Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.

Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

As the leader of a millennia-old spiritual tradition as well as a nation in exile, the Dalai Lama holds something resembling divine status among his fellow Tibetans. He is the world’s principal living advocate of nonviolence and the winner, in 1989, of the Nobel Peace Prize and, in 2007, of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given to a civilian by the United States government. He is denounced and at times publicly despised by the leaders of the
People’s Republic of China, which has occupied Tibet since 1950.

© Steven Dewall
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Yet he is also more than a religious and political leader: In the Western world his celebrity approaches that of a rock star. He has authored several bestselling books and is nearly always traveling, speaking, and inspiring audiences that number in the thousands. He is also strongly interested in integrating the findings of modern science into the Buddhist worldview.

I first met the Dalai Lama in 2000, when I attended a small conference on destructive emotions organized by the Mind and Life Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. Whether through a shared sense of playful and probing curiosity, our commitment to reducing human suffering, or a conviction that we were likely to learn from each other, the Dalai Lama and I immediately found an unexpectedly strong rapport across the wide gulf of the intellectual heritages we each represent.

During the weekend of April 22–23, 2006, the Dalai Lama and I sat down for the first of three dialogues, which were to total 39 hours of intimate exchange over a period of 15 months. In the following dialogue, adapted from our book, Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and I explore the nature and prospects of global compassion.

Our discussion, excerpted from a much longer one, focuses on new possibilities, arising from Buddhist practices and Western techniques, for cultivating emotional balance and compassion. To the Dalai Lama’s right sat my ally in this endeavor, Thupten Jinpa, who served as the translator for the meeting. —Paul Ekman

© Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The problem of our time

Ekman: The problem of our time, of our century, is to achieve a global compassion; otherwise we run the risk that we will destroy ourselves. We are talking about influencing all the people in the world, who are, to a large extent, brought up in exactly the opposite way, with a national—or even worse, a tribal concern—and nothing beyond that. We are not starting on neutral territory; we start with a need to counter tribal-bound compassion. How do we do this? What are the first steps?

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) The first step is to be able to educate people to see the downside of a completely individualistic rather than a global concern, to recognize the pros and cons, the benefits and the disadvantages, of compassion for all living beings.(Switching to English.) Here, the narrow-mindedness to think of one’s own nation, one’s own country, one’s own tract. Or [to think of] only the West—America and Europe—not thinking about Africa, Latin America, Middle East, or Asia. And the Asians say, “Oh, we’re Asia”; there is a sense of rivalry with the West. So, what is the benefit of that? For us to think globally is a positive benefit: The economy, the environment, and also the political system. I think with politics, there is, how do you say?

Jinpa: Rivalry.

© Tenzin Choejor, Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama