11/14/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

The Real Mover Is Love: A Conversation About Community Service With the Dalai Lama


Last week His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama came to Princeton University and met with a select group of students to discuss part of the University's informal motto, "In the service of all nations." The motto was coined by Woodrow Wilson, and is the aspirational tag line, if you will, for the University.

We asked this most famous Buddhist monk to reflect on the meaning of service as a way to think candidly among ourselves. Service has become a regular part of high school and college life in the past decades. Almost every student commits to some: out of their own initiative, urged to do so, or required. The role of His Holiness was to draw attention to service beyond those already interested, and to allow for a sincere conversation about its meaning- something he seemed naturally to elicit.

In preparation, students met in small groups to learn from each other and to prepare a question. They asked themselves what counted as service, why engage in it, and what did they learn along the way? Were there problems with the idea of service, from the place they came from?

The questions, initiated by a panel of scholars, were provocative through their self-reflective and honest nature: recognizing Princeton's place of privilege, wondering about the relationship between service and scholarship, acknowledging our less than perfect past, and asking if we really walked the talk on our high aims.

Might the Dalai Lama agree with the implicit self-critiques? He often cautions against the pursuit of prestige, for example. Yet this was not the direction he chose. Instead, he consistently reflected on the value of compassion. How to integrate service and scholarship? Compassion must be at the root. How to choose the kind of service to commit to? Develop compassion. Was a big salary against the rules of compassion? Not if you approached the results with compassion.

By some accounts he did not always address what was asked, but the compass directing his answers was clear: your intentions matter, develop your heart, be honest with yourself, work very hard at these things, and let them direct your efforts. Such action, and this is indeed activity, must precede any external action of service for it to be genuine and sustainable. The real mover, he said, is love.

When pushed on how such compassion is feasible even in the face of hatred and prejudice, he acknowledged that his moral strategy was decidedly hard work. From a Buddhist perspective it will take lifetimes to get it right. For all of his laughter and visible ease, the Dalai Lama is a serious man playing the long game. He has spent a lifetime studying texts on this very topic. He rises daily at 3:00 a.m. to meditate for three hours. His impossible goal, put forth through sacred vows, is to save all beings from suffering. But is it really possible, Prof. Eddie Glaude asked urgently. Professors were not born as professors, the Dalai Lama responded with a laugh. First they had to learn the alphabet, then to read and write. Now look at them!

And how to convince the uninterested to engage in service? Some say it should be a requirement. The Dalai Lama suggested that motivating others was best done not through argument, law, or command, but through the trigger of one's affection for others. Affection, after all, can only be learned from one another. Affection is full in younger people, he surmised, but by the age of college, it can fade.

It was like this that he implicitly challenged us, be it his implications that we haven't yet learned the alphabet when it comes to developing our hearts, or that if want to live differently we may sacrifice superficial things we hold dear. The Dalai Lama is a known master of upaya, skillful means, and while he can go toe to toe with world-class philosophers and neuroscientists, and has informed opinions on economic restructuring, his agenda was quietly calculated. As a scholar-monk he has often noted that American universities were adept at developing the mind, but not the heart. Even in service work, how often do we think seriously about developing our capacity for love? And unless we draw a correlation between academic excellence and kindheartedness, we can assume that the students, faculty, and staff at top tier schools are no more skilled at compassionate action than anyone else.

The Dalai Lama talked about service in ways different from our leaders who highlight examples of exemplary action and quantifiable results. He drew attention instead to our intentions because he knows they need work. He was not satisfied with our engagement, and instead told us to redouble our efforts. Is there really a place for selfless work and internal development in the academy and our wider public?

There must be if this aging monk, and the unprecedented positive response he receives wherever he goes, is any indication. For someone who has suffered the loss of his country yet remains serious about compassion, the Dalai Lama is downright likeable, happy, and goofy. He makes everyone around him smile. If care about service but dismiss this as unimportant, then we misunderstand the quiet enterprise of compassion, the humility it brings, its most serious challenge, and its value for all of us.