With an old journalism classmate, I went to see the Dalai Lama in Ottawa on Saturday, April 24, along with about 9,000 other people. In the back of my mind, I thought: Maybe this is like seeing the Buddhist Billy Graham.
The Civic Centre had the feel of a rock concert or a WWF Spiritual Smackdown -- the omnipresent smell of fresh pizza and popcorn, long queues for the concession stands, and the sale of Dalai Lama posters, CDs, T-shirts, Tibetan flags, and books. Each person received a free bilingual 12-page booklet titled "Living Peace." The centre panel was a donation page on how to help the Canada Tibet Committee become a stronger lobby group by joining and donating to the Tibetan cause. That cause, they say, is self-government as an autonomous region within China, which conquered it in 1949.
Alanis Morissette opened with a three-song acoustic set, which calmed the minds of the excited and curious crowd. As she sang, I kept looking through birder binoculars at the elaborate painted chest in front of two comfortable-looking green leather armchairs. Who would sit in the other chair?
That riddle was solved when Alanis introduced the Dalai Lama and he and his translator emerged from behind the curtain, decorated with the Tibetan snow lion flag and a version of the Buddhist flag. Enlightenment was en route.
The Dalai Lama on the other hand was blinded by the bright stage lights. He shielded his eyes with his hands to see the standing ovation. He apologized for not bringing his baseball cap so he could see us better and settled into his comfy chair. He thanked Alanis for singing, saying that he appreciated the feeling behind the music, but that music was not his primary interest. Nor was meeting politicians or officials, hinting at Prime Minister Paul Martin. "My main commitment is the emotional human being."
"If life is good, a long life is better. If life is not good, a short life is better," he said. The crowd chuckled.
He said that he found these mass gatherings to be important because in this way he could meet with the grassroots. I looked around and thought about the $42 I had laid out for the ticket and the $100 tickets on the main floor. This crowd was hardly the grassroots of Canadian society.
He said he appreciated the people who had come to support him, thought the curious people (like I was) were OK, but that the people who had expectations were "a little too much."
"I have nothing to enrich your wisdom," he said. "I have nothing to offer you." He then hinted that if there were any healers in the audience, that his leg could use some help. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
He then explained some of the basic concepts of Buddhism: that people's behavior affects other people, "even one's breath has an impact on another"; that compassion was in one's selfish interest; that life is deeply interconnected; that "the very purpose of our life day by day is happiness"; and that everyone has the capacity to hope for and achieve this happiness.
The Dalai Lama, now revealed as an articulate, skilled and witty speaker, pointed out that while prosperity is one requirement in life, basic human values are another. Prosperity responds to the sensual level of consciousness and basic human values respond to the mental level. Prosperous people are often "caught up in a cycle of suspicion and expectations." This thus revealed, he said that a sense of basic human values was the essential element. A poor student could be happier than a rich person."Physical pain can be subdued by the mental level. Mental pain cannot be subdued by material comfort. [...] Human values are crucial in order to have a happy life."
These human values form the base of every person and the strength of one's self, "the strong feeling of 'I,' is crucial to developing will power and making one's life useful."
He joked that the English translation of his name "ocean of wisdom" hardly mattered in the vast emotional world. "The world is like an ocean of emotion for us," said the Dalai Lama. "We are learning about outer space every day, but we still don't know much about this small internal space," he said, cupping his balding head in his hands.
In what I interpreted as a subtle criticism of US President George W. Bush's "with us or against us" approach to world peace, the Dalai Lama said that evil and good are not absolutes. They depend on how they relate to one another. Hatred and a strong attachment to desire can be positive or negative, depending on the intent. "Bad intent is itself violence." What looks bad may not, in itself be bad, if the intent is good. He gave the example of a parent disciplining a child. "Not all of our sufferings are problems."
The talk ended with the translator asking him several set questions: one about September 11, 2001; meditation tips; and what is the meaning of life. In response, the Dalai Lama called on people to form a mass movement based in the initiative of individuals to confront today's situation of "hatred and determination." He said people should begin making peace a priority in their own lives. "Every century becomes a century of war.... This century should be a century of dialogue."
Children should be taught to approach conflicts as dialogue opportunities, to diagnose them as a doctor would a disease. The crowd broke into applause. As for meditation, he said he meditates five hours per day, but "the most effective meditation is seven hours sleep." I applauded that enthusiastically. Hallelujah, a man after my own heart!
His last words? "In this world, the role of hatred is limited. The role of compassion is vast." "We should think, so our life can be meaningful."
For me, the experience of hearing him speak was moving. I feel his talk was like a gentle rain, which I am absorbing slowly. Mind you, there is no imminent conversion to Buddhism coming, as I saw plenty of convergence with Christian belief and teachings. But as you can tell, the Dalai Lama's and Billy Graham's approaches to teaching differ.
The Dalai Lama managed to break past my cynicism about the pizza stands and the fundraising and the excellent stage management by the Canada Tibet Committee to think about how I relate to the world. Without wanting to do so, he met my expectations.