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Fearless Leaders: Dumbfounded by the Dalai Lama


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For more than 30 years, I've contemplated some of the teachings of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama. His statement on the purpose of life originally stunned me. I was listening to a cassette recording (that really dates me) of him speaking to around 400 psychologists and psychiatrists about the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Western psychology. I was so transfixed that even though I'd arrived home and was parked with my car turned off, I stayed in my silver Honda Civic and continued to listen.

His response to one of the questions during the question-and-answer period of his speech dumbfounded me, and I'm still processing it more than three decades later. Since hearing it, I've shared it with thousands of my clients, both individual coaching clients and my audiences when I speak. Here's the Dalai Lama's conversation with a woman in the audience that I continue to ponder:

Woman, excited: "Can you tell us what the purpose of life is?"

Dalai Lama: "Can you ask me an easier question, please?" He laughed, as did the whole audience. "Actually, it's an easy question. The purpose of life is to be happy."

For about 30 seconds, there was absolute silence. Everyone was stunned.

Woman, now timid: "Your Holiness, with all the suffering in the world, how can you say the purpose of life is to be happy?"

Dalai Lama: Obviously recognizing that it was hard for this woman to challenge his thinking, replied with great compassion: "Remember, I'm a Buddhist monk, and one of my vows as a monk is to help alleviate suffering in the world. So I have to ask, will I be more effective at alleviating suffering in the world if I'm happy or not happy?"

Like many of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, it changed me. In my youth, I was always deeply philosophical, and everything was very serious. I was seriously serious — really! I was so serious that I had to take a workshop to learn to smile and laugh (after hearing this definition of the purpose of life).

Recently, I read an amazing story by Douglas Preston for Slate.com, and I encourage you to read it too. Preston's discerning and hilarious article about the Dalai Lama visiting a ski area for the first time made me laugh until I cried, and it validated the story I've been sharing for 30 years about the Dalai Lama's view on the purpose of life. It also provides insight into how he:

  • Lives in the present, with the amazement of a child
  • Deals with potentially embarrassing moments
  • Lives with joy and humbleness
  • Is courageous and stands strong in his beliefs and is willing to be different
  • Thinks with mindfulness at a whole new level
  • Learns why you should never wear wing tip shoes on a ski slope

The Dalai Lama is a true Fearless Leader. He acts with inspiring courage, reacts to misfortune with resilience, thinks with mindfulness and excels with unrelenting fire.

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TC North

Dr. TC North is co-author of the Amazon bestseller Fearless Leaders. For 30 years, he has been a high-performance executive coach and speaker who accelerates individuals and organizations in becoming high-performers. If you’d like to master fear, exude magnetic presence or become more mindful, please reach out: email, website or 303-665-8920.

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