As you’re probably all well aware by now, the Dalai Lama was in NYC last week speaking to a packed house at Radio City Music Hall. Since I was fortunate enough to attend on Thursday and Friday, I thought I might share some of my thoughts and impressions from those talks. I should preface this post by admitting that I’ve always had a hard time with authority figures, especially religious authority figures. So, for me, the Dalai Lama’s entrance was distracting. Dramatic music started playing overhead. A woman behind me started loudly weeping. I was prepared to sit through this, uncomfortably. Of course, then the Dalai Lama didn’t do what he doesn’t do best: he didn’t take himself too seriously. He lightened the mood. He put on a red visor, smiled at everybody and began to speak. “There are six billion people in this world with great intelligence. We should use our intelligence to bring more joy and happiness, not suffering and sadness.” Oh that Dalai Lama, always transcending cultural bounds with ease. It’s these moments when you can understand why so many humans are attracted to this man. He seems boundless. Which brings me to my favorite topic that he discussed (after ditching the English language to speak about finer philosophical points in Tibetan)—the concept of emptiness as open space. [Side thought: Can things get lost in translation when they come from an enlightened mind?] While exploring Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhicitta, the Dalai Lama said that we should think about emptiness as open space. When we try to find the essence of anything and instead find it to be empty, we should regard that discovery as having no bounds. Insight into emptiness will open space in our minds, allowing us to move about and act freely.
I’d like to think more about this, certainly, but for now I just find that idea so inspiring. We’re used to hearing Buddhist terms like “suffering” and “emptiness,” and it can all come across as a bit dreary. But here the Dalai Lama was talking about happiness and open space. Sure, some accused him of being overly optimistic in his view of humanity’s future, but honestly, what’s the problem with that? In my opinion, if we can’t be optimistic in the face of endless personal and global disasters, we’ve got no chance. So yeah, I was uneasy when the talks began and I left feeling rather comforted—the space in between those two moments being filled with what felt like wisdom.