The Dalai Lama: Keeping the Faith
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
During a visit to Primary Children's Medical Center, the Dalai
Lama shows Brandon Murphy what he can do with his robe when it gets cold.
(Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)
The Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of exiled Tibetans, is both
more and less than what people expect.
He is at once anachronistic and modern. He speaks with the authority of
one who has spent at least one lifetime -- and conceivably 13 previous ones
-- seeking wisdom. Yet he insists he is no one special.
"Some people expect too much," he said in an interview Thursday. "That's not
And any notion that he has some kind of supernatural healing powers "is
disgraceful. Totally wrong," he insists.
The 14th Dalai Lama presides over a kingdom that exists only in the memory of
his people, who defer to him in everything. Yet he pushes them toward
His maroon and yellow robes bespeak his authority; his brown,
world-worn shoes and sagging socks his humility.
The first two days of the Dalai Lama's stay in Utah were
marked by throngs of the faithful and the curious turning out to see and
hear a global celebrity.
Reporters met him early Thursday morning at Salt Lake
International Airport to grill him about Tibetan politics and the future
of the planet. Local Tibetans lined the streets outside the Governor's
Mansion to greet and honor him.
Doctors, nurses, patients and families squeezed into a couple
of rooms at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City; several
thousand participated in an interfaith prayer service with him at
Abravanel Hall; Utah's political and civic dignitaries broke bread with
him; and 11,000 packed into the Huntsman Center at the University of
Utah to hear him discuss "Ethics for a New Millennium."
Nearly 20,000 more will see him today when he gives a Buddhist
teaching at the Huntsman Center in the morning, addresses students and
faculty at Utah Valley State College in Orem and meets with the Tibetan
community in the afternoon.
In every venue, many have found more than just charisma.
Whether speaking from an armchair in a sports arena, or
perching on the edge of a dais during lunch at a hotel ballroom, the
Dalai Lama creates a sense of approachability, even intimacy, that draws
adults and children as if he were an old friend.
The Dalai Lama is unpretentious, though he knows how to play
to the camera or elicit smiles from his audience.
With journalists, he answered each question as if it were
being asked for the first time -- making careful, thoughtful comments
on Tibet's future, the status of women in Buddhism and China's quest for
the 2008 Olympics.
He punctuated his remarks with an infectious grin. He laced
his sermons with parables and Tibetan sayings. He wove Buddhist
metaphysics into his speeches about ethics. He spoke seamlessly and
Throughout his stay in Utah, the Dalai Lama displayed an
intimacy with humanity. He touched people's faces or grasped their arms
-- acting familiarly with dignitaries such as Utah Episcopal Bishop
Carolyn Tanner Irish and Pamela Atkinson, a member of the State Board of
Regents and a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged.
As he moved among adults and children waiting to greet him,
the Dalai Lama locked eyes with each individual and captured them in
what seemed an infinite moment.
But Utahns also got much more; they were treated to
philosophical ruminations from a Buddhist scholar who challenged
superficial Western thinking at every turn.
When he speaks of compassion, he means more than just being
nice or feeling sorry for people in trouble.
It is the capacity to watch thousands of family, friends and
Buddhist followers brutally murdered by Chinese Communists, whom he
called "cruel liars," while acknowledging in the next breath that
"Communists are humans, too."
On a more down-to-earth note, he said, "Mammals like tigers or lions
are built for preying on other animals. . . . They have teeth and nails."
But humans belong to the "peaceful animals," he said. "Our two
hands are made for hugging, not for making boxing fists."
No matter where he went, the Dalai Lama emphasized that conflicts can be
resolved through "conversation, respect for others and a warm heart."
At times, journalists -- whose focus is perforce on conflict -- seemed to
ask everything but the right questions. Where Westerners
see strife and competition, he sees unity and possibility.
One reporter asked if Buddhism could take hold in a place such
as the United States, where individuality is a credo.
"There is no contradiction between Buddhism and individualism,
in general," he said through a translator. "In Buddhism, if you work for
the benefit of others, out of altruistic motivation, in fact you
yourself stand to gain from this."
Does he mind his "rock star" status among Americans? He
furrowed his brow for a minute, then shrugged.
"He said he doesn't really give it much thought," the translator said.
If the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama were found in the
United States, would he have the right kind of values?
"I don't know. I don't know. That is beyond my control," he said.
What would he do to broker peace in the Middle East?
"Some people would say he has nothing particular to say," replied the
Then the Dalai Lama thought for a moment.
"There is too much suspicion," he said, slowly. "Personal
relations make a difference. . . . Maybe important leaders of both sides
[could be] brought to a pleasant place to talk without any political
agenda, without any other work, just to simply rest, play chess and [get
to] know each other personally, then eventually truly become friends."
Political battles often begin with religious differences, and
the Dalai Lama has spent a career addressing such conflicts.
He did so vividly on Friday during the interfaith service at
After a performance by the International Children's Choir, the
hourlong service began with Clifford Duncan of the Ute Tribe in
traditional dress singing and blessing the gathering.
Next, dozens of leaders from an array of faiths, including
LDS, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Baha'i --
nearly all dressed in black or muted colors -- filed in and filled the hall.
Finally the Dalai Lama entered, dressed in robes of vibrant
maroon, yellow and gold, smiling and bowing, waving and pressing his
palms together in the traditional Tibetan greeting. Seeing scores of
Tibetans in the first rows, he stepped nearly to the edge of the stage.
He bowed to the audience, flashed a grin and bowed deeply again.
"My brothers and sisters," he began. "It is a great pleasure
to be together, particularly in this joint prayer session."
He then launched into a half-hour sermon, gesturing and
pointing like a teacher and occasionally fingering the orange prayer
beads wrapped around his wrist.
Religious faith is one of the "defining characteristics of
human beings and that has been true for thousands of years of human
history," he said. And even at the beginning of the 21st century, he
said, faith traditions that span the centuries still have a place.
He knows that, he said, because even though many people in
prosperous countries have every material possession they could possibly
want, "still they are not free from suffering."
"I notice some people have mental unrest, suspicion, doubt,
sense of insecurity," he said. "If material wealth solved all problems,
then such people should have no worry, right?"
The audience laughed, but squirmed a bit.
"When I see some beautiful articles that I want, like a watch,
if I concentrate on it, attachment grows," he said. "Even in Tibet the
image still comes."
Pause for a moment, he said, and ask, " 'Do I really need this?'
"Often, no," he said to more laughter, adding that contentment means
sacrificing short-term needs like watches to achieve enduring satisfaction.
These principles are taught by every religious tradition, yet
still there are conflicts among the faiths.
Even within Buddhism there are sometimes contradictory schools
of thought that evolved from the same teacher. Seeing those divisions in
his own tradition has helped the Dalai Lama grapple with the great
differences among the world's religions.
"The spiritual needs of millions of believers worldwide are
met in different faith traditions," he said. "Each is valuable and
necessary, responding to diverse spiritual inclinations."
Whether to accept a religion is an individual decision, but
those who choose to embrace a faith tradition should implement its
teachings "seriously and deeply."
He simply dismissed "New Age" religion, which takes bits and
pieces of other traditions. "I don't think it is right."
Even those who believe an Almighty God created the world, he said, should
celebrate religious diversity because it "may have been created for the
benefit of all creation. . . . It is originating from the same source."
After the Dalai Lama's remarks, leaders of religions ranging
from Catholicism to Baha'i offered their own prayers. The service ended
as the Dalai Lama sonorously chanted an eighth-century dedication prayer
in Tibetan. "For as long as space endures, and for as long as living
beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world."
People stood in quiet reverie after the Dalai Lama bowed and
then exited the stage.
"I expected a simple, peaceful man talking about simple,
eternal, universal truths," Suzi Nielsen of Salt Lake City said
afterward. "I didn't hear anything new, but I loved the feeling of being
in the presence of a spiritual man."
Salt Laker Ardean Watts was more effusive.
"This was an occasion to be savored," he said. "Who could not
say 'amen' to his message?"
Then he added, "It's not what I learned that I will take away, but what I
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