October 28th, 2010
03:48 PM ET

My Take: Why the Dalai Lama became a global icon

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Asia • Buddhism • China • Culture & Science • India • Opinion

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. icon design

    Really strange

    P.S. Please review our icons for Windows and windows12icons.

    September 14, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  2. thankyou

    Thank you Dalai Lama, despite the CCPs misleading smear campaign in China and abroad (also visible among comments here), all Tibetans have you in their heart and more and more people abroad learn about your secular ethics and universal values.

    October 30, 2010 at 6:17 am |
  3. ChipH

    G-d I hope you weren't chewing the fat, ... if you were just about to sojourn with a vegetarian buddhist lama!!

    October 30, 2010 at 12:08 am |
  4. Reality

    Matt 19:12

    "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

    October 28, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  5. Reality

    DL was basically an unknown enti-ty until the Chinese kicked him out of Tibet whereupon he became the anti-China poster boy for the State Department and the CIA (and thereby for the USA taxpayers). Should we send him a bill?

    And who is paying for his trip to speak at Emory U? No doubt the parents of said university's students via those hidden tuition charges.

    And like B16, the "Lama-man" is celibate. B16 is hated by many because of the pe-dophia scandal whereas the "Lama-man" is one of the most popular leaders on the globe. Of course, DL's monks are mostly eunuchs. Hmmm???

    October 28, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Your assertion that most of DL's monks are eunuchs caused me to go look for information on this. Couldn't find anything quickly – care to elaborate?

      October 29, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • Reality


      Good question about DL's monks being eunuchs. See http://www.goodgoshalmighty.com/essay.tl.02.htm with respect to relating monks to eunuchs. A big leap to relate DL's monks to this review but the relationship is there. Will drop that for now unless I find a more definitive study.

      October 29, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  6. JT

    If he is so peaceful, why has he spent his money funding insurgent groups in Tibet who act violently in order to bait the Chinese military?

    October 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
    • Eddy

      Okay, that's rediculous given what the Chinese have done to him, his country and his people. Emory univeristy just presented him with an ancient map showing clearly Tibet as separate from China and independent.

      October 29, 2010 at 12:19 am |
    • Peace2All


      Please cite your sources on this.

      October 29, 2010 at 2:23 am |
  7. Peace2All

    Rock on' .... Dalai Lama...

    Keep preaching the 'peace'....and useful ways to live life now. And... thanks for not telling us we will be burning in hell forever, just cause someone doesn't believe in what you are saying.


    October 28, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.