Dalai Lama, Capitalist Convert?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

There is a tendency in certain parts to eye-roll when the word “dialogue” is raised. And I’ve certainly sat through some dialogues now and again that didn’t seem to get anywhere. But today in Washington, D.C., Arthur Brooks, it seems to me, did a very good thing. The president of the American Enterprise Institute hosted the Dalai Lama for a conversation about morality and economics. During the course of private and public interactions with Brooks and the people he gathered at the American Enterprise Institute, the Dalai Lama announced that he had a new respect for capitalists, who, he had previously assumed took people’s money and exploited them.

An affirmative answer to the question posed in the title of this post would be a step too far, but at AEI today, the spiritual leader of Tibetans wasn’t playing economist or politician, but reminding people of our common humanity and responsibilities to one another. And it seemed pretty clear to me that the hedge-fund billionaire on the main panel, Daniel Loeb, talking about how contemplation and meditation enhances decision-making and his work with an inner-city Brooklyn charter school, was not at all the caricature of capitalists the Dalai Lama is used to hearing from his admirers on the Left.

Arthur, along with Jennifer Marshall at Heritage and the Poverty Cure project at the Acton Institute are doing excellent work trying to advance ideas that help lift people out of poverty. Heritage has had an actual social justice project for a few years now, bringing together state and national leaders, as well as international leaders involved in economic policy, community organizations, churches, prison reentry, among others things. It’s good work and it’s an opportunity, as Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, put it this morning, to “get out of our rut.”

It was a robust discussion with human dignity and flourishing truly at the heart of it. At one point, Arthur suggested market leaders ask themselves daily “Did everything I do today help people weaker than me?” Did anything? I couldn’t help refer to it on Twitter as a daily examen, in the tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola, in this day of the first Jesuit pope, since D.C. seemed to be seeking wisdom today.

I was reminded of Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput’s admonition that if I do not help the poor I will go to hell.

During the second session on happiness — which wasn’t entirely happy, truth be told (there was some lecturing about love in leadership that wasn’t exactly overflowing with valentines for her hosts) — the Dalai Lama sounded a note similar to one from Pope Francis this morning, reminding us of the dignity of the elderly, as we work to protect the vulnerable young.

This morning in Rome, from the Vatican Radio report, Pope Francis said:

“A society is truly welcoming towards life when it recognizes that (life) is valuable even in old age, in disability, in severe disease and even when it is dying,” and “when it teaches that . . . human fulfillment does not exclude suffering” but holds it up as “a gift” that calls the entire community to “solidarity and responsibility.”

If we can be serious about this rather than devaluing words by using them as political bludgeons and campaign swag, this kind of dialogue could just show some good fruits. 

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