Higher Ground: The Dalai Lama On the Steps to Happiness and Compassion

Dalai Lama

Photo: Bryan Adams

“I believe that at every level of society — familial, tribal, national and international — the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion,” says His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, in his writings. “We do not need to become religious nor do we need to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities.”

You might apply these beliefs to our own Canadian ideals. The parallels are interesting. We are a nation long recognized as compassionate peacekeepers, aiding in such war-torn places as Afghanistan, the Balkans and Rwanda; at home, we are a sanctuary to refugees the world over, our acceptance of our differences woven into our national fabric. Interestingly, the word Dalai is Mongolian for ocean. Canada, by its predestined geography, is bordered by three of them, perhaps providing him an earthly pull toward us. Lama is a Tibetan word that corresponds to the Indian word for guru or teacher. He’s a teacher with an ocean of wisdom to impart.

And yes, you could say that some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings fit quite well with the Canadian way of looking at the world — so Canadian, in fact, that in 2006, he was made an honorary Canadian Citizen (only the third of the now six, after the humanitarians Nelson Mandela and Raoul Wallenberg, the most recent being the Aga Khan). The ceremony was held in Vancouver, bestowed upon him by then minister of citizenship and immigration, Monte Solberg. The appointment by the House of Commons angered the Chinese to the extent that relations between our two nations were strained until Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited in 2009. The Chinese cited that we were supporting a separatist — a word firmly fixed in our Canadian lexicon. Harper further fuels the diplomatic fire with his public criticism of China’s human rights abuses.

Simply referred to as Kundun (the Presence) by his homeland’s people, the northeastern Tibetan, 75, will return to Canada this fall for an eighth time — after his visit last year to the West — now to Toronto.

Call it a spiritual summit. From Oct. 22 to 25, the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre (TCCC) along with the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario (CTAO) will host the Dalai Lama. Rogers Centre and the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Etobicoke will serve as venues for a series of speeches and teachings.

At the top of the Dalai Lama’s agenda is his public talk on Human Approaches to World Peace. And his approach starts within, with a few simple rules to life: happiness, love and compassion, acceptance. But in our modern multi-tasking world, one wonders if such a simplistic view can really work. Can we really be at peace when we spend so much of our time vying for the material and may have lost sight of the spiritual? During his time in Toronto, the Dalai Lama intends to impart a strategy for striking a balance that works for the here and now but has legs for the future.

But if we are to study his connection to Canada, we must begin nearly 40 years ago, more than 10 years after his narrow escape after the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, when His Holiness appealed to the international community for help after it was apparent that the overcrowded Tibetan refugee camps in Northern India were about to collapse. Pierre Trudeau, facilitated by the Canadian High Commissioner to India, James George, offered a sanctuary for more than 200 Tibetan refugees and opened our doors to the Dalai Lama and his people. Now, more than 5,000 Tibetans call Canada home. The then governor general Ed Schreyer personally greeted him on his first visit to Canada in 1980. In between, former prime minister Paul Martin ignored warnings from Beijing and became the first of our nation’s leaders to meet with the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner. The talk? Human rights, of course. Attempting to keep it focused to spiritual affairs? The presence of Ottawa’s Roman Catholic Archbishop. We’re diverse in Canada, after all.

In 2007, Harper once again risked Chinese criticism and met with the spiritual leader for 40 minutes on Parliament Hill. Invoking tradition, Harper offered a Tibetan white scarf (Khata) to the Dalai Lama, and he, in turn, placed the scarf around Harper’s neck. He had been blessed and, by proxy, we all had.

In true Albertan fashion, during his stop in Calgary last year, a white cowboy hat was offered, which he donned with aplomb. Zoomer editor-at-large Bryan Adams photographed the Dalai Lama just minutes before his public talk at the Pengrowth Saddledome as part of the connect NOW event organized by the University of Calgary. (Adams appeared later that evening along with k.d. lang at the listen NOW concert).

Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama on the September 2010 cover of Zoomer Magazine. Photo: Bryan Adams


On that trip, he also participated in the Vancouver Peace Summit where he spoke to more than 16,000 students during the We Day event organized by Free the Children founders, Canadians Craig and Marc Kielburger. He told the young crowd: “The future of the century is in your hands. Please take care of it.” International environmentalist Jane Goodall and Governor General Michaelle Jean also lent their time and words to the event.

Furthering Canadian support, the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet (PFT), currently co-chaired by Ontario Senator Consiglio Di Nino, was formed in 1990, and consists of MPs and senators who were and continue to be mindful of the sometimes politically unstable situation in Tibet. Currently, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, including Tibet, and supports the Dalai Lama’s Middle- Way Approach of non-violent methods toward creating lasting peace. The call for greater respect for tolerance and basic human rights here and around the world, including Tibetans, is also a fundamentally Canadian conviction.

This is not the first time His Holiness has visited Toronto. In 2004, he gave a public talk on the power of compassion and filled the SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) with 29,000-plus admirers — then a record attendance in North America for his public talks. During that same visit, he held an 11-day teaching, where more than 5,000 people participated from all over the world. There’s usually a cause behind his work — proceeds from the ’04 event went toward helping the poor in India as well as Tibetan orphanages and schools. During his Toronto visit, he will take part in an invitation-only opening ceremony of the newly renovated TCCC.

Perhaps most importantly, he is here to do what he does best — to teach. On Oct. 24, the Dalai Lama will share his wisdom on a subject of great interest to people in middle age and beyond, Long Life Empowerment and Long Life Ceremony. Devotees will also be able to attend another session taking place at the TCCC, where he will shed light on the practice, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, with the goal of creating an altruistic attitude and positive feelings toward others.

“To meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility,” the Dalai Lama says. “Each of us must learn to work not just for his or her own self, family or nation but for the benefit of all mankind.”

And sometimes, the direct approach is still the best approach. “I try to treat whoever I meet as an old friend,” writes the Dalai Lama.

How very Canadian, indeed.

Dalai Lama
Photo: Bryan Adams


The Compassionate Path, by Evan Rosser

Reading the teachings of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, you often feel as though you are following him through swirling snows. Ahead of you, nothing is clear, you may not even be sure of your destination but, as your last step lands in a footprint clear and familiar in the deep snow, you see the next and know exactly where your boot must go. Eventually, you reach your destination and, looking back, see the path that brought you there stretching out in a long, unbroken line.

To follow him to a meaningful life, then, the goal should be simple — the next step. But for many of us, the next step is also the first and, though we may have some grasp of the Dalai Lama as a philanthropist and an advocate for world peace, we’re not sure of the ground that first step will land on or the direction it will take us in.

So what is it about this man, the fifth of seven surviving children born to a peasant farming family in Tibet, that makes him such a powerful symbol?

The best answer is also the simplest: compassion.

In the traditional view shared by followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is a physical manifestation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. A Bodhisattva is a being who has the capacity to become fully enlightened but delays doing so and returns to the world for the sake of those still suffering — a mind-blowing act of compassion in and of itself (something like taking a pass on heaven to help sinners find redemption). Chenrezig is further distinguished by having vowed, according to legend, not to rest until he had helped every being in all the realms of suffering reach nirvana. In somewhat crude terms, he is the god of compassion and, whenever we put aside selfish desires and attitudes in order to express love for any person, animal or piece of the natural world, we savour, however briefly, our innate connection with Chenrezig.

As a religious icon, then, the Dalai Lama is a flesh-and-blood realization of the idea of compassion itself. But what has separated Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, from his 13 previous incarnations is his willingness to present himself as a human being. Through his insistence on engaging with the world rather than shutting it out with tradition and protocol, the Dalai Lama has been able to share his principles and convictions not just with Tibetan Buddhists but with people of all beliefs and sensibilities.

Though his message seems to range — extending from the individual’s search for happiness to encompass world peace, religious tolerance, political freedom and environmental responsibility — in all its incarnations, it has at its heart the same founding principle: compassion.

So what does he mean by “compassion”?

In the simplest terms, the compassion the Dalai Lama advocates is a willingness to disregard one’s own self-interest in order to take on the suffering of others. It is an active sympathy that seeks to lessen the amount of pain and anguish in the world by voluntarily increasing one’s own share. And, as counter-intuitive as it may at first seem, its eventual result is to provide us with the greatest possible degree of happiness.

We can probably all agree that putting the needs of others before our own would make us better people. It’s not enough just to think it, though. The development of compassion brings us happiness by satisfying our need for the love and affection of other sentient beings. “The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence,” writes the Dalai Lama. “It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.” As a result, any happiness we hope to find is dependent upon us actually acting with compassion.

To do so requires deep wells of empathy, reason and patience. “Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness,” His Holiness writes. “I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature
gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.”

He is a man vilified by the Chinese government because of his ability to draw global attention to the human rights abuses endured by the people of  Tibet, and political leaders endanger diplomatic relations with China when they shake his hand. Yet he has continued faith in the power of compassion, even for his enemies. “Anger and hatred are our real enemies,” he writes. “These are the forces we most need to confront and defeat, not the temporary enemies who appear intermittently throughout life.”


Life as a Garden of Happiness by Colette Baron-Reid

What I love most about the teachings of the Dalai Lama is that he goes beyond the discussion of dogma and theory, always offering simple, practical solutions for the problems in the world. No matter what religion you follow or what culture you come from his message is universal: our purpose in life is to be happy, and the manner in which we can find true happiness is through the practice of compassion, acceptance, non-attachment, forgiveness and love.

Cultivating these attributes takes real work, however; like a garden, your life must be tended to with care and diligence. For your happiness garden to grow into a place filled with beautiful plants and flowers, the soil must be prepared by adopting compassion and kindness. You must take care that the weeds of hatred, fear and resentment be discovered and pulled out. You need to plant your garden with the seeds of love, acceptance and forgiveness.

So putting the theories into practice, here is a Five-Step Plan to cultivate your life as a garden of happiness.

Step 1: Identify interconnectivity

Assume that your life is the sum total of your experiences to date — your memories, intentions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions. Looking closely, you’ll see everything in relationship to everything else. You have a family tree; your work generates money that is circulated. Your attitudes generate reactions from others and dictate how you engage the world. Write down each area of your life and trace the connections you observe.

Close your eyes and imagine your life as a garden in the world. What do you see? Regardless if you build a fence around your garden and call it yours, below the surface is a system of roots and soil and elements that are interconnected. We are not separate from one another. Like all of Nature, we’re intrinsically interconnected in a living interdependent biosphere. Even an island is still part of the whole planet, however independent and isolated it appears, sharing earth, water and atmosphere.

So if this is true, as a metaphor for you, then everything you think, believe, feel and consequently act on affects everyone around you. Consider then if you and only you are responsible for what grows in your life’s garden of happiness, how do you cultivate this for yourself and what impact will it have on the greater whole?

Step 2: Till the soil with compassion, sow the seeds of love

Compassion is the first and most important attitude that’s necessary to prepare the soil of your happiness garden. Directly stemming from the acknowledgment of our interconnectedness with all of life, compassion is an attitude that all of us have a right to be here, to be whole and to be happy. The desire to overcome suffering and be happy is true for everyone! If you see the soil of your happiness garden as shared by all, then to protect it and keep it flourishing, your attitudes and actions should be kind. The Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is woven into the attributes of compassion, kindness.

As we act with compassion and kindness, we automatically sow the seeds of love. We all need and deserve love. Love is the power that heals, creates, soothes, makes whole. Compassion and kindness are expressions of love without conditions. It’s not easy to express love this way, since love too easily gets caught in the hidden agendas of attachment. Yet all of us need love; no one is born free from the need for love. And so the more we cultivate love and give it freely, recognizing our interdependence with others, the happier we become!

Make a commitment to treat everyone as an old friend like the Dalai Lama does. No matter whom you encounter — even if the other person is challenging — see them as an opportunity for you to be kind for seven days.

Each day, do at least one random act of kindness and charity anonymously with no attachment to the outcome, reminding yourself that the only motivation is to relieve suffering for that person.

Don’t just practise compassion with people. Commit to a cruelty-free diet. Educate yourself as to the conditions of the animals that are killed to provide you with food. Are they treated humanely? All of life deserves to be relieved of suffering. Eat less meat and consider a plant-based diet.

Try taking the bug you find on the floor outside, instead of swatting it. You’ll be surprised at how different you feel when you adopt this attitude to all living things. Imagine love, kindness and care for everyone. How does it feel?

 Step 3: Weed the garden of happiness

If compassion and kindness are the nutrients necessary for happiness and love is what you plant there, what prevents you from ensuring a happy, healthy, peaceful garden? Fear and hatred are killing weeds that mutate and spread through ignorance, intolerance, violence, greed, apathy and dishonesty. Allowed to grow unchecked, these weeds will choke the life out of your garden of happiness and will rapidly spread to other gardens. These weeds may be hiding under plants that seem friendly. It’s your job to find them and remove them. To do so:

— Write a list of resentments.

— Write a list of everything/body you’re afraid of.

— Write a list of anything/body you’re angry about/at.

–Write a list of your prejudices and why you have them.

How have these “weeds” choked away your happiness? Removing them will bring happiness and alleviate suffering. Imagine your life without these. Do you resist letting them go? Without any judgment, write a separate list of the ones you have the most attachment to.

Step 4: Make mulch and water the garden

Weeds can be broken down into a rich fertilizer for your happiness garden. The power of forgiveness and acceptance can bring the healing rains that transform a dry barren ground into an oasis. In this way, suffering can be transmuted into something valuable. It’s only when we refuse to forgive do we create more weeds in our gardens. It’s only when we refuse to accept things as they are that we get stuck and can’t move past them.

• Write a list of the people you’ve harmed by anger, resentment, hatred, greed, arrogance, self-centredness or lust. • Can you become willing to make amends to them? How could this happen? • Write a list of the people, institutions, attitudes, actions of others who have harmed you. • Imagine forgiving them all, even the worst or unspeakable. • What does it feel like to be free of these things?

Step 5: Let your garden grow

If you plant seeds in your garden, do you stare at them until they break ground? Or do you go about your life relaxed, trusting that the seeds you’ve scattered will grow without your help? Non-attachment as a practice brings mental peace in all areas of life. Not only should we express love without desire for return, we must also release our expectations of results in all that we do as well. Being in the world but not being a prisoner of our attachments and desires relieves the suffering within us. Giving, being kind and compassionate feels good. You know the difference. Let your happiness garden grow and enjoy the fruits of the seeds that you plant. Let go of the results, know that work is always ahead. Weeds will come, and you will have to pull them out. There will always be weather too; drought, sunshine, rain, storms and calm.

It’s life for all of us. Be kind today.

A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 2010 issue. 


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