The 14th Dalai Lama (second from left), with Dawn Engle (second from right) and her husband, Ivan Suvanjieff (right). | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

From Politics to Peace: How Dalai Lama Changed Her Life

Before Dawn Gifford Engle embarked on her peace projects, she was the youngest woman ever to be appointed Chief of Staff to a United States senator. However, she had no clue how her meeting with the Dalai Lama would unfold and change her life in unexpected ways.

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Before Dawn Gifford Engle, 63, embarked on her peace projects, she was the youngest woman ever to be appointed Chief of Staff to a United States senator. However, she had no clue how her meeting with the Dalai Lama would unfold and change her life in unexpected ways. 

It all began when Ms Engle first met the Dalai Lama during the International Campaign for Tibet in Dharamsala, India thirty years ago to draft some of the first legislation for the defence of human rights in Tibet for the US Congress

Ms Dawn Engle in Tibet thirty years ago. | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

It was during their meeting that Ms Engle witnessed how the renown Tibetan political and spiritual leader did not carry different facades. It was unlike most of the politicians she had met and worked with before, who often possessed a public persona and a private one. In an interview with Tibet TV in August last year, she confessed: “Gradually, it got harder and harder to work for Congress with all the hypocrisy and lies. It was just harder and harder to do when you know that there is true integrity out there.”

Ms Engle then decided to take a leap of faith and tendered her resignation. Convinced by the bold idea that the most ordinary people have the capability to contribute to the achievement of world peace, she wanted to do something good for humanity instead. 

“I have to say that I believe in the people before I believe in our elected leaders. We have some really great elected leaders, but not a lot of them,” she told The IAS Gazette in a video interview from Spain in April this year.

The biggest challenge, she said, “is that we give away our power”.

“We think that the problems are so big, and I am just one little person. … If everyone on planet Earth just helps one other person, the whole world would be transformed, right?”

The Dalai Lama – Scientist

In February of 1996, Ms Engle, together with her husband, Ivan Suvanjieff, co-founded the PeaceJam Foundation, an international organisation which aims to “create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities, and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody”.

The 14th Dalai Lama (second from left), with Dawn Engle (second from right) and her husband, Ivan Suvanjieff (right). | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was pivotal in the making of the organisation. 

As a strong advocate of peace, the work of the Dalai Lama, who had just celebrated his 85th birthday in July, is widely recognised. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent approaches during his fight for the liberation of Tibet from China’s military occupation. The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that he had “instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people”. 

Ms Engle described the Dalai Lama as a very personable Peace Prize winner with “such a fantastic sense of humour”. 

When they approached him with the idea of having Nobel Peace Prize winners mentor the youth to change the world, he thought that it was a wonderful initiative. The Dalai Lama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to say yes to the project, urging other Nobel Peace laureates to do the same.

As the organisation grew and reached one million young people in 40 different countries around the world, Mr Suvanjieff, a former journalist, remarked: “This is history! (The Nobel Peace laureates) are historic figures! We need to film everything!”

With a closetful of footage they had accumulated over the years, he suggested that they use it to create the Nobel Legacy Film Series — a collection of films that capture the Nobel Peace laureates’ essence,  spirit and cutting-edge work for the world.

The series was helmed by the power couple, with Ms Engle as the director and Mr Suvanjieff as the executive producer. Meant to be both inspirational and educational, it strives to immortalise the incredible contributions that human beings have made, particularly in the promotion of peace. 

Film poster for The Dalai Lama – Scientist. | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

The Dalai Lama – Scientist is the sixth film in the series. It first premiered in August last year at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.

The documentary features extensive rare and never-before-seen footage in an unusual exploration of how the Dalai Lama’s interest in modern scientific theory — cosmology, quantum physics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, as well as molecular biology and genetics — has influenced his Buddhist philosophy over the years. 

Despite having numerous films made about his life story, his contributions in the field of science for the past 35 years had never been a focus before. This was what motivated Ms Engle to capture this aspect of the Dalai Lama, who described himself as a “half Buddhist monk, half scientist”. 

The deep love and respect that the Dalai Lama has for science were perhaps most vividly exemplified in a particularly touching moment in the film. Dr Francisco Varela, the late neuroscientist, was an old friend and spiritual brother to the Dalai Lama. Despite his demise almost 20 years ago, the Dalai Lama would still carry a photograph of Dr Varela in his pocket everywhere he travelled. 

Chilean neuroscientist Dr Francisco Varela (left) with the Dalai Lama (right). | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

The story of his friendship with Dr Varela, that began through a series of dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, was the “heart and soul of the movie”. 

Ms Engle said: “(Their friendship) is so real and it’s so true.” 

The documentary has since received 42 awards from multiple film festivals around the world, attracting wide support from audiences in Singapore, South Africa, Vietnam and many other countries.

Most importantly, Ms Engle said that the Dalai Lama actually watched the film and liked it, even though “he never watches films”. 

While the film has been a success, the filmmaking process was by no means an easy feat. It cost US$1 million (S$1.36 million) and took the production team six years to finish, while the other films in the series usually only took a year. 

Being a Christian and a trained economist, Ms Engle required a large team of Buddhist and scientific advisors to assist her and the audience in understanding the sophisticated aspects of Buddhist philosophy and its intersection with Western science. Other filmmakers who had attempted to do this eventually gave up and admitted defeat. 

Tibetan Buddhist monks learning science in a computer lab. | Photo Credit: PeaceJam Foundation

All of the hard work had one purpose — it was simply to let the audience discover the side of the Dalai Lama that consistently strives to reconcile religion and science for the benefit of humanity.

Ms Engle said: “Even though I am a Christian, I really believe he is one of the greatest human beings that I have ever met on this planet.” 

When asked what she finds most inspiring about the Dalai Lama, she answered: “His sense of calm, even when things are really hard.

“One of the things that he says is that, ‘There is always hope, (as) things are always changing. Because things are always changing, there is always hope that things can be made better. If everything always stayed the same, we would be stuck.’”

One Act of Peace at a Time

Ms Engle herself has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 17 times. 

A notable achievement of Ms Engle and Mr Suvanjieff was their One Billion Acts of Peace Campaign. The campaign called for the creation of one billion high-quality projects designed to tackle 10 issue areas facing humanity by 2019. This earned them the nomination for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize by six Nobel Peace laureates. 

When asked what it meant to be nominated by other laureates for such a prestigious award, Ms Engle said it was “the highest compliment that I could possibly receive”. 

With her work focused on the youth, her message for them is: “You have the ability to help at least one other person. I know you can. You have the ability to make a real difference. Believe it and go do it.”

She also emphasised the importance of staying active and engaged on issues around us, adding: “We have to understand that we are the people and we have the power. If we just vote once every four years and do nothing, we are just giving (away) that power, right? 

“All of our work is about empowering others to be positive agents of change.”

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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