The Dalai Lama came to Woodstock today.
Though it’s unusual, it’s not all that surprising. Woodstock has many Tibetan students, including the son of the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary, so there is a strong connection between the school and the Tibetan leader. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, the exiled Tibetans initially set up camp in Mussoorie. They established a school called Tibetan Homes in a region called Happy Valley which is like Little Tibet and to this day there’s a strong Tibetan presence in Mussoorie. In fact, he’s now visited four times since the exile, and was in town this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of Tibetan Homes. Due to his personal connections with Woodstock, he came to speak to the community on Sunday afternoon. His topic: “The Need for Compassion in Today’s Interdependent World”.
It was quite a sight to see the campus locked down with security on a Sunday afternoon. Everywhere you looked Indian military personnel were doing what they do best, which is mostly standing around shooting the breeze. But what they lacked in activity, they made up in ubiquity.
Once inside the gym, there were journalists, more military, and a bomb-sniffing dog. Everyone was their in their seats in their sunday best for 30-45 minutes while organizers puttered about, making sure everything was juuuuust so. Then suddenly, the gym went silent. A side door opened and a few men emerged, followed by a familiar figure in burgandy and gold. (The Dalai Lama is an FSU fan, apparently.) He shook some hands and made conversation with those near him, chuckling loudly into the nervous silence as he pressed the flesh. Eventually he made his way to the chair, and then the podium, where he delivered an entertaining, though not entirely linear talk, which–as far as I can tell–was on the topic of How to Live Better.
Then he sat back in his chair center stage and took questions. A few select students sat to the side with screened, carefully-worded questions they had prepared, but HH just looked out at us and said, “And let’s have some question from you all, maybe one from this section, and one from here, and one from those over on the side.” One gets the impression that his handlers are keen to run the sort of tight ship becoming of a world leader, but HH himself seems mostly interested in talking to people and telling funny stories.
One of his most memorable traits is the earthy chuckle he lets out whenever he says something that he finds amusing. For example, in one of his answers, he remarked that “As a monk, I can’t drink, you know…” and then turned and gave a pointed glance toward our principal and let out this prolonged cackle, as if to imply something about the principal’s drinking habits. Later, while making a point about being realistic and the danger of empty formalities he told a story of a queen at an outdoor ceremony whose skirt was blown up by the wind. The king was positioned to correct the situation, but being occupied by his own sense of ceremonial propriety he stood frozen, and the queen just had to stand there with her undergarments exposed lest someone break from protocol. HH also found this story very amusing, and so did we.
He spoke very little about religion, other than the need to move past it in terms of living interdependently with those of contrasting faiths. He argued for a human ethic which transcends religion. He frequently referred to scientific findings and expressed concern over global warming (though Tokyo might be in trouble, Tibet wouldn’t be submerged, he said).
I found myself interested in what makes this man such a rock star. Granted, he’s the first Dalai Lama to live in the era of global celebrity and certainly sympathies toward the Tibetan plight have raised his profile. But I’ve always heard people speak of HH in such glowing terms, as if just meeting him is a life-changing event. I have to say: it was utterly disarming to see such a revered leader so completely comfortable in his own skin. His answers wandered. He had to ask his translator/assistant several times–on mic–to remind him what the topic of his talk was. He could be a bit gruff–he had an elderly way of barking his words at you and he wasn’t afraid to address bathroom habits and raised skirts. He seemed to say just whatever came to his mind with no evidence of any sort of filter, and that’s refreshing from someone called “his holiness”.
I think by and large people are intrigued because he is just a (self-described) simple monk from a small, occupied nation who happens to rub shoulders with Obama, Richard Gere and the Pope. (At one point he casually referred to “my christian friends, like the Pope…”) In the same way we want to believe that celebrities are just like us, we enjoy seeing this man who’s life is nothing like ours be so human. He seems to be a natural pastor, genuinely interested in people. On several occasions he pointed into the crowd and asked, “From which country?” and he expressed care for the infirm who were present. And it is not hard to see why Buddhist philosophy appeals to Americans: the focus on self-improvement, self-reliance and compassion. There is no concept of a creator; there is only yourself, and everything you need can be found within you.
Watching people follow his every movement and word as he walked around the room, it was easy to envision Jesus doing the same. Just a simple man of humble origins whose compassion, spiritual insight and uncommon habit of cutting through pretense drew crowds of people to him. HH was quick to point out today, however, that he has no power to heal anyone. So he offered a hug and a blessing to the crippled instead.