5 Spiritual Lessons From the Dalai Lama

By: Dave Roos  | 

the Dalai Lama
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama during a prayer session at the Tsuglagkhang Temple in Dharamshala, India. Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and former political ruler of the Tibetan people. He's believed to be the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, an enlightened being that has chosen to be reborn so he can serve mankind. Plucked from a small farming village at just 2 years old, the Dalai Lama has spent his life spreading his message of compassion and seeking freedom for his homeland of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama is a political refugee, forced to flee Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese government violently suppressed a Tibetan uprising. Since then, he has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, and acted as the head of the Tibetan government in exile until 2011, when he handed over all political duties to a democratically elected Tibetan cabinet and parliament.

For Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, the Dalai Lama is an inspirational figure whose message of peace, kindness and compassion is a guidepost to daily life. He has written or coauthored more than 110 books, each filled with practical wisdom about finding joy, peace and meaning in an often dark and confusing world.

To help us choose five essential quotes from the Dalai Lama's ocean of writings and speeches, we reached out to Travis Hellstrom, editor of "The Dalai Lama Book of Quotes: A Collection of Speeches, Quotations, Essays & Advice from His Holiness" and "Questions for the Dalai Lama: Answers on Love, Success, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life."

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1. "I always consider myself first and foremost to be a monk. A Buddhist monk. Dalai Lama comes after that."

The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his nonviolent struggle to win independence for Tibet. He has met with presidents, popes and dignitaries on every continent. Yet when asked to describe himself, he chooses arguably the humblest label, a monk.

Why? Hellstrom thinks it's because so much of what the Dalai Lama represents and how he lives his life is rooted in his daily practices of meditation, study and prayer — a spiritual routine shared by all Buddhist monks.

The Dalai Lama travels extensively, but when he's home in Dharamsala, he keeps monk hours. He wakes up at 3 a.m., showers, and sits in prayer and meditation until 5 a.m., when he has a light breakfast and listens to the BBC World News. From 6 to 9 a.m., it's more prayer and meditation. When his workday is over, the Dalai Lama has tea at 5 p.m., followed by evening prayer and meditation and then bedtime at 7 p.m.

The Dalai Lama says that he relies on this monastic spiritual practice to keep his mind focused and to direct his actions.

"I myself am a Buddhist monk," he said at the Global Buddhist Congregation in 2011. "Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I remember Buddha and recite some of Buddha's teachings, sort of shaping my mind. Then the rest of my day I should spend according to those principles: being honest, truthful, compassionate, peaceful, nonviolent."

There's power in understanding that the warmth and compassion exuded by the Dalai Lama doesn't come naturally, but is a product of decades of daily mindful practice.

"Every day, he prepares himself mentally to be the kind of presence that everyone's expecting — 100-percent present, focused and ready to be as compassionate and kind as he can be, no matter what happens," Hellstrom says.

Bonus quote: "I speak to you as just another human being; as a simple monk. If you find what I say useful, then I hope you will try to practice it."

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2. "I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy."

Buddhism has an interesting take on happiness. According to the Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha, our existence is mired in suffering — emotional suffering, psychological suffering, physical suffering. The only way to free yourself from this suffering and obtain happiness is by ridding yourself of the source of all suffering, which is desire and attachment.

Easy, right? Hardly. Perhaps it's because the Dalai Lama knows how difficult it is for humans to extinguish things like greed, ignorance and hatred that he prescribes a more manageable path to happiness.

"From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion," the Dalai Lama wrote. "The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life."

While the Dalai Lama recognizes that "genuine happiness comes from within" and is a product of a calm and compassionate mind, he also recognizes the infectious power of a smile, a hug or even a joke to spark that happiness in others.

"Even though he's experienced more than his fair share of suffering, the Dalai Lama models a type of lightheartedness and kindness that's very powerful for people and very moving," Hellstrom says. "People feel different in his presence. It's the reason he draws stadiums full of people who want to see him. To me that speaks to his life-cultivating presence and his care for other people."

Bonus quote: "Life's purpose of happiness can be gained only if people cultivate the basic human values of compassion, caring and forgiveness."

the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama preaches about kindness because it's a principle everyone can put into practice.
Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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3. "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a learned scholar of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Yet when he writes books and delivers speeches, you seldom hear him say, "Buddhism teaches this..." or "In Buddhism, we believe that..." It's clear that he wants his message to resonate with people regardless of their religious (or areligious) background.

"It's so genius the way he looks at things," says Hellstrom. "He chooses a word like kindness because everybody can relate to it and anyone can put it into practice. We can always, in any moment, choose compassion and choose kindness. It pulls us out of our own ego, centers us in the moment and puts us in service to others."

Bonus quote: "Some people, when we talk about compassion and love, think it is a religious matter. Compassion is the universal religion."

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4. "Be a nice person. Be a good person."

Once again, these words from the Dalai Lama are so simple and straightforward that they border on being childish. But maybe that's what he's going for. As Albert Einstein (probably) said: "If you can't explain it to a 6-year-old, you don't understand it yourself." Only after a lifetime pondering the nature of a "good" life could the Dalai Lama explain his guiding philosophy so simply.

In Buddhism, being a truly good person is a little more complicated than "being nice." The Buddha taught his disciples to follow what's called the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes admonitions to practice "right speech," "right action" and "right livelihood." In Buddhism, being "good" means behaving ethically and honestly in business dealings and personal relationships, but also cultivating a compassion for all living things.

The Dalai Lama takes this last responsibility seriously. Being a "nice" and "good" person ultimately comes down to treating others as you would like to be treated, and seeking their happiness as much as — or even more than — your own.

"Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them," wrote the Dalai Lama. "Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems... As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively."

Bonus quote: "No matter what the circumstances, no matter what kind of tragedy I am facing, I practice compassion. This gives me inner strength and happiness. This gives me the feeling that my life is useful."

the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama may be the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, but he has a fun sense of humor too.
Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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5. "Meditation is the key to spiritual growth."

Have you ever tried to meditate? It looks so easy. All you have to do is sit there and breathe and quiet your mind. What's so hard about that? Everything, it turns out. The mind is like a monkey after three cups of coffee, jumping from thought to thought and easily distracted. Calming down the "monkey mind" is a skill that takes years of practice.

But what's the point of meditation? Why does the Dalai Lama, after all these years, still start and end his days with hours of meditation? Hellstrom says that the basic idea of meditation is to separate objective physical reality from the subjective version being generated by our thoughts, desires and fears.

"Meditation helps you be aware of what's actually happening — I'm sitting, I'm breathing, the wind is blowing, the sun is shining. These are things that are really happening," says Hellstrom. "Everything else is being created inside my mind."

Hellstrom says that focusing on the breath is such an effective technique because breathing is one of the body's only functions that's both involuntary and voluntary. By taking control of the breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply, it offers a way to escape the whirling mind for a minute and center on the moment.

"Let the monkey mind quiet down for just two breaths," says Hellstrom. "It'll be really hard at first, but over time you might get to five breaths or 10. When the monkey stops jumping from branch to branch, then you're having a conversation with your own mind and trying to help it be less afraid, judgmental and so on."

The hope is that by learning how to calm the mind and not focus obsessively on your own anxieties and selfish desires, that you will increase in patience, compassion for others and love. For an advanced course, check out the Dalai Lama's thoughts on "Training the Mind" at his website.

Bonus quote: "Training the mind to think differently, through meditation, is one important way to avoid suffering and be happy."

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