2005 Introduction – Written by Victor Chan
In January 2002, His Holiness the Dalai Lama fell seriously ill in Bodhgaya, India. A
bout of stomach pain, the result of a simple infection, had escalated into a full-blown
crisis. I was traveling with him and was devastated to see him so weakened. In the span
of ten days, he seemed to have aged ten years.
While he lay in his sickbed, a hundred thousand pilgrims spent an entire night in the
open air of Bodhgaya, offering prayers amid wintry conditions.
In the end, the Prime Minister of India decided to intervene. He ordered a government
plane to evacuate the Dalai Lama to a specialist hospital in Bombay. His Holiness’ hospitalization,
the first in over three decades, sent shock waves throughout the Tibetan
community and to his legion of friends around the world.
In Australia a woman went to a seafood market and spent $1,588 to buy up its entire
stock of seventy-one mud crabs. Then she went to the banks of the Brisbane River and
set them free, as a mercy mission for the Dalai Lama. The practice of liberating animals
and other sentient beings is a common Buddhist healing exercise and prayer for sick people.
Two-and-a-half months later, after his recovery, I went to see the Tibetan leader in his
Dharamsala residence. For the first time since the traumatic illness, he was strong enough
to receive visitors and I quizzed him about his sickness and hospital experiences.
As the session drew to a close, he volunteered an unexpected detail. In Bombay, the
doctors had ordered an exhaustive battery of tests, including an advanced electrocardiograph
(ECG). The results? The Dalai Lama, though sixty-seven, has the heart, vitality
and health of a twenty-year-old.
I asked him if he had an explanation for this surprising finding. He replied without a
second’s hesitation: “My heart is healthy, I think, because of my peace of mind. Otherwise
there is nothing special about me. I don’t do any special exercises.”
Peace of mind, according to the Dalai Lama, is the direct outcome of having a warm
heart and actively caring for other people. By putting others’ well-being ahead of his
own, he enters into a state of grace. He sleeps like a baby every night and his stress
levels are a fraction of most people’s.
His Holiness also told me about the research of Dr. Larry Scherwitz, an American
psychologist. A popular belief is that type A personalities — people who are loud,
aggressive and hard-driving – often die younger than others because their lives are more
stressful. Yet the reality is more complex. Scherwitz analyzed the speech patterns of type
A and type B subjects. His data showed that the incidence of heart attacks and other
stress-related illness is highly correlated with the level of self-reference in the way people
talk. Frequent use of “me,” “I,” and “mine” is a predictor of more heart attacks, regardless
of whether a person is type A or B. Scherwitz’s conclusion: A self-centered way of life is
a significant risk factor for life-threatening, stress-related disease.
These findings support the Dalai Lama’s uncommon notion of wise-selfishness.
“Helping others does not mean we do this at our own expense,” he explained. “It’s not
like that. Buddhas and bodhisattvas, these people are very wise. All their lives they want
only one thing: to achieve ultimate happiness. How to do this? By cultivating compassion,
by cultivating altruism. When they care for others, they themselves are the first to benefit.
They know the best way to lead a happy life is to help others. This is wise-selfish. They
don’t think: ‘Oh, I’m most important, other people not so important.’ Not that way.
Intentionally they consider others’ well-being to be the most important. And, in reality,
this action returns maximum benefit to them.”
The Unsung Heroes we celebrate today seem to have an intuitive understanding of
the Dalai Lama’s insight. These remarkable men and women have each made significant
personal sacrifices for the greater good. In helping others they find meaning and fulfillment.
And in doing so, they have no doubt experienced the deep sense of well-being, both
mental and physical, that comes from altruistic behavior.
Today, we celebrate the Unsung Heroes for being living examples of compassion in action.
Co-author, The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations
and Journeys with His Holiness the Dalai Lama