Dalai Lama -- A Spiritual Leader for a New Generation
The first time I saw the Dalai Lama was in India, in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. I was there volunteering to teach English.Periodically, His Holiness would drive on the rutted dirt road through town on his way to an official function. You always knew when he would appear, because devoted locals would line the streets for an hour beforehand. When he finally appeared, the adoration of the crowd was infectious -- men and women, young and old, bowed, chanted, burned incense and, especially, smiled.You couldn't help smiling when the Dalai Lama drove by. There he was, in the middle of a government caravan, grinning madly himself, seeming genuinely happy to see everybody he passed. At the same time, the whole display seemed to strike him as a little ridiculous. I fell in love then and there with this graceful old man, with his limitless compassion and love for these people in their silliness. Without telling anybody, he had just decided to be himself -- not a great leader, not a brilliant spiritual practitioner, but just a normal old man. I fell in love all over again in San Francisco, as did many others in the crowd of 3,000 attending the "Peacemaking" conference which featured His Holiness Tenzing Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. They were clearly overwhelmed by the Dalai Lama's humility and wisdom. But many left unsure of how to translate his insistence on personal clarity into action, given the reality of urban America. "Peace must develop within one person," he said, talking to young people. "Remember your potential, with self-confidence and an open mind and caring. Check your own motivation and then follow through without regret." These are not exactly words that will spark a world wide revolution of loving kindness. And yet his gentle humor and sing-song cadences prevented such sentiments from becoming cliches. "He's not a sage," said Jay George, 24, co-director of Rising Youth for Social Equity (RYSE), who shared a panel with the Dalai Lama. "He doesn't know it all, and he's pretty clear about that. But he's at peace with himself. It's this presence he has."That presence also delighted Priya Ayyar, 23, who attended the conference along with a theater group. She said she found the message of personal peace inspiring for her own activism. "I love when the Dalai Lama speaks about self-confidence because it is so lacking in people we work with who are so broken. You have to transform yourself before you can be a giving member of society."But for George, while inner peace is a starting point, these teachings can not substitute for an honest exploration of the issues by and among young people.""He doesn't come from our context -- the social context that we have in 1997 U.S. of A. is crazy different on so many levels. If you're on the block and you let somebody punk you, then you're a punk. A lot of what (nonviolence) says just doesn't apply to where young people are at." Those hoping for the skinny on Buddhist philosophy left disappointed. The Dalai Lama barely mentioned Buddhism during the three-day conference, and seemed reluctant to talk in anything but secular terms. He hardly even mentioned the plight of Tibet under Chinese occupation for almost 50 years.In fact, while many other participants advocated sanctions against China, he maintained a position of open trade and dialogue with his nominal enemy, voicing criticism instead of the growing gap between rich and poor and rampant materialism world wide.He also listened attentively to young speakers and tried to address their concerns. In a characteristic act of generosity, at the end of the conference he thanked young people for everything they had taught him and donated $5,000 to fund a conference proposed by young people in attendance.The Dalai Lama's message to me is this. Too often, we are taught to look outside for what we need, and yet few things are what they seem. Beneath the clothes that are supposed to supply happiness is the suffering of underpaid maquiladora workers. Behind the rhetoric spun by politicians are character issues and corporate campaign contributions. The Dalai Lama teaches us by example: the person we really need to trust, and the prophet we're looking for, is inside every one of us.