"A Person acting in contradiction to what Buddhism teaches cannot be called a Buddhist" - Professor Geshe Ngawang Samten

March 10, 2018

India has been the home for about 1,20,000 Tibetans for nearly six decades. 8 years from the arrival of the Tibetans following the 14th Dalai Lama, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru founded the Central University for Tibetan Studies in 1967. A Deemed to be University under Section 3 of the UGC Act 1956, later renamed as Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS).

The current Vice Chancellor of CIHTS Professor Geshe Ngawang Samten is a renowned scholar of Buddhist and Tibetan studies. Professor Samten was in conversation was with Teesta Setalvad in Sarnath discussing the struggle of Tibetans in recognition of their nation. For him, in Buddhism, every living being has the potential to be liberated. He believes that this is the essence of the Tibetan struggle for dignity and human rights. The Tibetan political struggle is completely non-violent under the leadership of his holiness Dalai Lama. For them the Chinese are not enemies but brothers and sisters. For the Tibetans, hatred has to be encountered by the positive mentality. Hatred against hatred will only cause destruction. The Tibetan struggle for Independence follows only non-violent means. The mistake the Chinese have committed is out of their ignorance. Prof Samten believes that Chairman Mao had only limited understanding about the status of Tibet and the social system of Tibet.

Prof Samten draws the distinction between Buddhism and person. When people act violent by taking the name of the religion, then it goes against the teaching of the religion. An enlightened person should differentiate between the religion and people who embark violence. The spirituality is undermined when there is an attachment of faith to power. A person acting in contradiction with Buddhism cannot be called as a Buddhist.


Q. Sir, I would like to begin by asking what is the essence of the Tibetan Buddhist struggle for dignity and human rights?
A. I think there is an inbuilt kind of mechanism in Buddhism that every human being or if not even a human being, every sentient being has the potential to be liberated. Everybody has a right to believe to be liberated. This is the kind of very basic fundamental principle that Buddhism has and when you say Tibetan Buddhism, it actually is the tradition that came from India mainly from Nalanda, Vikramashila and Takshashila. The Theravāda Buddhism is confined to the south Asian countries and the Tibetan Buddhism is the system which came from Nalanda, Vikramashila and Takshashila which had this practice of a very holistic and comprehensive Buddhist studies and practices which involved philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, logic and a profound study of different fields of study. So, this tradition itself has, as I say it, a very strong kind of implication of looking at people and thinking themselves to have the right and the liberty to be developed to the fullest extent.

Q. And the political struggle of the Tibetan people, which is so linked to the notion of the Buddhist struggle for dignity, how was that able to cope against the might of a state?
A. I think the Tibetan struggle is completely in the form of non violence under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We have been struggling in a very non-violent manner and not having a negative attitude towards the so-called enemy in China. Instead, we treat them as  human brothers and sisters and the mistake they have made is due to the ignorance of the leaders studying from Mao Zedong himself who had a very limited kind of understanding of human nature, limited understanding of the nature of the status of Tibet and the social system at large and because of that he led the whole nation of China into that kind of direction which suffered a lot.

Q. So, hatred can be overcome by not hatred but by love.
A. Absolutely! And hatred has to be encountered through positive mentality, through patience, through compassion and through love and kindness. If hatred has to be encountered by hatred then it will enhance, the hatred will enhance and there won’t be any opportunity or chance of reducing the hatred.

Q. What is the significance of Sarnath which is the location of the Central Institute of Tibetan Studies? What is the significance of Sarnath and Varanasi to Buddhism?
A. Sarnath is very important for Buddhism because Sarnath is the place where Buddha  came from Bodh Gaya after his enlightenment and gave the first Dharma sermon on the four noble truths and this is the first discourse in his life which laid down the infrastructure for the entire teachings of his life. So far as Varanasi itself is concerned, I think at that time Buddha chose Sarnath because Varanasi, even at that time, was a kind of a place where all the traditions of ancient spirituality used to be found and many great masters and practitioners of different traditions used to be there. So it was a culture centre right from that time. Therefore, even after the Buddha’s discourse and later after the demise of Buddha we can see that Varanasi had to play a very prominent role in the development of Indian culture and Indian academic and intellectual system.

Q. Don’t you feel that today it is a conflict-ridden world, we talk about nuclear arms, we talk about war, we talk about violence. Don’t you think there is an increasing responsibility on those with knowledge of religion and scriptures, those who have the foresight and the wisdom of the faith and also the rationality of the other world, to speak out against this violence?
A. Absolutely right, because it is the responsibility of the spiritual leaders and of those people who have, by virtue of their practice of gaining such knowledge in their spiritual tradition, the responsibility to speak out and to reach to the people in order to reduce the intensity of the war atmosphere and the hatred atmosphere around the world. In this regard His Holiness the Dalai Lama as you know has always been saying that the spiritual leaders must participate in social life and they should come out, to reach out to the people so that they can make some differences in bringing  peace in the society.

Q. Would you like to say a few words on Nagarjuna?
A. I respect and love Nagarjuna’s philosophy, which is the Madhyamik philosophy, which means the middle way philosophy. I find it very helpful and very profound, not only for my intellectual pursuit but also for achieving peace in mind, because after all in Buddhism and according to Indian spiritual and academic tradition in general and particularly in Buddhist tradition, the philosophy is very much intertwined with spiritual practice. So why I see Nagarjuna’s philosophy so helpful is that there is nothing intrinsically concrete out there, everything is nominally and verbally designated so we con beings get attached to things as if they appear intrinsically from outside and that is the very reason why we have a very strong reaction to the external world. There is no substantial concrete independent status of those phenomenon then certainly our approach to the world would be very different. So, I find this extremely helpful.

Q. It was very hurtful over the last year or two to see over the internet, manifestations of violence and fascism within Buddhism when we heard some monks in Myanmar on the Rohingya issue or some other monks in Sri Lanka on the other minorities issue. Even a faith like Buddhism, that has stood for non-violence and rationality, has a tendency towards fascism and violence. How and why is that?
A. I think of course it is very difficult for people to differentiate between Buddhism and person, religion and person, the spiritual system and the person because Buddhism has always had a very peaceful approach. I believe that all the rest of the religions also have the same kind of approach and teachings but when people act totally against the teachings of those religions, common people cannot understand and cannot differentiate between these two and they even keep on saying that this person is from Buddhism, etc. If our people are more educated then we can make them distinguish between what Buddhism is and what the person is doing is right. If the person is wearing a robe and is acting completely against it, contradictory to what Buddhism teaches, then that person cannot be called a Buddhist because whether a person is Buddhist or not depends on whether he lives with those principles.

Q. But don’t you think that it has got to do something with the linkage between faith and power because when faith and political power get linked, there’s a tendency in all faiths to turn into this violent majoritarian.
A. Absolutely there is again the same problem you see. When there is faith and there is attachment towards power and obsession, the spirituality is undermined. So, no one can claim that somebody is a Buddhist if the person is totally obsessed with power and acts contradictory to what Buddhism teaches

Q. Would you then say that there is a very strong argument for a genuinely secular state?
A. Yes, I think certainly yes. And again the connotation of secular has many faces right, secular in the western context and secular in the Indian context. India is not at all secular in the sense of not believing in religion right.

Q. But to be equally equidistant from all faiths and matters of power, matters of political power..
A.  In matters of power for example I personally think Ashoka had complete respect towards every tradition of spirituality at that time and he didn’t have obsession towards his power but he was utilizing the authority and the power for the service of the people and that’s something that we need to have.