Educating the Heart: The Dalai Lama on schooling that goes beyond the mind

Teaching young people about compassion is one of the most important things we can do for them, says the Dalai Lama, and for the future of humanity. Melvin McLeod reports from Vancouver, where His Holiness talked with students and education experts about schooling for the heart as well as for the mind.

Melvin McLeod
5 February 2009
Photo by Element5Digital

The student who is caring, compassionate, peaceful, and tolerant. The student who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters. The student whose heart is as well-educated as their mind. This is the educational ideal of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as of Western educators pioneering the new field of social and emotional learning (SEL).

“Real change is in the heart, but in modern education there is not sufficient talk about compassion,” the Dalai Lama told a conference entitled Educating the Heart held in Vancouver, British Columbia, during his fall 2007 tour of North America. “Through education, through training the mind and using intelligence, we can see the value of compassion and the harmfulness of anger and hatred.”

“There is substantial evidence that this is doable,” said Mark Greenberg, an SEL pioneer at Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development. “Research has shown that we can successfully teach children how to overcome and manage emotions such as fear, hatred, anger, and anxiety. SEL programs have proven that children can develop lifelong abilities such self-awareness, anger management, and impulse control, and positive qualities such as empathy and compassion.”

Changing the way we educate our children is one of the Dalai Lama’s main themes these days, so much so that he has given his blessing to a new Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, to be built in Vancouver. Like so many before him who have worried about the future of humanity, he has concluded that the answer lies in the heart, less than in the mind, and with the children, not the adults.

Watching the Dalai Lama in extended conversation, as I did during his Vancouver dialogues, one is struck by how unusual a religious leader he is. Or, one could argue, how unlike a religious leader he is. First, at least in his public pronouncements, he is far more concerned with the overall fate of humanity than he is with people’s spiritual attainment. He is, in that sense, in the best sense, a politician. He is offering practical guidance to society, not mystical revelations or realizations.

Second, and even more striking, is his commitment to logic, analysis, objectivity, and evidence. His approach is very scientific (and of course he is well known to have been fascinated by Western science and technology since he was a child). The converse of this is his determined, almost militant skepticism about institutionalized religion. He frequently warns against the dangers of religious division and expresses doubts about the efficacy of religious practices such as prayer or meditation. It turns out that he and Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, aren’t that far apart.

The Dalai Lama’s approach is a reflection of the particular school of Buddhism to which he belongs. The Gelugpa lineage is, as it were, the “establishment” school of Tibetan Buddhism, and it places far more emphasis on study, analysis, reasoning, and debate than the other traditions of Buddhism in Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s exchange with a Western educator summed up his approach:

Mary Gordon: “Love grows brains.”

The Dalai Lama: “Brains grow love.”

There it is: brains grow love, and it’s fascinating, and compelling, to follow the Dalai Lama’s logic as it leads from his assessment of the state of the world in the twenty-first century to the need for education about compassion.

His logic begins with a simple but powerful comparison of the world today with previous times, how a world that is more complex, interdependent, and dangerous requires us to care for all humanity. As always, this is not stated as a moral dictum but as a practical requirement of our survival. Perhaps he puts this argument best in his book, The Global Community and the Need for Universal Responsibility:

The world is becoming smaller and smaller-and more and more interdependent-as a result of rapid technological advances and international trade as well as increasing trans-national relations. We now depend very much on each other. In ancient times problems were mostly family-size, and they were naturally tackled at the family level, but the situation has changed. Today we are so interdependent, so closely interconnected with each other, that without a sense of universal responsibility, a feeling of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and an understanding and belief that we really are part of one big human family, we cannot hope to overcome the dangers to our very existence-let alone bring about peace and happiness.

Looking at the problems of the world-war, terrorism, poverty, injustice-the Dalai Lama finds their roots at the emotional level. “No one [in political leadership] takes the emotional level seriously,” he told the conference. “They just look at actions. But negative actions come out of motivations, and out of negative emotions. We have to look at the emotional level.”

His remedy is easy to say but seemingly so hard for us to do: To develop a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood for all people (and indeed all beings) without exception. To feel love and compassion that is unbiased by attachment or personal identification. “Compassion means concern for others,” he said, “and our own survival depends on others. Extreme self-centered, selfish views always bring disaster.”

No longer can we afford to feel compassion for those close to us, say, over a murder in our hometown, and indifference to thousands of deaths on another continent. This distinction we make between near and far, our group and another group, failing to recognize our common humanity, is at the root of the world’s problems.

“This is the reality,” said the Dalai Lama. “There is a group of Northern industrialized nations that are rich, and nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia where there are a lot of poor. We’re all the same as human beings, so why does this continue? Because when our own people are dying we feel a deep response, but when people are dying far away we don’t much feel much. We take it for granted; it becomes like a routine. I see this kind of detachment as a chronic disease we are experiencing, and it’s something we must change.”

He doesn’t deny the reality of our differences or the inevitability of conflict. What’s important is how we choose to react.

“Of course there are different views and interests, including different faiths, so conflict is always a reality,” he said. “We can respond to conflict with either violence or nonviolence. Violence is absolutely wrong; nonviolence is the human way, the appropriate way. Nonviolence means dialogue on the basis of mutual respect and appreciation, and for that compassion is needed.”

(At the Dalai Lama’s public talk in Vancouver, at the city’s largest arena, it was clear that his nuanced and quite liberal views on world politics are an important part of his appeal. He was introduced at the event by the news anchor for Canada’s right-wing television network, who made an attempt to invoke the Dalai Lama as an ally in the “war on terror,” much as other right-wingers have used him as an anti-communist icon. His Holiness failed to deliver. His discussion of terrorism laid a lot of blame at the feet of the West, while calling for tolerance and acknowledging the grievances of the Muslim world.)

The Dalai Lama points to two ways in which such universal, unbiased compassion can be developed and nurtured: through education and the cultural environment. He praised his own society of Tibet and the multicultural Canadian city where he was speaking. “Generally, the Tibetan community is quite peaceful. Why?” he asked. “Tibetans are human beings—there’s no biological difference. The difference is environment, cultural heritage, certain habits in society. Here in Vancouver there are people from many countries-this whole city is multicultural and people live together peacefully, more like members of one family. So the cultural environment can create a different mental attitude.

“This is the key thing: how to bring about a more peaceful, more harmonious society. It is like our body’s immune system: once you have a strong immune system, some small disturbances here or there won’t affect you much. But when your immune system is weak, the slightest violence creates a lot of problems. Similarly, in a society with a more compassionate culture, some disagreement, some violence here and there, may take place, but the whole society is basically strong and healthy. Creating that healthy society is everybody’s responsibility.

“Second, along with the environment, one of the most important influential things in society is education,” he said. “Through education, new generations eventually can create a society that is more peaceful, more compassionate.”

No Buddhist is ever supposed to give up on any sentient being. All have buddhanature, after all. But listening to the Dalai Lama, you wonder whether he’s had enough of the generation that made such a mess of the twentieth century. Change is one of Buddhism’s great themes, change is accelerating, and to handle it you need a fresh, flexible, and perhaps young mind.

“The future is in our hands,” His Holiness told an audience of young people during a dialogue with students. “Every human action is supposed to be for the good, but out of ignorance and, I think, the lack of a wider perspective, often our actions bring painful consequences. The present generation-with fuller knowledge about reality and with a wider perspective-can carry out action for a better world better future. I think the older generation-people like myself who belong to the twentieth century-now we are ready to say goodbye.

“Younger people are still growing, mentally and physically, so everything is fresh,” he continued. “The older generation has certain ideas fixed in our brains. The reality is changing day by day, but our methods of dealing with it come out of old ways of thinking. I feel the younger generation finds it easier to see the new reality, easier to change their perceptions. I think my generation, who have created a lot of problem on this planet, now have to give the responsibility to young people. Now you have to handle it.”

Think that all sentient beings were once your mother, suggests a Buddhist contemplation to expand our gratitude and loving-kindness. See all beings as your child and you are their mother, says another Buddhist injunction. The Dalai Lama’s understanding of compassion begins with a mother’s love for her baby, and that love is at the heart of a program for schools called Roots of Empathy. Because the love of a mother for her child is the world’s gold standard of unbiased compassion.

Mary Gordon, the creator of Roots of Empathy, speaks with the lovely, almost Irish lilt of her native Newfoundland. “I believe that you cannot teach compassion, and you cannot teach empathy,” she said to me from her offices in Toronto. “Empathy and compassion are caught, they’re not taught. You catch them by being the direct recipient or by watching and imitating.”

Empathy is taught (or caught) in Roots of Empathy by bringing mothers and infants into the classroom. In schools in North America and several countries internationally that have adopted the program, a mother and child visit the class once a month throughout the school year. The students form their own relationships with the mother and infant, noting their own emotions while observing the mother’s care for her child. In her book, Roots of Empathy, Gordon describes how the process works:

The children will be coached by the instructor to observe the parent-child relationship, the baby’s development, the baby’s temperament, their own temperament and that of their classmates. They will learn about infant safety and issues that have an impact on their own well-being and security. They will learn how an understanding of temperament and gaining insights into their own emotions and those of others leads to empathy and builds rich human relationships.

“The agent for the learning, for building social and emotional understanding and compassion,” Gordon told me, “is the baby, and the baby’s relationship to the mother. That’s why we don’t work with just the baby. It’s the power of that very first loving relationship in life that nurtures us into humanity.”

For Gordon, this observation of the mother-child relationship (and sometimes father-child), and of the students’ own responses, is the vital first step on their journey from self-awareness through empathy to compassion. “You can’t get to compassion without empathy,” she says. “You can’t act compassionately unless you understand the feelings of the other person. And you can’t understand the feelings of the other person unless you understand your own feelings.”

While the program can begin as early as the third grade, Gordon tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy whose life had been one of abandonment. His mother had been murdered in front of him when he was four and since then he had lived in a succession of foster homes. In self-defense, he had adopted an emotional posture of distance and menace, so it was a surprise when he asked if he could try on the mother’s Snugli.

“And I have to tell you,” Gordon picks up the story, “this guy had made himself look so hard, and the Snugli was green with pink piping. He tries it on and then the Roots of Empathy instructor asks, ‘Would you like put the baby in the Snugli?’ He did it so gently, and you know what? He put that baby in chest-to-chest, and the baby just molded to him. The mother was really taken aback, because she had just explained to the class how the baby wouldn’t cuddle in with her.

“Then this big boy went off into the corner and he rocked back and forth with the baby, hugging it in the Snugli. When he came back a few minutes later, he took the baby out very gently, and gave the baby back to the Mom, and then he said to our instructor, ‘Do you think that if no one ever loved you, you could still be a good father?’ He saw himself—through this baby and parent relationship—as someone who could possibly give someone a good life.

“I’m using this mother-child relationship as a lever for children to find the humanity in their own hearts, by finding humanity in that baby,” Gordon continues. She felt encouraged in her approach when she heard the Dalai Lama talk about his relationship with his own mother as the inspiration for his teachings on compassion.

Although the Dalai Lama’s approach is not particularly couched in Buddhist terms, it reflects the Buddhist view that the true nature of all beings is basically good, including an inherent capacity for compassion. These good qualities are seeds we all possess, and these seeds need only be cultivated to bloom into the unbiased and universal compassion that heals the world. The approach to teaching compassion he recommends for the Western educational system is very much influenced by his own experiences as a child and how he was molded by the Tibetan monastic system.

“Immediately after birth the young child has a connection with their mother. That is the way our life begins,” he told his audience in Vancouver. “That’s why I think milk is the symbol of compassion. Biologically, compassion is the basis of our lives; it is not created by religion or education, but by nature. In my own case, the first hours of my birth were my first lesson in the value of compassion. It left a tremendous feeling deep inside me, and traces of that feeling will remain to my death.

“So the seeds of compassion are already very strong from birth, and then we can educate people in order to sustain and nurture compassion. Proper education is very important. In my own childhood, I already had some feelings of compassion for others, including animals and insects, and when two small insects would fight I always supported the weaker one. But that compassion was biased. I would feel angry when one insect was bullying another insect, and sometimes I used violence.

“Eventually I came across Buddhist practice and I had a very good teacher. On the basis of my biological seed of compassion, I saw through education the value of unbiased compassion and the negativeness of biased compassion. Then my compassion became more unbiased. Eventually these convictions led to a deeper experience of infinite compassion, and of how unbiased compassion brings emotional inner peace and inner strength.”

Again, his objective and analytic approach seems more compatible with Western science than religious mysticism. “How do we change?” he asked. “It’s not through prayer. Throughout the centuries we have prayed, but I think the results have been limited. Maybe in individual cases it has had some effect, giving people some peace of mind, but for the whole society or the whole planet, the effect is very limited. Prayer is very limited, and the effect of meditation also is very limited.”

His faith is in human intelligence, reason, and self-interest, albeit a higher self-interest. We can learn to be more compassionate because it makes sense. “In some cases, people get the impression that subjects such as compassion and forgiveness are religious matters which don’t relate to the day-by-day level,” he said. “That is a mistake.” Discuss the pros and cons of caring for others, he suggests, and the benefits and downsides are obvious. Compassion brings happiness for oneself (and you see why he spends so much time on the scientific study of happiness: it gives him the evidence he needs), and it creates a stronger, happier, and more peaceful society.

It was ironic that the robed monk from the exotic Asian land emphasized the intellect, while the Western Ph.D.s and education experts at the conference spoke in the “softer” language of emotions. Yet both approaches—brain to love, love to brain—represent a kind of mindfulness.

“When the brain is flooded with anger or hatred, it can’t reason. What we’ve found is that when children get a social and emotional learning curriculum, they improve their ability to stop and delay, not to be caught up in their impulses, to have more control over their reasoning abilities,” SEL researcher Mark Greenberg told the Dalai Lama. “That change explains why they reduce aggressive behavior and why they suffer less depression.

“This is a form of mindfulness in a sense. What we are doing in these curricula is helping children control their arousal and put into words their inner lives. They’re able to gain control over their impulses, and as a result, improve their thinking skills. We’ve found that the brain changes that take place are very similar to the changes that Dr. Richard Davidson has shown occur when adults have mindfulness training.”

And—music to the Dalai Lama’s very practical ears—the SEL movement proves both that compassion can be taught and that it brings positive benefits. Greenberg outlined for His Holiness the SEL curriculum called PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies). He described the curriculum’s five central goals (awareness of their own and other’s emotions; the ability to put emotions into words; the ability to calm oneself when emotionally aroused; the ability to plan ahead and consider consequences; and greater compassion and empathy) and he told the Dalai Lama that the program works.

“With careful randomized trials,” Greenberg said, “we have been able to show that we can help children to become more emotionally aware and we can help them to increase their pro-social behavior—their kindness, caring, and compassion. Children’s aggressive behavior and sadness and anxiety decrease substantially, and we can create safer and more loving atmospheres in the classrooms.”

And, by implication, in society.

The Dalai Lama makes a pretty good SEL instructor himself. The session in Vancouver entitled Nurturing Compassion was billed as his first dialogue exclusively with young people, including both emcees and the moderator, and the audience was made up largely of students from Vancouver-area high schools. The Dalai Lama was joined onstage by student panelists whose stories about compassion had been chosen as the best among the thousands submitted. After a video presentation of their stories, each asked the Dalai Lama a question about compassion, and in return they received some social and emotional learning with a distinctly Buddhist slant. All the Dalai Lama’s basic principles were on display, but with a personal and down-to-earth feeling.

High school student Irene Hong told the Dalai Lama her story of seeing another student being bullied, and asked him why some children find it so hard to understand tolerance. His reply was a beautiful little discourse on the inevitability of conflict, the drawbacks of aggression, and the nature of unbiased compassion.

“Life will never be without trouble and disagreement with our fellow human beings,” the Dalai Lama told her, “and because there is trouble and disagreement, tolerance must be a part of our life. Without tolerance, we have only two choices: one is to fight, which only increases the trouble, and the other is submission, total defeat. I think both of these choices are a failure.

“Tolerance is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength,” he continued, as he segued to a favorite topic, the stupidity of anger. “In a deeper sense, tolerance is not creating negative feelings or anger toward someone who is creating problems for you. That will help you keep your capacity for judgment. One of the faults of anger is that when you lose your temper, then the part of your brain where you can judge right and wrong, where you judge short-term and long-term consequences, will not function properly. Because the normal function of our brain does not work properly, anger is always self-defeating.”

Speaking of his own anger, the Dalai Lama said, “Of course there are varieties of anger, and a short period of anger is OK. Myself, if something goes wrong my immediate reaction is to lose my temper and use harsh words. But after a few minutes, no anger remains, so that’s no problem. What is a problem is the deeper anger that remains for days, weeks, months, years, and then eventually both sides feel hatred toward the other. Hatred is the most destructive force. Hatred must be removed from our mind as much as possible.”

Finally, he presented the fruition of all his arguments—the unbiased compassion rooted in a recognition of our common humanity. “Towards the end of your story,” he said to Hong, “you explained that you felt empathy for the child who was being bullied, even though you did not know the child. You developed empathy not on the basis that the other person was ‘my friend,’ but simply because you recognized another human being, just like yourself, who deserved not to be bullied. That is very right. That is genuine compassion. It you only feel empathy for ‘my friend’ or ‘my relative,’ that is more related to attachment.

“And your empathy can be extended further, eventually towards your enemy. Your enemies may disagree with you, may be harming you, but in another aspect, they are still another human being like you. They also have the right not to suffer and to find happiness. If your empathy can extend out like that, it is unbiased, genuine compassion.”

The moderator’s follow-up question, “Why did she choose not to further the aggression?”, drew a surprising answer that brought together the Buddhist doctrines of relative and ultimate truth, impermanence and emptiness, and the three poisons of passion, aggression, and ignorance, and how they relate to our emotional lives.

“Anger is part of our nature,” the Dalai Lama told the students. “In order to survive we need two elements emotionally: one to attract things that are favorable to our survival and another to repel obstacles. Anger is supposed to repel obstacles, but in reality there are no absolutes. If obstacles were something permanent or absolute, then maybe it would be right to repel them. And if there were things that were permanently, absolutely positive, maybe attachment would be OK.

“But that’s not the reality,” he explained. “Today’s obstacles may become favorable or positive factors in the future. Today’s enemy may in the future be your best friend. Things that are obstacles in one way may not be obstacles in another way. Generally our tendency is that when we confront situations, whether they are obstructive or positive, we tend to relate to them as if they were absolute and completely determined in themselves, and on the basis of that we react in a very disproportionate way, either through attachment or anger. The reality is that these are not absolutes, so our mental responses should also be like that.”

His Holiness’ final exchange with the students allowed him to return to the central theme of unbiased (and effective) compassion, as panelist Vinnie Locsin asked him, “Why does it seem that tragedies need to occur before we feel compassion?”

“This touches on the very definition of what we mean by compassion,” the Dalai Lama replied. “At the heart of compassion is our response to someone else’s suffering. The first point is their immediate suffering, and at another level is the causes or conditions of the suffering. Maybe it is wiser to develop compassion toward people who are creating the causes of their future suffering. That’s wiser, because compassion can bring preventive measures. Immediate suffering has already happened—we feel a sense of concern, but sometimes nothing can be done. Maybe our efforts should be to prevent these kinds of things in the future.”

Not a man of extreme positions, the Dalai Lama had said earlier that there are circumstances in which the use of force is necessary, as he had said that a little bit of anger is OK. Here he said that the problem is not self-interest, but narrow, shortsighted selfishness. If anything, he said, what we need is a larger sense of self.

“Extreme self-centeredness is a mistake, it’s dangerous,” he said. “But being self-centered is also reality. At the center of the whole universe is myself. When we use the expression ‘our galaxy,’ we are doing it from the point of view of ourselves. Then we say it’s our planet, our continent, my country, my district, my town, my family, then, ultimately, me.

“The self is the center of our whole universe; that is reality. The problem is that my interest, my future with this physical body, depends on the other. So the whole planet should be considered part of yourself. It is the basis of your future.”

What about compassion for ourselves? he was asked.

“The basis of compassion for others is compassion for oneself,” he said. “If you don’t have the natural wish to be freed from your own suffering, you won’t be able to empathize with others’ experience of suffering. Therefore, the basis is compassion for oneself.”

Finally, student-moderator Steven Boles asked, “How do we encourage young people to be compassionate to someone who looks or acts different from them?”

The answer, said the Dalai Lama, was to “consider them like another human being, like a brother or sister. There are difficulties due to different religious or social backgrounds or races, but these are really artificial differences. We have to have a wider perspective, a deeper way of thinking.

“Education is the key factor. Sometimes, unfortunately, people try to promote hatred through education. That kind of education isolates you and is harmful. I think we need to educate people in today’s reality. First, we are all the same human being, mentally, emotionally, physically. We all have same right to happiness. On that basis we will naturally have a sense of concern and respect for others.”

Brains grow love or love grows brains – either way, we hold the world’s future in our hearts.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.