Fifty years out of Tibet: the Dalai Lama has changed the world

Originally printed in the December 19 edition of the Vancouver Sun.

For me, 1972 was a very good year. I met three extraordinary persons in short order. I read an eye-opener of a book. But perhaps most importantly, I visited a remarkable place.

In March of that year, I met the Dalai Lama in his home in Dharamsala, India. Soon after that I studied meditation with Mahasi Sayadaw, the patriarch of the Vipassana tradition in Rangoon. And in the summer I spent time with the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Colorado. All are renowned, charismatic Buddhist teachers.

The thing that affected me the most, however, was my two-week sojourn in Dharamsala. The majority of the people living in that small town in the foothills of the Himalayas were Tibetans; they had crossed the treacherous passes of the Himalayas and eked out a new life as refugees in India.

I marvelled at the universal goodwill of the people. They smiled and laughed more than anyone I knew. Their warmth toward total strangers was palpable, unconditional and astounding. Living amid these newcomers from Tibet had more impact on me than meeting all three teachers. I didn't know it then, but my life had been transformed by experiencing first-hand an unusually compassionate culture that is defined by an undercurrent of spirituality.

I'm not alone. Just ask anyone who has come into contact with things Tibetan: travellers to Dharamsala and Tibet; those who have read books and seen movies about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism; the untold millions who, over the past five decades, have come into contact with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers. The Tibetan brand of spirituality has a way of creeping up on us, embedding itself in our consciousness and changing us in unexpected ways.

What if the Dalai Lama had not crossed the Himalayas into India in 1959? What if he had been able to spend the past 50 years in the dark, drafty thousand-room Potala Palace? Studying, meditating and looking though his telescope at Lhasa's bazaars, wishing he could experience life simply as an ordinary Tibetan? The world might know of his and his people's existence. But would they care?

According to Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, there are about 12,000 centres scattered across the globe devoted to the spiritual and the contemplative, to pursuits that encompass meditation, therapy, yoga and other mind, body and spirit activities -- not only in the West but also in India, China, Russia and Brazil. It is fair to say that many are the result of the catalyzing influence of Tibetan teachers.

If the Dalai Lama and his 80,000 followers had remained in Tibet, would this flowering of the spiritual have happened? I'd like to think that it would have, but perhaps on a much smaller scale. Other religious traditions embrace similar wisdom insights. But they don't have any spokespeople with the profile of the Dalai Lama, and their practice is mostly confined within the rarified cloisters of religion.

Though Tibetan teachers are relatively few, their cumulative global influence is significant. Most importantly, they have succeeded in bringing spirituality out of organized religion and making it eminently accessible, encouraging an ethos of right living in the popular culture. We are gently nudged to adopt a mental habit entirely appropriate for our age: mindfulness as a simple tool to help us pay attention, help us stay in the here and now, and help us empathize with the other.

The result? We cope better with suffering, we are less likely to succumb to emotional turmoil, and we bounce back sooner from depression; in short, we benefit through improved mental health. Research has also shown that contemplative or mindful activities boost our immune systems. Our neurocircuitries are reconfigured so that we experience less wear and tear as we go about our daily routines. We live longer and are healthier. The exemplar is the peripatetic Dalai Lama, who gives lectures about what he calls science of mind (rather than Buddhism) to hundreds of thousands of people annually. As he has said, we are now a gentler, kinder, more conscious people, compared with earlier generations.

For young people, the good news is that mindfulness improves their grades. A recent meta-analysis of 207 studies involving nearly 300,000 students in the U.S. shows that incorporating elements of contemplative techniques (among other interventions) in their everyday school life has a tangible effect: the students manage their emotions better, handle interpersonal relations better and are more considerate of others. Students in the study also scored 11 percentile points higher on standardized achievement tests.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. once lamented that the gross national product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. Today, I'm tempted to say that for many, "that which makes life worthwhile" has been immeasurably enriched by 50 years of Tibetans living in our midst. For me, I have no doubt that this is the case.

Victor Chan is the founding director and trustee of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.

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