Taking the Dalai Lama Seriously
By Melvin McLeod
Editor in Chief of the Shambhala Sun
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 this 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
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
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, as Barry Boyce reports in
this issue). 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.