what the Dalai Lama told me…

Posted on July 3rd, 2011

This week in Sunday Life I try “infinite altruism”

There’s something special about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, if I can be permitted such an obviousism. Something disarming. It’s the way he answers questions like, Is being gay OK? His response to a journalist once makes me smile: “I will ask ‘What is your companion’s opinion?’. If you both agree…then it is okay'”.  It’s the way he quietly takes off his shoes while presenting to 3000 people and sits with his brown fluffy-socked feet tucked under him, as he did during his recent visit.

On Friday I met His Holiness for the third time. Each visit I’ve expected it to be a bit like Christmas – all build-up, then more of the same.

But he gets me every time.

This visit I asked if it’s better to pursue happiness or altruism. He wagged a finger at me: “Altruism! Because altruism is the easiest, fastest way to be happy.” Infinite altruism, he said was his life goal. Every morning after waking at 3.30am he consciously offers his “body and mind to the purpose of others”.

“This is what brings me my joyfulness,” he said rather significantly.

His Holiness was in Australia to present at the Happiness & It’s Causes conference where, perfectly, altruism emerged as the theme of the two-day joy pow-wow. Top minds in the field shared their research showing compassion and volunteering lead to the greatest happiness hit. In previous years the vibe at the conference has been all “happiness as an end-goal” with presenters sharing up-beat tricks for personal feel-goodness. The shift this time was palpable. Perhaps it’s the natural disasters, the GFC…they’ve left us raw and seeking something more connected. Perhaps.

Now, the Dalai Lama suggesting we should give to others – it’s hardly about to knock anyone’s (brown, wooly) socks off. And, really, it’s advice I tend to find a little eye-glazingly dispiriting. It’s like, how can I ever be happy when I’m so damn selfish? Sure, I share and give. But it’s often tainted with a whiff of “What can I get out of it?” or an aftertaste of “Hopefully everyone will notice”. “Infinite altruism” – consistent and unconditional – seems so very out of reach for us mere Western mortals, caught up as we are in the hedonic, up-with-the-Joneses chase.

But wait! His Holiiness offers this two-fold kicker. First he says he learned infinite altruism from his Mum, not Buddhism. We all do, he adds. From the moment we emerge from their wombs. Ergo, infinite altruism is available to us all. It’s just that it gets harder to access as we get older and confront enemies.

So, how do we give even when affronted or threatened? What’s the antidote? Meditating? Getting out of our heads and going inwards to connect with loving-kindness? Or any of that other Zen stuff we – and I’ll speak on behalf of most of you – find so difficult as we deal with making school lunches and supermarket queues?

Actually, no.

The antidote is in fact our busy, bothersome minds. “To be altruistic requires rational reasoning. To be compassionate with enemy – meditation and prayer not answer!” he says. We must use our human analytical skills to remind us that selflessness is better for us. He suggests consistent training – like going to Church or learning ethics or simply analyzing reality.

I don’t know about you, but this seems do-able. Or at least more so than reaching a totally detached, monk-ish state. What’s more it seems more…right. Less selfish than “working on myself” or sitting in lotus. What His Holiness is saying, is that happiness is not about going inwards so much as giving outwards. And when we falter, to use our noggins to have a good hard look at ourselves and then consciously choose to act.

I’ve been trying this out the past few days. When I got affronted by someone’s rude email I stood back and reminded myself they’re not angry with me, they’re lashing out for who-knows-what-reason. They’re shitty, hurting for some reason. Bam! Compassion! Just now, I’ve called a homeless charity to offer to help with handing out food. I’ll have to report back on the results.

This doing rather than sitting approach to goodness and happiness sits well with my Western sensibilities. Something I suspect His Holiness is, disarmingly, very aware of.

I’ve been talking about this for a few weeks….explaining to people the particular brilliance of His Holiness’ ability to tap into what we in the West right now need to hear…I think we need to hear that it’s better to get on with helping others instead of “working on ourselves”…a relief. Agree?



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  • Sandy

    This is great and really aligns with where I am at in my life right now. A journey of striving to make the world a little brighter! Altruism is by far a means to achieving this!

    His holiness the Dalai Lama is such an inspiration, as are you Sarah.


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    I wouldn’t put us quite in the same category. It’s a privilege to be in the same sentence!


    Sandy Reply:

    Nice and modest you are. I would be well chuffed for sure! I’m half way through “The Open Road, the global journey of the fourteenth Dalai Lama”. It would be pretty awesome to shake the mans hand, give him a high five for me 🙂


  • Sarah

    Hi Sarah
    Thank you, I really enjoyed this article. Still trying to digest it – will re-read it in a sec.
    Giving away our kindness feels so instinctively right to me. I am really uncomfortable with competition, although I ended up engaging in a lot and disastrously for everyone everytime (Even if you get a ‘win’ someone else gets a ‘lose’). I like this counter movement that is creeping up now – an alternative to greed and competition but without all the sacrifice, guilt, shame, notions of selfishness (I would like the word ‘selfish to be erased from the English language, such is its overuse and penetrating hurtfulness).
    Yes I can pursue prosperity and wealth, no I don’t need to be a billionaire, and yes, I can also give stuff away and be kind and generous with it. I can be humble and confident. I can own my achievements and share them.

    I like it. Thanks.


  • Sara

    I don’t know about aulturism. Like to think it’s something we all have the potential to do but without bringing it to public attention or trying to build up karma credits.

    The most truly aulturistic person who comes to mind was Mother Theresa. Her gift came from the heart. She didn’t do it for the publicity or to feel good about herself. She did it through genuine compassion for human beings who needed help, love & support.


    Jess Reply:

    I believe you should watch Christopher Hitchin’s presentation on Mother Theresa.

    You will be surprised to learn that, yes she offered a place for the sick and dying, but it wasn’t to comfort them but to assure them that they were on the path to heaven. She didn’t provide the pain-relief that hospitals could provide.

    She also believed that condoms were evil, rather than the AIDS that is spread by not using condoms – try telling that to the many infected people around the world. Outdated and nonsensical Catholic beliefs were the undercurrent of everything she did and promoted.

    I think if you dig a little deeper, you will see a vast difference between the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa…


    Mick Reply:

    I hope Steve Waugh doesn’t read that. He will be livid.


    john Reply:

    Steve Waugh will be livid about what? That somebody has dared to be point out some major flaws in a women that the Christian Church has marketed as a ‘perfect’ saint for decades. What has Steve Waugh got to do with it?

    john Reply:

    Hi Sarah, Rather than just concentrate on ‘the good’ things that Teresa did, why not find an example of a person who’s ‘goodness’ most mirrors your own thoughts and ideals. I’m sure you understand that millions have probably died of aids since Mother Teresa passed information down generations that condoms were bad. I would never want to be connected with that. Teresa was a great marketing tool for Christianity but after listening to her talk and learning about much of what she did I find I have much more in common with people like Stephen Fry, who is currently in Africa trying to convince Africans that condoms are not evil.

    Lucy Reply:

    Did Mother Theresa charge min $800 to attend a ‘Happiness Conference’??


    Mia Reply:

    Mother Teresa was also a fan of the barbed thigh belts which cut the skin, as a reminder of the pain Christ suffered, I forget what they are called. Cilice belts, perhaps? She also encouraged others to self-flagellate and torture themselves for spiritual purity. Not taking away from the great works she did but you can never claim a person is 100% good, or evil. We are all human therefore there are shades of grey.


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    True…i struggled with Mother Teresa in the past…there seemed to be an agenda. I now simple choose to see the good they did…while remaining aware of the human foibles and limitations that seem to be a part of her journey.

  • Mia

    I love all of this. I agree with the above, you & HH are both truly remarkable people in your own right.

    I think people can be put off altruism because they think its complicated and labor intensive. On work on Friday, a friend was having a personal crisis and in tears. Something clicked in my head, and I went to give her a hug & make her a cup of tea instead of just sitting at my desk. Sure, it wasnt saving African orphans or anything spectacular. But imagine if we all made small gestures of altruism in our daily lives. Pay it forward if you will. I plan to from now on.

    Lovely as always Sarah. xx


  • Mel

    Altruism is very tricky, u must gain nothing for yourself. Almost all good deeds we do has a little motive of bolstering ourselves. I have been struggling with forgiving someone and to try to do that is a gift to myself as well as the other person. I try to live kindly but what happens if no matter how much you give others it is taken and not returned. Do you just keep trying. Of course it I’d not altruistic but I wonder what the Dalai Lama would say. I struggle with this.


  • I thought the Dalai Lama would have said, ”stay away from Karl Stefanovic”.


  • Bryan Lawrence

    Dear Sarah,
    I have a real problem or maybe everyone else has a real problem. I hold certain ideas which don’t go down well with the majority of my friends and associates. I get into deep trouble but my thoughts seem to me to make sense. I have never in my life been a confident person and always thought the other person knew better than I did, but thank goodness, now in my old age I have come to accept without fear, that my opinions do make some sense. I could only change them if I felt I was wrong.

    A little while back I read one of the Dali Lama’s books and felt that my thoughts on things were very similar to his. I do agree that giving can bring happiness. As for whether you want to give or not depends on circumstances such as are you a depressive. If so, during the bad times, you couldn’t care less about other people. Just as, you couldn’t care less about the things that usually give you pleasure. I am a depressive myself but my depression is kept very much under control with medication. It’s amazing! You are what you eat!

    I would just like to add one of my pet comments and I hope that we can still remain friends. I believe that we are all basically selfish beings. I believe that whatever we do it is in the first place for our own sake. This is where I come to say that even giving to others is done in order to give ourselves something that we need. We are of number one importance. Giving to others gives us happiness because we enjoy seeing the results of our actions, it gives us credo in the eyes of others, it gives us a feeling of power, we are praised, we are looked up to. We feel good.

    You know Sarah, I get into so much trouble for these kind of statements but I still feel good in the knowledge that I am being open with my feelings and am not afraid to express them to anyone. I have been struggling to achieve this state of acceptance of myself for most of my life.

    Cheers, Bryan.


    Lee Reply:

    I totally agree… I remember debating the realness of altruism with an ethics lecturer some years ago! I think all good deeds and giving are not selfless – they are based on learnt behaviours, societal and cultural expectations and getting something in return – happiness, validation, release of guilt etc Can people be truly altruistic? I think not…


    Jess Reply:

    Bryan, I am glad to hear you say that you now accept yourself (and your beliefs).

    I find it funny when people say that having a child involves being selfless. Now, on the outset, I would probably agree on the basis that you have to put another’s needs before your own. However, the act of bringing the child into the world is (in most cases I believe) borne from a selfish desire to reproduce for whatever reason. The child has no choice in being brought into this world.

    Now I know many would argue with me but I hold this sentiment deeply in my own inner truth.

    My philosophy studies have helped me to challenge many sentiments I once had that were largely based around the influences of my family/friends/society/culture.

    I believe in healthy debate. It’s not about being wrong or right but about challenging people to consider things wholly and from different perspectives.

    Sure, I would like to consider myself a selfless being when doing certain things for others. But in the end, it’s the satisfaction I get from doing such acts that wills me to do more. So, yes, in a sense these ‘selfless’ acts are also selfish. Does this selfish element negate the selfless? Not necessarily but I’d say some of the time, sure!


  • Mel

    Bryan I think it all makes perfect sense, most giving is of course done as I said previously, to give us a personal little boost. And I totally get the depressive thing, I never suffered depression, always very happy until my marriage broke down suddenly and I lost my lust for life, love, food, travel, friends, films, books and I did not have the energy to give a toss about others. I was totally internalized. For the very first time I realised how very fragile our minds are. How close to the edge we teeter. It opened up the world of mental health to me and now I have much more compassion. You Bryan have as much right to your opinions as anybody else. Oh and Sarah, in the depths of my depression I found your blog and it helped me follow a path out. Mainly because you are truthful and you confront yourself so we too can do it.


  • Katherine

    I love that the DL talked about sexuality, so then I did the wiki and found out later he said something else…. Your thoughts?

    In a 1994 interview with OUT Magazine, the Dalai Lama explained “If someone comes to me and asks whether homosexuality is okay or not, I will ask ‘What is your companion’s opinion?’. If you both agree, then I think I would say ‘if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay'”.[68] However, in his 1996 book Beyond Dogma, he clearly states, “A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else….Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”[69] He has said that sex spelled fleeting satisfaction and trouble later, while chastity offered a better life and “more independence, more freedom”.[70] He says that problems arising from conjugal life could even lead to suicide or murder.[71] The Dalai Lama has said that all religions have the same idea about adultery.[72]


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Yeah, I read that, too. And noted how the DL brings his answers, in the end, back to the individual example. Sure, Buddhism doesn’t support the details of gay sex. But in the next breath he’s able to move on to say, but hey let’s get on with living a loving, giving life…


  • I agree that doing good for others is a good thing and will bring about personal happiness, but in saying that, I think altruism is very complicated. What kinds of activities constitute altruism? I would also hasten to note that many well-meaning people try to do good and end up hurting people in the long run.

    For instance, is it altruistic to give money to homeless people who beg on the street? Sure they need money and it is a well-intentioned thing to do, but doing so does not change the structural issue that homeless people exist and in fact is something which allows homelessness to persist because the urgency of helping people in a structural way is hidden through this altruism.

    I agree that we should try to be compassionate and understanding, but I don’t think there is an obvious approach for this kind of thing. Certainly, I think it is bad to go about altruism in any pre-defined way, you need to be flexible and listen to others and orient yourself towards the big multi-faceted, complex causes of suffering, rather than just the little examples of suffering that we all directly witness.


  • Sylvia

    Satah, I loved that in the picture, His Holiness is holding your hand, rather tightly, it looks like!!
    I could say that you are very lucky to have met him not once, but 3 times, but then I believe that you were meant to meet him, in fact I believe your path in life is pre-determined by what lessons your Soul needs to experience, and by ‘engineering’ these meetings, you are indeed advancing your Soul. You yourself have been told that you inspire people, that is also a part of your spirituality. If you can step back a little from any given situation and think of what may be the lesson in it for you, you will also be advancing your Soul’s purpose, thus practising altruism whatever it’s outcome.
    Bless you Sarah.
    Silver Angel

    Spreading the Love

    Don’t forget to SMILE!


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