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Dalai Lama wins Templeton Prize as more than 'simple Buddhist monk'

The Dalai Lama has won the Templeton Prize for exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension by spreading his message of compassion worldwide.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / March 29, 2012

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets a Tibetan on his way to deliver spiritual teachings to a gathering in New Delhi March 23.

Manish Swarup/AP

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He calls himself a “simple Buddhist monk.”

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But his biographers and religion experts say the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is way more than that. A monk, yes. But, also an exiled spiritual and temporal leader of 6 million Tibetan Buddhists, a philosopher-scientist, an author, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

And, on Thursday, the Dalai Lama received yet another honor: the 2012 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

“I think he has become the best known Buddhist in the world,” says John Berthrong, former academic dean at Boston University’s School of Theology.

The award has been given to other high-profile religious leaders in the past, such as Mother Teresa and the Rev. Billy Graham. The Dalai Lama’s story is compelling for its own reasons.

He was chosen at age 2 to become the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. By age 6, he was studying Buddhist theology. He was forced into exile at age 24 to try to avoid war in Lhasa, the capital. Since then, the Dalai Lama has traveled the world, meeting political leaders, learning about other religions, absorbing everything he couldn’t learn in the closed society of Tibet, such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  

In its announcement of the award, which is worth about $1.7 million this year, the Templeton Award noted how the Dalai Lama has focused on the connections between the investigative traditions of science and Buddhism “as a way to better understand and advance what both disciplines might offer the world.”

A key question the Dalai Lama asks, says the Templeton Foundation in its press release, is “Can compassion be trained or taught?”

Compassion is a major focus for the Dalai Lama.

People who have spent time with him say it is a life-changing experience. Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has spent extended time with the Dalai Lama, told the Wisconsin State Journal, "These are private meetings where he literally spends five days with us. It is very hard to go back and be the same person you were before the conference. It really is a very precious opportunity."

According to biographer Pico Iyer in his book "The Open Road," the Dalai Lama begins five hours of meditation at 3:30 a.m. “on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the ‘Chinese brothers and sisters’ who are holding his people hostage and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.”

The Dalai Lama's concern over the Tibetans has led him to walk a tightrope. He does not talk about independence but instead autonomy. On his official website, he writes, “Yes, I remain optimistic that I will be able to return to Tibet. China is in the process of changing. Besides, I am not seeking separation from China.”

“He is resolute not to have any violence against the Chinese, who he views as fellow sentient beings,” says Mr. Berthrong. “He tells his people to respond with patience.”

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