Yesterday I went to hear His Holiness The Dalai Lama speak at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. He is one of the most down-to-earth spiritual leaders I have ever heard. There is no arrogance or appeals to incomprehensible mystical forces-- just plain simple concepts.
Before the Afternoon Session
I arrived for the afternoon session around 12pm during the lunch break. The crowd was pretty diverse... Tibetans, a few Buddhist monks, some yoga and tai chi people out on the grass, New Agers, hippies, yuppies, families... people. I wandered around the level behind the seating where all the food vendors were-- they had set up some Tibetan cultural displays and shops. (It was a little odd seeing these nestled among the pretzel vendor and the McDonalds.)
The event was sponsored by the Tibetan Association of Boston and funds raised are going towards the construction of a new Tibetan Cultural Center in Boston. I went out and found my seating and listened to a concert of Tibetan culture being performed on the stage. Here's a sampling:
The video clip shows some dancing and the Tibetan musician Penpa Tsering. Some of the flute music reminds me of Native American music I grew up with in Arizona. Indeed, another one of the musicians at the event Nawang Khechog collaborated with Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Nawang performed an song dedicated to the Dalai Lama.
Penpa Tsering's piece with the stringed instrument really fascinated me... it reminded me of an oud, both in the intonation and in the rythmic style. It got me thinking about the connections in a paper on Russian music history I'm writing -- Arab influences traveled up through the Crimea from Persia and along the Silk Road later inspired composers like Rimsky-Korsakov in music like Scheherazade -- did they also make their way into the musical traditions of Tibet? Certainly the historical trade routes suggest that.
Immersed in these thoughts, I realized that the concert portion was over and The Dalai Lama's talk was about to begin.
"The Path to Peace and Happiness"
(The following is my recollection of parts of his talk, so I may paraphrase or interpret or quote parts out of order -- this is not a transcript.)
He walked out onto the stage and sat in his chair. His movements were calm and unrushed, without any tightness of formality. He drew his legs up into a crossed position in the chair, wrapped in his robes and searched around for something in the cloth bag he brought with him... then he found it and let out a chuckle to himself and everyone joined in when they saw that he had put on a New England Patriots cap to keep the sun out of his eyes. He gave a big thumbs up and a smile.
He started very simple. "We are all human beings." He pointed out that if he said "religious" it would exclude all the "non-religious", or "Tibetan" might exclude all the non-Tibetan or anti-Tibetan... so our commonality first and foremost is human. We all want to be happy. Our happiness must not be at the expense of others, for they too want to be happy.
He said that some people have attributed magical healing powers to his blessings, but he explained "if that were so, I wouldn't have needed surgery," and chuckled. However he offered another interpretation -- he noted that his doctor remarked how young his organs looked relative to his age -- this perhaps can be attributed to long practice in calm thought and compassion. He noted that scientists have studied the effects of stress on people and the positive health effects of happiness, so this is not too hard to believe.
The Dalai Lama is different than most spiritual leaders in that he embraces and supports science. He enjoys connecting scientific and Buddhist insights, and it seems for him to be a way to more deeply understand the nature of things. This is very refreshing in a world where the choices seem increasingly between spirituality devoid of reason and reason devoid of spirituality. (This effort goes beyond such narrow confines as "religion" -- for example, he is helping to launch a spirtual center at MIT focusing on ethics in business and science.)
Tying into his focus on essential humanity, he notes that ethics, compassion.. these things are more basic than institution, religion, etc. We need them as human beings. In this way, the Dalai Lama is trying to broaden his message beyond Tibet, beyond Buddhism... beyond religion... to something that applies to all of us in the world.
Then he gave some advice for how to attain happiness. For one, if you can widen your focus from yourself to the larger context, this can reduce your stress. He gave some examples, but I thought of the most striking example I know, the famous picture "Earthrise". When you realize your troubles next to all the other thousands of human beings who are going through similar things... it helps to calm your stress.
He noted that sometimes scientists and politicians tend to use the words "I" and "me" a lot. These words narrow one's focus, making small problems seem much more stressful.
Another thought he offered was that even when there is very bad news, there are also positive effects. For example, although being exiled from his homeland was bad, it has given him the opportunity to talk to many different people and spread awareness in the world. So, every time he hears or experiences something bad, he tries immediately to shift his perspective to notice something good that will come out of it... this also calms stress.
He did touch on the question of "freeing Tibet"-- he said that Tibet would even be willing to be part of the PRC if they were allowed to keep their culture and their language. Of course, this opens up a much larger and more complex set of issues that he didn't get into. He did invite observers from all nations into Tibet -- "if you see that conditions are as the Chinese say, then my information was wrong and I humbly apologize." I assume he is speaking here of the spiral of violence between rebel and PRC forces.
Perhaps it is impossible at this point to separate The Dalai Lama's message from the conflict in Tibet, however he says he wants to keep the dialogue open, searching for a non-violent "win-win" solution that benefits both sides. There is much I don't know or understand in this conflict. The U.S. and China are interested in this area strategically for different ends... for China, it serves a similar strategic interest to our historical "Manifest Destiny," which places us in a difficult position to claim moral superiority or defense of an indigenous culture. Yet, we have a greater recognition and respect for these cultures now... to lose them would be a incredible loss to the world. I think many people agree that we should do all we can to preserve these traditions for historical reasons if nothing else.
But, at least in The Dalai Lama's case, these traditions are surprisingly modern in their application. Regardless of our technology, the principles of how we relate to each other and form meaningful relationships have not changed in thousands of years. The Dalai Lama is remarkably clear in applying Buddhist principles to everyday modern life.
We need his voice in this world, now more than ever.