Heart of the Dalai Lama

In this exclusive and heartfelt essay, Pico Iyer reveals the simple human secret that makes the Dalai Lama the most beloved spiritual figure in the world.

Pico Iyer
3 December 2015
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The Dalai Lama with student speakers during a visit to a high school in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Taikan Usui.

“When I was your age,” the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is telling a group of six hundred or so young female students at Chikushi Jagakoen school in Fukuoka, Japan, “I was a quite lazy student. I didn’t have much enthusiasm for studying.” Though sitting politely, their hands in their laps, the girls almost visibly come to attention, drawing closer as he says this (they weren’t expecting such words from a celebrated visitor). “So my tutor always kept a whip,” he goes on, as naturally as if he were talking to his oldest friend. “I was studying with my elder brother, so the tutor kept two whips. One was yellow—a ‘Holy Whip!’ But I think if you use the ‘Holy Whip,’ the effect is the same as from the other one. ‘Holy Pain.’”

Even the girls, trained to be reserved and demure since birth, cannot contain their laughter—and delight, perhaps, and relief. Even this man regarded as an incarnation of a god by his followers is, at some level, just like them. Even he has been in need of discipline at times, and is in the lifelong business of finding an answer to suffering, or “Holy Pain,” as it might be. I scribble down his every word and notice how seamlessly he’s transmitting certain fundamental truths of Buddhism. Don’t be distracted by externals, or signs of ceremony—a yellow whip hurts just the same as any other whip. Don’t think of holiness as something separate from the realm of suffering—if anything, our most sacred duty comes in our response to the realm of suffering, which evolves throuh a change in perception. Don’t think of people as unequal—everyone has to go through the same lessons, and the Buddha himself, master democrat, gave us a sense of power and potential by always reminding us that he was no different from us.

And yet, as ever, the Dalai Lama conveys all this without using the word “don’t” at all. “But,” he tells the young students, “I believe some years I lost” through not paying attention. “Please pay attention to your studies.” It’s a tonic and liberating idea: excitement is in the eye of the beholder, a reflection of the choices that we make. He’s already told the girls, at the beginning of his lecture, that he’s “nothing special,” no different from any one of them, in his human challenges (or his human potential). So if they are impressed by the sense of presence, alertness, and kindness they see before them, embodied in one being, they’re essentially impressed by an image of what they can be, too, if they so choose. Indeed, by learning from his mistakes, they can go beyond him in certain respects, and pay attention to the possibilities around them from a younger age. At some point, he assures them, he realized that his studies were in fact the most exciting adventure around; it wasn’t necessarily that the difficult Buddhist texts changed, but that his way of seeing them did.

He doesn’t tell them, I have noticed, that whenever he has a spare moment on the road he turns to a copy of some Buddhist teaching, his greatest joy whenever he isn’t inspecting the world around him (to get a deeper, more detailed and empirical sense of what reality looks like). In Yokohama he’ll ask an engineer, backstage, before a large lecture, how the soundboard works. When we have lunch with an ambassador from Bahrain, he’ll try to learn more about the history of Islam and Arabic culture. When old friends come to meet him in his hotel room, he asks them how things are going in Japan, and listens to their answers closely, like a doctor hearing a list of symptoms. One reason he’s in this little girls’ school in Fukuoka this morning is that so many Japanese mothers, on recent trips, have told him of their urgent concern about alienation among the young in their country, children who shut themselves in their rooms and never have contact with the world, teenage suicides.

The other reason he’s here is no less practical: these students, some barely out of kindergarten, are the ones who will make the world we live in thirty years from now, the real power brokers in the larger view of things. On his previous trip to Japan, one year before, the Dalai Lama had spent his one day in Tokyo not visiting politicians or cultivating the media or talking to movers and shakers; he’d spent the entire day visiting two boys’ high schools associated with temples, offering them lectures like this one and sitting in meditation with the boys in a school zendo. Children are not only more open to transformation and more in need of positive direction than their elders are; they’re also potential more or less incarnate. Two months after this meeting, I’ll meet one of Britain’s leading young writers, who has worked hard for Tibet, turning a rigorous, scrupulous eye on the events of the day, and becoming one of the leading modern historians of India.

“The Dalai Lama came to my school when I was very young,” he told me. “I was just in my teens. And it was a school run by Benedictine monks. But somehow it made an incredible impression on me.” As soon as he finished his studies, he went to Dharamsala to study in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Later he would spend two months on a punishing trip across Tibet, recording what’s really happening there.

It’s so easy not to listen to the Dalai Lama, I’ve found over the decades I’ve been traveling with him. It’s almost impossible not to be inspired by him, to be warmed, to be clarified, to feel that you’ve come into a presence of rare goodness and uncanny, omnidirectional compassion. I’ve been lucky enough to know him for thirty-five years now, since I was a teenager, and every November, when he comes to Japan, I travel by his side every day from around 7:30 every morning, when his working day begins, to around 5 p.m., when it concludes. I sit in on his closed-door meetings with parliamentarians, his audiences with old friends, his chats with ceremonial hosts, his discussions with leaders of all Japan’s religious groups. It’s exhausting even watching him go through his day. He comes down to the hotel lobby for his first event, after four hours of meditation, and finds five Tibetans who have traveled across the island to see him. He stops to receive and bless the ceremonial silk scarves they’ve brought to him, and as they sob with emotion and gratitude, he gives them heart and tells them not to give up sustaining their culture and their confidence in its survival. And then he goes and does the same thing for the next ten hours, as he’s done every day for seventy years.

Yet so often, even as we’re being moved by the way he instinctively knows how to see past divisions, laughs to dissolve our tension, or manages somehow to make us feel we’re meeting not just a great philosopher and global leader, but an old friend, we come away—at least I do—with our head in the clouds, unstoppably grinning and with tears in the corners of our eyes. We talk about all that he’s given us and all that we’ve learned from his being—what a great sense of humor!—and we (or at least I) grow wild with our own ideas of him, instead of the ideas he’s come to offer to us. Thirteen years ago, I heard from a writer in Hawaii (skeptical, non-Buddhist, famously unimpressionable) that when the Dalai Lama came to his city, he went to the lecture, took down every word he said, and then kept the transcript by his bed, so he could read it again and again.

Now I do the same. It’s not hard to transcribe every word, since the Dalai Lama speaks slowly and very deliberately in English and, when he’s speaking in Tibetan, his words come to us through a translator. I get a lot of instruction from them as I write. But I get even more when I go back to my desk and read the words over and over, and copy them out again and again, as if they were (and why should they not be?) a text I am studying at college. Even in his second language, the Dalai Lama speaks with meticulous precision, and a quarter of a century of traveling has allowed him to hone his words down so that the simplest-sounding sentence in fact contains volumes of teaching.

“I am a simple Buddhist monk,” he says, and once upon a time I’d have been warmed and disarmed by the comment, so modest and transparent. But now, as I listen to him, I hear him say that he’s come to this formulation, as to everything he says, through an extended process of research, reflection, and analysis. When he’s dreaming, he says, he usually sees himself as a monk, but almost never as the Dalai Lama. When, occasionally, he has faint memories of earlier incarnations, he generally sees himself in a monastic role, but only very rarely as the Dalai Lama. More important, his monastic commitment is one that he has undertaken and that no one can strip from him but himself; the Dalai Lama is a title, a position—a set of rites—that could be taken from him at any moment. When the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was asked who he was, I found out when I researched it, he said, “A simple Buddhist monk.”

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The Dalai Lama greets a member of the audience at a teaching in Hamburg, Germany, July 2009. Photo (c) www.phathue.de.

Listen to the doctor’s careful prescription instead of just raving about his bedside manner, I tell myself as he returns to Japan in the bright autumn days for another few days of engagements. It’s too easy to fly off into lofty theorizing about the man, into essays on him or abstractions, into comparisons and projections and all the kind of vagueness or myth-making that he would forcefully counsel me against. Maybe on this occasion I can just try to take down what he says—to listen—and to see how every sentence contains a teaching. How even a modest-seeming event at a girls’ school can offer as much as some of his most sonorous discourses.

There are rows and rows of six-year-olds, impeccable in their blue skirts and tops and bonnets, lined up in the brilliant sunshine as the Dalai Lama and a small group of secretaries, bodyguards, and attendants arrive (along with my wife and me) at Chikushi Jagakoen. High schoolers are standing, equally serious and attentive, at their side, and even some college students, in scrupulously quiet styles and pale colors. Fukuoka is a long way from Tokyo and Kyoto, on an island to the south, and not many dignitaries trouble to come here.

But as I walk behind the Tibetan leader on the warm November day, it’s clear that we could be walking around any school in Nova Scotia, or Indiana—or the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama bends down to shake each little girl by the hand, sometimes affectionately tweaking a cheek as if this Yuki or Sachi were his great-niece. He engages the high school girls in conversation, looking into their eyes and attending to their answers as if they were his guides to contemporary Japan. “How many of your students speak English?” he asks the teachers on arrival, so he can make best use of the hours. Given that most have at least studied it, he can speak to them directly, and not have to lose time on translations.

One day before, he had been addressing a group of 400 local Buddhists, from different sects, burying their differences to come together to listen to him direct them toward certain useful texts from Shantideva and Nagarjuna as an answer to loneliness and confusion. In the afternoon, he’d addressed thousands of regular folks in the Kita Kyushu Dome on his usual themes of compassion and responsibility. The previous weekend, in Tokyo, he’d spent a whole day speaking to Chinese individuals living in Japan—looking for common ground, as always—and then had devoted one and a half days to talking to the international media. But now he’s giving himself to the schoolgirls as attentively and enthusiastically as if he were visiting the White House or the Vatican.

Japan is the strongest Buddhist nation in the world, of course—until China comes around. More to the point, it’s also one of the only ones that opens its doors to the Dalai Lama. Not the least of the ironies of his life is that the most visible and probably most respected Buddhist in the world is not invited to Buddhist Sri Lanka or Burma or Thailand or Vietnam, because they fear the consequences from China. Japan, however, is powerful enough to risk his presence, and the Dalai Lama, in turn, has long turned to Japan for instruction in mixing modern innovation with ancient tradition, and in blending efficiency with humility, hard work with a wish to do better. The previous spring I spent two days with him in Santa Barbara, and did an event with him at New York’s Town Hall, but I see him most engaged in the Buddhist part of his public life as he travels around Japan and thinks about how to make strong and deep the future of Mahayana Buddhism.

Now, as the girls sit silently before him in the school auditorium, he offers something of a lesson in “skillful means.” With fellow monks and philosophers, I’ve seen, on this trip as on every other, he will quickly dive into texts and exchange ideas and explanations with the excitement of a lifelong scholar; but with these girls, he’ll find the place of common experience between them and him—his life as a student, his life as a brother—and exchange certain basic human principles of attention and self-confidence to kids who may not know or care about the four noble truths. A large part of a doctor’s skill comes not in making the diagnosis, but in explaining it in simple, everyday, human terms that any lay person can understand.

The fact that his own English is imperfect is itself a small reassurance—a reminder that he’s on the same level as his listeners and is not an all-knowing sage laying down the law from a throne or a mountaintop. His voice goes up and down, never a monotone, and his sentences are as full of emphases and clarity as his famously articulate Tibetan. Yet at the same time, in its calligraphic directness, his solid and succinct English gets the point across with little room for ambiguity, or wild misinterpretations.

As he speaks about our “global family” and the “new reality” of a world without “them and us,” the Dalai Lama speaks always with his being, leaning in toward the students, rocking back and forth while sitting cross-legged on his chair, coming to the front of the stage when he arrives so he can make eye contact with as many people as possible. He waves to familiar faces. He looks up at the adornments of the stage. He conveys his humanity through pulling a tissue out of his robes. And when he asks for questions, to my astonishment a hundred hands shoot up, the generally reticent Japanese clearly so engaged by his presentation that their defenses are gone and they’re as eager to speak to him as to some respected classmate.

One girl after another stands up, and poses a question as direct and to the point as any the Dalai Lama could ask for: “How do I bring peace and love to the world—I’m only small?” “Do you get disappointed trying to protect Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism?” “What do you do if you’re losing hope?” Clearly, like most audiences he visits, they’ve been studying the Tibetan issue in preparation for his trip. But clearly, too, they’re posing the questions that are most urgent to them right now—the bullied girl or the scared one, the idealist and the one who is feeling isolated and frustrated. They all get up and find a way to frame question after question that comes from the heart.

The Dalai Lama listens to them as keenly as a physician listens to his patients, and, though he hears variations on the same questions several times a day, he responds to each one with unqualified vigor and intensity. “As soon as you feel some problem, some disappointment,” he tells the first questioner, “then you must look at the problem from a wider perspective, through different angles.” I realize, with a pang, how close this issue is to his own predicament, with the Chinese government cracking down on Tibetans in Tibet more unsparingly than ever. “Then you can see there’s a possibility of a compromise,” he goes on. “If you look only in one way, you think, ‘I can’t accept this.’”

I recall too how on this trip he’s been talking over and over about the challenge of forgiveness and how much he admires the way the Japanese, after seeing two of their biggest cities destroyed, did not express hatred toward their American antagonists in war but decided to learn from them. Over and over he’s been saying that Japan, particularly as the world’s only victim so far of atomic bombings, can both lead the world in the cause of nonviolence and serve as a model for combatants everywhere of how to break the cycle of vengeance. “You suffered,” he says, “and yet you turned that experience into a determination to prevent war, not into a hatred of your oppressor.” He’s speaking to the Japanese girls, clearly, but it’s not hard for the rest of us to hear how this might apply to our lives—we all face conflict—and, no less, to the lives of every Tibetan.

Again and again, as the questions continue, I see how compressed and practical his responses are. Asked about getting discouraged in his work for Tibet, he answers, without hesitation, “Here, one sense of hope is, I’m a Buddhist. Although a not very good practitioner. But still I try to be a practitioner. One of my main practices is to make one’s existence something useful and helpful to others. That’s my prayer.” (His prayer, I notice, is his practice. His practice is his prayer). “That really gives me inner strength. So, generally, when there is some challenge, there is better opportunity to make some contribution.” Again, it sounds so simple, but it is as real and complex an idea as his beloved Shantideva’s reminder that your seeming enemy is your best teacher, moving you to call upon your native clear-sightedness and patience and compassion.

When asked what advice he can give to Japan, he stresses at the outset, “Of course I have no direct responsibility.” But then he responds with typical pragmatism. “But I feel—just one small gesture: you young Japanese have great potential to serve, to help humanity, particularly in Asia. Now, maybe here one obstacle is language. Perhaps learning English more widely may be one factor: you have the knowledge, you have the ability, but language sometimes becomes an obstacle. In order to utilize your abilities widely, perhaps more attention to learning English may be a good thing.”

I notice those favorite words of his—”utilize,” “widely,” “perhaps”—but I also notice how he’s speaking about communication, dialogue, the search for common ground, not in the lofty words of the Golden Rule, but in terms of concrete, everyday practices. “Even this poor English, broken English, quite useful in communicating with other people,” he says, and the girls relax and laugh again.

And so it goes. Someone asks him what has touched him most in his life, and he says, “I don’t know” (which always draws a laugh—of surprise blending into relief: he doesn’t claim to have all the answers). “Usually, one is Buddha’s teaching,” he goes on (as he did once in telling me how tears come to his eyes when thinking of the Buddha, or any act of kindness). “Infinite altruism. That shows us the purpose of our life.” That applies even to the media, he goes on, as it can “make clear to the people what reality is” (and I recall how, the previous year, in Japan, he’d said that he thinks of the Buddha as a scientist, whose main aim is to show us reality, objectively, empirically, precisely). “The media should have a long nose, as long as an elephant’s nose. Smell, in front and behind, make clear what’s happening. Media people have great potential to help humanity.”

Throughout the trip, he’s been asking people—scientists, politicians, journalists, and now schoolgirls—to go to Tibet, if they have the chance, just to tell the world what’s happening there. Don’t listen to Tibetan propaganda, he says; don’t listen to Chinese. Just give us a neutral, factual account of how people are living there since the area was blocked from media investigation in March 2008. A doctor who can’t see his patients, or even hear what’s happening with them, is at a loss.

And asked once more what he does when he can’t succeed, he reminds his audience of some of the brighter sides of impermanence. “This present situation has to change. Change will not come from the sky. We, as individuals, must make some effort, no matter one simple, insignificant case. One person leads, ten people join, a thousand people join, then the media…”

I hear, as I listen, the vision of incremental, soul-by-soul change he’d outlined to me the day after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. He really wondered if his efforts were enough, he’d told me on the very day when others were celebrating what they hoped would mark a new future for Tibet. But all one could do was try one’s best, and know that the effort might reach to others, and then still others, and then more. Two days before Fukuoka, speaking to more than 300 journalists crammed into Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, he’d suddenly offered, “Blessings come from yourself,” in telling the story of a wealthy Indian family who had come to him to ask for his blessing. Your wealth is itself a blessing, he’d told them; don’t ask me to give you anything. The kind acts you do, the way you share the blessing of your money, is what generates blessings for you. And don’t just give it out, but use it wisely and practically, for education, hospitals, clinics.

And then, as the event begins to draw to a close, I notice, as listeners always do, how much of his instruction comes just in the way he walks through the world. He much appreciates the questions, he says; they were very good (practical, honest, unqualified). He asks all the young ladies brave enough to stand up in front of their classmates and ask him something to come up onstage, so he can greet them personally and be photographed with them. (I remember when my daughter, seeing him as a schoolgirl in Kyoto, was most moved after another girl asked him an anguished question about her life and he said, “I don’t know the answer,” but asked her to come onstage so he could just hold her at least.)

Then one of the students, a smiling girl of about sixteen from Bangladesh, the winner of a contest, I’m assuming, is asked to deliver a short essay on behalf of the school to its visitor. As she stands on the stage and reads, in fluent Japanese (translated for the Dalai Lama by an assistant), about her feelings returning to her very poor home country and then coming back to affluent Japan, where it’s so easy to take everything for granted, the Dalai Lama watches her intently, never taking his eyes off her, as if he were listening to a teacher of his expound a lesson about the Buddha.

He embraces her and gives her a ceremonial white silk scarf. The next day, after we fly back to Tokyo, when he addresses a large audience in a sumo stadium, his biggest public event of the tour, equivalent to a talk in Madison Square Garden, he starts, to my surprise, speaking about the student from Bangladesh he’d just met and the story she’d shared with him. Lessons and precepts and stories and practical counsel are filling every moment of his day, as he stops to shake the hand of every waiter after lunch, or suddenly tells me, eyes moistening, how moved he is that Tibetans have brought something of Buddhism back to the country of its birth. I transcribe every moment. But from this particular morning, one thing I take away is how ready he is to learn from a teenage girl and to distill everything he knows for even the smallest and least elevated of settings.

When his talk is over and he’s finished going down to shake hands with students in the front rows, posing for photographs with the questioners, draping the head teachers with silk scarves, he’s asked if he’d like to take his lunch in peace, alone. Oh no, no, he says, with absolute conviction. We must all eat together.

We go back out into the bright November sunshine, after lunch is over, to the next appointment, and I suspect that this small event on his schedule is as important to him as any meeting with a head of state or billionaire. I remember, twelve years earlier, his telling me that the press inevitably makes a big deal out of whether he meets a president or prime minister. But for him the much more important thing is just meeting a single soul, sincere, who may look on her life with a little more confidence and clarity after their talk. That is where the possibility of transformation is most great. “Then I really feel I’ve made some contribution,” he had said. Change, again, comes not all at once, but with one turning heart and then another. All that’s needed, he might be saying, is attention.

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned works on living with uncer­tainty and impermanence.