A picture of the ancient dramatic Himalayan Tibetan monastery Potala bannered the stage as a reminder of the roots of one of the most famous people in the world, a Buddhist monk, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
As thousands quietly filed in to the O’Neill Center on the campus of Western Connecticut State University (WSCU) last Thursday, the stage, simply set, hinged to the starkly beautiful high mountain monastery. It seemed that all else flowed from this image.
The Potala’s stark beauty, reaching into the windswept mountain skies, remains an image of ancient Tibetan history and culture. It is now a UNESCO-designated world cultural site, cited as “an outstanding work of human imagination and creativity for its design, its decoration and its harmonious setting within a dramatic landscape.”
It was in this Potala of a thousand rooms, finished in the 1600s without nails, merely carved from rock, that the 14th Dalai Lama had lived, played as a child, studied as a youth, and eventually was troubled over the invasion and takeover of his country by Mao Tse-tung and his Communist forces.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama, fearing for his life, fled his mountain kingdom to escape Chinese capture. He found sanctuary as a refugee in northern India, leaving behind his Tibetan culture which the Dalai Lama believes, “forms a valuable part of the world’s heritage. Humanity would be poorer if it were lost.”
In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end China’s domination of his Tibetan homeland.
Once a refugee, a man in exile, he now commands the attention of a world audience.
At WSCU, 3,500 admirers, followers, and the curious filled the O’Neill Center to listen to his words and to be in his presence. Unlike most assemblies of this magnitude, there was a muted silence, a respectfulness, a peacefulness.
Colorful Tibetan prayer flags lifted to the ceiling were enveloped by the American flag and the Connecticut state flag on one end and athletic banners of winning athletic seasons on the other. Tibetans young and old, in traditional dress, admirers wearing the “khata,” Tibetan Buddhist nuns with shaved heads and maroon robes moved in a line of six from here to there and back again. Admirers in the audience carried one or more of the Dalai Lama’s 72 books.
And then, with little fanfare, standing below the Potala image and the scroll depicting the endless knot symbolizing the indestructibly of everything and long life, and between the vertical scrolls proclaiming “Embracing the Challenges of the 21st Century,” seven barefoot and maroon-robed monks began a chant that increased in intensity and volume to a spellbound audience. Words from the chants, in both Tibetan and English, appeared on large TV screens:
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness
May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
May all sentient beings never be separated from the happiness which is without suffering
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from bias of attachment and aversion.
These thoughts, chanted a cappella in deep sonorous tones, created an atmosphere and frame of mind for the Dalai Lama’s remarks. Following the cessation of the chants, a deep silence endured for almost 10 minutes as if the space had become a cathedral of contemplation.
Into this silence, actor Richard Gere, longtime supporter and follower of the Dalai Lama, introduced the 14th Dalai Lama by simply pointing out: “We are all suffering and we know that we can do better. We want to remove suffering and confusion and move toward happiness and away from suffering. His Holiness is a reliable spiritual teacher.”
Preceding his remarks, white scarves, signifying purity and compassion, were first placed around the neck of the Dalai Lama and then the necks of Dr. James Schmotter, WSCU president, and other guests and colleagues. Executed with such precision, it seemed as if suddenly everyone on the stage was wearing white scarves.
Prior to the Dalai Lama’s remarks, a woman was overheard saying that each time she heard him speak she learned something new. And, she emphatically added, he was always entertaining. This, at the time, seemed a curious comment.
His Holiness initiated his remarks by placing on his head a black visor with letters “WSCU” across it — and laughed at himself for doing so. He knew the incongruity of a world-renowned Buddhist monk and scholar lecturing to thousands wearing a college visor.
The audience loved the visor and his laugh.
He was one of them.
And thus began his discourse.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama circumnavigated a world of ideas with a grace, a simplicity, a sense of intellectual honesty that bound the listener to his words. He challenged, he inspired, he laughed. He never lectured. He projected a sense that he, himself, had come to know something of the inner peace, the inner happiness of Buddhist teachings.
He stressed the oneness of humanity. “If I talk to l,000 or 100,000, the people are all the same. East and West developed differently, but we are the same human beings living on the same planet. All want peaceful life, peaceful citizens, peaceful society.
“Most of the problems we are facing are our own creation — fear, anger, jealousy, distrust, suspicion, isolation. If we stress My nation, My faith, My philosophy, that creates barriers, and inner peace will not come. If I stress that I am a Tibetan, a Buddhist monk and that I am the 14th Dalai Lama, then I am distancing myself. It brings pretense that I am holy!” he said while laughing at himself.
He spoke extensively about developing inner peace. “To develop inner peace, we need to ultimately create an atmosphere where there can be trust, friendship and happiness. Trust is the basis of friendship. It is impossible to develop friendship without trust,” the Dalai Lama said.
He startled some in the audience by announcing that inner peace can’t come through prayer alone. There must be action. He admitted that as a Buddhist monk he said prayers, but said action was more important.
“Inner peace,” he explained, “comes when the mind is fully seeing and analyzing the nature of the suffering and the problems.”
Then came the Dalai Lama’s trademark refrain — a lyrical song — like “So, therefore,” and the audience knew his conclusion would follow.
His assessment was that many of the world’s problems are because of unrealistic approaches to solving problems, primarily due to lack of knowledge, which results in not knowing reality. To know reality, he suggested, you must have a holistic view.
“With the holistic view, one can see the problem from different dimension or distance. Then one can analyze the nature of the problem, analyze the causes of the problem, and analyze the consequences of the problem. Using the holistic view develops inner self-confidence that brings inner peace.
“So, therefore, we need a calm mind to have a good sleep and to make anger go away. We can change emotions by using our intelligence. So, therefore, we have to look at the system of the mind. I believe that our modern education system is oriented to material values and physical comfort and not adequate information about dealing with our minds, our emotions.”
Science of the mind
“Modern science has made great advancement in technology, but has lagged in the science of the mind,” he said. “Here Buddhism is much more advanced. Here Buddhist psychology, science of the mind, can make significant contributions in the 21st Century.”
The Dalai Lama challenged scientists, social workers and educators to seriously consider including Buddhist philosophy in modern education reform. “Emotions,” the Dalai Lama said, “create trouble in our minds. Regulate emotions of anger, irritation. We need to use our intelligence to analyze emotions.”
He saw a need to introduce lessons on the education of our minds into kindergarten through university curricula. “We need both a healthy body and a healthy mind.”
In his view, ignorance is the most destructive element because ignorance leads to misunderstanding, which leads to fear, which leads to jealousy, which leads to anger, which leads to violence.
“So, therefore,” he said, “we need to develop in modern education a more holistic view to reduce ignorance.”
After spending considerable time on U.S. campuses, the Dalai Lama observed that American students do not have adequate knowledge of other countries. If students learned about the frustrations of the “difficult” or troubled countries, they could appreciate their own country and then perhaps would want to help those difficult countries, he said.
He said the 21st-Century generation, those 5 to 30, needs more knowledge, a vision, determination, will power to make the 21st Century one of compassion. He acknowledged that this new generation would have to solve the problems created by the 20th-Century generation.
The Dalai Lama promoted empowerment of the individual, encouraging individuals to step forward to alter attitudes necessary for a compassionate world. “Change begins with the individual. Not governments. Not religious leaders. Not the United Nations.”
In response to a student question on how to begin, he counseled, “Develop awareness. Out of awareness comes inner peace, inner happiness. It doesn’t have to be any sort of movement. Don’t feel helpless. Gain knowledge, study, study the mind, share daily life with neighbors, family, students. If you see students falling behind, help them. Look around and see where you can help.”
Speaking directly to the youth in the audience, he said, “There are 88 more years in this century. Students should be thinking about how to make a compassionate world where there is little or no violence. This century should be a century of dialogue to solve problems to create a peaceful century.”
“So, therefore, that’s it!” His Holiness concluded. “Buddhist psychology should be an academic subject,” he said, referencing a project under consideration by the Buddhist Center in Redding and WSCU to create a Center for the Study of Creativity and Compassion. “Much can be learned from Buddhist scholars,” he said.
WSCU President Schmotter, who had obviously been listening carefully, concluded the event by looking at the Dalai Lama, smiling, and predicting that the Dalai Lama had just set the agenda for the next faculty meeting.
And His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, responded with a large smile and a knowing laugh.
Editor’s Note: The Dalai Lama spoke again last Friday at the O’Neill Center, where his topic was “Advice for Daily Life.”
Dr. Jane Hamilton-Merritt is a journalist, photographer, human rights advocate and expert on Southeast Asia. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.