It’s time we took the Dalai Lama seriously. I know that sounds like a strange thing to say, when the Dalai Lama is one of the best-known and most beloved figures in the world. But it’s time we moved beyond the Dalai Lama as the jovial uncle, the kindly pastor to the world, the feel-good moment in the media. We have to listen to what he is really saying to us. His message to the world, and the Tibetan cause he leads, are important to our future.
I’d venture to say that Pico Iyer is as close to the Dalai Lama as anyone outside his immediate circle, and in his beautiful personal essay in [the May 2010] issue, he reveals his innermost thoughts about His Holiness after thirty-five years as a friend, observer, and student. He lets us watch with him as the Dalai Lama extends compassion and consideration to all those around him, without regard for their age, nationality, or station. He reveals the secret to the Dalai Lama’s magic: kindness, the most valued of all human qualities.
Yet even Iyer acknowledges that he can be mesmerized by His Holiness’ extraordinary personal qualities, and fail to listen closely to what he is telling us. There are many kind people in the world; all of us have kindness in us. It is not his kindness per se that makes the Dalai Lama important. It is his message that kindness and compassion are the basis—the only possible basis—for personal and global transformation. And when the Dalai Lama says it, we believe him, because he so obviously practices and embodies these qualities.
This is the message humanity longs for and needs to hear. Our problems, both personal and global, seem so complicated, and at an intellectual level, they are. But the real root of our problems lies at a different level, simpler but more intractable—in our anger, self-interest, fear, greed—and only at that deeper level can real transformation occur. We can think up clever policies and make grand pronouncements, but if in our hearts we’re really not moved by the suffering of others, then nothing will really change.
Simply put, real change happens in the heart, and there the future of our world will be decided. So the Dalai Lama recommends a universal “religion of human kindness,” as he calls it, beyond all sectarian divisions. He recommends the kind of personal practices developed in Buddhism and other religions to move our hearts toward others (the kinds of meditation techniques now being studied in secular contexts). And he tells us that we must extend our caring from those we know, to those we don’t know, to all the suffering people in the world, and finally to all sentient beings.
The Dalai Lama is a very practical man. After all, he is the leader of a oppressed people, who have suffered one of the great tragedies of the post-war period and whose fate he guides. He believes his approach of compassion and nonviolence is not only morally correct but also the most effective strategy, for the Tibetan people and for the world. And wouldn’t it be one of the best things we could do for humanity’s future to prove him right? If a small, embattled people could ultimately triumph through love and nonviolence, with their identity and culture intact, in the face of an authoritarian, imperial power? That would be a hopeful sign for the twenty-first century. We place Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in history’s pantheon not just because of their personal and spiritual qualities. We place them there because they triumphed. They won the freedom of their people through the best possible means.
That’s why when the Dalai Lama talks, we should listen. We should listen when he tells his people to stick to their Buddhist principles of compassion and nonviolence, even in the face of terrible provocation. This is not just their struggle, but all of ours. The world needs the Dalai Lama’s message of kindness, compassion, and nonviolence, and the best message of all would be that it works.