October 28th, 2010
03:48 PM ET
Editor's Note: Arri Eisen is a professor of pedagogy in Biology, the Institute of the Liberal Arts, and the Center for Ethics at Emory University.
By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN
Why has the Dalai Lama become more than just another leader in exile, just another Nobel Peace Prize winner? Why is he now an international icon of peace and positive possibilities?
The other day, some friends and I were sitting around chewing the fat, and I brought up this question because the man himself was preparing to visit our campus.
Just 20 years ago, as a Harvard scientist named Herbert Benson tells the story, he asked about inviting the Dalai Lama to the U.S. and the response was ‘Dolly who?’
What’s happened in the meantime?
My theory, I told my friends, is that at the moment the world is especially starved for authentic leaders. People to believe in. There’s almost an innate need, it seems, for someone to make us see our true potential as human beings, someone who can help guide us to what we believe, how we decide the right thing to do, someone who walks the talk.
I asked if anyone could think of any other such current leaders. After a good while, we could only muster Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, both of whom have moved off the world stage over the last years.
Along with my colleagues at Emory University, I’ve been working with the Dalai Lama, at his bequest, to integrate modern science into the ancient monastic curriculum of the 30,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile in India. The project is officially known as the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.
An idea that to me started out sounding merely cool has evolved into a life-transforming experience for me, my colleagues and many of the monks and nuns evolved. The Dalai Lama has vision.
Our project, involving Emory faculty teaching in India for a few weeks every summer, monks and nuns taking classes at Emory, the development of bilingual texts and the sharing of cultural ideas with the potential for unique insights, has brought us up against vital societal questions.
What is education, and how do we best teach across cultures? How do we best translate complex concepts and terms?
The partnership has emerged as a model for what I call positive globalization.
Last week, those of us involved with the science project had lunch with the Dalai Lama. We had just heard him outline his vision of a secular ethics, in which religions don’t go away, but in which we identify the "universal values" all religions share and certain effective practices from these religions that can be secularized, like meditation, and use these as a foundation for bringing the world together.
Secular, he emphasizes, should not mean anti-religious, but rather should complement and enrich religion and vice-versa.
Now, we were up on stage in front of a crowd of 100 or so people at Emory: students, scientists, supporters of the project and community members. After eating, His Holiness noticed that the president of our university had neglected to join us on the stage, so the Dalai Lama interrupted the proceedings and called him up.
A bit sheepish, the president joined us and sat next to the Dalai Lama. And as he answered our questions about the project, as he gave us his encouragement and regaled us with stories from the 8th to the 21st centuries, the Dalai Lama took the president’s hand and held it, smoothing it absent-mindedly with his thumb, throughout the entire session.
The gesture, not visible to the audience, was so simple it changed all of us on the stage. The intensity of the day, the nervousness of the situation relaxed and softened. There was laughter and I thought: yes, this is what we need.
We didn’t even know it, those of us on the stage; we may not even know it, those of us leading our daily crunching lives, but this is what we need.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arri Eisen.
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