Why is the Dalai Lama so popular?

By Stephen Schettini on November 4, 2009

When I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama back in 1980, I went to his door in Dharamsala and knocked. “Sure,” his servant said. “Tomorrow afternoon okay?” That, of course, was before he became an international superstar. 

Like all those who’ve had one-on-one time with him, I came away from that hour-long interview with the experience of being deeply liked. I felt that nobody, not even my own mother, had ever paid such rapt attention to me. Who can resist that? I also found him far more open intellectually than most other Tibetans. After a year studying logic and philosophy in the great Sera Monastic University, I’d come to him with my doubts. How come “Because the Buddha said so,” is considered a valid reasoning? Even more disturbing was the long list of sicknesses believed, even by the highest lamas, to be caused by invisible magic serpents (nagas). Wasn’t Buddhism supposed to the non-religion, the epitome of clear-minded thought?

It wasn’t so much his answers as his attitude that soothed my worries. He made it clear that beliefs are a personal matter and that perhaps I didn’t need to take the ancient tradition of Buddhist scholarship too seriously. After all, as he never tires of saying, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Another part of the Dalai Lama’s appeal lies in what he’s not. A blogger on answerbag.com pointed out, “He's a religious guy who doesn't support killing or hating people for God. It’s a big improvement.” He’s a world leader whose only spin is his self-effacing, playful and too-friendly-for-words persona.

The Chinese too are indirectly responsible for the Dalai Lama’s popularity. Although he has ample reason to be absolutely furious at them, his response is a patience that’s little short of breathtaking. They invaded his country, tortured and killed tens of thousands, forced monks and nuns into public sex acts, levelled ancient monasteries and shrines and have numerically outpopulated Tibetans in Tibet. Last year, Chinese official Zhang Qingli called the Dalai Lama, ‘a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast.’ Nevertheless, in Calgary recently he said he still expects one day to return to Tibet. The worst charge you might level at him is naïveté.

In actual fact, the Dalai Lama’s at the centre of a long-standing religious schism that’s pitted disciples against gurus, separated monks from their monastic brothers and resulted in murder and mayhem. All this over an invisible being called Dorje Shugden whose ostensible job was to protect the Buddha’s teachings. Back in the nineteen-eighties the Dalai Lama proclaimed Shugden a renegade, and now he can’t seem to get the genie back in the bottle. This has forced scholars of Tibetan Buddhism to take a closer look at the history of Tibet, where they’ve found many precedents for what can only be described as theocratic power struggles, underhanded scheming and religio-civil war.

Which brings us to perhaps the underlying reason for the Tibetan leader’s popularity: Buddhism. Visitors to Asia may perceive Buddhism as old-time religion, complete with invisible beings, superstition and intolerance, but scratch beneath the gaudy veneer and you find a thoughtful, healing and wholesome system of thought and daily practice.

In an age when religious faith is on the decline and people are having trouble swallowing its hollow residue, Buddhism offers a spiritual path that’s compatible with scientific enquiry, and perhaps even with twenty-first century realpolitik. The Dalai Lama is the lynchpin of Boulder, Colorado’s Mind & Life Institute that seeks to, “establish mutually respectful working collaboration and research partnerships between modern science and Buddhism.” Commenting upon this work, The Dalai Lama noted three crucial parallels between the Buddhism and modern science. They 1) share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, 2) believe in universal natural laws of cause and effect and 3) depend on an empirical method. You can go a long way on those three premises.

Because of all this, I and hundreds of other Westerns who became Buddhist monks back in the seventies and eighties eventually left the religious trappings behind but remained guided by the principles that made the Buddha’s teachings endure for twenty-six centuries. If they can survive the onslaught of consumerism and globalisation, they may outlive the Abrahamic religions.



Please login to post comments.

Editorial Staff

Beryl P. Wajsman

Redacteur en chef et Editeur

Alan Hustak

Senior Editor

Daniel Laprès


Robert J. Galbraith


Roy Piberberg

Editorial Artwork

Mike Medeiros

Copy and Translation

Val Prudnikov

IT Director and Web Design

Editorial Contributors
La Patrie