Q&A with Victor Chan

“ I was in my twenties when I first met the Dalai Lama in 1972,’ says Victor Chan, founder of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. “ For an ethnic Chinese, an opportunity like this doesn’t come along very often. For me it was a life-transforming experience.”  Recently I had a chance to spend an hour with Victor listening to some incredible stories, many of which are featured in his latest book, “The Wisdom of Compassion: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights,” co-authored with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Here are some of the highlights.

DLC: I'm very curious as to your working relationship with His Holiness.

Victor Chan: I spend a lot of time with him at his home in Dharamsala. I will usually spend about a week with him there, and I will interview him for a couple of hours every afternoon. You can imagine the amount of stuff that is generated, given that there have been quite a few interviews in the last decade and a half. Having face time with him like this, uninterrupted, just he and I, and maybe a translator, is a very important part of the process.

DLC:  Do you get to observe His Holiness in other settings as well?

Victor Chan: I was also given permission to travel with him from time to time. The important thing is, not only do I go to the public events, I am also privy to quite a few of the private, closed-off events with him. I have been privileged to really observe him at a time when he is not speaking to a large crowd of people, so it's quite private, intimate. My hope is, through the stories that emerge from these behind-the-curtain encounters, to capture something that is essential about him: his key ideas, his timeless and universal lessons that all of us could use in our daily lives. This is the verbal type of encounters. 

DLC: Does that mean that there is another type of meetings?

Victor Chan: Another type is non-verbal meetings. For example, from time to time he has given me permission to be with him during the early morning hours when he goes into his meditation and spiritual routines.  For four or five hours, starting from 3:30 I am with him basically observing his routines without exchanging much conversation. I’m still bowled over by this extraordinary privilege.

DLC: Could you describe what that actually looks like?

Victor Chan: When he wakes up at 3:30 am he is totally devoted to his spiritual practices. He will not engage in any of his official duties during these five hours. I will be with him when he meditates, when he brushes his teeth, takes his medicine, has his breakfast, does his physical exercise, like walking around his compound or going on his treadmill. It's all very non-verbal, with little conversation taking place. However, to be privy to such private moments can be quite disconcerting for me. I’m conscious of the remarkable access, the trust he places in me.

DLC: Do you feel like you're intruding?

Victor Chan: Yes, there is this sense of 'what business do I have to be here?' But this also shows how little self-consciousness or self-importance he has. He simply does not take himself very seriously.  Can you imagine the Pope allowing someone to observe him when he gets up? It’s a powerful illustration of some of the Dalai Lama’s essential philosophy and approach to life that mornings like this give me a glimpse of.

DLC: When you witness these interactions, and when you hear some of the stories, like the one about Richard Moore from Northern Ireland, who lost his sight due to a rubber bullet fired at him by an English soldier in 1972, but who, nonetheless, forgave the soldier, do you ever think, 'this is unbelievable'?

Victor Chan: I have a lot of trouble internalizing that idea. Even the Dalai Lama, he has said if he had lost his eyes at ten, his reactions might have been different from those of Richard Moore. This instantaneous, matter- of-course type of forgiveness, I find very difficult to wrap my mind around.  It was something I went over and over again with Moore, trying to look for some inconsistency or explanation. I also try to find some really credible reasons why he was so quick to forgive such a grave injustice. It was hard to fathom. He said his family, his upbringing had a lot to do with it. I think that is very important. After the incident, the people in Londonderry, his hometown, were really fussing over him, giving him a lot of attention, and giving him a lot of love and support. It is a fact that the Dalai Lama was so impressed that he called (Moore) his hero, the only person he's called his hero. The Dalai Lama was very moved. And who am I to question that?

DLC: What motivates you?

Victor Chan: I was born and raised in Hong Kong. In my days of schooling, basically in the 1950s and 1960s, things were stuck in the 18th and 19th century way of learning. Everything revolved around memorizing tons of information by rote. The Hong Kong schools were very competitive because there were so many people chasing so few spots at the university. From a cultural, creative point of view, Hong Kong had relatively little connection to the outside world. Education was from a traditional Confucian mindset. When I started to go abroad to study, I was conscious that my early schooling left a whole lot to be desired. There had been no sense of encouraging creativity, innovation, no sense of addressing one’s feelings and emotions, and there had been no sense of teaching people how to relate to each other. Everything was geared to passing exams with flying colours.

DLC: Is that why you created the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education?

Victor Chan: That was one of the factors when I created the Center with the Dalai Lama: to intentionally focus on of the mandate of 'educating the heart', a foundational and abiding interest of the Dalai Lama. He wholeheartedly believes that an education that balances educating the mind with educating the heart is a much more holistic and nuanced way of learning, one that gives young people the opportunity to learn about empathy, compassion and altruism, as well as the requisite 3 R'S. Current research has shown unequivocally that it is through the fostering of compassion and the practice of it - compassion in action - that we derive an authentic sense of happiness. After all, it is not the hedonistic, transient pleasurable things in life that most of us want, but something more substantial and fulfilling.



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