Beliefs Institutions Politics

At 80, the Dalai Lama is just getting started

Tibetan monks carry a portrait of Dalai Lama during his 80th birthday celebrations in Kathmandu on July 6, 2015. Nepal ceased issuing refugee papers to Tibetans in 1989 and recognizes Tibet to be a part of China. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakara
Tibetan monks carry a portrait of Dalai Lama during his 80th birthday celebrations in Kathmandu on July 6, 2015. Nepal ceased issuing refugee papers to Tibetans in 1989 and recognizes Tibet to be a part of China. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakara

Tibetan monks carry a portrait of the Dalai Lama during his 80th birthday celebrations in Kathmandu on Monday (July 6, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakara

(RNS) The Dalai Lama is not done.

As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism celebrates his 80th birthday in the U.S. this week, much of the non-Buddhist world sees a kindly, aging monk who preaches the gospel of compassion over and over in his broken English.

But many of those who follow the Dalai Lama closely say the world’s best-recognized spokesman for religious freedom is not the retiring kind. His work, they predict, may increasingly engage him with people and events far removed from centers of Buddhist thought.

“I see him stepping up the pace,” said Daniel Goleman, author of “A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.”

“He’s traveling more and more,” Goleman said. “He said to me he’s less interested in speaking and doing Buddhist teaching” and more dedicated to sharing his vision with non-Buddhists.

Instead, watch him take on more public talks at universities, with young people and with scientists.

To what end?

The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has a scientific agenda to push. For decades he has studied with scientists and hosted them at Dharamsala in northern India — his home and the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. The Dalai Lama has long believed that brain science meshes with key principles of Buddhism, including the idea that anger can be mastered and compassion can be taught.

But now, said Robert J. Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, much of the world is beginning to latch on to the science of compassion too.

“The very sudden switch of science to studying the mind has created this huge opportunity for him to be a player in that kind of discussion,” Barnett said. “That’s given him entry into universities, academia and other popular discussion about the issue.”

This, plus mounting anxieties over religious extremism, refugee crises across the globe and the intransigence of racism may make the Dalai Lama’s call for reflection and calm particularly resonant.

Buddhists account for about 488 million people — 7 percent of the world’s population — according to the Pew Research Center. Tibetan Buddhism is the smallest of the three main branches of the religion, which was founded in India in the late sixth century B.C.

Though relatively few Buddhists live in the U.S. — they account for 1 percent of the population, according to Pew — the influence of the religion is disproportionate to its adherents. That’s in part because of the Dalai Lama, said Tom Tweed, president of the board of the American Academy of Religion.

“He became an important public symbol for all sorts of values that Americans came to appreciate, including nonviolence, religious tolerance and openness to the conclusions of science,” said Tweed, who coined the term “nightstand Buddhists.”

Millions of Methodist, Catholic, Jewish and other non-Buddhist Americans have kept copies of Buddhist texts, Buddhist meditation manuals or the Dalai Lama’s writings at their bedsides, “significantly engaging in Buddhist ideas, but extracted from the context of a Buddhist temple,” Tweed said.

But in what is likely to be the Dalai Lama’s last decade to influence the world, some of those who watch him closely wonder whether he will begin to speak more pointedly on how to address human suffering, beyond his usual advice to love oneself and others.

On his birthday Monday (July 6), he took the stage with climate scientists at the University of California at Irvine to urge quick action to combat global warming. But will he voice his opinion on more prickly issues — calling out corrupt regimes or demanding that wealthier nations do more to help poorer ones? Will he wade deeply enough into a conflict to attract criticism himself?

While the Dalai Lama has been very successful at presenting Buddhism to the West and challenging Buddhists to deepen their commitment to tolerance and compassion, “he has a kind of weakness in activism,” Barnett said. “He’s not so good at taking his moral ideas into social action. He hasn’t been a Mandela or a Tutu.”

Within the Dalai Lama’s own religious community, more challenges await the octogenarian, who was born in a poor Tibetan village and declared the 14th Dalai Lama when he was a toddler. China invaded Tibet in 1950, and nine years later, he fled to India. Negotiations between him and the Chinese communist government broke down in 2010, and a year later he stepped down as the political leader of his people, hoping that Tibetan political institutions would strengthen without him as head of state. But China will not negotiate with his political successors.

Then there is the murky question of succession. In the past, high lamas — esteemed teachers of Tibetan Buddhism — have interpreted natural and other signs to find the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. But the current Dalai Lama has said that he could be the last.

He wants the decision as to whether there will be a 15th Dalai Lama to be a democratic one, said Lobsang Nyandak, the Dalai Lama’s former representative to the Americas and the current executive director of the Tibet Fund, an organization that advocates for Tibetan refugees.

“He believes that the institution of the Dalai Lama, whether it is beneficial to humankind or not, has to be decided by the concerned people, which means primarily the Tibetan people,” said Nyandak.

But the Dalai Lama has also said his successor must continue his work, and that work is far from done. He said he would clarify the succession issue when he is “about 90.”


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)