I know a lot of people revere the Dalai Lama, and think that he’s a very great man. You can argue that, I suppose, but one thing that he is not is an original thinker.
I don’t mean that as an insult. I don’t think that the Dalai Lama regards himself as being around in order to provide original thought, but rather, to communicate an eternal truth that was discovered long ago by somebody else.
In spite of that, the American news media treats the Dalai Lama’s speeches as if they part of something fresh and developing. For example, there’s this morning’s headline from the Associated Press: Dalai Lama set to discuss compassion.
Let’s be frank about this: Compassion is what the Dalai Lama has been talking about his whole life. It’s what he’s been trained to talk about, since he was a very little boy. The way that the Dalai Lama talks about compassion has not changed, though events have changed. The Dalai Lama discusses change as Tibetan Buddhist philosophy indicates that he should discuss change.
Go read one of the many books that the Dalai Lama has had ghostwritten to be read by a popular audience. I won’t recommend one in particular, because they’re pretty much all the same. Over and over again, he repeats orthodox Tibetan Buddhist ideas.
Compassion is one of those ideas. I’m sure that he genuinely cares and has human compassion, but the reason he talks about compassion is because that’s what the Dalai Lama’s tradition tells him to do, and the Dalai Lama is not one to step outside of that.
The flavor that the Dalai Lama will put onto his latest version of his lifelong lecture on compassion is science. His panel discussion in Seattle is entitled, “The Scientific Basis for Compassion: What We Know Now”.
The title of the discussion seems to show that the Dalai Lama is updating his message, but really, Dalai Lama’s use of science has been to find reasons to support what he already believes. The Dalai Lama will not change his ideological attachment to compassion in the particular ideas that Tibetan Buddhist teachings have about compassion. Any science about compassion, for him, exists just as a way to support his original understanding about the subject. The Dalai Lama is not going to move away from Tibetan Buddhist teachings about compassion because of what scientific researchers do.
Furthermore, he will not change the subject from compassion, or the other group of core ideas from his Buddhist instruction. The Dalai Lama will not branch out and join a panel discussion in Idaho about potatoes. He will not give a lecture on his favorite television show. The Dalai Lama’s next ghostwritten book will not be a science fiction novel.
I don’t think that the Dalai Lama purports to be anything but a persistent messenger of Tibetan Buddhist ideas, expressing them in terms of events that change, but in a fundamentally unchanging manner. That’s fine for him. It’s his choice for how to lead his life. I just wish that American journalism would acknowledge this fact about the Dalai Lama’s very structured personality, and not pretend that a discussion involving him talking about compassion is really news.