Why I Don’t Call the Dalai Lama “Your Holiness”

My friend the Dalai Lama

My friend the Dalai Lama

My Friend the Dalai Lama

As many of you are already aware, Eve Ekman and I just recently released the Atlas of Emotions, a visual exploration of the human range of emotions. It was the Dalai Lama who asked me to make a map of emotions so people could navigate to a calm state of mind. This led me to think about my relationship with the Dalai Lama, a deep friendship that has been built over a roughly twenty-year period. I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts on why I don’t call the Dalai Lama “Your Holiness”.

That is how the pope, whose statements are not to be questioned for they come to him from God, is addressed. By contrast, the Dalai Lama is eager to modify his beliefs to accommodate scientific findings. He is an explorer of ideas, flexible not dogmatic. (I should also note that I don’t regard anyone as holy.)

The Dalai Lama is extraordinary in many ways:

  • I have never met anyone who has such a good time, continually seeing the humorous side of nearly every situation, without sarcasm or ridicule, and never humor that diminishes another person.
  • The power of his focused attention is astounding.
  • There is transparency between the public and private Dalai Lama (which is not so for many charismatic leaders whose private lives are distinctly less attractive than their public persona).
  • He is devoted to compassion and to relieving the suffering of all human beings, which is what I call “stranger compassion”.
  • It feels good to be in his presence. Why? I believe, and I deliberately italicize that word, that he exudes goodness, perhaps not all the time, but much of the time. I suspect the goodness he exudes is related to the compassion he so strongly feels. Alas, science cannot yet study these phenomena.

The Dalai Lama is a Mozart of the mind, showing what we can aspire towards. It would be just as foolish for us to believe that through practice we can reach his level, as to believe music lessons would allow us to become the equal of Mozart. But we can all improve; the Dalai Lama not only illuminates the goal but a path to move towards it.

Since I cannot call the Dalai Lama, “Your Holiness”, what do I say? I call him “my dear friend”. What a privilege it is to be able to use those words when addressing this most extraordinary man.


Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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