Almost exactly a month ago I had the unforgettable experience of hearing His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso, speak at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. He accepted an invitation to travel to New Orleans as the commencement speaker for Tulane's graduation ceremony, and upon his arrival expressed his deepest sympathy and compassion for both Hurricane Katrina and its victims as well as the more recent victims and their family members of the second-line shooting. At the beginning of the talk, Mayor Landrieu introduced His Holiness and presented him with a key to the city. The only other person I've heard of to be gifted a key was Louis Armstrong.
The thing that struck me most about H.H. the Dalai Lama was how much joy and happiness seemed such an integral part of his nature. One would expect Buddhist monks to be serene (at least I guess I did), but while he spoke with compassion and wisdom on serious topics, he also teased his translator and cracked jokes with gusto. He has one of the most infectious laughs I've heard. Though called by some an incarnation of Buddha and by others a demon, Tenzin Gyatso maintains that he is only a simple Buddhist monk; that is his true self. When asked what made him happy, he shared a story from his childhood:
He went on to speak of many things; tolerance between religions and cultures, his exile from Tibet (he has been an exile for 54 years now), and his hopes for the future. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, and effectively the head of State of the exiled Tibetan government (Central Tibetan Administration). The prime minister is the head of government. Since his exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama has resided in the monastery at Dharamshala in India.
The one thing he spoke of which resonated with me most was that many millions of people pray for peace every day, and yet peace has not come. He did not denounce the necessity for prayer, saying he spent a portion of every day praying, but stated that prayer needs to be followed by action. If we want to see change in the world, we must act to make change happen. He also reminded us that the virtues of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion are hardest when they are most needed. It was a timely reminder and one that I will try to live by more vigilantly.
Below are additional excerpts of his speech to us:
The Sand Mandala
After the speech, there was a viewing and ceremonial deconstruction of the Sand Mandala. This stunning piece of art had been painstakingly constructed by the visiting monks over the past week. The creation and destruction of sand mandalas is an ancient Buddhist tradition, acknowledging the transitory nature of material life. The Mandalas are constructed using colored sand and very small tubes and scrapers. Each Mandala symbolizes something specific. As the mandala was ceremoniously deconstructed, the monks performed a chant (part of which I recorded; take a listen, I didn't think some of those sounds were humanly possible). We then followed a procession to the river, where some of the sand was poured into the Mississippi River to distribute the blessings that were woven into the mandala's creation. The monks also saved some of the sand to hand out to participants, and I now wear mine in a glass vial around my neck. It's said to bring good will, and as a tangible reminder of His Holiness' message of peace, how can it do otherwise?