Dana and I had the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama speak in Berkeley yesterday. Through a series of more than fortunate events, not only did we get tickets to the Greek Theater, we got front row tickets.
A few minutes before the event started, an organizer came by to ask if we wouldn’t mind moving down a little bit â€” closer to center stage â€” so that His Holiness’ entourage could sit where we were. Uh, move closer to center stage? Not a problem!
And, by the way, sitting directly behind us, was James Hetfield, Metallica front man, and his family.
The fifteen-year-old-kid in me, who played Metallica covers in his junior high school band, wants to gloat about that, wants to say irreverently that he got better tickets than James Hetfield. But there’s not much to say and I suspect you’d rather hear about what the Dalai Lama had to say. So did we, but we had to sit through a lengthy introduction by the Chancellor of the the University, as well as a meandering… uh, speech?… by Sharon Stone. (After the event, Dana said, “She sounded like she was high.”) And then they gave some award to Richard Blum whose foundation has done all sorts of Very Good Things for the Tibetan cause. In the middle of all that, you could feel the audience getting a little restless. Especially since His Holiness was already on stage.
I was having a hard time paying attention. I was mostly thinking to myself, that’s the Dalai Lama. Twenty feet away from us. This is pretty freaking cool.
(I also noticed that while Richard Blum was rattling on that His Holiness made a motion to a monk sitting the front row, a member of his entourage, to cover up so he didn’t get sunburned. The monk promptly wrapped part of his robe over his head. Dana thought that he’d been motioning to a photographer who promptly put on a hat. Either way, I found it comforting that he was mindful of what was happening off stage in the midst of all that was happening on stage.)
Some highlights of his speech, for me, were the following:
He spoke about two kinds of compassion. The first is what might be called biological and has to do with some innate need we have to care for our offspring. (Even birds, he said, have this need. But he was noted that turtles just seem to lay their eggs and split. So we’re not sure about turtles.) The second kind of compassion is one that can be developed, that’s a quality of the human intellect. It’s the one that we need to work on and the one that we need to work on right away. But its foundation is the first, biological sort of compassion.
He spoke about the relationship between inner peace and outer peace. But this is not just some vague notion of “world peace” or simply everyone being nice to each other. What he seemed to be saying was that there is a connection between our interior mind or mental state and not only the external world but our “body element,” our physicality. He’s enamored of scientific studies that suggest that people who have more compassionate and calm mental states are also physically healthier.
But this is also related to affection, to positive attention. To actually physically connecting with other people. This is connected to the notion that we need to see ourselves not as individual, separate selves, but as part of the collective us â€” all six billion of us. We need to have open minds to the world around us, to embrace other people as inextricably connected to us. If we truly see the other as an extension of the self, if we approach the world with openness, then huge, terrible problems become simple, manageable. If we see ourselves not as isolated individuals but as but one person out of six billion, then we see our common humanity, we see how other people suffer from far worse troubles than our own. And we find ourselves in a better position to do something about it.
There was more. There were witty jokes between he and his translator. There was easy laughter. There was talk of the importance of creating compassionate families that in turn create compassionate communities. There was even talk of reincarnation. There was, in short, too much for me to do justice to here.
At the end of his formal address, he answered three questions that I can only assume were submitted by randomly selected Cal students ahead of time. One had to do with the Internet; despite its world-wide reach, people still find it difficult to truly connect with others. His Holiness’ response was (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m an old man who doesn’t have a lot of experience with the Internet. So, I don’t know. But you should think about this. You should think about it deeply.”
The second question had to do with non-proliferation of weapons. Here the Dalai Lama spoke more forcefully than I think he did all afternoon, coming close to pounding his fist in the palm of his hand. But still, he never wavered from the simple notion that if leaders approach one another with an attitude of mutual respect, in a spirit of dialogue, we can make real change.
The last question was the generic “what advice do you have for folks graduating college this year.” He was honest and pragmatic. He said, in no uncertain terms, it’s going to be rough. You’re going to have to go out and find a job and a partner. And even though he was quoted in this morning’s paper (an article with many factual errors) as saying “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” I got the distinct impression that’s he’s got a lot of hope for kids today. He sees in his generation the 20th century, a century of war and strife; he sees in these college kids the future, a future where people are less interested in conflict and war. This is indeed a good thing.
There was a quartet of college-aged musicians â€” a stand-up bass, a flute, an electric guitar, and a tabla â€” who played some music before the event. At the end, they played the Tibetan national anthem, during which His Holiness stood and looked out over the crowd, and seemed to be humming along. When the musicians stopped, he gave each of them a white khata scarf. I have to say. I got a little a choked up here (I know Dana did). How cool would that be to be a twenty-something-year-old college kid, playing the Tibetan National Anthem, for the Dalai Lama!
My long-time readers know that I have a penchant for sarcasm. My loyal but quiet fans know that I don’t often get very sentimental in these parts, unless of course it’s warranted. And this is certainly one of those times. Seeing the Dalai Lama is a powerful experience, even with seven thousand college kids, James Hetfield, Sharon Stone, and sunburns. There’s a presence there. I left the theater feeling somewhat inspired to be a better Buddhist. While talking with Dana, though, I realized it was more than that. He’d made us want to be better human beings.
Update: Here’s an article from Cal that’s quite good and includes many good photos.