How (not) to judge the Dalai Lama

Let's use this moment of pain and confusion to deepen our understanding of life, human nature, and the disciplined pursuit of truth.

I have had one meeting with the Dalai Lama, when I had taken a class of MBA students with me to India ten years ago and we essentially bumped into him at a hotel where he was teaching a class on Buddhism. He quickly established a joyful, heartfelt connection with my students, we took a photo, and then we went our different ways.

All the people I know who have spent time with him and known him speak so highly of him. This includes my mother and late father, who had met him in 1965 when my father was the superintendent of police in Dharamshala, that small mountain town in India where Tibetan refugees took shelter upon fleeing their land. It is remarkable that he's been the 14th Dalai Lama since the 1940's.

So I was naturally pained and confused, like so many, with what was in the news a few days ago. I am in no way qualified to understand or explain the situation better than any of the rest of us. Are there practices in certain cultures that jar with broader global norms? Was he being free and playful and inadvertently ended up crossing a line? Was it in part because in that moment a script from his childhood days of play just took over his mind? Is there a different, more complete truth?

Some experiences in life are not amenable to quick comprehension or reconciliation. We are well served to watch out for the instinct to judge too quickly on the appearance of things. As I seek to make sense of this moment - and only as much sense as the available evidence would allow - here are two stories that give me pause.

I remember when I first came to the United States as a 21-year old. There was a deep friendship I formed with some people in graduate school in my first year, including a classmate I will call Paul. Sometimes I would be walking with Paul, and would reach out to hold his hand. He would immediately withdraw it. I took it as a sign that he was not affectionate, or did not feel the same warmth in our friendship. Later, he told me that holding hands would signify to people that we were gay, and since we weren't, this was not the right thing to do. I got the sense that he was also simply uncomfortable with that kind of physical contact with another grown-up man. In India, where I was raised, grown-up men who are friends will often walk holding hands. Some of my fondest memories of shared bonds growing up are of taking such walks with one or another friend. I had not realized it, but in my act of reaching out to hold his hand, the norms of two cultures had come clashing.

Recently, one of my uncles, a former Air Force officer, passed away at the age of 85. When I met my aunt - his widow - she recounted some of her moments with him over these last few years. Some time back, she said, he was having a bit of trouble speaking. When she walked into the room, he smiled and raised his hand to offer her a salute. He'd never done that before to her, and hadn't saluted perhaps for two decades! It was as though an old script in his mind just played out on its own, instinctively.

So which of us has the full view of the Dalai Lama's inner and outer world to be able to offer concrete judgement of his intentions in that moment, beyond the recognition that it is a painful moment in a largely luminous life?

What I can say for sure, based on my own life experience and my study of science and scripture, is this: within each of us - within you, within me, within the Dalai Lama - lies a beautiful Core, a place of peace, grace, joy and wisdom. We have the capacity to tap into it and express it in our lives, and we gain inspiration from those we see who are doing so.

And I can say this. From time to time, any of us could drift away from our Core. We may think, feel and act in a way that is not in concert with Truth and our own highest potential. It is not the case in those moments that our Core ceases to exist - for it is always there, always has been, always will be - but in that moment, we have drifted away. Some people remain far removed from their Core for long periods of time, or perhaps even a lifetime, while others, a rare and inspiring few, stay well-anchored in theirs in all moments.

If you were to believe these propositions, then what we can say with clarity and conviction even amidst the confusion is that the Dalai Lama has a beautiful Core - and that for so many decades he has been inspiring others to come closer to their own.

And yet, we want an explanation, an answer, a resolution. Why did this happen?

If we take every situation we go through in life and all the world events we are invited to bear witness to in our brief time on earth as a classroom, an opportunity for us to be challenged and taken to new levels of understanding, then perhaps we can translate the flummoxed feelings many may now be going through into a motivation to deepen our inquiry into human nature, culture, and, most importantly, our own Inner Core.

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”  
Niels Bohr