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Excerpted from Awakening to the Sacred  by Lama Surya Das. Copyright© 1999 by Lama Surya Das. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.

"Think of what it would mean if we were always able to be happy and to make others happy--truly happy and fulfilled, not just paying lip service to happiness and wearing a facile smile."

Lama Surya Das, Awakening to the Sacred
Part 4

In the early 1970s, I was fortunate enough to be present when the Dalai Lama was teaching at Bodh Gaya, the town in northern India where the Buddha became enlightened. Tens of thousands of people came to hear the Dalai Lama speak. The majority of them were Tibetan and Himalayan, but there were also small clusters of Westerners, most of them like myself, hippies on the Overland Route from Turkey to the end of the road in Kathmandu, Nepal. When the Dalai Lama was finished, he asked if there were any questions, and one long-haired American guy stood to ask the Dalai Lama the following question: "What is the meaning of life?"

The Dalai Lama answered, "To be happy and to make others happy."

At the time I thought this was sort of a superficial answer. It seemed so simplistic. I was twenty-one and very much "into" reading philosophers and novelists like Schopenhauer, Dostoevski, Camus, and Vonnegut. It was that era. I probably still wanted to hear that the meaning of life was complex and understandable only to twenty-one-year-old intellectual elitists such as myself. I just didn't get the Dalai Lama's answer, "To be happy and to make others happy." What did that mean? And wasn't it hedonistic as well, I wondered? In my confusion, happiness seemed like such an ordinary self-centered concern.

I pondered the Dalai Lama's words for a long time; I even wrote them down in the small notebook I always carried with me in those days. Years later I was reading over some ancient Tibetan texts, one of which summed up the purpose of the spiritual path in its entirety with two simple phrases: for the benefit of self and for the benefit of others. It was then that I realized that self-interest isn't always selfish. What the Dalai Lama had said was at one and the same time perfectly clear as well as totally profound.

It's been almost three decades since I stood in the all-day sun in the tiny village of Bodh Gaya in the middle of the desert to get my first glimpse of the compassionate Tibetan leader. Today I appreciate the wisdom of what the Dalai Lama said. I also more fully appreciate how difficult it is to act and think consistently in ways that make ourselves and others happy. Think of what it would mean if we were always able to be happy and to make others happy--truly happy and fulfilled, not just paying lip service to happiness and wearing a facile smile. If we were able to do that, we would be living without thoughts, words, or actions that make ourselves or anyone else unhappy. We would be able to stop being either hurtful or self-destructive. We would be living without internal contradictions or conflict. What an amazing goal! What amazing lives we would have! What amazing people we'd be! What amazing spirits we are.

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