By Paige P. Parvin 96G
My eleven-year-old son recently asked me if the Dalai Lama is the most famous person in the world.
Sadly, I suspect that he probably is not, but it is small wonder my son thought so. When His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan community in exile, came to Emory in October for his inauguration as Presidential Distinguished Professor, the excitement that ignited the University community radiated far beyond the campus gates.
The Dalai Lama arrived just two days after accepting the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, amid an outcry of protest from the Chinese government. Urging China to meet with the ousted Buddhist leader, President George W. Bush called the Dalai Lama “a man of peace and reconciliation.”
During the course of the historic weekend that followed, known at Emory simply as The Visit, His Holiness served as the linchpin for a sweeping exploration of the deepest matters of the heart and mind.
On Saturday, Emory scholars and other national experts shared with the Dalai Lama remarkable new findings on how the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, compassion, and meditation can ease clinical depression—one of several cutting-edge treatments for the disorder currently being studied at Emory. The following day, the first Emory Summit on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding brought together His Holiness and five other spiritual leaders in a moving dialogue about religion and reconciliation. Despite religion’s potential to divide, they agreed, it also can provide precious common ground.
“All the major religious traditions carry this message of love, compassion,” the Dalai Lama said. “And with that, if some kind of conflict happens, then there is a spirit of reconciliation and tolerance. . . . our work here in the religious field is not for propagating religion—that’s up to the individual—but to bring [to people] those valuable things that come from religion.”
Having had the privilege of meeting the Dalai Lama, it is difficult to reconcile his serene presence and kindly demeanor with that of a violently controversial political figure. He speaks most often of compassion and warm-heartedness, saying his mother taught him these things as a child and reminding his listeners that all humans have the capacity for love. He has a spirited sense of humor and a humble sense of self, speaking simply and even poking fun at his own English from time to time.
It also is easy to forget the hardships he has endured. On Sunday afternoon, he spent a few moments with a small group of Emory reporters, kicking off his sandals to sit cross-legged in a chair and answer a handful of questions. Chris Megerian 08C, editor of the Emory Wheel, asked him about the happiest moment of his life.
“Greatest happiness?” he said, after thoughtfully polishing his glasses. “Many occasions. One I remember, the day of my escape from Tibet. I left disguised as a soldier with a rifle. The more I walked, that rifle became heavier, heavier, heavier. So, that night, really full of fear. Because on the road, the other side of the river was a Chinese military garrison. Although it was completely dark, we were not using flashlights, still the hooves, the horses still made noise. So, if they notice, very easily we would be shot. So next morning, next day, when we passed one hill, one mountain, we felt safe. Real liberation! . . . That was one moment that was a happy one.”
This was not the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Emory. He initially came here more than two decades ago, and the Emory-Tibet Partnership was established in 1998 to study points of connection between Western and Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions.
But this occasion offered richer opportunities for public discourse than ever before. Some four thousand community members and guests poured into a transformed Woodruff P. E. Center for these events. The crowds included people young and old, of every race and religious faith, some of whom had traveled thousands of miles while others had walked from their dorm rooms.
And on Monday afternoon, following the formal inauguration ceremony at Emory, His Holiness gave a public talk at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, where many thousands more gathered on the misty lawn to see him on a special stage, amplified on a giant screen.
What they all sought was knowledge—some insight into the deepest secrets of happiness, fulfillment, and a feeling of life well lived. Yet the Dalai Lama shared no secrets, only the Buddhist wisdom that the disciplined practice of mental clarity and compassion toward others can lead us to the peace we so desire.
No doubt everyone who encountered the Dalai Lama that weekend experienced a particularly poignant moment, a flash of insight, or a new idea. For me, one such moment occurred as I left the inauguration ceremony with my mother, who began to take a keen interest in Buddhism several years ago and had driven down from my hometown in Tennessee for the event. As we walked, we chatted with a professor in the School of Medicine, reflecting on the Dalai Lama’s words.
“His message is really very simple, isn’t it?” she mused.
“Yes,” my mom agreed, “but very hard to live by.”
I guess if it weren’t hard, most of us would already be doing it. And the Dalai Lama would not be—almost—the most famous person in the world.