Highlights from the Happiness and Its Causes conference - 17th June : The Dalai Lama

Published on June 22, 2011

The interview with the Dalai Lama this morning was the most outstanding event of the whole Happiness conference.  It was electrifying when Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso walked on stage, slowly, and with a very slight stoop, perhaps revealing his 75 years but more likely a deliberate bow.  He was greeted warmly, and reverentially by the audience and the panel members especially Allan Wallace, a fellow Buddhist monk, who has done so much work with the Dalai Lama. I was touched by the way they both gently nodded their heads while embracing as only very old friends do.  Thus began an amazing two hours or more of questions to and answers from his Holiness. 

At one point, he spoke about the aging process and commented that although the body ages, the mind does not. Certainly he showed no signs of fatigue during the more than two hours of questions.  Moreover throughout the interview, he remained calm and humble despite the occasional urgent questions of the panel moderator and answering questions he probably has answered many times before.  Another characteristic he demonstrated in the interview was exceedingly good humour and his answers were often punctuated by a hearty and contagious laugh that brought the sometimes esoteric talk down to a more human level.

One of the most important questions asked of the Dalai Lama was how does one have compassion for people who are doing truly awful things? That question brought to mind the long struggle between mighty China and the tiny country of Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, and home of his religion.  However, in his reply, the Dalai Lama was very philosophical and did not once mention political struggles.  I will briefly outline his answer but those of you who are already familiar with Buddhist thought will forgive my inadequacies and errors.  Although I had previously read some of the writings of the Dalai Lama, it somehow seemed too vague or impractical.  However after seeing him in person and listening to lectures by other presenters at this conference, I finally gained a meaningful comprehension of at least some of his ideas.  In fact the experience has profoundly affected not only my spiritual journey but also how I hope to improve my ability to help my clients back overcome their suffering.

In his answer, the Dalai Lama began by pointing out two important principles: the interdependence of things and the impermanence of things.  The first principle is that what we perceive as reality does not exist independent of other things.  He said that we must recognize that reality is not absolute but is in complex relationship to its environment.  If we utilize this principle it will help broaden our perception of the difficult other person, so that we can have a deeper understanding of them and have compassion for them.  For example, if I have a client who acts abrasively to me, I might look past the immediate person in front of me and ask questions to determine who is, or was, abusive to them. Once I attain this broader conception of this client, then I will be better able to have compassion for them and to help them. The second principle is concerns the transient nature of reality. By understanding that what we perceive is in a state of flux, we may well be better able to see that the difficult person is not absolute in time and hence is capable of being changed profoundly.  This again helps us keep an open mind in helping others.

In addition to these two principles, the Dalai Lama emphasized that we but be aware that there is a difference between our perception of a situation and the reality i.e. between our thoughts feelings and actions and what is actually out there. For example, external material things and success cannot substitute for interior spiritual peace of mind. Now as a psychologist I am well aware of the gap between subjective experience of reality and the reality itself. I also recognize that our perception is partly innate but also influenced strongly by our education and experience from birth onward. The Dali Lama advocated the daily practice of meditation as a way to help us strengthen our awareness of the gap between perception and reality. Meditative practice also create a distance between the self and our perceptions. This distance helps us avoid rumination which Allan Wallace yesterday defined as the fusion of the “self” with thoughts and feelings.

Another topic discussed was compassion and its relationship to empathy.  Iacaboni, a leading neuroscientist, explained to the Dalai Lama that there was a biological basis to empathy and that this innate process involves special neurons called “mirror” neurons. In the fascinating conversation between the scientist Iacoboni and the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, the latter pointed out that there are probably two kinds of compassion, one type arising from empathy and mirror neurons and another kind of compassion which involves using the principle of the interdependence of things and our intellect to better intellectually understand the complexity behind our immediate  perception of the person. In this way we deepen our empathy and compassion and can help the individual reduce their suffering.

I hope in this short description of the dialogue with the Dalai Lama, I have conveyed the remarkable humanity of the Dalai Lama; he emphatically declared at one point “I am a human being”.  Also as a psychologist I was deeply impressed with his deep philosophical views but also practical grasp of how the human mind works.   I found this real life exposure to the Dalai Lama stimulated me to examine my own mind and how I am conducting my life.  Hopefully his words will help me be more compassionate to others and hence make this world a kinder and happier place.


Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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