Expectations were high. This was the Dalai Lama after all. Was it too much to expect the most profound insights we'd ever heard, solutions to the problems of the world at large and our smaller worlds within it?
This past weekend the Tibet House, the Drew Katz Foundation, Columbia professor and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and Newark Mayor Cory Booker hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Newark Peace Education Summit in New Jersey. With the heightened security, bows of deference and the craning of thousands of ears toward his every word, it was hard for me to imagine what it would be like to face such out-sized expectations when traveling--feeling their weight in the very air between you and everyone you meet, people who want something important from you that they cannot quite name but expect nonetheless.
Despite this, His Holiness did not disappoint. He may even have revealed the secret to enlightenment itself. But not as you might think.
He did not say anything surprising or new, and aside from some close listening to account for a slight language barrier, no mental gymnastics were needed to follow his points.
He spoke of bringing secular moral ethics back into an educational system that has veered too far in the direction of teaching knowledge alone. He urged for the cultivation of an inner peace that outer peace depends upon, stipulating that inner peace alone is not sufficient in changing the trajectory of world events.
He pushed the audience to exert compassionate action on our communities and to intervene to correct suffering and injustice.
He described the need to differentiate between the actor and action when we are wronged, seeking justice for actions that harm while directing compassion at the actor, who deserves our respect as a fellow human being.
A lot of people say these things. Why is it so different, especially for a Western audience, coming from the Dalai Lama?
Priests and preachers give the same advice on Sundays to snores from their congregations. The people who do hear it have a hard time living it at the first sign of annoyance or the sight of someone we don’t like very much.
Yet even among attendees who do not subscribe to Buddhism or believe the Dalai Lama is a centuries-old, reincarnated-many-times holy man, many said he was the one whose impact was the most significant.
Why did the Dalai Lama take the cake, and why can't anyone quite explain the reasons? In the West, does it all boil down to the wattage of his star power?
I am no Buddhist scholar, and my knowledge of Buddhism amounts to one reading of Siddhartha in a college World Religions class, and a few readings meant for popular consumption from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.
But as a qualified non-scholar, I don’t think this was about star power. Correct as His Holiness may be on every argument for compassion, I think he tricked us. His words may be true and real and honest, but they were the side show.
I will tell you what I saw, and you tell me what the real show was.
• When the moderator welcomed the Dalai Lama to an afternoon panel discussion, he asked, “His
Holiness, do you have a few comments to start us off? The topic is peace in the family.”
“I have no experience with that. No.”
The audience laughed, and one woman near me didn't stop until long after the moment passed.
• When pressed on a question about arguments in the home, the Dalai Lama told a story
about two boys he saw fighting. He pantomimed with his hands, wrangling his fingers
together while scrunching his face into a knot. He broke his hands apart when the altercation
ended and swiped his palms together.
“Too hard to say... no conflict! But I say, maybe argue as little boys do… When they are done, they
are done. Same.”
The audience waited for more.
“Aside from that, I don’t know.”
• He giggled at his jokes. Many times when he told a funny story or joke that had not quite come
across clearly to the audience in English, he would laugh so hard at his punchline that soon our own
laughter was bouncing off of his, which made him laugh even harder.
• After a long anecdote or explanation, often the audience would continue to wait, hanging on the
hope for more words, the rest of his answer.
“That’s all,” he would say abruptly, putting up his hands and smiling. “I’m done!”
• He acted out his stories to make his points.
“Ok, let’s say I am suspicious,” he said, then pointed directly at a member of the panel who had
disagreed with him earlier.
“Of HER.” He smiled at his joke. “Let’s say…NO trust.” He tried to assume a posture and face of
suspicion and aggression, but the look was so false that it elicited chuckles from those around me.
Someone who has no ill will inside to draw from is a terrible method actor.
What I saw was that laughter came easily. The Dalai Lama laughed a whole-person laugh, often at his own comments or expense while slapping his leg and looking to the person next to him, as if checking to be sure they were sharing his same pure joy.
With a sense of comedic timing that seems to receive far less examination than his political and holy roles, he weaved our attention through suffering and laughter simultaneously. He did so without diminishing or turning an eye from blunt realities for a second, and without goading us into the guilt or despair that can paralyze well-meaning people into the cynicism of thinking our efforts can’t change anything.
So what was it? Another Buddhist monk answers with stories.
Buddhist monk and the Dalai Lama’s mentee Tenzin Priyadarshi attempted to describe this quality in a workshop in responding to a high school teacher’s request for advice. She was struggling to stop her students from using hateful language, and she felt conflicted about her angry reactions to colleagues who advised that she let it roll off her back.
He reminded us that the Buddha was a warrior who had defeated anger in himself, the same anger people recognize as critical judgment today when we attempt to change someone's opinion with an argument we are attached to. He differentiated between speaking her truth and trying to convince, suggesting that it is too much of an expectation to think that someone will change because of what we say. But once you have accepted the role of the warrior and eliminated your anger, sometimes it just happens.
To illustrate, he told the story about a group of rabbis who had frequently urged the Dalai Lama to engage in arguments about their philosophical and religious differences. They persistently pressed him for his point of view until His Holiness relented.
“Ok,” His Holiness finally said. “You know how they say the Jews are the chosen people?”
“Yes?” they asked expectantly.
“That is outdated.”
The tension was broken.
If the Dalai Lama has lived lifetimes as a spiritual leader to cultivate the inner and outer paths to non-violence, it is no wonder the rest of us are still stuck being aggravated by stupid things. His ability to accept us all while simultaneously spurring us on to better actions surely took a warrior to win.
But as a result, out of an audience of a few thousand, I was left with the distinct impression that he had seen me, and I was just fine with him—despite my very non-peace-like aggravation with a few audience members when they hassled Jody Williams, the Nobel laureate who had led the international effort to ban land mines, because she had failed to notice or speak out against the summit’s (biodegradable, locally made) water bottles, which would take too long to biodegrade.
So that’s all, as His Holiness would say? Maybe the bumper sticker is right and the hokey pokey really IS what it's all about?
Except that loving people and staying close to laughter in the face of suffering are a little harder than that. Pablo Picasso may have come closer when he said that "it takes a long time to grow young."
As for my own long time, I am still sifting through the bold ideas and words, the stunning courage and struggles and triumphs of the summit’s speakers. They are all over the place in my head, not quite behaving, slamming into each other and introducing themselves to my own experiences. I need a few days to get them in line.
What do you think?
If you attended the conference, what was it about the Dalai Lama this weekend that impacted you?
If you did not attend, have you ever met such a person? Someone who, not because of the "side show" of their words alone, but something else, because who they are redirected you a little bit, away from angst and toward peaceful action in your own life?
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