His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a major phenomenon on our planet today. Just the fact that he lives with us in our time keeps alive—all too often only subliminally for most—the great moment, an everywhere, everywhen moment, when Prince Siddhartha became Shakyamuni Buddha about 2550 years ago in our conventional sense of time as history. We humans on this planet have been extremely blessed by living in a time when there is still a memory of certain great human beings who, though once just like us, became perfected—in the sense of fully, experientially realized the perfect bliss energy of which the world is made—as beings of full, accurate knowledge and joyful, selfless but artful love. In cultures close to most of the humans who became thus great, they are called “buddhas”—indicating both that they have awakened from the sleepwalking life in the grip of delusion and also that they have blossomed into complete compassion for others, born of their awareness of the realities of life and death, suffering and bliss.
The fact that such beings have shown us examples of how we can make our own lives meaningful is immensely significant for those whose culture or education enables them to acknowledge it, either consciously or subliminally. During the 82 years since the Dalai Lama was reborn, the number of people aware of some possible beings called “buddhas” has increased from perhaps one fifth of the global population to three fifths.
We mostly still live for subsistence. We are brought up and schooled to be productive and successful, that is supposed to make us happy. This is to treat us simply as cogs in society’s wheel of production, aim us in a certain professional direction and we must just perform and be happy we can do it. No free lunch. We may have a few occasions as adolescents or liberal arts students where we can address existential questions but not for too long, if at all. Religion, whichever one, is supposed to answer those by conditioning us intellectually and ritually to believe and belong. But our religions no longer, or only rarely, encourage us to live an inner life. Each one promises its special relief after death, this or that version of heaven, undergirded by threats of hell, and as for life, just tells us to get to work and conform to Caesar, i.e. the authorities.
As for our mainstream, materialist worldview, it makes our lives meaningless and purposeless, officially. It also holds out the seeming assurance of relief at death, compared to heaven, a modest relief through obliterating anesthetic immersion in the nothingness that we are conditioned to imagine as being there, underlying the purely random play of matter. Our leaders take advantage of the quiet desperation either the religion or the secular worldview produces and strongly force us all into various grotesque self- and other- destructive distractions and productions.
In the midst of this, the Dalai Lama comes and goes, and comes back again, even after death. He is only the most prominent of an ocean of the emanations of the same compassionate beings, living representatives of the buddha family, tirelessly exemplifying the peaceful, joyous way we could all be living and taking care of each other and this planet. For those who recognize him (he purposefully rejects making any such claim about himself), the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (literally “Lord who Looks Down with Loving Care”), a celestial bodhisattva (enlightenment hero) who beams down countless emanation beings to help living beings free themselves from their unnecessary sufferings. For those with that cultural framework, he is like a living Jesus, a Jesus who keeps on coming back, generation after generation. But unlike the Abrahamic messiah idea of the sole incarnation, Avalokiteshvara is legion. He comes as many beings, some recognized, some not, and not only as Tibetan lamas and not only as Buddhists, and not only males but even more profusely as females.
Not only the world’s people but also even the world leaders know him and sense his presence in their lives, and yet they don’t find it convenient to follow his advice, and don’t feel free enough from their preoccupations to implement his positive plan for the world. Nevertheless, he and his teammates stay there in our consciousness and patiently recommend to us all—the leaders and the people who can lead the leaders—a better way forward on this planet, a way beyond the petro-industrial consumerism and militarism to turn inward and enjoy lives focused on our own realistic wisdom, blissful compassion, and artful activism to achieve the abundant and highly realistic happiness of all.
In this light, it behooves us to learn as much as we can about the Dalai Lama, get as close as we can to experiencing his life story, its struggles and triumphs, recognizing in them a resonance with all that we have gone through, are going through, and will continue to go through. We need to see that his dreams being realized will make our own dreams come true, wherever we are in the world. We need to find out how he remains “of good cheer,” in the midst of the most dreadful violations of his people and himself—we need to approach our own pressing problems with the zestful skill that comes from the refusal to give in to despair, and the determination to act out of the joy of self-confident love and wisdom. We need to learn from his example and also benefit from his teachings of the practical and effect methods of finding happiness and peace by bringing happiness and peace to as many others as possible.
Tibet House US is the American Cultural Center of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, founded at his request and under his patronage with the mission of preserving the unique Tibetan Buddhistic culture for future generations of Tibetans and for the whole world. Our founding motto is “Love Tibet!” We feel that “saving Tibet” and “freeing Tibet” can only come from loving Tibet. As part of accomplishing that mission, we have created a graphic biography of the Dalai Lama, seeing this amazing person in a sense as the proof of the pudding of the value of Tibetan enlightenment-oriented culture. His re-birth in a common farmer and horse-trader family on the far northeast border of Tibet, his recognition as Dalai Lama reincarnation, his education, his insights, his spiritual practice, his teaching, debating, and writing, his leadership of his country under existentially difficult conditions, his restoration of Tibet’s culture among three generations of his people in exile, his striding across the world stage as an icon of intelligence, self-control, service of others, and his determination as an inspirational visionary—all these qualities of his life demonstrate the value of Tibetan Buddhistic civilization and make a powerful case for what it offers to a world embroiled in the violent confusions caused by industrial consumerism and industrial militarism. At this moment, he is, to quote a line from the Dalai Lama’s classical inspirer, the great Shāntideva: “A flash of lightning in the dark of night!”
Robert A. F. Thurman is Jey Tsong Khapa Professor at Columbia University. He is President, Tibet House US, and Co-Author, Man of Peace: The illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Visit https://bobthurman.com and https://tibethouse.us.
This article is a part of the Aug / Sept 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.