The Dalai Lama and the importance of compassion in education

Earlier this year, I was sitting in a room belonging to His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his home in an Indian mountain resort, interviewing the world’s greatest supporter of peace...

I wanted to learn about how His Holiness dealt with anger, so I had prepared a question I thought would give me the answer.

It was to do with the time when hundreds of thousands of Tibetan people who worshipped and followed the Dalai Lama were being killed by Chinese soldiers. The Tibetans had been rebelling against the Chinese who had overrun their country.

"When this happened, Your Holiness, didn’t you get angry at the Chinese for the massacre of your people?" I asked the Buddhist leader. But I didn’t get the answer I was expecting.

"Do you know what the biggest danger was at this time?" The Dalai Lama replied seriously, looking straight at me. "The biggest danger for me was the possibility of losing my compassion for the Chinese."

The Dalai Lama and Rani Singh. Image credit: Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I was floored.

I’ve thought a lot about his answer since then.

It contains one of the most significant of the Dalai Lama’s teachings; the importance of compassion. It is a central plank of the Dalai Lama’s work in education. The lesson is that we should always have compassion, even towards our enemies.

I’ll come back to this in a bit, but first let me explain how I came to be sitting in the comfortable quarters of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. It was because of a strong family connection. To explain, I need to give you some background.

After the Chinese overran and annexed Tibet in the 1950s, they were keen to establish control over the people and that meant removing the 23-year old Dalai Lama from his position of power by somehow eliminating him.

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Tibet’s ruler escaped from his palace in the middle of the night in March 1959, disguised as an ordinary soldier. He left with members of his family, cabinet, tutors and trusted Tibetan soldiers.

The CIA helped Tibetan rebels escort the Dalai Lama on a perilous journey across the rivers and mountains of Tibet to its southern border with India. The party was chased all the while by Chinese soldiers and airplanes.

The US then asked India to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama. The Indian Prime Minister agreed.

Image credit: Vera Bardo

The man the Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, asked to bring the Dalai Lama into India was a former military intelligence officer who was in charge of the part of India that bordered Tibet.

In those days, communications were difficult in the mountains. The Officer had to work out where in that vast region the young Dalai Lama might enter India.

Then he had to get to him.

The Officer posted paramilitary soldiers along the route and started to ride out on a journey that would normally take over a week. For several days he didn’t sleep, only resting occasionally while riding his pony. (He had to be careful not to fall off!)

When he did find the Dalai Lama and his family, he got them safely back across the route he had just travelled and help the Dalai Lama to recover from the trauma of the journey. The trek took in a deadly mountain pass and narrow paths that could only be managed on foot or by pony. One wrong step would likely mean instant death. 

The Dalai Lama has just finished a visit to the UK, where he endorsed evening classes aimed at making people happy.

Since then, India has accepted over 150,000 Tibetan refugees, a not insignificant number in today’s climate of high migration.

The Officer is my uncle. He is a very sprightly, lively and entertaining 90-year old.

My uncle said he noticed that throughout his ordeal, the Dalai Lama remained calm and jovial. The tribulations did not seem to have a bad effect on him. He said that the Dalai Lama has influenced his own philosophy and made him reflective and spiritual.

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I spent over an hour with the Dalai Lama on my first day, and was granted a second session the next day, walking around his private garden with him. He came out of his rooms, said good morning to his bodyguards and officials, then showed me his favorite flowers and one – an orchid- that reminded him of my uncle.

I learnt that he takes pleasure and joy in all that is around him; nature, people, and as I saw this week, children.

The Dalai Lama has just finished a visit to the UK, where he endorsed evening classes aimed at making people happy.

I saw him  at two events; one in Oxford, the other at a preparatory school in London.

At Oxford, where the Dalai Lama launched the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, he commented:

"Anger and hate have an effect on the mind and body, they affect the immune system."

At Newton Prep School, local groups of children of different ages performed for him. After each display, they sat with him in discussion.  He tickled the foot of one of them, and wore the hat of another.

Image credit: Vera Bardo

He said to them that it was important to talk to one other. When asked if he had hope for the future, he said, "Yes!"

The children from Newton Prep school came on last, presenting a shadow performance using their own bodies and shapes. A little boy read out a series of fears.

As we saw shadows of people fighting, he spoke of the fear of violence. As we saw a shadow of a child crying, he spoke of the fear of loneliness and abandon. As we saw shadows of people busy working on their laptops, the child spoke of the fear of people not communicating face to face anymore.

Image credit: Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama watched it all intently. Finally, as we saw a shadow of a little girl slowly circling the stage holding a dove high above her head, the boy spoke of his hope for a better future, in a more peaceful world.

The Dalai Lama held a large white handkerchief to his eyes and was moved to tears, a spontaneous gesture that showed how much he hoped for the same.

From my visit to India and from watching the Dalai Lama at close quarters since then, I learnt that he is making a difference and educating by example.

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