Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Trite Is Trite, Even In Robes

I'm sure the Dalai Lama is a wise, insightful and altogether wonderful human being. He must be. Everyone says so. Besides, he looks wise, insightful and altogether wonderful. The smiling helps. So does the robe. And when he grins, flips his shoes off and sits cross-legged in a chair on a stage in front of thousands, it's impossible not to look at the wrinkly little man and think this is ancient wisdom made flesh. His audiences are always breathless before he speaks. They lean forward, silent, enraptured, poised to catch each polished word as it spills from the man's sainted lips. And this is where I have some trouble understanding the phenomenon that is the Dalai Lama. It's his words. Nobody plays guru better. No debate there. Wherever he speaks, the atmosphere is electric, and there aren't many septuagenarians who can pack theatres and stadiums worldwide with two hours of extemporaneous talk. But much as I like a little crackle in the air, I can't gush about ancient wisdom made flesh until I hear some substance in the words. In Ottawa on Sunday, the Dalai Lama spoke many words. "The concept of war is outdated," quoth the Lama. To do away with external conflict, we must first change inside. "First inner disarmament, then outer disarmament." Whoah, as surfer dudes are wont to say. Then there was this trenchant observation: "We all come from our mother's womb. Therefore we all have the same potential for compassion." At one point, the Dalai Lama indicated the source of humanity's problems by silently gesturing to his heart. The audience loved it, as they always do. But I couldn't help but notice that, theatrics aside, these words read like the transcript of three out of five episodes of Oprah. And it's not as if this was an off day. The Dalai Lama's website -- www.dalailama.com, naturally -- is filled with speeches and essays that offer such penetrating insights as this: "War is violence and violence is unpredictable. Therefore, it is better to avoid it if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not." Granted, the current president of the United States needed to hear this a few years ago but I think it's safe to say that most people know that wars can go bad and should be avoided if possible. In fact, I seem to recall making precisely this case in a Grade 6 public speaking contest. On a more philosophical plane, the Dalai Lama offers this: "I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy." And happily, that leads to this: "Individual happiness can contribute in a profound and effective way to the overall improvement of our entire human community." If this is ancient wisdom, Deepak Chopra is the reincarnation of Aristotle. My opinion does not seem to be widely shared, however. The Dalai Lama travels and speaks relentlessly -- if for nothing else, he should be admired for his endurance -- and people throng to bask in his wisdom. "Audience Charmed by Dalai Lama," reads the headline of a typical event in Indiana last week. "Shortly into his 90-minute talk, the seated Dalai Lama stopped speaking, leaned forward and started untying his shoes," the bedazzled reporter wrote. "I'm used to sitting cross-legged," His Holiness observed -- a comment which the reporter dutifully passed along, perhaps sensing a deeper metaphor for the nature of existence. "My main commitment is the concept of a happy life," the Dalai Lama told his Indiana audience. "Much depends on having peace of mind." Yes, well. Hard to argue with that. It was a little more daring to claim that "everyone has a basic right to a happy life," although he didn't elaborate on what that means, exactly. Was this right something that should be enshrined in constitutions and enforced in courts, thus bestowing happiness on lawyers? Or was this merely the sort of lazy half-thought that inevitably pours out of those who spend too much time surrounded by fawning audiences that treat every grunt and guffaw as a shiny pearl dropped from the heavens? I suspect the latter. Now, please, I do not want angry Buddhists marching on my office. Not only do I consider Buddhism considerably less goofy than the stuff peddled by other old men who pack stadiums, I really do respect the Dalai Lama. This is a man who has spent his entire life annoying the Chinese politburo. The Nobel scarcely seems sufficient reward. But words have meaning, and that meaning does not come from the person who speaks them. Trite is trite, platitudes are dull however they're polished, and the Dalai Lama's words contain as much insight as the average inspirational poster. There, I said it. Now for some inner peace.