How the Dalai Lama helped me rethink the meaning of life


His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Matthew Wu wearing a yellow Hada, given to him by the Dalai Lama as a blessing.

Matthew Wu, Contributing Writer

Throughout my childhood, my family has taught me about Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. Growing up, I came to see that the simplest questions were the hardest to answer: Who are we? What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here?

In school, I’ve witnessed the pressure to achieve and succeed. At some point, the overwhelming stress of school catches up with even the best of us, and we would be left with the question: Why are we going through such pressure? Every person faces a crisis of motivation regarding how to continue their education. We’ve been told that a rigorous education leads to success later in life. But how should success be measured, and is it achieved through financial success alone? Is there a spiritual aspect as well? 

I wanted to find meaning as a teenager growing up in America today. What does being successful mean amid a growing teenage mental health crisis? Having the most TikTok followers, wearing expensive shoes, striving to do whatever it takes to get into an Ivy? Isn’t there something else? Does a happy state of mind, which animates our day-to-day lives and brings us a life of satisfaction and meaning, even exist?  

I decided to seek answers from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the world’s foremost Buddhist leader. With my parents’ encouragement, I wrote a letter to his office in Dharamshala, India. Much to my delight, he granted my request to meet with him.

In March of 2023, I flew to Dharamshala, just south of Jammu and Kashmir, to meet with the Dalai Lama. Upon arrival, I noticed the stark difference between American and Indian society: the differences were largely due to the differences of philosophy. Indian philosophy, primarily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, emphasizes duality, as positive and negative aspects are mutually independent and cannot exist in isolation. The scenes we encountered here were no exception: there were chaotic streets and clean temples, poor slums and lavish hotels. Even so, the residents of Dharamshala exuded a sense of peace, kindness, and sensitivity, amidst a uniquely turbulent yet harmonious community. The backdrop of the Himalayas radiated calmness and clarity.

Two Buddhist Monks creating a Mandala. It is a Buddhist tradition, creating a “painting” from colored sand and then destroying it in a ritual that symbolizes the impermanent nature of life.

From outside the waiting room filled with books in Tibetan, I saw the Dalai Lama greeting and blessing local Indians and Tibetans, along with sporadic Western visitors, who had come to meet him for a brief moment. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down and ask him questions.

When it came time to voice my questions, the interview felt slightly surreal. For months, I’d been reading and rehearsing mock interviews with my parents. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the actual moment. As I walked in the room, his face seemed vibrant, ready to answer complex philosophical questions. He draped us in a white cloth, called a hada, as a blessing. I felt small in comparison to the important religious figure millions admired. As the translator carefully articulated my questions in Tibetan, I grew nervous, eager to hear his wisdom and deep thought as a Buddhist scholar. 

Throughout our meeting, the Dalai Lama always wore an authentic smile on his face. His eyes radiated a vitality much younger than his age, and his words were gentle but firm. After the interview, we posed for a photo with him and his translator, and he held our hands while our gifts were presented to him. When we gave him a stress ball, he laughed in delight, much like a young child would. Throughout the thirty minutes, I could feel his compassionate and warm-hearted energy surrounding us, as if he knew I was nervous. Without any comforting words, his kind smile and occasional childlike laugh gradually relaxed us. . 

His basic message was that all humans are born and die as equals. However, due to societal pressures, we focus on our differences: in religion, resources, and ideologies. Historically, these divisions have led to conflict and wars, and despite technological breakthroughs, we are still not at peace and suffer rampant mental health problems. As the Dalai Lama couldn’t answer all of our questions in the allotted time, he referred us to Kenting Tai Situpa, a leading Buddhist monk and founder of a major monastery outside Dharamshala, who we met soon after.

The Dalai Lama and Kenting Tai Situpa emphasized six main ideas: 

(1) Education should emphasize the oneness of humans and our similarities. We should focus on an individual person’s impact towards the community and stop emphasizing differences and boxing each other in competing categories. 

(2) Lasting happiness can only be realized through peace of mind and understanding the workings of the mind and consciousness. 

(3) Unconditional love is a tough concept to understand and explain, but it comes from within and represents our ultimate goal in this world. 

(4) The motivation to teach and learn is the most important part of education. The first and most important step to achieving that is to realize that motivation is the most important part. 

(5) The motivation for learning is to gain the ability to utilize knowledge in the real world to help yourself and others in your life. 

(6) The definition of success for a student is to utilize what you have learned to enrich the lives of other people you encounter in your life. You don’t have to be a fanatic goal achiever as long as you are continually enthusiastic, passionate, and curious about life. A successful person is one who is satisfied and content with their experiences in life.  

Initially, his ideas felt foreign to me. Growing up in the competitive West, we often focus on material success and are taught that life is a series of zero-sum games. After thinking through what the Dalai Lama said, I have started to understand his teachings better. Focusing on our differences by constantly seeking to put down others for our own gain makes people feel anxious about competition and fear losing. Thus, a zero-sum mindset that prioritizes hedonistic self-indulgence over the betterment of community is the source of our suffering.

Throughout our lives, we all play multiple roles: parent, child, student, employee. It seems hard to harmonize all these roles and maintain balance across one’s commitments. The Dalai Lama tells us that having compassion for others’ well-being is a fundamental source of happiness. So much depends on where we put our attention: on positivity or negativity; on our own perceived separations, or on connection and cooperation among us; on non-stop mind wandering or focusing our attention. Maybe that’s why Buddhists’ main practice is meditation – training the mind to focus on the right things.

A Buddhist practice is the work of a lifetime. Throughout my life, I will try to follow the Dalai Lama’s teachings. I invite any readers to do the same.