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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Buddhism in the World Today > The Relevance of the Dalai Lama in the Modern World > The Relevance of the Dalai Lama in the Modern World

The Relevance of the Dalai Lama in the Modern World

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, August 2013

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:39:11)

This evening, I would like to speak about the relevance of the Dalai Lama in the modern world, because if the Dalai Lama has any role to play in the world today, it needs to be a relevant one that is meaningful and beneficial to as many people as possible, not relevant in terms of just entertainment, or something to satisfy our curiosity because he is a phenomena like a superstar. That is not really what the Dalai Lama is all about. The Dalai Lama’s sole purpose in life is to be of benefit to others.

Service to Others

Although there may be a number of other people in the world who claim to be totally devoted to the welfare of others, I think what is really quite wonderful about His Holiness – we usually call him “His Holiness” – is that he’s completely sincere. That sincerity is something that gets communicated to others when they are in his presence and they listen to him, and come to realize what he actually does. He always speaks in terms of having three major purposes that he tries to further with his life. One is secular ethics, the second is religious harmony, and the third is looking out for the welfare of Tibet and the Tibetan people, since that is the role that has been placed upon him.


The themes of secular ethics and religious harmony are topics that he often speaks about, and the reason for this is that the world is in great need of ethics. There is so much corruption, so much dishonesty, so much lack of accord among people because of a lack of ethics. The Dalai Lama has a very universal, open mind and he is always speaking and thinking in terms of what would be of benefit to the seven billion people on this planet. Among those seven billion, there are some who are believers in some sort of religion, and there are non-believers, and we need some sort of ethical system – an ethical basis – that will be acceptable to everybody. This is what he calls “secular ethics,” which doesn’t mean being against any religion or system, but it means being respectful to all systems of belief. This is based on what he calls “basic human values.” Sometimes rather than saying his theme is secular ethics, he says is theme is the promotion of basic human values, and these are based on basic biology. The affection and care of a mother toward her newborn infant, these are things that are very basic and primal, to not only humans but animals as well: taking care of others. We see this in the Dalai Lama’s life itself, this is what is very moving by the Dalai Lama’s message.


His Holiness travels around the world with a schedule that is just absolutely unbelievable when you think about it. He is 78 years old, and he does these world tours in a number of different places and often, like here in Latvia, he is only in a place for one day. His schedules are brutal, really if you think about it. I have traveled with His Holiness as liaison, as translator, et cetera, so I know what kind of schedule it is. It is unbelievable: several lectures during the day, there are press conferences, there are individual private meetings – he has hardly any time to eat. Plus, he gets up at 3:30 in the morning every day, regardless of time zone changes or anything like that, and does about four hours of deep meditation practice every morning. His energy is so strong and he is always filled with humor and with concern for everybody that he is meeting. It really is 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 somebody it just fills your heart with warmth, you are just so happy to meet them and you really are 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 that he looks at people and the way that he gives his total attention to each person that he sees. It really communicates that he really is interested in others’ welfare and in everybody’s welfare equally. Therefore this whole idea of promotion of human values, secular ethics, and so on 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, being kind, and just basic, basic human values that would be very, very beneficial to the world.

Religious Harmony

In terms of religious harmony, he sees that there is so much difficulty that arises in the world because of these disputes between religious groups. There is mistrust; there is fear – all these sorts of factors that can lead to problems. He says that what we really need is education – again this emphasis on education – not just in secular ethics, but education about each other. What we really fear is the unknown, and then our projections of some sort of fantasy onto these other groups, these other religions. He says that at these meetings of religious leaders that he participates in, everybody gets together and you just smile and are really nice to each other and you do some prayers together or you just do silent meditation together or things like this. Well very nice, but that is not very productive. Just to say that “well, we are all talking about the same things. We are all one”, and always pointing out just the similarities, that also doesn’t help to learn anything about each other.

In June of this year, His Holiness had a meeting with some Sufi masters from the Muslim tradition of Sufism, and there His Holiness said he wanted to learn about the differences, not just the similarities. He said that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our differences, but from the differences we can learn something from each other that could perhaps be beneficial in our own efforts to improve ourselves. He says all religions have the same aim, and the aim is to bring about a happier life for those who follow it. That certainly is shared in common, but the methods will be different, and that is necessary because people are different.

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


You see, his primary commitment is to benefit everybody. Of course he has a specific responsibility to the Tibetan people, a specific responsibility within the Tibetan traditions of Buddhism, but that is not his exclusive concern. This is indicated very clearly from his attitude toward science. His Holiness has been very, very interested in science, mechanical things and how things work from childhood. He has been having meetings with scientists for… I don’t know how many years now, but it certainly would go back to the early 80s, and he wants to learn from the scientists.

One of the basic principles in Buddhism is that the causes of our problems in life are that we are not realistic, we don’t understand, we don’t see reality, and so we project all sorts of fantasy. The main aim is to be realistic, which of course brings in compassion, because, realistically, we all have to live with each other, and if you have to live with each other – everybody on this planet – you need to get along. This is just basic realism.

He says that if the scientists can 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, he is perfectly willing to drop that from the Buddhist teachings. The Western scientific understanding of how the brain works, all of the various chemical things, the parts of the brain that work and so on, this would be a very good supplement to the Buddhist understanding. It is not in contradiction.

Likewise, Buddhism has a great deal of knowledge that it can share with the scientists. This comes in the categories of Buddhist science, Buddhist knowledge, and Buddhist philosophy. For instance, a very detailed map of the emotions – how the whole inner world of emotions work, and how to deal with them – this is very scientifically organized in the Buddhist analysis. This is very helpful for Western scientists as well. He has instituted the study of science in the monasteries, and added it to the curriculum that the monks and nuns study. He has commissioned the translation of various textbooks on science concerning all of the various areas of science into Tibetan from English. In these ways he is incredibly open-minded for somebody who is the leader of a major religion in the world, and he is very sincere. You can see that in terms of this type of action, these steps that he takes.

Reaching Out to Other Traditions

His Holiness wants to reach out to the Islamic world. So he has been encouraging and sponsoring my own Buddhist archives to have the basic Buddhist teachings and just the general material of his message of basic human values, ethics and so on translated into the Islamic language, which we have been doing. There is so much demonization of Islam that has been taking place, but this is very, very unfortunate. It is very important to include them in the world, not exclude them as a threat. We need to give them some information about the Buddhist beliefs – certainly not trying to convert them or anything like that – but just share basic information with them and we can share their information as well. Education: this is the way to develop understanding. With understanding you develop trust and you develop friendship.

Within Buddhism itself, there is the Tibetan form or style of practicing Buddhism coming from India, the so-called “Mahayana” tradition. Then there are the Theravada traditions which are practiced in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, both sides have very little knowledge of each other. He has been commissioning and helping to sponsor one friend of mine, an American Buddhist nun, to do a very detailed study, a comparison. For each of the different practices, what is the Mahayana version of it, what is the Theravada version of it? And he wants to have this translated into the Southeast Asian languages. He wants to share knowledge; this is very, very important.

Ordination for Women

We look at the development of the monastic tradition among the Tibetans. The ordination lineage of nuns, fully ordained nuns, did not reach Tibet for various – primarily geographic – reasons. It was just too difficult in ancient times for a whole group of Indian nuns to travel by foot to Tibet. It was never transmitted, so the lineage was broken. You need a group of ten fully ordained nuns to pass on the lineage, and this didn’t happen.

Again, the Dalai Lama has sponsored all of these studies and projects, et cetera, to see how would it be possible to start this lineage again, in order for women who want to become fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan tradition to have the opportunity to be able to do that. You can see how this concern goes out, not just in words, but even in money and encouragement and helping with facilities and so on, to expand in all of these areas that are going to be beneficial for so many others, so many people.

I’m Just a Simple Monk”

I think one of the most endearing qualities of His Holiness is how totally down to earth and simple he is, not at least pretentious or arrogant. He always says, “I’m just a simple monk. I’m a regular human being just like you.” Whenever he meets somebody he says, “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: just human being to human being.”

He immediately wants to deflate any sort of fantasy people might have that he is some sort of god, king, or has special magical powers, or he is some deity or anything like that. He comes in to these huge audiences – he is always speaking to huge crowds, tens of thousands of people – and he just is totally relaxed, totally at home. He is not at all self-conscious. If he itches, he scratches, just like any normal human being. He is not trying to put on any show. If he is going to meet the president of some country and if he has been wearing rubber shower sandals, then that is what he wears. He doesn’t want to and is not trying to impress anybody; that is just what he wears.


Everything is with humor. It is really quite amazing how he can say things in a humorous way that… we say “he can get away with it!” It is amazing. He was at this one venue where he was lecturing and there was a seat he was sitting on and it was extremely uncomfortable, so at the end of the talk he said to the people who were organizing – and of course everybody in the audience as well – that all the arrangements were wonderful and so on, but next time please get me a better seat, this chair was really uncomfortable! But he said it in such a light, loving type of way that everybody in a sense laughed and it was okay. No one took offense at it. He’ll scold people as well, which is amazing.

A Visit with Vaclav Havel

I was with His Holiness when he was invited by Vaclav Havel, I forget if he was Prime Minister or President of the Czech Republic, when it was Czechoslovakia. His Holiness was the second person that he invited, the first one was Frank Zappa, you know the rock star, but the second one was the Dalai Lama. Havel wanted His Holiness to teach him and his cabinet how to meditate because he said, “We have no experience; we have no idea how to run a government and we are all stressed out of our minds and can’t sleep. Could you please teach us how to calm down? Otherwise we are never going to be able to pull it off, running a government, a new country.”

Vaclav Havel was a very down to earth, very earthy type of person. He invited His Holiness and the ministers to go to the summer palace – I don’t know what you would call it, but it was some sort of retreat place, some sort of castle that was outside of Prague. He had never been there himself. It was this big place and everybody got lost going through the halls as nobody really knew what this place was like. He said to the Dalai Lama, “This was the whore house of the Communist leaders.” You don’t quite use that kind of language and say such things hat to the Dalai Lama, but he was very down to earth that way. What took place was that, including the Dalai Lama, everyone sat on the floor of one of these large rooms wearing sweat suits – not the Dalai Lama – but Havel and his ministers were all wearing sweat suits, and the Dalai Lama taught them basic breathing and energy meditations to calm down.

Normally, His Holiness doesn’t eat at night, he follows his monk vows quite strictly, not eating in the evening, but he is very flexible and so Havel had prepared – not he himself personally – had prepared a dinner for His Holiness at this summer palace and His Holiness agreed to eat this meal with him. They had me there as well, sort of like a having a living dictionary on the other side of the table. This discussion was in English, but one of the things very noteworthy in that conversation was the Dalai Lama scolding Vaclav Havel! Vaclav Havel was a chain smoker and he was smoking at the table with the Dalai Lama next to him, I mean that really is a no-no. This is the president of a country, but His Holiness felt perfectly at ease scolding him saying, “You smoke too much, and it’s going to give you cancer and make you sick and so on, and you really have to cut down.” This I thought was actually very, very nice, very kind of His Holiness. Actually, Vaclav Havel later did develop lung cancer. I mentioned this just as an example of how His Holiness’s major concern is what will be of benefit to the other person. His concern is not what are they going to think of me?

Intelligence and Memory

You add on top of that, that he is the most intelligent person, certainly that I have ever, 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 all these texts. The Tibetans in their training will memorize all of the various major texts they study. Most people might have memorized a thousand pages or something like that, but the Dalai Lama – it is unbelievable all of the commentaries he has memorized. When he’s teaching, he just draws upon one little passage from here and one little passage there and so on; that’s very difficult. If you have memorized a text, usually for most people you have to actually recite and go through the whole text and that is the way you could remember it, but not you are just given a word in the middle of the text or a few words, and then you can recite what comes after that. This is how the Dalai Lama’s photographic memory works. This is, of course, the mark of great intelligence: you are able to put things together, to see how various things fit together and see the pattern. How do people like Einstein figure out e = mc²? It’s from being able to put all sorts of things together, to find the pattern and here it is. The Dalai Lama is able to do this with this vast amount of knowledge and literature in the Tibetan corpus.

He doesn’t just have a photographic memory for texts, but also of people. This I have seen demonstrated. It’s unbelievable. He remembers various people that he has met. He could meet somebody… I was present when an old monk had come from Tibet and he was able to come to Dharmasala and visit. His Holiness looked at him and he said, “Oh!” Here’s this old man and he said, “Oh, I remember you. Thirty years ago on my way to India we stopped at your monastery and they did some sort of ceremony, and you had to hold up a plate with offerings and I remember it was so difficult for you to hold up during the whole ceremony. Do you remember?” Here is the monk thirty years later and His Holiness recognizes him, remembers. It is unbelievable. My main teacher Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness, and he was saying that when His Holiness was taught something as a child, either when he taught him or the other teachers taught him, he only had to ever explain anything once, never had to explain it again. His Holiness understood it and remembered everything.


This is a person who is one of the most outstanding people of our times and what is his relevance? His relevance is this: Look what can be accomplished as a human being. Well, as he says, he put in a great deal of hard work to develop himself and we can do that as well. You look at the way that he deals with various problems. Can you imagine being considered public enemy number one by more than a billion people on the planet? His Holiness just laughs at that because he knows that this is not true, he doesn’t have horns on his head or anything like that but, how would we deal with that if we were labeled public enemy number one, a demon in monks’ clothes?

He doesn’t get depressed, he doesn’t. I mean he’s said he has never experienced being depressed, ever! That’s quite difficult for him to actually understand, what it means to be depressed. It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s like him saying – and I was present when he said, when he admitted that he had never heard of the idea of people having low self-esteem or self-hatred. He never encountered that. He certainly never experienced it himself and had never even heard of it.

He remains optimistic, realistic, and deals with the reality of the situations. Of the present situations in the world that have arisen, problems, he says, “The problems of the world have been created by mankind and can be eliminated by mankind,” and he is doing something about it. He is promoting basic human values, bringing a sense of ethics into the education of the children, trying to bring about religious harmony among various cultures and religions, learning about each other, being educated about each other so there is nothing to be afraid of. He is doing something actively to promote this welfare of the whole world, of everyone, while maintaining complete humility, a completely down to earth quality, a “nothing-special-about-me” type of attitude. This is what is so endearing. Add on top of that humor and unbelievable energy – it’s amazing.

His secretaries and advisors are always saying, “Your Holiness, take it more easy. Don’t travel so much.” His Holiness travels and he’ll be on the road with an unbelievable schedule: it is full every minute of the day with one appointment after another. While he has been traveling in planes and all of that, let’s say for a week or ten days, then he goes back to India – flying all the way back to India – and then either a plane or a car ride – the car ride is like twelve hours up to Dharmasala – and he’ll be there for maybe a week, and then off again on another trip. It is constant like that. So they are saying, “Please Your Holiness, take it easy,” and His Holiness says, “No.” He says, “While I have the energy to do this, I will travel like this, because it is beneficial to others.”

The relevance, I think, is that he gives us hope. Here is someone who is really sincere, and has worked very hard. When he talks about how we can bring about the improvement of mankind, he is speaking in terms that are totally realistic: education, mutual understanding, and ethics. This is realistic; we’re not talking about some miracle methods. When he comes to our country, to our city, it certainly is a very wonderful opportunity, and a worthwhile one, to take advantage and to actually personally experience His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

So what questions do you have?


Participant: What languages does His Holiness know or speak?

Alex: Well, His Holiness speaks English, as he says it’s broken English, but he does speak English, and he also obviously speaks his own language, Tibetan. He does know a little bit of Chinese because the area that he was born in is very close to a large Chinese population area, and so as a small child he learned a little bit of Chinese, but only a few words. I would imagine he probably also knows a few words of Hindi by now.

Participant: How does His Holiness manage to combine all of his spiritual duties, being a spiritual leader of Tibetans, as well as very practical things like organizing the lives of these refugees?

Alex: Well, I think that one of the keys is… As you mentioned, he was not only engaged in a great deal of study, a great deal of meditation practice as well; he was also the head of the government-in-exile, although he has very courageously and very intelligently, with a great deal of foresight, given up that position and instituted democracy in the Tibetan government-in-exile. Nevertheless for many, many years he was in charge and organized all the various – or oversaw – all the various efforts to settle the refugees, and start the various institutions and stuff like that. I think that the main strategy that he used was being very, very realistic. Not making up this horrible monstrous thing of “this is too much, I can’t do this, it is impossible.” As soon as you project that onto the situation: “poor me. I can’t possibly do it, it is too much for me,” then you are lost. You just do what has to be done in a well-organized way. He has an incredible intelligence and an incredible memory, so he is able to remember all of the various projects that are under him like a good head of a multinational company who has to keep in mind everything, and with intelligence knows how to delegate and how to do it. He just does things; it is no big deal.

I often joke about how the Kalachakra system is very, very helpful for training to be able to do an enormous amount of diverse things, half joking. In the Kalachakra mandala, if that means anything to you, you visualize 722 figures. You know, maybe the Dalai Lama is able to visualize 722, I certainly can’t, but you get the general idea that there are an awful lot of these figures in groups and clusters around you and one feels that one’s self-image encompasses all of it, the whole thing. There are deities that deal with each of the 360 days of the lunar year, that deal with all of the astrological configurations, that deal with all of the various aspects of the body and the systems of the body, deities that cover everything. Thinking of oneself through this system of practice in such a large, complex way, then when a new task comes along or a new issue, well it is just another group of ten figures over there in that corner of the mandala; no big deal. Here is another one, and that is another cluster over there. I can deal with it because I can deal with this huge complexity of the whole thing and it is all integrated and working smoothly; you are not afraid of anything, of any further task that is added. You don’t make a big deal out of anything.

It is true, life is complex, and some people’s lives are more complex than others, but our lives are complex. Rather than being afraid of complexity, you embrace complexity: the more the better. Why not? With that mentality, I am able – let’s say just myself personally with my website – work with 20 languages. No big deal, I can do more languages if I have to. Add another language, why not? I am not afraid of it. That is a small project compared to all of the things that the Dalai Lama deals with. I think this is how it is possible. No complaining, no “poor me,” no “this isn’t possible.” you just do it. As my mother would say, “straight up and down.” Just do it! No “ahhh…side-to-side…am I going to do this?” and worries and so on. Just do it!

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

Alex: Well the Dalai Lama doesn’t call himself His Holiness. I don’t know who first started that term in English, but it probably was taken from some sort of Christian title, and it stuck in English. People use that as an expression of respect like “Your Highness” for a king. In Tibetan there are many honorifics that are used for one’s spiritual teacher, so there are special ones that are used with the Dalai Lama. What translates as His Holiness? Nothing literally, it is just a simple convention that people have adopted and he can’t get people to stop calling him that, but he certainly doesn’t like people to worship him like some sort of god.

Participant: Due to the fact that you know Tibetan, maybe you could suggest something that in English would be more appropriate sounding compared to His Holiness, from Tibetan so to say.

Alex: The main title that is used is “Kundun,” which means “the Supreme Presence.”

Participant: The Supreme Presence?

Alex: Right. I don’t know how you would translate that into other languages; that is not so easy. Presence means that he incarnates and represents all the good qualities of the most highly developed beings. You are in the presence of somebody who is really highly realized, the Supreme Presence. I tried to introduce that but nobody was interested.

Is there anything else? Good. Maybe we can end here. Thank you very much for coming, and I hope that this has been of some benefit. Thank you.