By Ann B. Waltner
The Dalai Lama appeared at a variety of public and private events in the Twin Cities last May. Two large public events at Mariucci arena were quite spectacular. The local Tibetan community, which numbers about 3,000 and is the second-largest in the United States, turned out in full force, temporarily transforming the basketball arena into a site of pilgrimage and homage.
In addition to attending the two events in the arena, I also participated in a smaller event in which the Dalai Lama spoke directly to several hundred students, including a number of students from China. A dozen scholars talked for three minutes each, and then the Dalai Lama responded to interesting things that we had said. The scholars set the stage for the Dalai Lama to talk with students, and the majority of the dialogue was devoted to them.
The Dalai Lama communicates warmth, charm, and the illusion of intimacy even when speaking from a podium in a basketball arena; in the smaller setting the force of the personal charisma was palpable. Several members of the audience told me later (and privately) that their opinion of him had been completely changed by the event; that while in the past they had viewed him as a scheming politician, they now understood him to be a man of sincerity.
One of the ways in which he communicates charismatic sincerity, following in a venerable Buddhist tradition, is to teach with stories. And in that spirit, I will use the remaining space in this brief essay to tell stories about the Dalai Lama's visit.
The first story the Dalai Lama told was about a woman he knew who had been very poor and was struggling to support her family. She had encountered some Christian missionaries who had helped her immensely, and as a result, she had converted to Christianity. She felt compelled to tell this to the Dalai Lama, who had served as a spiritual teacher and mentor to her. She concluded her account to him by saying, "Don't worry. In my next life, I will be a Buddhist." The Dalai Lama used this story to make the point that when we stray too far from our roots, we make fundamental conceptual errors. This is an odd non- (or even anti-) proselytizing move, but it is consistent with the message of the Dalai Lama--it does not matter what your religious beliefs are (or even if you have religious beliefs), his teachings of harmony and inner peace can resonate. Although His Holiness explicated the story to be sure that the audience got the point, he told it as a joke, and at that punch line he turned to me (I was seated to his immediate right), touched my arm, and burst into hearty laughter. He did this several times during the course of the talk. A member of the audience later referred to me as the Dalai Lama's "joke buddy." His use of short stories with a punch line is something we also see in his public talks--it's a great pedagogic strategy. People remember the stories, and they create a connection between speakers and listeners.
His Holiness received several pointed questions from the audience. My favorite was from a very young Chinese man, who asked, "So what is the story with Buddhists and desire?" His Holiness responded "Desire is not the problem. Attachment is the problem." He used the example of Buddhism--it is good and fine to desire Buddhism. The desire enables one to become a better Buddhist. But attachment to Buddhism would cause one to be biased in one's appraisal of Buddhism. Not only would this mean that one would not be able to see other religions clearly, it means that one would not be able to see Buddhism clearly. This is an exchange that I will use in lectures for the rest of my career.
Students were very interested in the question of the succession of the government-in-exile. Until very recently the Dalai Lama was both a spiritual leader and the head of the government-in-exile. Lopsang Sangay was elected to the position of head of the government-in-exile in April 2011. The argument that the Dalai Lama presented to the students was that it had been his experience that the best governments separate religious and secular functions. He said he had spent considerable energy arguing against theocracies in various parts of the world. Thus, it only made sense to end the Tibetan theocracy.
The message conveyed by the Dalai Lama in the small group setting was consistent with his message in the larger arenas--advocating compassion, searching for inner peace, and working for world peace, no matter what one's particular religious affiliation might be. It was a universalist (though perhaps not secular) message, warmly received by the Minnesota students last May.