai Lama’s reply, with all respect to him, is not very convincing. According to him, many systems in the universe are infinite; therefore sentient beings are infinite in numbers. An unsatisfactory answer.
Equally unsatisfactory is the Dalai Lama’s answer to another question raised by Mehrotra. He wanted to know how to explain the relationship between identity and consciousness within the cycle of birth and death. Shouldn’t human being be re-born as a human being to explain the continuity of consciousness beyond death? To that the Dalai Lama’s reply, to say the least, is shocking. According to him, in his next birth, he can take either a human or an animal form, it makes no sense to think that so mentally and spiritually evolved a man as the Dalai Lama can be re-born as a dog, a bird, a fish or an elephant, all sentient, meaning able to feel, bodies.
There is yet another question that Mehrotra asked to which, again, the answer is not satisfactory. Is there such a thing as collective karma? When the Americans bombed civilians whether in Germany during the second world war or in Vietnam and literally thousands died, how can that be explained? Or, for that matter when an air crash occurs, was everyone in the plane destined to die at that particular point in time? Important question, but evokes no convincing answer.
The Dalai Lama is a strict believer in re-birth. He recalls incidents in which people have clearly remembered incidents in their past lives with such clarity. Mehrotra is persistent in setting down his doubts. What, he asks, if death is the ultimate state of consciousness, what about ghosts? The answer is complicated. The Dalai Lama speaks about six types of re-births, three types of “realms”, namely, desire realm, form realm and formless realm, etc leaving one completely mystified. This is not to question the spiritual achievements of the Dalai Lama which are self-evident but to wonder whether there isn’t more to life than what Buddhist philosophy proclaims. Buddha Shakyamuni propounded the Hinayana system in public teachings but the Mahayana teachings were supposedly given to a very exclusive group of people. Why should the Buddha have indulged in that discrimination? That leaves one positively confused, even it is admitted that among people there are those with a high degree of intellect and many with median intelligence and there is no way that the needs of both can be met on equal terms. What is more appealing is when the Tibetan leader speaks about compassion, such an integral part of Buddhism.
But what is the goal that we, the people, have in mind? Peace in an after-life? Eternal merging with God? What does that mean? Entering shunyata, nothingness? The Dalai Lama is averse to that! These and such other issues raised in these two volumes make for intellectual debate of the highest order. Every word, every sentence provokes one to think and if that is not true of spiritual or, say, philosophical, leadership, what else is? Credit should go to Mehrotra in presenting to us the essence of Buddhism in a novel way through the words of a spiritual leader who is humility personified.
(Hay House Publishers, Muskaan Complex, Plot No 3, B-2, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110 070)