In some ways, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama could be like any other man. His earliest memories are of riding around on his mother’s shoulders. His chuckle could belong in a Cartoon Network show, and he makes somewhat contentious jokes about money, sex, and breast-feeding. He has strong opinions about how to interact with friends, enemies, and strangers.
Of course, the Dalai Lama is by no means like any another goofy and passionate 79-year-old man. At two years old he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, the next manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the patron saint of Tibet. As a toddler, millions of people turned to him as their next leader who gave up his status as an Enlightened being so as to live on Earth and grapple with human suffering. @DalaiLama has 9.6 million followers on Twitter—almost twice the following of @WhiteHouse. Subscribers to the Dalai Lama’s message and non-believers alike must agree that he is a hugely influential man who has carried heavy responsibility for almost 80 years.
In Jadwin Gym, His Holiness spoke extensively about love, compassion, and empathy for other people. He urged the audience to focus on the “one-ness of humanity” and to achieve meaningful lives through compassion and dialogue with people different from ourselves. If we embody that compassion and embrace the fundamental humanity of our adversaries, then we will be able to find love for each other despite harmful actions. And yes, this is usually easier said than done.
Later, in a group discussion with His Holiness and 150 Princeton students, Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. from the religion department and the Center for African American Studies pressed the Dalai Lama about the challenge of truly embracing enemies. Professor Glaude cited Princeton’s informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of all Nations.” He then asked the Dalai Lama how it is possible to reconcile this motto with the fact that Woodrow Wilson, who coined it, held racist beliefs and segregated the White House. What is it, asked Professor Glaude, that holds us back from recognizing our shared humanity?
Until that point His Holiness had been consistent with his answers, reiterating that the solutions to our problems can be reached through compassion, empathy, and self-awareness. But Professor Glaude’s question evoked a fresh nuance in the Dalai Lama’s refrain.
It is about finding the difference between “positive and negative competition,” between “wise-selfish” and “foolish-selfish,” explained the Dalai Lama. Negative competition is a selfishness that brings us to reduce other people’s value, and this is what breaks down healthy relationships and compassionate communities.
The Dalai Lama moved on to other questions, but his differentiation between constructive competition and destructive self-interest stuck with me. It is easy to think of examples for both types, as well as everything in between. An in-class debate between peers who are determined to fully counter each other’s arguments seems healthy. A conflict between roommates over who can throw the bigger pregame is probably not. Princeton’s grade deflation policy and its revocation were monumental for Princeton students because grades are not only a reflection of what we learn in class; they also define how we compete with one another and with ourselves in the classroom. Like any job interview or sports game, one person’s success often means another person’s failure. Competition is everywhere, and it’s definitely not always the positive kind.
So why does it matter? The 150 students present were invited to participate in the discussion because of their involvement with either service or interfaith projects on Princeton’s campus. Before the Dalai Lama’s arrival this group held conversations regarding the nature of service, the role of community action on campus, and the significance of His Holiness’s visit to Princeton. Students were encouraged to think about why Princeton’s informal motto is important and how genuinely the Princeton community manages to live by it. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Princeton was clearly designed with a focus on that idea of “Princeton in the Service of all Nations,” but it remains unclear whether there will be a follow up regarding the Dalai Lama’s visit and the relevance of the messages he shared.
The Dalai Lama’s points were understandably simple. For the most part, His Holiness remained true to the expected focus on compassion, empathy, and the basic equality of humanity. Hearing His Holiness represent himself is a rare opportunity, but he is not the only celebrity to visit Princeton this year. The intense excitement preceding this particular visit was different from a different celebrity visit. What exactly did the Princeton community find so enthralling about the visit?
A visit from someone who is so revered carries implications about the purpose and ultimate goal of the program. Princeton invited a cohort of Tibetan monks to prepare a sand mandala to welcome His Holiness and broadcasted live streams of the two talks. However, the Dalai Lama’s message suggests that he would most appreciate an indication that his audience internalized what he shared. Just to hear the Dalai Lama speak does not account for all the buildup to his visit. The thoughts and stories he shared were similar to what is available to read online or in his autobiography, Freedom in Exile. The difference between reading his words and hearing them, however, is that at Princeton the Dalai Lama represented himself with the passion that can only be conveyed through in-person interaction.
The Princeton community’s focus should not be on how much hype there was before His Holiness’s visit or how thoroughly covered the event was in real-time. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Princeton will be defined by how sincerely the Princeton community acts on the messages that hundreds of people swarmed to hear.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama did not say that certain people are born with greater responsibility than others, although his life experience could definitely support that argument. He said that every person has an obligation to look at his actions closely, to question her motivations, to grant others the benefit of the doubt in human existence, and to live life in awareness of human suffering and the pursuit of justice. At Princeton—where we are constantly surrounded by choices between positive and negative competition and it is all too easy to stay inside our bubble of self-improvement and personal achievement—we can realize that responsibility in small ways every day. This is not to say that any one person should feel burdened to be selfless at every second, only that with the thousands of decisions each person makes every day there is always an opportunity to choose compassion over enmity, empathy over selfishness, or positive competition over negative.