The Relevance of the Dalai Lama in the Modern World

Let’s look at the relevance of the Dalai Lama in the modern world. If he has any role to play, it needs to be one that is meaningful and as beneficial to as many people as possible, and not just relevant in terms of just entertainment or curiosity because he is a phenomenon like a superstar. This isn’t what the Dalai Lama is all about. His sole purpose in life is to be of benefit to others.

Service to Others

Although there are other people in the world who claim to be totally devoted to the welfare of others, I think the really wonderful thing about His Holiness – we usually call him this – is that he is totally, genuinely sincere. This is something that definitely gets communicated to others when they are in his presence, when they listen to him, and when they come to realize what he actually does. He always speaks of having three major purposes that he tries to further with his life. The first is secular ethics, the second is religious harmony, and the third is to look out for the welfare of Tibet and the Tibetan people, since that is the role that has been placed upon him.


His Holiness often speaks on the themes of secular ethics and religious harmony, and the reason for this is that the world is in great need of ethics. There is so much corruption, so much dishonesty, and so much lack of accord among people, and all because of a lack of ethics.

The Dalai Lama has a very universal, open mind, and is always speaking and thinking in terms of what would be of benefit to the 7 billion-plus people on this planet. Among this population, there are some who are believers in some sort of religion, and there are non-believers. What is needed is some sort of ethical system – an ethical basis – that will be acceptable to everybody. This His Holiness calls “secular ethics,” which doesn’t mean it is against any religion or system, but that it respects all systems of belief, as well as the needs of non-believers. He bases this on what he calls “basic human values,” and so sometimes rather than saying his theme is secular ethics, he says that the time is now for the promotion of basic human values, which are based on biology. The affection and care of a mother toward her new-born infant is very basic and primal, not only to humans but animals as well: taking care of others. We see this in the Dalai Lama’s life itself, which is why his message is so moving.


His Holiness travels around the world with a schedule that is just absolutely unbelievable, especially when you think that now, in 2013, he’s 78 years old. He makes very long world tours, often staying in a place for only one day. His schedules are brutal. I have travelled with His Holiness as liaison, as translator and so on, so I know what that schedule is like. Every single day there are several lectures, then there are the press conferences and individual private meetings. He has hardly any time to eat. He gets up at 3:30 every morning, regardless of time zone changes or anything like that, and does about four hours of deep meditation practice. His energy is so strong and he is always filled with humor and with concern for everybody that he is meeting. It’s really amazing to see and watch how, no matter whom he meets, he is absolutely delighted to meet this person: “Here is another human being, how wonderful!”


In Buddhism, we speak about this heart-warming love that when you meet someone, it just fills your heart with warmth, you are so happy to meet them and you are really concerned about their welfare. You can see this in the Dalai Lama’s interaction with anybody, just walking through a crowd or whatever, the way he looks at people and the way in which he gives his total attention to each person that he sees. It really communicates that he truly is interested in others’ welfare and in everybody’s welfare equally. Therefore this whole idea of promoting human values, secular ethics, is what he has understood to be of the best benefit to everyone. He is not just thinking in a narrow “only Buddhist” type of way. He is very concerned about how to introduce some sort of teachings on a secular level in the education systems around the world that would teach children the benefits of being honest and kind, and all the other basic human values that are very, very beneficial to the world.

Religious Harmony

So much difficulty arises in the world because of disputes between religious groups. There’s mistrust, there is fear, and all of this leads to problems. His Holiness says, in terms of religious harmony, that what we really need is education, not just in secular ethics, but education about each other. What we really fear is the unknown, and onto these unknown groups and religions, we project some sort of fantasy. He says that, at many of the interfaith dialogues he participates in, people gather and smile and are really nice to each other, then there’ll be some prayers or silent meditation. It’s all well and nice, but not very productive. Just saying, “Well, we are all talking about the same thing, we are all one,” and always pointing out the similarities doesn’t help to actually learn about each other.

In June of this year, His Holiness had a meeting with some Sufi masters, and he told them he wanted to learn about the differences, not just the similarities. He said that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our differences, but that we can learn from them in ways that could be beneficial in our own efforts to improve ourselves. His Holiness says that all religions have the same aim, which is to bring about a happier life for those who follow it. To achieve this though, there are lots of different methods, which is necessary because people are so different.

He says, “If all of us are trying to teach our followers to develop love, kindness and so on, what method do you use? What method do we use? This is something we can learn from you, to look at the differences and respect them as opportunities to learn something new. It would be good to have meetings of very serious practitioners of each religion to gather together and share their experiences, not for a big public audience, but with each other so that we are really talking on a serious practitioner level. This would be very beneficial.”


While His Holiness’ primary commitment is to benefit everybody, with a specific responsibility for the Tibetan people and a specific responsibility within the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism, these are not his exclusive concern. From a young age, His Holiness has shown a strong interest in science, mechanics, and how things work. He has been holding meetings with scientists since the early 1980s, and really wants to learn from them.

He had said that if scientists can validly demonstrate something that contradicts what we find in the Buddhist teachings, for instance the description of the universe, how the universe began, and so on, it is perfectly okay to drop that from the Buddhist teachings. The Western scientific understanding of how the brain works, the various chemical stuff and so on, it would be a great supplement to the Buddhist understanding.

Likewise, Buddhism has a great deal of knowledge that it can share with the scientists, coming from the categories of Buddhist science, Buddhist knowledge, and Buddhist philosophy. For instance, Buddhism provides a very detailed map of emotions – how the whole inner world of emotions works, how to deal with these emotions and so on. The Buddhist analysis provides a very scientifically organized overview. This can be of great use to Western scientists too. In the monasteries, His Holiness has instituted the study of science, adding it to the curriculum for monks and nuns. Various textbooks on science have been translated from English to Tibetan. In these ways, he is incredibly open-minded for somebody who is the leader of a major world religion.

Reaching Out to Other Traditions

His Holiness wants to reach out to the Islamic world, and so he has been encouraging my own Buddhist archives to have the basic Buddhist teachings and the general message of basic human values, ethics and so on, translated into Arabic and the other major Islamic languages. This is underway. Over the last few years, there has been so much demonization of Islam, which is very unfortunate. It is so important to include them in the world, and not just exclude them as a threat. We also need to provide them with clear explanations of the Buddhist beliefs, not to convert them or anything like that, but just to share basic information, as they could do with us. Again, education is the way to develop understanding and friendship.

Within Buddhism itself, there is the Mahayana tradition, which is practiced in Tibet, China, Japan and so on, and the Theravada traditions practiced in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly to many, both sides have very little knowledge of each other. He has commissioned and sponsored an American Buddhist nun to carry out a very detailed comparison. For each of the practices, What is the Mahayana version, and what is the Theravada version? This will be translated into the Southeast Asian languages in order to share this important knowledge.

Ordination for Women

While there are of course fully ordained monks in Tibet, the ordination lineage for nuns didn’t manage to cross over the Himalayas from India. This was due to various reasons, mainly geographic; it was simply too difficult in ancient times for a whole group of Indian nuns to travel by foot to Tibet. Thus, the lineage was broken, because a group of ten fully ordained nuns was need to pass it on.

Again, the Dalai Lama has been sponsoring studies and projects to see how it would be possible to restart this lineage, so that women who want to become fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan tradition can do so.

“I’m Just a Simple Monk”

One of the most endearing qualities of His Holiness is how totally down to earth and simple he is, without any pretension or arrogance. He always says that he is a simple monk, just a regular human being like everyone else. He mentions, “Whenever I meet somebody, I regard them as another human being. Our communication is human being to human being, not Dalai Lama to some regular person. Not Tibetan to some foreigner. Not these secondary differences, but on this primary level: we are all human beings.”

He immediately wants to deflate any sort of fantasy people might have that he is some sort of god, king, or has special powers. When he comes in front of those huge, huge audiences, tens of thousands of people, he is totally relaxed, totally at home. If he itches, he scratches, just like any normal human being. He’s not at all self-conscious and is not trying to put on a show for anyone. If he is going to meet the president of some country and he’s wearing rubber sandals, that’s what he’ll wear. He doesn’t want to and isn’t trying to impress anybody.


It’s really amazing the way His Holiness can say things in a humorous way, that others wouldn’t get away with. One time he gave a lecture and the seat he was sitting on was an extremely uncomfortable armchair. At the end, he said to the organizing panel, and the audience as well, that all the arrangements were wonderful, except next time to please get a better seat as this one was really uncomfortable! He said it in such a light, loving way, that no one took offense, in fact everyone laughed. In the same way he is able to scold people.

A Visit with Vaclav Havel

I was with His Holiness when he was invited by Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, when it was still Czechoslovakia. The rock star Frank Zappa was the first person to be invited, but the second was His Holiness. Havel wanted him to teach him and the cabinet how to meditate, because he said, “We have no experience, we have no idea how to run a government. We are all stressed out and we can’t sleep. Can you please teach us how to calm down? Otherwise we’re never going to be able to manage running the government of a new country.”

Vaclav Havel was very down to earth, and he invited His Holiness and all the ministers to go to the summer palace, a big castle outside of Prague. He’d never actually been there himself; it was huge and everybody got lost walking through the halls. He remarked casually to the Dalai Lama, “This was the whorehouse of the communist leaders.” That’s not the normal kind of language you’d use to speak to the Dalai Lama, but he was very down to earth like that. Then, everyone, including the Dalai Lama, sat down on the floor of one of the large rooms. Havel and his ministers were all wearing sweat suits, and His Holiness taught them basic breathing and energy meditations to calm down.

Now, normally His Holiness doesn’t eat at night, as he follows his monk vows quite strictly. But he is flexible, and President Havel had prepared a dinner at the palace. The discussion was in English and what was noteworthy was how the Dalai Lama scolded Havel, who was a chain smoker. He was smoking there with His Holiness right next to him; that’s a bit of a no-no. Even though it was the president of a country, His Holiness felt perfectly at ease telling him off, saying, “You smoke too much. It’s going to make you sick and give you cancer, so you really have to cut down!” This was actually very kind of His Holiness. Havel did indeed later develop lung cancer. This is just an example of how His Holiness’s major concern is what will be of benefit to the other person, not what they’re going to think of him.

Intelligence and Memory

His Holiness is certainly the most intelligent person I have ever met. He has an absolutely photographic memory. When he teaches, he has a mastery of the largest corpus of Buddhist teachings of anybody from all the different traditions. He can quote from any text. Tibetans in their training will memorize all of the various major texts they study, maybe 1000 pages or something, but the Dalai Lama, it’s unbelievable all of the commentaries that he has memorized. When he’s teaching, he’ll draw one little passage from this text, then one from that text; that is very difficult to do. This is how his memory works, and it’s a mark of great intelligence: you are able to put things together and see how it all fits, to see the patterns. How do people like Einstein figure out e=mc2? It’s from being able to put all sorts of things together and find the pattern. His Holiness is able to do this with his vast knowledge of the Tibetan corpus.

His photographic memory isn’t just for texts, but also for people, as has been demonstrated in front of me many times. I was present when a very old monk from Tibet was able to visit Dharamsala, and when His Holiness saw him he said, “Oh! I remember you. Thirty years ago on our way to India we stopped at your monastery and there was some sort of ceremony. You had to hold up a plate with offerings and I remember it was very heavy and it was really hard for you to hold it up during the whole thing. Do you remember?” It was quite unbelievable. My main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was one of the principal teachers of His Holiness, and he said that as a child, he only ever had to be taught something once. It was immediately understood and remembered.


This is a person who is one of the most outstanding people of our times, and what is his relevance? It’s this: look at what can be accomplished as a human being. Of course he says he had to put in a great deal of hard work in order to develop himself, but we can all do this too. Look at the way he deals with problems. Imagine being considered public enemy number one by more than a billion people on the planet. But His Holiness just laughs it off because he knows it’s not true, he doesn’t have horns on his head. But how would you cope with being labelled a demon in monks’ robes?

He doesn’t get depressed, ever. He has said that he has never experienced it, and that it’s quite difficult for him to understand. I remember when he admitted that he had never even heard or thought about the idea of people having low self-esteem or self-hatred. He had never encountered it or experienced it himself.

He remains so optimistic, but deals with the reality of situations at the same time. Of the situations we now have, he says, “The problems of the world have been created by mankind, and can be eliminated by mankind.” He is trying to contribute to their elimination by promoting basic human values, bringing ethics into the education of children, and trying to bring about religious harmony among various cultures and religions. While maintaining complete humility and a totally down-to-earth attitude, he is actively working on the welfare of the whole world. This is what is so endearing. Add on top of that his humor and unbelievable energy, and it’s incredible.

His secretaries and advisors are always telling him that he needs to rest and not travel so much. When he travels, every single minute is packed with dozens of meetings a day, plane trips often every single day. But he always says, “No. While I have the energy to do this, I will travel like this, because it’s beneficial to others.”

The relevance is that he gives us hope. He is so sincere and works so hard. When he talks about the improvement of mankind, he is speaking in terms that are totally realistic and achievable: education, mutual understanding, ethics. These aren’t miracle methods; they are things we can actually do. When he comes to our country, or our city, it’s really a very wonderful and worthwhile opportunity to personally experience His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Questions and Answers

How does His Holiness manage to combine all of his spiritual duties, as well as practical things like organizing the lives of the refugees?

He not only is engaged in lots of study and lots of meditation practice, but was also the head of the Central Tibetan Administration for the exiled Tibetan community. Courageously and intelligently, with a great deal of foresight, he gave up that position, and instituted a democratically elected head, known as the Sikyong. But for many years before that, he was in charge and organized and oversaw all the efforts to settle the refugees, to restart various institutions in exile, and so on. His main strategy was to be very realistic, not thinking, “Oh, this is too much, I can’t do it, it’s impossible,” but just to get on in a very organized way. With his incredible intelligence and memory, he could keep track of all the various projects under him, and knew how to delegate things. He just does whatever is needed; it’s no big deal for him.

I often half-joke how the Kalachakra system is very helpful for training to do an enormously diverse amount of things. In the Kalachakra mandala you have to visualize 722 figures, and maybe he is one of the very few who are able to do that. Thinking of oneself through this system of practice in such a large complex way, then when a new task or issue comes along, well it’s just another little thing. You’re not afraid of anything, you don’t make a big deal out of anything.

Life is complex and some people’s lives are more complex than others. But rather than be afraid of it, why not embrace it? The more the better! Like my website, working with 21 languages – no big deal, we can do it. We can add more if we need to, why not? This is a small project compared to the things that the Dalai Lama deals with. But it shows the possibilities. No complaining, no “poor me.” As my mother would say, “Straight up and down.” Just do it!

Can you explain why the Dalai Lama is called His Holiness, even though he himself stresses that he is a simple human being?

Well, the Dalai Lama doesn’t call himself His Holiness. I don’t know how it started; maybe it was taken from some sort of Christian title, and it stuck in English. People just use it as an expression of respect, like “Your Highness” for a king. In Tibetan there are many honorifics that are used to refer to your spiritual teacher, and there are special ones reserved for the Dalai Lama, but nothing really translated as “His Holiness.” It has become a simple convention that people have adopted, and he can’t get people to stop calling him that. But he certainly never wants people to worship him like some sort of god.

As you know Tibetan, maybe you could suggest something that in English would be more appropriate?

The main title used for him is “Kundun,” which means “the Supreme Presence.” Well it’s difficult to translate into other languages, but it means that he incarnates and represents all the good qualities of the most highly developed beings. You are in the presence of someone who is really highly realized. I actually tried to introduce this, but nobody was interested!


Some regard him as their spiritual leader, others see him as a superstar. There are even those who think of him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The reality is that the Dalai Lama works tirelessly for the benefit of others and for world peace through his promotion of secular ethics and religious harmony. As an embodiment of love, compassion and wisdom, he acts to inspire us, showing us what it is possible for us humans to achieve.