The Mindful Monk
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama bridges the gap between East and West.
By Howard C. Cutler published May 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The 14th Dalai Lama considers himself a simple Buddhist monk. Yet, this humble man is bridging the gap between traditional Eastern wisdom and modern Western psychology.
The Dalai Lama seems to have become an icon in the West. His image is seen in glossy magazines and countless books, and his name is mentioned not only on news programs but also prime-time TV shows. But more than being strewn through popular culture, he has achieved international recognition with numerous awards and honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Albert Schweitzer Award and the Wallenberg Award—conferred by the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Foundation.
For centuries, the Dalai Lama has been the traditional spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetan people. Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, was born in 1935 in Amdo, Tibet, and identified at the age of 2 as the 14th in a succession that dates back more than 600 years. In 1959, he was forced into exile as a result of invasion by Chinese forces, and since then has resided in the remote hillside village of Dharamsala in Northern India.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to observe the Dalai Lama in a variety of settings—at his home in India, during visits to other countries, sitting in small intimate gatherings or speaking before tens of thousands. Wherever he travels he exudes an unmistakable warmth and friendliness; even those meeting him for the first time often say that it is like meeting with an old friend. Despite his age, he displays a remarkable vitality and a hearty sense of humor. He laughs easily, yet he is equally quick to engage in serious discussion, tackling difficult problems in a thoughtful and intelligent manner.
When asked how he perceives his own self-identity, the Dalai Lama remarks that he identifies most strongly with his role as a simple Buddhist monk. Ordained at a very early age, his daily regimen includes rising at 3:30 each morning and spending several hours in prayer and meditation. While his daily practice may include several different types of meditation, such as single-pointed meditation (which seeks to focus one's attention on a chosen object), the Dalai Lama often recommends a particular form of Buddhist meditation called analytic meditation.
"In this type of meditation one uses reasoning," the Dalai Lama explains. "Reasoning can enhance positive states of mind and overcome the attitudes, thoughts and emotions that lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. In analytic meditation, one brings about inner change through systematic investigation and analysis. In this way we can properly use our human intelligence, our capacity for reason and analysis, to contribute to our happiness and satisfaction."
As a psychiatrist, I was struck by the parallels between analytic meditation and modern cognitive therapy. Analytic meditation may have potential application in reducing a broad spectrum of destructive emotions. So in several of our discussions, I asked the Dalai Lama to illustrate how analytic meditation can be applied to overcome a harmful emotion like anger.
"One begins by learning about the destructive effects of anger," he explains. "One should systematically investigate and reflect upon the destructive effects of anger on one's physical health, one's family relationships and in society. One should analyze this and reflect upon it not just once or twice, but repeatedly until it becomes part of one's deeper understanding.
"Then, let's say that someone does you harm. Your immediate response might be to become angry, but then you reflect upon the destructive nature of anger, and that immediately makes you more cautious of giving in to the anger and letting it escalate. Then you continue your analysis, investigating whether responding with anger is ultimately constructive or destructive, whether it will improve the situation or not, and so on.
"This process of reasoning and analysis can continue in other directions. For example, you might investigate to see if perhaps you have contributed in some way to the situation that made you angry. Also, when you are in the midst of anger, your tendency is to perceive the person who harmed you as 100% bad. But if you analyze further, you will realize that every human being is composed of both positive and negative characteristics, and you can try to get a more realistic view of the person by attempting to find some positive aspects of the person.
"So, with practice, various lines of reasoning and investigation can be used to reduce the force of your anger. This doesn't mean you shouldn't respond, or try to do something if someone tries to harm you. On the contrary, one should take countermeasures to prevent harm to oneself and others, even strong countermeasures. But using analytic methods such as these can help diffuse the intensity of your anger, which can have destructive effects, and instead allow you to respond to the situation without a feeling of hatred arising."
In addition to assuaging destructive emotions such as anger or anxiety, it seems that analytic meditation may also play a role in positive psychology, a field of psychology that focuses on developing positive states of mind and is gaining popularity in the 21st century. According to the Dalai Lama, using techniques adapted from Buddhism may help actively cultivate positive states of mind such as kindness, compassion and tolerance.
In discussing how to take a more compassionate and tolerant approach to one's adversaries, he advises: "Just as you yourself may have committed harmful acts in the past, acts that you regret but do not necessarily make you a permanently bad person, you can learn to separate another person's harmful action from that person as a totality. Remind yourself that perhaps there are other factors at play that you are not aware of, that have caused the person to act in the way that they did. With practice, you can also analyze the situation from a wider perspective and even try to discover if this harmful act or difficult situation might be used in some way to enhance your spiritual growth, as an opportunity to make you stronger in some way." Ultimately, the Dalai Lama elicits positive responses from others perhaps because he reminds us of the qualities that can be achieved by us all. One of his most remarkable characteristics is that despite worldwide acclaim, he seems to maintain a genuine humility and treats all with equal respect. When meeting with him, he seems to relate to you simply as one human being to another; he does not judge you based on your net worth, social status, race or gender.
With his strong interest in Western science and his many dialogues with renowned neuroscientists and psychologists, the Dalai Lama will no doubt continue to be a key figure in bridging the gap between traditional Eastern wisdom and modern Western psychology.