We humans

What the Dalai Lama can teach us about living well

Sep 1, 2015 /
Illustration by Kelly Rakowski/TED.

The Dalai Lama is both a futurist and a visionary, says author Daniel Goleman.

There was a child born to illiterate villagers in an isolated village. He had to flee his homeland and has been a man without a country for more than half a century.

He has never owned a home or a car or had a salary, let alone investments of any kind. He never had a family of his own.

He never attended an ordinary school; his education was a series of tutorials in arcane philosophical methods, rituals, and a curriculum developed some six hundred years ago.

And yet he has met regularly for deep discussions with some of the most advanced scientists in the world. He frequently visits with high-powered leaders, schoolchildren, and ordinary citizens of every kind, including those who live in slums, around the world. He travels ceaselessly, always ready to learn.

The Dalai Lama has accumulated wisdom rather than mere knowledge.

This, of course, describes the Dalai Lama, a person utterly rare on the planet, free from the many obligations that delimit the concerns of most of us to our own lives, our family and friends, our community, our country.

While he has none of the training of a specialist, his expertise speaks to other dimensions of life. He has accumulated wisdom rather than mere knowledge.

His is a special expertise. He is an expert on reflection and stillness, on selflessness and compassion. Almost none of us would even consider meditating five hours a day as does the Dalai Lama. Yet there is much we can learn from his deep practice and the resulting insight and caring that applies to how to live a good and fulfilled life.

When it comes to investing, we consult a financial expert; to our health, a doctor. And when it comes to our inner life, to how to be a force for good in this world, we can trust the Dalai Lama as an expert whose guidance can benefit us all.

Begin with looking inward and managing our own minds and hearts, he tells us. Then look outward from a more balanced place in ourselves, and consider the good we can do.

Don’t be discouraged by the terrible news we hear; in reality, that reflects a small portion of the human story. Beneath the ugly tip of that glacier lies a vast reservoir of sensitivity and kindness — and each of us can enlarge that goodness.

The Dalai Lama’s leadership message revolves around a central organizing principle: genuine compassion.

Leadership happens to be an area I’ve written about often in recent years, and I find in the Dalai Lama several lessons for any leader. His vision for a better world excludes no one but rather reaches to every stratum of society and to people everywhere. There are no in-group biases in his message; he offers guidance to us all.

Nor does he dictate what action we should take. While he has several explicit goals in mind, he leaves up to each of us whether we follow his lead or not and, if so, how we choose to act.

He has no interest in our money, our “likes,” our e-mail addresses to add to some list, or collecting us as “followers.” He offers his perspective on life freely. It is simply there for our taking.

Refreshingly, rather than having some hidden selfish agenda, his leadership message revolves around a central organizing principle: genuine compassion. And his appreciation of the web of human interconnection gives him a genuine concern for all of us.

In talking with leaders from Davos to D.C., I hear the same plaints: Our guiding values have the very rich leaving the poor in the dust, planetary systems on course to meltdown, and governments paralyzed in the face of such urgent challenges. We need, they tell me, a new brand of leadership, one that excludes the mix of cynicism and self-interest that has left us facing a dystopian future.

The wider our sphere of influence, the more people we guide. In this sense the Dalai Lama has a global role, touching millions. He has become a de facto world citizen, wandering incessantly for more than a half century, spending months each year in far corners, meeting people of all kinds. The world’s concerns are his.

Leaders guide attention, directing our efforts toward what matters. Typically this has meant addressing what’s urgent in the short term: this quarter’s targets, the next new thing, the coming election.

The business press tells us the best leaders are those whose wily strategies win market share and profit growth for their companies and spotlights executives who have shepherded their companies to exceptional fiscal performance. And while government leaders may sometimes try to fulfill a vision that rises above the gravitational pull of petty politics, the inertia of that system all too often prevents them.

The Dalai Lama looks beyond the givens of today’s reality to offer a map to a better future worldwide.

While so many leaders today operate within the limits of things as they are and for the benefit of a single group, none of these concerns or limitations confines the Dalai Lama. This lets him expand our thinking to see how our systems can morph to benefit the widest range of people.

This makes the Dalai Lama a transformative leader, one who looks beyond the givens of today’s reality to offer a map to a better future worldwide. Such leaders have grander horizons and so can tackle our largest challenges, thinking far into our future, paying attention to the issues that matter in the long run and for everyone.

They act not just for themselves or their own groups or organizations but rather for us all, on behalf of humanity itself. These are not by and large the leaders we have but are the voices we need. The world yearns for this kind of leadership.

The more altruistic the guiding values, the longer the time horizon, and the broader the human needs a leader addresses, the greater that leader’s vision can be. Transformative leaders serve a transcendent purpose, pointing the way to a new reality. That’s what draws me to the Dalai Lama’s vision.

He may seem a surprising source for such guidance. People around the world admire his wisdom and compassion and are drawn by his charisma. But few realize his value as a futurist who ponders our problems and their solutions globally and over centuries, a visionary who senses what we will need to meet the demands of our coming reality.

There have always been two sets of audiences as the Dalai Lama toured the world: those interested in Buddhism, who attend his religious teachings, and the large throngs at his public talks. As the years have passed, his personal mission leaves him less interested in addressing the same crowds of Buddhists over and over; his religious appearances have dropped in number as his public talks have increased.

In articulating his vision, he speaks to each of us, not from his religious role but by wearing the hat of a global leader who genuinely cares about the well-being of every person on the planet.

This is an edited excerpt from the book A Force For Good by Daniel Goleman; an audio download is also available. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Featured illustration by Kelly Rakowski for TED.