Reflecting on the Modern Age — A Conversation with Axel Schneider
Why are more and more people, after having done thorough research, taking on the decision to learn Buddhist philosophies? The reason is that Buddhism is not in conflict with living in a modern society. It is a science of mind that touches the very root of suffering and happiness, which provides people with the guidance and instructions that can transcend time.
“Buddhist philosophy, and especially in Tibetan Buddhism, is comprised of a whole science of the mind and can always, as such, meet people’s needs and solve their problems. No matter the age, it provides a perfect education of the mind that teaches all people how to attain happiness and cut through suffering. It does not need to be packaged for the tastes of its followers; it can be implemented immediately by any society at any time.”
Religion and Modernity
Professor Schneider: Good morning Khenpo. Welcome to Göttingen. It’s my great honor to have the opportunity to discuss with you the subjects that the students of religion, Sinology, as well as anthropology, are most interested in. Yesterday we talked about the relationship between religion and modernity. Although the process of modernization, in the Chinese-speaking world, has been extremely rapid over the past twenty years, religion seems to be reviving at the same time. Many of us here do not understand this phenomenon. Would you please share your thoughts on what you believe caused this to happen and please try to place it in context for us.
Khenpo Sodargye: I believe the phenomenon of Buddhism having revived to the point where it can now be said to be flourishing, is very evident in both the West and the East. This is particularly true in Mainland China and Taiwan, as well as in several other regions. I have given a great deal of thought to the reasons for this, and have concluded that the main cause lies in the fact that in the past, people assumed that material progress, resulting from science and technology, would satisfy people’s inner needs. However, now that we have entered the 21st century, people have realized that material progress alone, can’t solve the bigger issues rooted in people’s minds that concern their inner reality. We know that Christianity and other religions have gained a wide following in western countries, so we may ask, does Buddhism provide something similar for the Chinese people?
In the past, most people in Mainland China did not have the opportunity to consider and choose their own belief system. Conditions were not favorable for them to follow a spiritual tradition. These days, however, many societies and cultures are becoming more and more open (to new things) and many previously held preconceptions no longer exist in people’s minds. In many cases, people are becoming more aware of the feeling of emptiness and so have begun to look for spiritual food—which is precisely what religion can provide—to satisfy their needs. Similarly, those people in the West who previously, have held no religious beliefs, have also found themselves dissatisfied by material abundance and so they have also begun to seek spiritual support, which religions such as Buddhism and particularly Tibetan Buddhism can so richly provide. So, I believe that this is the cause for the revival of Buddhism. In addition, since the philosophy of the Buddhist teachings can bear up to any kind of scientific analysis and can, as well, withstand the challenges of time, many young people and intellectuals have thus developed a great passion for it. For my own part, I am of the opinion that this interest will not soon decline.
Professor Schneider: We agree that scientific development brings people a comfortable material life, but one in which a spiritual foundation or belief is often missing. If we say that the revival of religion is the result of trying to fix this problem or to fill this gap; that is to say that in addition to material progress, we also need religious faith to sustain a comfortable and meaningful life, then this brings up another question. We could say that the ideology and world view that serve as a foundation for the modern lifestyle, actually contradict the religious traditions because the development of science and technology requires a premise that the whole planet, that is, everything except humankind, are regarded as external objects that can be manipulated by human beings according to their will.
It is apparent that we have changed the ecology of the planet and that it is now vastly different from what it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. In the context of modern science, the external world does not have an inherent transcendental or religious power, and so, starting with this worldview, science and technology have been encouraged to develop to such a degree that they’ve caused tremendous changes to the world we live in. Following this thought, if things are as I believe them to be, the revival of religion cannot only make up for the spiritual vacuity caused by material progress, but also calls for the modern lifestyle to be brought into question.
From my point of view, in the past 20 or 30 years in Taiwan, or the past 15 or 20 years in Mainland China, the revival of Buddhism contradicts much of the modern lifestyle in many aspects, although there are also some aspects that they share in common. What are your thoughts on these two things: the present revival of Buddhism and the lifestyle caused by modernity in Mainland China? Do you see them as being contradictory or not?
Khenpo Sodargye: If religious belief remains nothing more than mere faith or as a subjective ideology that exists only at a superficial level, then it does contradict material progress to some extent, and would therefore be incompatible with the modern lifestyle. However, if a religion is based not only on pure faith but also rational wisdom, and if we can, furthermore, apply such wisdom to the improvement of our society, then regardless of how materially advanced we become, we will be able to enjoy such progress rather than being overwhelmed by its unexpected consequences, because it will be our wisdom that is guiding the development of the material world.
So I think that it is only when religion is viewed as a superstition, or as a subjective ideology lacking in wisdom, that the development of the inner world and external world would appear to be contradictory to each other. If we fully understand the deep meaning of a religion, the wisdom, compassion, and the view of the equality of life, as advocated in Buddhism, then we will find that these concepts are not in conflict with modernity at all, but are, instead, indispensable in this age of highly advanced science and technology.
Therefore, I believe the revival of Buddhism in China, in fact, reflects that people have found a spiritual destination of their own. There are, undeniably, some individuals who are blindly following this trend, but for the majority of people, their decision is not due to blind faith but, indeed, is a choice born of inner wisdom. Such a choice won’t cause obstacles to, or conflict with, material progress. Religion and science can always coexist in a harmonious and friendly manner.
Professor Schneider: Given the fact that much of material development has caused tremendous damage to our planet, I still have some doubts regarding this question. People want to live comfortably, to have cars, houses, and to enjoy all sorts of modern facilities, all of which come from the exploitation of natural resources. As a result, we have done great damage to nature.
Furthermore, modern progress has also brought great damage to moral ethics. For example, in the present economic pattern, making a profit is the basic requirement of running a company, regardless of whether this is in conflict with basic morality. People seldom care about whether their way of making a profit negatively affects their attitude towards morality. As a result, the current economic pattern results in a high cost to both the environment and to humanity. It seems that society needs to rely on a spiritual or religious tradition to guide people to live a modest humble and simple life. If religion only emphasizes the equality or true meaning of life, humanity will not be able to stop the damage that is being caused by our present materialistic lifestyle.
This again makes me feel that there is a conflict between following a religious belief and adhering to a modern lifestyle. The environmental situation in Mainland China is an obvious example. The damage to nature and the pollution of the environment, clearly come from industrial development driven by the progress of the modern world. So I still believe there is some amount of tension between religion and the modern lifestyle—a contradictory relationship between them, if you will.
Khenpo Sodargye: Modern people may encounter such contradictions when they first begin to follow Buddhism, because according to the Buddhist teachings, one should not fall into the extreme of being either too rich or too poor, and should instead choose to live a simple life and find contentment with the support of our basic living needs. This is one of the principle concepts of Buddhism that may come into conflict with widespread material progress.
These days, many serious global issues confront us all, such as environmental damage and the increasing economic gap between the rich and poor. It is said that now 20% of the world’s population owns about 80% of the entire world’s wealth. The U.S. alone, accounts for 6% of the world’s population while possessing 35% of the total global wealth. If all of the people on this planet lived in accordance with the American standard of living, it would take five Earths to satisfy our needs. Gandhi once remarked, “There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s needs, but not for man’s greed.” I think this is perfectly compatible with the Buddhist teachings.
Therefore, without religious faith to guide people’s minds and hearts, the frenetic development of science alone, could cause a tremendous disaster for both individuals and the entire planet, and in the end, every nation in the world will end up suffering because of it. Such a blind pursuit of technological development is nothing other than a means to humankind’s self-destruction. In this regard we can say that Buddhist philosophy is not in accord with the excessive greed and desire that may occur as the world becomes more modernized.
Professor Schneider: With this understanding, we can go back to my initial question. In the past twenty years, what is the main reason for Buddhism’s revival in the Chinese community? We’ve talked about how, on the one hand, Buddhism can satisfy people’s spiritual needs, but on the other hand, there are some contradictions between the Buddhist tradition and the modern lifestyle. Do you think that people who are interested in Buddhism have thought about these two different aspects?
Khenpo Sodargye: Concerning the mindset of people in Mainland China, I would say that I have some familiarity with it. There certainly are some kinds of religious behavior that directly contradicts people’s ordinary lives; these kinds of behavior might include choosing to live a monastic life or going on solitary retreat. City people would have a great deal of difficulty in including these types of practice, yet, generally speaking, Buddhist philosophy shouldn’t contradict or thwart how people choose to live their lives, but on the contrary, is actually intended to be applied to daily life. Some Buddhist rituals and behaviors, in the old Han Buddhist tradition for example, are not easy to follow and are unlikely to be accepted by modern people, so in this regard, in order to flourish and thrive, Buddhism has to keep pace with the modern mindset. For this reason, Buddhist philosophy, and especially in Tibetan Buddhism, is comprised of a whole science of the mind and can always, as such, meet people’s needs and solve their problems. No matter the age, it provides a perfect education of the mind that teaches all people how to attain happiness and cut through suffering. It does not need to be packaged for the tastes of its followers; it can be implemented immediately by any society at any time.
This is to say that modern people, regardless of whether they are easterners or westerners, can receive great benefit from these teachings. For example, how should we view this world and the nature of human relationships? How can we attain inner contentment? How can we control excessive desire, anger, and jealousy? And how can we remain calm and undisturbed by negative emotions? For all of these questions, if people are provided with the corresponding instructions and guides, they can easily accept the Buddhist teachings, regardless of where they are from.
However, if Buddhism remains only in monasteries as an ancient tradition or as a collection of rituals, then it will face severe difficulty in surviving the exponential development of science and technology such as is now occurring. Nowadays everything keeps changing and people’s tastes, such as their taste in fashion, are quite different from those of the 1950s or 1960s. The same goes for people’s thought patterns and behavior. It is exactly because Buddhism itself is an education of the mind that it is able to keep up with the times and never become outdated.
Professor Schneider: I also believe that the traditional rituals serve as a foundation of identity, because they provide people with a traditional lifestyle, such as that which is shared among the Chinese or other cultures and communities for whom these rituals feel very comfortable. On the other hand, you’ve talked about Buddhism as being a science of the mind, which I feel is quite an interesting expression. Earlier, you brought up the close relationship between Buddhist philosophy and science, would you please explain it a little bit more? What kind of relationship is it? What do you feel that Buddhist philosophy and science have in common?
Khenpo Sodargye: As we know, the teachings of Buddhism cover a wide range of subjects; they are as vast as an ocean. When we talk about science, we find that it is divided into many categories, such as natural science, social science, and so on. The term “the science of the mind” may capture people’s attention, as it causes people to take Buddhist teaching seriously. When we speak of the natural or social sciences, which are both focused on the external world, we find that amongst different people, there are some who are drawn to physics but do not like anthropology, or maybe it’s the other way around. But if a science addresses the feelings of suffering and happiness or involves the observation of the mind in daily life, while we are walking, sitting and sleeping, this has an application for all of humanity because all people share these same feelings in common. This kind of study is precisely what Buddhist philosophy provides. In Tibetan Buddhism in particular, there are many instructions for meditation that teach people how to cultivate a peaceful mind. People of any background—those with faith or those without—all need tranquility of mind. This is particularly true in an age of rapid development, like we are experiencing these days. Many people are in situations of high pressure and can easily become anxious and restless. So how to maintain a peaceful mind becomes a meaningful issue. The Buddhist teachings provide specific instructions that can be effectively applied by everyone. When we think of Buddhism from this perspective, we can see that it truly is a science of the mind.
So what is science? Science is authentic knowledge that cannot be disproved even over a great period of time. The Buddhist teachings can help people relieve their suffering and bring them comfort and calm. So, when you ask why have so many modern people chosen to delve so deeply into Buddhist philosophy, I can say that after extensive research on this issue, I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t follow the Buddha Dharma blindly, but rather that they tend to approach it very rationally. Once they have gotten a real taste for it, they would never give it up easily. If following Buddhism were just a superstition, while some might be interested in it initially, if it offered no real benefit, as people today want results, they would likely turn away from it fairly quickly and never give it another thought.
I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t follow the Buddha Dharma blindly, but rather that they tend to approach it very rationally. Once they have gotten a real taste for it, they would never give it up easily. If following Buddhism were just a superstition, while some might be interested in it initially, if it offered no real benefit, as people today want results, they would likely turn away from it fairly quickly and never give it another thought.
The Prospect of Buddhism in the West
Professor Schneider: Many people are fed up with lives that are filled with excessive stress and are looking for ways to escape it. Given this scenario, some would say that turning to Buddhism is actually an escape from oneself, particularly if one is unable to bear the modern lifestyle to the point where they are unable to compete because of the feeling that they were not good enough or not strong enough. As a result, that someone tired of encountering failure in their career or in relationship, one might choose to escape, for example, into Buddhism. Many people have this prejudice or this kind of bias: they consider following Buddhism as a kind of escapism.
How would you convince them that the attitude Buddhism promotes is not an escape but rather a constructive way of handling the fundamental problems of life? When I discuss this issue with my friends, I always say that, indeed, they are the ones who are choosing to escape and who are refusing to face the fundamental issues of life. But I’m not sure how to persuade them in a more compelling way. Do you have any suggestions?
Khenpo Sodargye: It’s not surprising that people have these kinds of thoughts. I remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, many movies and TV shows on the mainland spread this kind of idea to the populace; it was considered an escape if one followed Buddhism or became ordained, and I believe that among those who choose Buddhism, there are some people who initially have this intention. But we can’t infer from this that everybody who getting ordained or practicing the Dharma does so as a result of escapism. Among the people whose lives I am familiar with, more than ninety percent of them have had other reasons and circumstances for their decision to follow Buddhism. Thus, we should adopt a more scientific attitude to analyze this issue objectively, and by maintaining a holistic view, we should first try to learn about the mindset of a sampling of people. Obviously, to take a single example to represent the whole picture is not scientific.
Are there individuals who try to escape their lives by getting into Buddhism? Indeed, there are such cases. But the escape leads to one of two consequences. One is that, although they originally tried to escape from their own suffering, after they gain a real understanding of Dharma teaching, it turns out that they don’t need to escape anymore and instead become very capable of dealing with the suffering in their lives. Not only that, but having gained understanding, they are now able to use the Dharma teaching to guide many others. At our institute, there are some Dharma masters like this. Initially, their lives were not going very well and they came to the institute as a means of escape. But after they began to study the Dharma they gradually gained some real understanding of the truth of life, which has, in turn, enabled them to convince many other people of the power of the Buddhist philosophy to help these others to deal with their own experiences and circumstances.
Another possible outcome is that with an intention to escape, one can never truly enter the depths of the ocean of Buddhist wisdom. So their desire to find an escape, in the end turns out to be a failure. Cases such as this, also exist.
In the larger picture, following a religion should not be seen as simply belief in a kind of superstition or as a way of becoming fettered to some old-fashioned ideas. This is not a fair way to make an assessment, and misses the profound meanings that can be found within a religion or a belief system. Making this kind of rash judgment before understanding a religion’s authentic meaning can only lead to bad consequences.
Professor Schneider: I noticed that recently you’ve been giving lectures in western countries. What do you think about the prospects of Buddhism in the West?
Khenpo Sodargye: I am not sure about it. On the one hand, Westerners are relatively open and inclusive. About twenty years ago, I was in the U.S. and several European countries and at that time, I felt quite amazed by the fact that in such traditional Christian countries, there were so many people choosing to follow Tibetan Buddhism. Based on this phenomenon, we can infer that in the future, with certain causes and conditions in place, Buddhism should be able to continue to flourish in these countries. On the other hand, it seems that, unlike the current situation in China, where Buddhists apply more effort to systematic listening, contemplating and meditating, Western Buddhists seem to somehow prefer rituals; if the situation continues like this, at a certain point, young people may consider Buddhism to be a type of superstition because their minds have not assimilated the genuine wisdom of its teaching. It could turn out that, on the surface, like other religions, there are more and more people following Buddhism, but, indeed, fewer and fewer people who really understand its authentic teachings.
To be honest, I am not very clear about the future of Buddhism in Europe and the U.S. On the one hand, it seems promising and it is quite interesting that Westerners are very welcoming towards the great masters of both Tibetan and Han Buddhism. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are some people in Europe and the U.S. who have a great deal of difficulty, when it comes to changing their long-held opinions because of an assumption that they already possess an advanced culture. Recently I met some professors and felt that it was very hard for them to accept new ideas even though it was obvious that these ideas made logical sense. Somehow their minds were already occupied by some rigid ways of thinking that had solidified into certain forms. So even when encountering new ideas that are obviously correct, they will still insist on holding onto their previous thoughts. Compared with people in other places, mindsets such as these seem to be very difficult to change. Given this situation, even though the Buddhist philosophy makes perfect sense and is also verified by other people’s practice and realization, some may still not be willing to accept it with an open mind.
Professor Schneider: I don’t quite understand the development of Buddhism in the West. From my observations, it seems that along with an attitude of escapism, much of it also has some political appeal, which is related to the Tibet issue. While it is certain that quite a few people are indeed interested in Buddhism, it’s hard to say how well they really understand the Dharma. I often see books with titles that refer to achieving self-fulfillment or self-contentment through Buddhism. From my point of view this seems to be inconsistent with the Buddhist teaching. It is a way of marketing Buddhist philosophy as a means to make money and is not consistent with the ultimate meaning of Buddhism.
Khenpo Sodargye: Yes, for temporary purposes, one can practice Yellow Dzambhala to become rich. Nowadays many people are drawn to such practices in order to be peaceful, wealthy, and healthy; they can be called provisional Buddhists instead of authentic Buddhists. As we know, an authentic Buddhist needs to not only understand the essence of the Buddhist teachings but also to achieve some realization of those teachings.
Professor Schneider: That’s why I think the propagation of Buddhism in the West should avoid these areas, such as escapism and motivations driven by political issues or personal desires and that we should try to help more people understand the real meaning of the Buddhist philosophy.
Nowadays many people are drawn to such practices in order to be peaceful, wealthy, and healthy; they can be called provisional Buddhists instead of authentic Buddhists. As we know, an authentic Buddhist needs to not only understand the essence of the Buddhist teachings but also to achieve some realization of those teachings.
Never Abandon Your Mother Language
Khenpo Sodargye: Today I looked around the university library, and was surprised to find that it is four hundred years old and has a collection of many ancient books from as early as the 17th century. I also noticed that the town of Göttingen has many buildings that are more than one hundred years old, which is very rare in other places. It was also pointed out to me that Germany has more Nobel laureates than any other country. So we can say, at least in terms of the external material level, or in terms of modern civilization, Germany not only keeps tradition very well, but also makes obvious progress in the process of modernization. Can you explain how Germany manages to attain such achievements in both the classical and modern aspects of material culture?
Nowadays, many countries are too conservative and traditional and not open at all, while some are too liberal and seem to have no traditions left. How does Germany ensure that both the new and the old have been maintained in a complementary way? My point is only inferred from my observance of such outside appearance as the old architecture and the libraries of natural and social sciences, but I wonder, in terms of its spiritual development, would you say that the old traditions are integrated with the modern ideas?
Professor Schneider: I don’t think Germany does a good job of integrating the traditional within modernization. After World War Two, Germany suffered a costly interruption of both science and cultural progress. Today’s Germany is very different from prewar Germany in many aspects. We can say that this has both its good and bad aspects.
As you have noticed, cultural relics have been very well preserved in Germany. This is actually due to the vast extent of damage from the war; because so much was destroyed during the war, less than ten percent of valuable prewar architecture survived—the rest was bombed. Thus, the preservation of architectural remains became crucial and could be considered a motivation for reconstructing the country. This is more apparent if you visit places like Frankfurt or Berlin, which are completely different from their prewar condition, since so many buildings were destroyed during the war. In the aftermath of the war, except for the preservation of several downtown streets, the rest of the city is all newly built. Because there is far less remaining of what existed before the war, there is a high degree of attention given to the preservation of cultural relics.
Scientific development is also quite different from that which existed in the years before the war. Previously, Germany had been renowned for its scientific achievements, which had nothing to do with its politics at that time, but was closely related to its historical role and geographical location. From medieval times until the onset of the Second World War, Germany was the heart of Europe, the crossroads for travel from both north to south and from west to east. Therefore, prewar German culture had incorporated many of the features from many different cultures, both from Eastern Europe through the immigration of the Jews, or from Western Europe through contact with France and the U.K.
Throughout history there have been many well-known scholars and intellectuals from many diverse backgrounds who influenced German intellectual thought. For instance, I researched Chinese historians in the period of the Republic of China, focusing on the two historians Fu Sinian and Tschen YinKoh, both of whom had studied in the U.S. and in Germany. When they were in Germany in the 1920s, up to two thirds of the entire faculty of Berlin’s Humboldt University was comprised of those of Jewish extraction, but after the war, most of those of Jewish ancestry, had either been killed or fled to the U.S. Consequently, Postwar Germany was unable to benefit from the inheritance of its previous scientific tradition.
With respect to natural science, Germany has indeed made great progress, in part because the German economy creates a strong demand for advanced technology. But humanistic development has failed to maintain the same standards, and thus, it has severely, though not completely, been interrupted. In spite of the successful preservation of cultural relics, there has also been a failure of cultural development. Strictly speaking, German culture is on the wane.
Although, it is clear that the two world wars caused great cultural damage, this does not mean that there has been no further development in Germany, but while there are some new things that are gradually coming into being, in spite of this, pessimistically, we can say that the current situation is not very promising.
Nevertheless, we keep on trying. In China, during the thirty-years of destruction from 1949–1979, and actually even before 1949, beginning with the May 4th Movement, the damage to China’s culture was considered to be irreversible and it was believed that the original culture would never truly be restored. But in today’s Chinese-speaking world, a lot of exciting and striking development has been made during the last twenty or thirty years. I think Germany is in a similar situation. It is necessary to realize that Germany is economy-oriented in almost every aspect. In such fields, such as academic education, research, or cultural exchange, economic benefit is the ultimate motivation for development, which fits well with most of the concerns of modern life, but is not beneficial for the development of culture.
In terms of education, this year at Göttingen, we initiated a master’s program called Contemporary Chinese Studies. Currently, we have only two students, but we plan to recruit five next year, seven the following year, and eight the year afterwards. In this way I hope that within five years there will be more than twenty students. Some people feel that with only two students having been recruited, it would be better to cancel the program, but I don’t think this is the right attitude to take towards education. In regards to a master’s degree, if not many people reach this level, it may increase the value of the degree. Education should not be something that you invest in today and expect instant profits from tomorrow. In fact, the idea of investment and profit is, in my opinion, inappropriate with respect to education, because education is always worthy of time and effort. Perhaps after twenty years, the efforts made on education will be rewarded. In today’s society, however, this kind of thinking contradicts the fast-food concept that is held by the majority. This is a not a problem that exists only in Germany.
Khenpo Sodargye: Yes, it is even so in Buddhism. Many people want overnight stardom. They try to become a realized master in the shortest possible time. But to achieve a high level that would be seen as comparable to the ancient sages is not a simple thing.
Professor Schneider: That’s true. Moreover, this issue is not just due to the bureaucracy in the educational authority. Unfortunately, many of today’s students think in this way. For example, some college students feel that Chinese is too difficult to master within just two or three years, but in Germany three years is the requirement to obtain a bachelor’s degree. I have suggested sometimes they extend their degree program for an additional one or two years to really learn the language well. The extra cost for the study is not a big deal and as students, their living expenses are not very high. I explain that given more time, one can learn that much more. However, most have told me that they would become too old if they extended their college study another year. This is something that I don’t understand; is the age of twenty-one, now considered old? So you see, they are accustomed to using the concepts of speed and efficiency to assess the value of their education.
Khenpo Sodargye: It’s so amazing to me that as a German, you speak Chinese so fluently. Being a world-famous historian, it is very admirable that without leaving your own language behind, you have such mastery of English and Chinese. I have also heard that when you gave lectures at Peking University, Sichuan University, and universities in Netherlands and the U.S., such as Harvard, that you lectured in the various languages of the places that you spoke. I rejoice at this and wonder how you were able to master all of these languages?
Nowadays many ethnic groups around the world have abandoned their own languages and script. It is ironic that while many in the West are now learning to speak Tibetan, that so many young Tibetans cannot even speak their mother language. I think that regardless of which country you are born in, it is important to master your own language, script and culture, but I also feel that it is necessary to study the language of other ethnic groups. What is your opinion regarding those who have abandoned their own language?
Professor Schneider: I think the reason that people abandon their own language is actually not determined by themselves but is due to the larger external environment. For example, in Taiwan nowadays, most young native Taiwanese can barely speak their own language. This, of course, has something to do with their society. In order to have a career, they have to speak Chinese at school and at work. Additionally, their lifestyle has also changed. Their own culture and the value of life encompassed within their own language has become outdated and does not fit into modern life. As a result, their language has naturally been abandoned.
I remember that when I got married in 1995 in Taiwan, since my wife is a native Taiwanese, we went to a harvest festival of Rukai, held in the village where she was born and grew up. Many young people of Rukai were invited to take part in this event. At the festival, there is a performance in which some young people climb up to a tower to give a speech. The tower was made of bamboo and not very stable. When they were up there the wind blew and the tower began to sway. They were supposed to say something in the Rukai language. But as the tower swayed a little bit stronger, one guy shouted out “scared” in Taiwanese. So his first reaction was to naturally speak in Taiwanese.
We should not say it is entirely their fault, as this is a natural process. It is a sad process, but also a natural process. In my opinion, it is sad, because at a certain point, language becomes a means of identification. But aside from that, I believe there is something more important because even if one were to have their cultural identification changed, one could still live a comfortable life. To me the most important thing is that, no matter which language you are speaking of, including English, each represents a very different world. When you choose a language to express something, you adopt a very unique perspective. If we were to make the same book in Chinese, German, or English, they would turn out to be three different books, as each language encompasses a set of unique concepts and thinking patterns. When I studied or gave lectures abroad, the most valuable experience that I gained was the realization that every language reflects a unique perspective of the world, one that is quite essential. Therefore, if humankind loses one language, it means we lose one choice. This is what I believe is the most unfortunate thing.
As for myself, I started to learn foreign languages because I grew up in 1960s and 1970s. From that time until the present, Germany has become extremely internationalized, so it is natural for me to have learned several foreign languages. My mother never learned to speak any foreign languages, while in my generation, we learn at least five or six. Most of us can speak two or three languages and read another two or three languages without any problem. It’s a matter of becoming familiar with the linguistic environment, rather than a matter of effort.
Khenpo Sodargye: I have one more question. After I came to Göttingen, this question preoccupied a lot of my thinking. There are so many Nobel Laureates in Göttingen. Out of the entire world, Germany has produced the greatest number of Nobel Laureates, there are more than 45, and most of these are associated with the University of Göttingen. If you include those who immigrated to Canada and the U.S., there have been more than 200 Germans who have won the Nobel Prize. Do you think that Germans, in general, have some kind of super brains and that this is the reason that they have turned out so many great talents?
Professor Schneider: To me there are two aspects to this answer. One is the historical process. All of those who won the Nobel Prize after the war did their research outside Germany. Among the more recent German Nobel Laureates, about eighty percent of them are doing work in the U.S. rather than in Germany. So this is a very interesting phenomenon, which indicates that after the war, State policies that govern scientific study have got some problems. This is what I would consider as a bit of a negative aspect. Due to some aspects of historical transformation, postwar Germany is not as productive as that of prewar Germany.
A more positive aspect has to do with the German character, which in some ways is actually nothing to be proud of. Germans are extremely rigid, or to put it better, they are very rigorous. They do things scrupulously and are strictly disciplined. They focus on what they are engaged in and avoid other kinds of thoughts. To put it more harshly, they don’t know how to enjoy their lives. If you go from Germany to Italy, you will find life in Italy is more comfortable and more relaxed when compared to the relatively rigid life of the German people. I believe that this is mainly due to German cultural values, which may give you a better understanding of the cultural environment that exists here in Germany.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many instructions for meditation that teach people how to cultivate a peaceful mind. People of any background—those with faith or those without—all need tranquility of mind. This is particularly true in an age of rapid development, like we are experiencing these days. Many people are in situations of high pressure and can easily become anxious and restless. So how to maintain a peaceful mind becomes a meaningful issue. The Buddhist teachings provide specific instructions that can be effectively applied by everyone.