The Happy Buddhist: Why the Dalai Lama Matters

By Steve Paulson

The Dalai Lama turns 80 today. He’s a unique global leader - not only the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, but also the de facto ambassador for Buddhism around the world. We’ve all seen those images of the jovial man in crimson robes, laughing and chatting with the Western admirers who seek him out. The Dalai Lama looks like the living embodiment of a man who’s found peace through meditation, but he also has the hard edge of someone who’s wrestled for decades with China over the fate of Tibet.

So what’s the Dalai Lama really like? I asked someone who’s known him for decades, psychologist and former New York Times reporter Daniel Goleman, who’s just written “A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.

Can you put the Dalai Lama’s life in perspective?

He was reared for a very traditional role in an arch-traditional society. Pre-Communist Tibet was in some ways very medieval. It was a country, like the Vatican, that was run by a religious figure. Everyone revered him. When the Communists invaded in the '50s, it became increasingly clear that they would not let Tibet continue to have its religious or cultural freedom.

He fled in ‘59. It looked like the Chinese Army was going to capture him. Chinese soldiers had been taking over Tibet area by area, killing monks and officials, basically creating a dictatorship. He left in the middle of the night, disguised as a Tibetan guard. He rode on horseback, crossing the Himalayas for 15 days in the snow, freezing, and he came out in India, where he’s lived ever since. It was extraordinary. Slowly, he became the figure we know today. But you have to remember, this was ‘59. He had no training, no preparation, no formal schooling. He had to pick all this up on his own. And today he’s an unparalleled world figure. We don’t have anyone like him.

We have an image of the Dalai Lama as this very enlightened figure, a guy who meditates for hours every day - someone who has remarkable equanimity. He never seems to get flustered about anything - even these difficult circumstances with the Chinese. Was he always this way?

No, and he’ll be the first tell you that. I interviewed him about his emotional life, and one of the things he encourages is what he calls “emotional hygiene,” which is managing our destructive emotions. He points to himself as a case study. He says, “When I was young, I got angry a lot and now I don’t.” I’ve seen him angry for about a minute - maybe twice in the time I’ve known him. He’s pretty unflappable. Bad news, tragic news comes his way. He handles it but he doesn’t let it throw him off. He meditates a lot. He gets up at 3:30 in the morning and meditates for 4 hours.

Four hours!

The secret is that he goes to bed at 7. [Laughs]

Doesn’t he also listen to the BBC?

He does break his morning routine, and it isn’t all meditation. At 5:30, breakfast and the BBC. He’s a very loyal listener. He keeps up on the news. He meets world leaders and people who are impoverished in those countries. He gathers information from everywhere, and I think it gives him a unique sense of our global predicament.

How did he make this transformation from the tempestuous young man to the renowned figure we see today, who’s basically unflappable?

His secret weapon is that he’s a life-long learner. He loves to learn. When I met him in ‘84, he mentioned that he wanted to meet with scientists. And I’ve been in a series of rounds where he’ll spend 5 days in intensive discussions on topics like quantum physics or emotions.

Why is he so interested in science?

Because he is a seeker of the truth. And he sees science as a very powerful avenue for finding out the nature of things. As a kid, he loved to tinker. There weren’t many mechanical things in Lhasa in the ‘30s and ‘40s. There were two cars; he took them apart and put them back together. He was the watch-fixer. He fixed the generator. He likes engineering and science is a life-long passion of his.

Why do you think the Dalai Lama has a different standing than any other world leader?

Well, I’ve done a lot of writing about leadership over the years and I’ve realized one thing: If you look at a CEO or a politician, they are very short-sighted. They’re interested in quarterly returns or the next election, which narrows their vision. But his view is panoramic. He has no organization or official post. He’s not beholden to anyone, but he genuinely cares about the world as a whole. So this frees him to grapple with the biggest issues - healing the planet, the rich-poor gap, having a compassionate economy. These issues are basically ignored by business leaders and political leaders.

The Happy Buddhist

He meditates 5 hours every day, charms nearly everyone he meets and urges us to be happy and compassionate. The Dalai Lama is now 80. Bestselling author Daniel Goleman reflects on the life and legacy of a singular figure in today's world.

Your rating: None
Average: 4.6 (11 votes)