An Afternoon with the Dalai Lama

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Today marks the 80th birthday of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. Months ago I learned that he would be coming to Southern California to celebrate his birthday, and I jumped at the chance to score a couple of tickets to what they were touting as a “Global Compassion Summit.” I’ve long been a fan of the Dalai Lama’s, and the summit’s opening event promised to be a lively afternoon exploring how creativity and compassion walk hand in hand. Sign me up!

Pulling up to the Honda Center, I was surprised to see groups of protestors outside. Who protests a peace party? There was a group of Shugden Buddhists chanting “fake Dalai Lama” (apparently they follow him wherever he goes) and a smattering of Christians with large signs proclaiming that Jesus died for our sins.

One of the Christian protestors from the event.
One of the Christian protestors from the event.

Given that the Dalai Lama’s mission in life is to practice and teach compassion, I thought the best way to approach these protestors was with – you guessed it – compassion. Although I was a bit miffed by their presence, I tried to take a compassionate point of view to understand what might motivate them to stand outside with signs and speak out against the man who is arguably the most pro-peace person on the planet. I didn’t reach any conclusions – I’m mystified, really – but it’s food for thought.

Once inside the atmosphere was far more convivial, with all kinds of people in attendance – monks in wheelchairs, Sikhs, Tibetans in traditional dress and lots of middle-aged Southern California women in tunics and yoga pants (myself included). There were vendors selling Tibetan wares, and I availed myself of some prayer beads and a Tibetan travel amulet. I’m trying to shed my western, consumerist attitude of “I’m outside of my house, I need to buy something,” but I’m not always successful. At least the prayers beads can help me meditate on that.

What unfolded over the next couple of hours can only be described as an amusing and bizarre mish mash of celebrities and Nobel laureates coming to the stage one by one to wish His Holiness a happy birthday. There are celebrities I associate with Buddhism – Richard Gere comes to mind – and then there were the celebrities that actually came to the event – M.C. Hammer, Randy Jackson, Josh Radnor, Julia Ormond, Cody Simpson and George Lopez, who told jokes about Donald Trump. What? So weird. Everybody was a little bit awkward, but the Dalai Lama seemed amused by it all so what the hell, right? Wilmer Valderrama encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the people sitting beside us (I met a nice man named Corey) and at one point a woman in the balcony screamed “turn down the air conditioning, we’re freezing in here!”

Ann Curry hosted the event, and all I could think about was why did she get fired from the Today show? She’s classy and awesome, and she was rocking a casual menswear outfit that rivaled anything you might see Ellen Degeneres wear. In fact, everyone on stage was dressed rather casually (except for the politicians), which I think is a testament to the fact that the Dalai Lama puts everyone at ease and encourages people to drop the pretense. The whole event had a casual air, like we were all really just invited to a gigantic birthday, complete with gigantic cake.

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His Holiness talked a bit about compassion while enjoying a slice of cake, and reminded us all that the purpose of life is to be happy. That worry without action is irrelevant, and he invited us to look at life from a wider perspective.

I can’t say I learned anything I didn’t already know yesterday, but I smiled a whole lot. Being in a room with 18,000 people all focused on the idea of compassion and spreading loving kindness is pretty awesome and powerful. I needed a nap afterwards; I was all full up with the milk of human kindness.

Whether you are a Buddhist, a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist – really, no matter what your religious beliefs are – I encourage you to listen to the words of this kind and wise man. He really believes we can change the world with compassion, and that the journey begins inside the self. Yes, he is a “simple Buddhist monk” as he calls himself, but really he is just teaching a religion of kindness. I can’t imagine a more worthy cause, and I’m grateful to have spent an afternoon in his grace.

Happy Birthday, Your Holiness, may we all give you a birthday gift of practicing compassion with each other, and may we celebrate with you for many years to come!

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