If you pay attention to the Tricycle Twitter, you might have noticed me live Tweeting from a Dalai Lama event last Thursday and Friday. It was an epic Twitterfest from a truly epic event. (And if you don’t pay attention to the Trike Twitter, for shame! We’re @tricyclemag. Get on that.) His Holiness showed up at Western Connecticut State University last week for a two-part talk: “The Art of Compassion” on Thursday and “Advice for Daily Life” on Friday. The Dalai Lama, now 77, has been on a whirlwind tour of the eastern U.S. these past couple of weeks, dropping by Middlebury College, MIT, Brown University, The College of William and Mary, Syracuse University, and Rockefeller University. I swear, that man has a schedule that would scare a first-year investment banker.
It was my first time seeing the Dalai Lama in person, and my excitement, to be honest, was tinged with a fear that I was going to be disappointed by the whole thing. I was worried that it was going to turn out like when you finally see that movie that everyone’s been raving about…and it’s just not that good. It’s somewhat like the Tibetan saying, “The best guru is the one who lives at least three valleys away”— meaning that sometimes it’s better not to be too close to those you consider to be special. In the end, I shouldn’t have gotten all worked up. HHDL was amazing.
The first of many amazing things about him is that he consistently draws crowds in the thousands. Each event at WCSU had about 3,500 attendees; among the non-notable ones like myself, there was also Robert Thurman, Daniel Goleman, Sharon Salzberg, and Richard Gere. Speaking as he was to a crowd that was mainly non-Buddhist, HHDL kept the explicitly Buddhist teachings to a minimum. (He name-dropped Nagarjuna once, and that was about it. In fact, he talked a surprising amount about God.) Even so, both of his talks remained fundamentally Buddhist, and he drew on ideas that I’m sure anyone on this site would be familiar with: analyze the nature of your suffering by paying attention to your mind; remember that all sentient beings long for happiness; being other-centered, not self-centered, is what will bring you and others happiness.
Perhaps my favorite part of the talks was when HHDL acknowledged the general misunderstanding of meditation by the West. “These days,” he said, “a lot of people are familiar with meditation. Meditation means, ‘close my eyes and relax, so my mind is not working.’ They think that is meditation!” Then he let out one of those HHDL-brand deep, reverberating grandfather laughs that without fail made everyone in the audience laugh with him. “I think it is much better to have your mind on full alert,” he continued. “To see things, and to analyze the nature of your suffering.” He continually urged the audience to use their “full, human intelligence” in this analysis. He also got on his engaged Buddhist hat, emphasizing the importance of action in leading a compassionate life. “I believe more in action than in prayer,” he said. “Prayers should translate into action.”
In total, the Dalai Lama’s visit to WCSU cost the school a pretty penny: $300,000, although all of it and more was recouped by ticket sales. In accordance with the Dalai Lama’s wishes, any extra money that was made by the university will go to a charity of the Dalai Lama’s and WCSU’s choice. The university also bestowed the Dalai Lama with an honorary degree, which seems to be a pattern. (I wonder how many honorary degrees he has by now.)