The Dalai Lama: A Long Life Lived for All

Why is the Dalai Lama an inspiration to so many people of such diverse backgrounds? Roshi Joan Halifax explains.

Joan Halifax
4 June 2024
The Dalai Lama on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol. On this day in 2007, he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s most distinguished civilian award. Photo by Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1979, for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first-ever visit to the United States, the Episcopal priest James Morton invited him to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The cathedral that day was full, not just with Westerners, but also with Tibetans who had fled their country, escaping the violence of the invasion by the Chinese Red Guard. They, like His Holiness, had survived. They’d made their way to relative safety, and they were hungry for the teachings of the religious leader of their country, a fellow refugee. 

Under the soaring nave of the cathedral and with the rapt silence of his audience, His Holiness spoke of the profound value of courage and compassion in a broken world. After the talk, I made my way to a nearby brownstone where a reception was to be held. I remember waiting by the door with anticipation. Within minutes this youngish, slender man wearing maroon robes, tan leather shoes, and a good watch, bounded up the stairs of the Uptown Manhattan home. 

With a gleam in his eye, His Holiness grabbed my hand; he probably sensed I had a question for him. My inquiry stemmed from the fact that I’d been given a rare piece of land in the upper Ojai Valley in California to begin a practice and study center. I asked him what qualities would be important in supporting the creation of such a center. His response was immediate: “Great love, great compassion, and great determination.” 

“His dharma will live on through the lives of the many whom he has touched.”

As I traveled to the West Coast, I realized that these words would be the ballast that steadied my boat through the choppy waters of fostering an institution grounded in the dharma and social action. And although I was a Zen person, I knew that His Holiness’ powerful teachings on compassion were essential to integrate more firmly into my practice of Buddhism. I think many have had this same experience. 

Two years later, I had a meeting in Spain with the neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco Varela whose nickname was Cisco. In the days that unfolded, we had many conversations about the importance of the encounter between science, contemplative practice, and first-person experience. A week later, we encountered each other at yet another science meeting, this time at Stanford University where Cisco, chemist Ilya Prigogine, neuroscientist Karl Pribram, economist Kenneth Arrow, and others were exploring order and disorder in complex adaptive systems. 

Again, the conversation between Cisco and me focused on the relevance of cross-disciplinary exchanges, and the importance of creating a context where scientists conducting brain research and individuals with a contemplative practice could meet and learn from each other. Cisco knew I’d been creating similar meetings on the West Coast, including a six-week program called “Buddhism and Mind” in 1976. Cisco was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and I was deeply moved by His Holiness’ teachings. So, our conversation naturally moved toward exploring some way in which a meeting could happen between Cisco, his colleagues, and His Holiness. 

In 1983, I was invited to a small meeting on this very topic at the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, I was reluctant to go. My eyes had been bandaged following a medical procedure involving radiation; the dosage had not been sufficiently fractionated, and my eyes were burned. But Cisco encouraged me to go despite my state.

His Holiness, maybe feeling compassion for my difficult situation, invited me to have a private audience with him early the next morning. As I was driven to the home where His Holiness was staying, I felt nervous. But again, His Holiness’ warmth overcame my concerns. When I entered the house, His Holiness took my hand, led me to a chair, sat close to me, and kindly said that my eye consciousness might be afflicted but my mind consciousness was not. A smile broke across my face, as there was a touch of humor in his comment to me. I relaxed and felt I was sitting with an old friend. His Holiness had a gift for making others feel met, safe, cared for, and understood. 

At the end of our meeting, I humbly suggested creating a dialogue between him, philosophers, contemplatives, and neuroscientists. Laughter and a strong yes followed; His Holiness seemed very excited about this possibility. I was elated and immediately spoke to Cisco about the exchange when I returned to Ojai. A seed was planted, and its roots deepened later that year when Cisco was in Germany with His Holiness and made the same proposal. It was met with a similar response. His Holiness, after all, was a scientist at heart. 

In the years that followed, I participated in many Mind and Life meetings at His Holiness’ quarters in Dharamshala as he and others explored mind, life, ethics, emotions, dying, addiction, the environment, and awakening. His sharp mind—and at times, sharp tongue—kept us all on our toes. The questions deepened over time. I think His Holiness was transformed by these rich encounters, and we were as well. 

There were so many high points, but maybe the most touching was his bond with Cisco. They were two compassionate, brilliant, and brave men who had fled countries that were in the grips of totalitarian regimes. Two men who, in their marrow, were scientists. Two men who loved and respected each other. And then one day in 2001, Cisco left us. We carried on with His Holiness. The same, but different.

The last time I saw His Holiness was in October 2022. He was older, refusing to wear his hearing aids, still full of laughter, and still teaching compassion as the salvation of our world, of ourselves. He was also still sure he would live to the venerable age of 125. And may it be so.

If this should not come to pass, his dharma will live on through the lives of the many whom he has touched, the institutions that have grown up around and through him, the contemplative science that has flowered in the ground of his understanding, and the many friendships that have developed through his rare gift of magnifying the best in others.

Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax is the abbot and head teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her most recent book Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet explores how we can face the challenges we are facing in our current fraught political climate.