His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, participated in a conference organized by the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance this weekend in Boston. The hundreds of us who attended experienced his humor, insight and wisdom as he answered questions from some of the world’s most experienced psychotherapists, physicians, deans, scholars and healers about the many ways that meditation and the cultivation of compassion can influence mental health. His Holiness engaged in discussions of how Buddhist teachings and practice can be useful in treating human suffering including trauma, illness and anxiety. He shared a personal story of surprise and disappointment when he, as a boy, tried to propagate a favorite flower by placing a cutting in soil. After only a few days he examined the cutting, hoping to find a root system that had not yet emerged. He had not developed the wisdom to give the time and nutrition required to grow a healthy new flower.
And yet just the day before addressing those of us at the conference, he demonstrated his mastery of the skill that had eluded him in his youth when he planted a tree with great gusto in Harvard Yard. The unique hybrid birch, bred by Harvard arborists from a blend of Asian and North American birches, meant to honor His Holiness and the role he has played as a thought leader across continents, was ceremoniously planted by Dalai Lama, Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust and the deans of the divinity and education schools. The Dalai Lama offered thanks and stated that the tree would likely outlast both them all, but would remind future generations of his visit. He went on to encourage more than the symbolic turning over of a few light shovelfuls of dirt, but instead mindfully engaged in the work of planting and watering the tree with the wisdom he had cultivated over time.
As I took in the often surprising tales of risks and creative thinking that the thought leaders had utilized to incorporate aspects of Buddhist practice into their life’s work, I was encouraged and relieved. Not only for my clients, who are continually weighing hope against self-doubt as they struggle to overcome medical problems often complicated by emotional challenges. But the message of the our ability to change over time, on a cellular, biochemical and emotional level, gave me hope that each of us has the ability to self-nurture and grow new and stronger roots that may in turn bring the wisdom and compassion that have the potential to benefit others and possibly ourselves.