A gentle man; strong words
The Dalai Lama, the ever-smiling leader-in-exile of Tibetan Buddhism, brought his message of compassion and nonviolence to New England yesterday - and also issued Americans a gentle scolding for their "consuming, consuming, consuming."
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk also remarked on the common struggle of Jews and Tibetans to maintain their religion and identity in the face of oppression. His host for this middle stop on his five-state U.S. tour was Brandeis University, a college founded by American Jews 50 years ago.
Politics and spirituality were intertwined themes throughout the day, and the Dalai Lama treated them with seriousness, yet couldn't help charming his audience. Stumbling, for example, over the word "globalization," he cried, "Impossible to pronounce] Something wrong with my tongue]"
More than one female student remarked that the Dalai Lama is "so cute]"
He arrived on campus shortly after noon, his crimson and yellow robes bright against a lead-gray sky, and walked through a specially built and decorated archway, a "welcome gate" of the sort used in Tibetan villages when distinguished guests visit.
Hundreds of disciples, including many Tibetans from the Boston area and as far away as Canada and San Francisco, lined the pathway as he passed in a knot of security agents. The people, some holding silk scarves and sticks of burning incense, did not cheer nor even speak, but simply gazed reverently after him. Those whose hands he shook seemed transported.
(A few dozen others were less impressed: a group of Buddhists protested at the gate of the university, saying the Dalai Lama has forbidden them to worship a particular protector deity. They have protested at each stop on his tour.)
After a few hours of private meetings, the Dalai Lama - whose given name is Tenzin Gyatso, which means Ocean of Mercy - was given an honorary degree before a crowd of more than 800 people; those who couldn't find seats watched on closed-circuit television in another building.
The college's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Albert S. Axelrad, in his introduction of the Dalai Lama, described him as God's wisdom manifested in human form. The chairman of the Board of Trustees, Barton J. Winokur, also said the monk is something more than human, in that he "represents the soul and beliefs of Tibet." U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, for his part, suggested that the world is unworthy of such a man.
"The Dalai Lama is offering the world the chance to prove itself true to some basic principles," Frank said, adding that he's dubious about whether the world will pass the test. At issue, he said, is whether America sincerely believes in human rights and democracy or "whether these things are for sale."
"It's never put quite that crassly, at least not in the open, but that's the message," Frank said, that "there's some money" in neglecting the plight of Tibet, "so why not be sensible?"
It was a none-too-subtle reference to continuing U.S. support of China, which has occupied Tibet since 1959. The Dalai Lama's visit is intended to raise the profile of the Tibetan cause as President Clinton prepares for a trip to China next month.
As the Dalai Lama listened to the speakers compliment him, he rocked casually in his seat and smiled, and once reached down to yank up his socks. He got a big laugh when he began twiddling his thumbs.
Then he stood to accept the award, and his comic demeanor disappeared. He spoke of his culture "facing almost total extinction," and of the "many men, women and children, very innocent people," who "suffer very much."
The honorary degree brings him encouragement and relief, he said, tapping his chest over his heart. It reminds him that, "Oh, our cause is a just cause." Otherwise, why would people show such "sympathy, concern and spirit of solidarity?"
He went on to exhort the audience to develop their inner qualities, for despite all differences of class or ideology, he said, "mentally, emotionally, we all have the same basic nature."
On the subject of class differences, he called the gap in America between rich and poor morally wrong, and said it is an obvious cause of unrest. He expanded on that view later, during a roundtable dialogue with faculty and students.
Asked for his candid assessment of this country, he said he has heard that the United States is the "most consuming nation on earth," and thinks it must find a better way.
Also, he said, a nation as powerful as ours "should be more sensitive to what other members of the world feel." He mentioned Mexico specifically as a "small neighbor" whose feelings should be considered.
The Dalai Lama said that when he was young, he viewed America as a "champion of liberty, democracy, freedom." But now, by "supporting dictators," for instance, the U.S. has him confused.
One professor at the forum asked a question about the philosophy for which the Dalai Lama is famous - about whether nonviolent protest serves the purposes of those in power.
The Dalai Lama did not disappoint those who value his steadfastness on the subject. He replied that if we view nonviolence as impractical, violence will certainly increase. So whether success comes "in our lifetime or not, it is far better to make the effort."
He added that he finds in people a "genuine desire for peace." Gone are the days, he said, when a declaration of war would result in an instant mobilization effort. In America especially, he said, people are inclined to question, "What use is this violence? This war?"
The Dalai Lama ended his Brandeis visit at about 5 p.m. by taking a stand in support of the role of women in Buddhism.
He viewed a "sand mandala," painstakingly created in the Brandeis library by seven nuns from Kathmandu. Typically, the elaborate works, created from fine-grained, colored sand, are made by male monks, not nuns, before being dismantled in a ritualistic ceremony meant to symbolize the impermanence of everything.
Yesterday was said to be the first time the Dalai Lama had ever seen a mandala made by nuns, and he admired it very much, to the nuns' delight. After he had done his part in dismantling it, by gently pinching some of the sand into a bowl, several of the women were moved to tears.
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to address more than 8,000 people today at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center at Brandeis. The address begins at 9:30 a.m.; doors open at 7:30.
From Waltham, he will go on to visit Atlanta and Madison, Wis., then he will return to India.