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‘For a Buddhist, curiosity and inquiry are essential to practice’: The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi

Tenzin Priyadarshi ran away from boarding school in Asansol, West Bengal, at the age of 10 to find the place that kept appearing in his dreams — a mountain peak with men in sunset-coloured robes. When he found the place of his dreams at last, it turned out to be a Buddhist monastery in Rajgir, Bihar.

Now a Tibetan Buddhist monk, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi heads the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. His recently released memoir, Running Toward Mystery, is an account of his ongoing journey as a seeker. Sometimes anecdotal, sometimes reflective, it is also a meditation on the mystery and purpose of life. In this email interview, Tenzin Priyadarshi provides insights into faith, religion and Buddhism:

Today, when religion gets frequently debased into blind belief, do you think Buddhism, with its spirit of inquiry, offers a way of reconciling faith with rationality?

Faith can be of several types. Most often we think of it in terms of blind faith. However, Buddha encouraged students not to take his teachings at face value or believe in them simply out of reverence. He suggested that we critically analyse the teachings as a goldsmith analyses the purity of gold. I believe this was the spirit with which Buddhism was studied and practised in our ancient institutions such as Nalanda, Vikramshila, and others.

A sense of trust that is rooted in reason is often beneficial but we should also ensure that our ability to reason is not dogmatic in its attitude. For a Buddhist, curiosity and inquiry are essential to practice.

Why do you think Buddhism never became a mainstream religion in the modern world? Is it because it seeks to question rather than to answer?

Mainstream at times is overrated. During his own lifetime Buddha challenged the mainstream and its assertions on caste

‘For a Buddhist, curiosity and inquiry are essential to practice’: The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi

divisions, wealth disparity and violence. Human nature is a difficult pattern to work with and so are the institutions it creates. Buddhism emphasises a journey of inquiry, reflection and transformation for each individual. It is not one size fits all.

I would rather opt for a world where care, kindness and compassion, rather than a particular religious institution, is mainstream. It is, however, encouraging to see the growing interest everywhere in mindfulness, wellness and compassion-based learning programmes without religious overtones.

Why are there so few female teachers?

I believe there are very few good spiritual teachers in general — male or female. One should approach the spiritual path with the desire to be a seeker, not a teacher. Motivation is a singularly important cultivation on the path and one should tread it carefully and with humility. We should also be careful about the institutionalisation of traditions — is it driven by patriarchy? Is it fundamentally biased towards a sub-group of people? Is its sole investment in society to maintain the status quo by controlling power and narrative? These are the sicknesses which we must heal and emerge from.

Can there be ‘ethical’ violence?

Humans have often tried to rationalise the notion of a just war, when violence is deemed necessary. We must be extremely careful with this approach as it is often dictated by narratives, at times ill-informed. We should also be cautious in labelling acts of violence over resources and economic disparity as religious violence as it often deters us from truly understanding the root cause of violence, thereby perpetuating it.

In a complex world such as ours, violence needs to be the last resort, when we have exhausted all means of dialogue and negotiations.

Can you tell us a bit about the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT?

We live in an increasingly polarised and conflicted world. We are pre-occupied with self-righteousness and issuing moral dictum. In such times of volatility and uncertainty, the work of the Dalai Lama Center at MIT is to encourage ethical imagination — what is the world that we truly wish to see and create? It is both an individual and a collective process of envisioning a positive transformation where ethics and values are critical framing tools for the present and the future.

How do we relate to each other beyond tribalism? How do we develop a healthy relationship with the environment rather than just being consumers of it? How do we create systems of economies and governance that are not propelled by exploitation? The Center provides a critical learning platform for such timely and relevant conversations.

anusua.m@thehindu.co.in

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