The Internet has been pretty finicky up here, as predicted, so I figured an Internet Cafe was the best bet to make sure this post made it up for the Dalai Lama’s birthday. I’ll start by saying that the guy is nothing short of amazing. He’s traveled to 62 countries and been to 6 continents (I guess there isn’t a whole lot of demand for peace in Antarctica, all the penguins get along pretty well). He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has written 72 books, and has been the Dalai Lama since he was 15. When I was 15, I was still crying over how to put contacts in my eyes and complaining about biology projects.
It’s not every day that you get the chance to hear words of wisdom from one of the greatest figures of our time, a man who practically eats and breaths nothing but compassion on a daily basis. I honestly wasn’t sure what it would be like to listen to him speak. I guess I thought it would be like listening to a demi-god or something. Maybe Yoda. But as soon as he opened his mouth, I was taken aback. I just didn’t expect him to be so down to earth and so funny.
I’ll save sharing the six pages of notes I took for another time in order to prevent this post from getting too long, because right now I think I would rather leave you with one short story that stuck out to me. It stands out because it’s not the story you would expect to hear. It was a recollection of a conversation he had with one of his friends, a Tibetan monk, that went like this: “One day I was with my friend, and I said to him, ‘You know…your wife, she is not so good looking’. And he said to me, ‘Yes…yes, I agree. Outside, she is quite ugly. But her inner beauty is quite great.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.'” And then he chortled. He chortled!
Need I say more? I mean, he’s the Dalai Lama, of all people, and here he is telling his friend that his wife is ugly, supposedly without thinking that maybe she’s a beautiful person on the inside. You’d think he’d be the King of the Inner-Beauty Society (which of course, he really is. He recommends that women stop using makeup to give themselves “weird green eyebrows” because it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I don’t know what kind of makeup they use in Tibet, but when green eyebrows become the next big thing in the US, I’m out too). But I don’t have to explain why this story is so bizarre to you, so maybe I’ll just explain why, out of all the wonderful, holy things I could have passed along to you, I chose the least holy, and least likely, tidbit.
Hidden behind this story is something essential to understand about the Dalai Lama, something that you wouldn’t see if I just wrote about all his advice. What was revealed so beautifully in this story is that he is just so human. It may sound like an odd remark, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that something sets him apart from the rest of us; that he’s a superhuman capable of doing no wrong. But if we present him as someone we can never measure up to, then we will never even try to measure up to him. Yet, he’s not a god, a demi-god, or Yoda. He’s a genuinely nice person, someone who makes mistakes and who may occasionally even make a rude remark about your wife (I kid).
Sometimes it’s tempting to look at this and feel let down by the fact that the Dalai Lama isn’t perfect, but as for me, I feel comforted. Because the world doesn’t need more “perfect” human beings. What the world needs is more people who are willing to try to better themselves and the planet around them. Perfection is something that can never be attained, something that ends up being more of a burden than a gift. There is no doubt that the Dalai Lama is great, but we also know that his “greatness” isn’t the kind of greatness that we once thought; it’s not the faultless, “do no wrong, say no wrong” that we are tempted to think. And when we see him in this light, a vast realm of potential opens up for all of us.
We are all capable of achieving what he has—maybe not his world-renowned status or the 72 books—but his same sort of compassion for others. We don’t have to be the Dalai Lama, or take in every stray dog on the street, or give up all of our possessions, or quit school to work in an orphanage in order to be a great person. It’s about the small things, the ordinary things. Maybe it’s that kind, unsolicited smile for a stranger, or resisting the urge to judge someone because they come from a different country. Maybe it’s listening to someone else’s problems instead of telling them about your own, or taking the time to compliment someone on the good job they’re doing. Compassion isn’t all one thing, and flashier isn’t always better.
Listening to the Dalai Lama, I understood that what it comes down to is being human. Sure, humans make mistakes and are far from flawless. But it’s that proneness to error and imperfection that makes us realize why compassion is so important. No one needs compassion if they’re perfect. So, green-eyebrowed, imperfect human, it’s okay to be you and to spread that compassion whichever way you choose. The Dalai Lama and I are right behind you.