Dalai Lama in Iowa
Sage Words and a Surprise Message from Tibet's Spiritual Leader
by Mo Ellis
The Dalai Lama, painted by Mo Ellis
People are surprising, none more so than Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, world-renowned spiritual leader of Tibet.
For starters, the Dalai Lama enters the McLeod Center during his recent visit to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) wearing the traditional saffron robes of a Buddhist monk, and what look like Doc Martens on his feet. As he sits to speak, he places a red University of Indiana sun visor on his head that will be swapped out later in the day for a purple and gold UNI visor to protect his eyes from the glare of stage lights. After all, image is everything.
The Dalai Lama is welcomed with a standing ovation as the keynote speaker at UNI’s “Educating for a Non-Violent World” event on May 18. During the morning session, he sets aside his religious beliefs and recommends a secular approach to instilling moral and ethical values into our society as the most useful approach to end violence. Not exactly what I’d expected from a famous spiritual leader and a life-long Buddhist.
My journey to see the Dalai Lama begins when my husband shows me an article about the upcoming UNI event. I missed a chance to see him in 2004 and and am determined to catch him this time. Back then, I saw him on the cover of the Canadian entertainment magazine The Georgia Straight that inspired me to paint a portrait of him (see cover of this issue).
I am so excited on the way to Cedar Falls that I travel 40 minutes from home before I realize I’ve forgotten my good clothes. After deciding the jeans and oversized shirt I’m wearing might be a red flag that this is my first-ever assignment as part of the official press, I double back to pick them up.
During the morning panel discussion, the Dalai Lama makes it clear that he believes that modern science offers the possibility of a new ethics based not on religious belief but on common experience and empirical fact. He encourages the UNI audience to transcend differences like religion and nationality and embrace our common humanity as the meeting ground of dialogue and conflict resolution.
He openly admits that “some Christians express great consternation when I talk about secularism,” but points out that India (where he resides) “respects all religions including nonbelievers.”
“Nonbelievers also need moral ethics,” he says. “So I feel there is a problem if those nonbelievers are made to feel that compassion, etc., are religious practice.”
“Secularism respects all beliefs,” he continues. “My approach is to use our common sense and experience and more compassion, for better health, happier family life, and more harmony.”
The Dalai Lama sees the problems we face today as “essentially of our own creation,” with “too much emphasis on faith, race, color, wealth, gender, nationality, or system.” He explains that proper dialogue happens only when you respect others and then try to find a mutual solution. “If religious leaders put their emphasis on their own religious faith, in my case, if I only talk as a Buddhist, we sacrifice fundamental human-level rights to protect the secondary-level interest of religion. Religious leaders should come first to global interest, then second their own faith.”
At the start of the afternoon session, Provost Gloria Gibson confers a Doctor of Humane letters honorary degree on the Dalai Lama, which he will add to the hundreds of honors he has received, including a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, his honorary Canadian citizenship awarded in 2006, and the United States Congressional Gold Medal in October 2007.
He receives another standing ovation, then sits, adjusting the UNI Panther visor with his trademark impish grin, and begins to speak.
In his keynote address, the Dalai Lama further explores the role of formalized education for ending violence, offering that “knowledge is most precious, but knowledge alone may not bring inner peace.” He questions whether “the more educated people become, the more cunning, and expert [they become] to exploit and cheat others?” as he playfully leans over to look into the helpless face of UNI President Benjamin Allan sitting next to him on stage. “So education alone [is] no guarantee to create a happy life or bring community or global happiness,” he continues. He emphasizes that education must first teach the value of “warm heartedness” addressing “both brain and heart.” He feels that teachers must genuinely care about their students to make this possible.
After speaking further about the need to put aside violence and seek mutual solutions to our problems, he gives younger listeners in the audience a mandate.
“I think that the President Allan and I are from the same generation so we are ready to say bye-bye. These young people,” he continues as he gestures to the audience, “your promise in the 21st century is to make a new shape of this century. It’s up to you, it’s not up to myself. So please think that now, today, our reality is that every nation is interconnected, so every nation has to be treated as part of whole world. Up to now, our concept of ‘we’ and ‘they’ was very absolute. Now, that idea is out of date. Now, the whole world is part of me. With this attitude we can solve any problem. Otherwise our future will be difficult. . . .”
In closing, he throws a final curveball. “When I talk, I make clear that those among audience who are here with great expectations . . . that also mistake! I have nothing to offer. So don’t expect much. Some people may have the feeling the Dalai Lama is special person—that’s absolute nonsense. In 2008 I went through surgery for gallbladder,” he says flashing that charismatic grin again. “That event scientifically proves that the Dalia Lama has no special or healing power.”
I’m still not convinced.
He closes in a quiet voice, instructing his audience,“[Take] these points which I mentioned, and if you feel some interest, then think more and experiment. Then you may get some sort of benefit.”
But “if you feel my talk is of no interest,” he says, leaving a long, mischievous, pregnant pause, “then forget it!”
What? Did he just say “forget it,” I think, laughing aloud at this final surprise.
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