LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When the balding man wearing a maroon and saffron robe arrived on stage at an arena in Louisville May 19, roughly 15,000 people rose to their feet to applaud.
“We love you!” a man shouted. And to an extent, the crowd’s response to His Holiness the Dalai Lama was as simple as that.
At the age of almost 78, the Dalai Lama tirelessly encourages people of all religions to use the tools of compassion, tolerance and forgiveness to bring peace to a broken and violent world.
There is something compelling about the man – “a simple Buddhist monk, no more, no less,” as he has described himself, yet so much more. “I am one of seven billion human beings. Basically we are the same,” he told a television interviewer.
Yet he is unmistakably a leader. He draws people in with his alert eyes, his humility, his rolling laugh,his humanity.
In Louisville, he used the stage to illustrate how compassion can impact some of the world’s most intractable difficulties, such as war, environmental destruction, and the disparities between rich and poor.
He spoke, for example, about the violence the world has witnessed since his birth in 1935 – including the rise of Nazi Germany and the deaths inflicted through World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. “War is fire,” he said. “Humans, the fuel.”
In answer to a question from the audience about the difficulty of showing forgiveness to the two brothers accused of the Boston marathon bombings, the Dalai Lama reiterated his opposition to the death penalty. “Death sentence – let it be too far” as a possible punishment, His Holiness said. Instead, he said, feel pity for those accused of crimes and have genuine concern for their well-being, hoping they might actually change.
“Forgiveness does not mean you accept their wrongdoing,” he said. “No, you should oppose” and seek justice. But “wrongdoer, you must forgive.”
Willing to wait. The contours of the Dalai Lama’s life story are well-known. Born into a farming family, he was recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama and leader of the Tibetan Buddhists as a child. He escaped over the Chinese border into India after the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and has lived much of his life in exile in India.
In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading a nonviolent campaign seeking autonomy for Tibet. And his message of nonviolence, compassion, tolerance and love resonates with people of all ages, all races and religions, all around the world.
People stood in line for two hours to get through strict security at the Louisville event. The line looped all the way over a bridge from Kentucky into Indiana, passing right by the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Facebook page for the event bore messages of travelers who drove with a carload from Kansas City, came from San Francisco and Florida and Cape Cod and New Zealand.
Among those drawn to Louisville by news of the Dalai Lama’s visit were Sue Bullock and her daughter Sara Konrad, who flew in from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Bullock’s mother lives in Louisville, and told her daughter that “if I were stranded on a desert island the one person I’d want to be with was the Dalai Lama.”
The night before the speech, Sheila True of New Albany, Ind., was in a Whole Foods market when a Buddhist monk walked in, and people began whispering, “Is that the Dalai Lama?” Someone said, “No, he wouldn’t come to Whole Foods.”
But she thought to herself about how humble and approachable he seems, and thought: “Yeah, maybe he would.”
Brian Beck of Louisville came with a group of friends to try to “grow in my spiritual nature.” The group appreciates that the Dalai Lama is what Kevin Weis described as “neutral” – that is, he challenges Weis to grow spiritually, but “I don’t feel anything being pushed on me.”
Christopher Cone, a lapsed Catholic, said: “His energy and presence are phenomenal. You just feed off that. That’s the only thing that would get me out of bed on a Sunday morning . . . He prays for us, prays for our world” at a time when it needs stability.
Engaging compassion. The Dalai Lama “radiates peace, joy, compassion, justice. And he’s got a great laugh – real happiness,” said the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, in introducing His Holiness. In a nod to that quality of joy, the event ended with the choir of St. Stephen Baptist Church rocking out the arena with a rousing version of “Oh Happy Day!”
This visit, built around the theme of “Engaging Compassion,” has roots in an ongoing effort by Fischer to build Louisville into a compassionate community. In 2011, Louisville became the seventh city in the United States to sign the Compassionate Cities Charter. Earlier this spring, Louisville held its second “Give a Day” – a week of service opportunities in which more than 107,000 volunteers pitched in on projects ranging from cleaning up parks to building Habitat for Humanity homes.
The Dalai Lama told the Louisville crowd that compassion begins with one individual and then spreads with a ripple, like a pebble being dropped into a pond. Compassion spreads, he said, from one person to a family, to a community and the world. “I hope peace remain not just a slogan,” he said.
Thomas Merton. The Dalai Lama has long had connections to Kentucky through his friendship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, south of Louisville, and who shortly before his unexpected death in 1968 made a pilgrimage to visit His Holiness in India.
They met in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lived in exile. Their conversations – three long meetings over eight days – changed them both. Merton wrote that “there is a real spiritual bond between us,” and the Dalai Lama credited Merton with introducing him “to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’ ”
In 1996, during a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani for an interreligious gathering of monks, His Holiness said of Merton: “The impact of meeting him will remain until my last breath.”
In an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2010, His Holiness wrote that “Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.
“A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism,” the Dalai Lama wrote. “In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.”
What resonates? One of those invited to sit on the stage May 19, along with other faith leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu traditions, was Christine Hong, who this spring was named the new interfaith associate for the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, and who says she has long admired His Holiness.
Why do people respond so strongly to the Dalai Lama? “I think it’s his presence,” Hong said. “I do think people are interested in him because of what he represents politically and religiously. Being in exile and not being able to go home – that resonates with people who have a history of that in their own nation and their own family history. … That’s a powerful testament to how in the face of so much suffering, one individual can be filled with so much compassion.”
The PC(USA) has not had extensive interfaith involvement with Buddhist leaders, although there have been a few opportunities for conversation. Hong sees value for Presbyterians in learning more about Buddhist teachings, such as the implications of compassion.
“Jesus said we have to love our neighbor,” she said. “That goes a great deal deeper than simply caring about people … . The fact that he said ‘You have to love one another as I love you,’ John 13:34, is just extremely challenging to us. If you think about that, what does it mean? Jesus’ love of us – what is the extent of God’s love? We believe it has no boundaries.”
As a Korean-American, Hong is aware of the significance of contemplative spiritual practices for Korean Christians, and of the role that contemplative practices play in a variety of religious traditions – including among the Christian mystics.
“Think about all the times Jesus went to the mountain alone,” she said. “He would go and be alone with God and be alone with prayer. The nights of prayer and the mornings of prayer always led to these amazing miracles. … Having inner peace – Jesus really had that. He was able to fall asleep in the midst of a storm on a boat.”
She also sees the importance, in an increasingly diverse world, of Presbyterians’ getting to know people of other faiths. “We can’t just isolate ourselves anymore,” Hong said. “As Christians in interfaith dialogue, sometimes we really emphasize how much of the other people should we accept? Who should we engage with? Who should we love? Sometimes I’m very put off by that . . . Are we capable of accepting the love and compassion and forgiveness of other people?”
If not, “we miss out on the healing” that comes when people of other faiths share their gifts and wisdom and insight with us.
In Louisville, the Dalai Lama offered this advice: Have faith in your religious tradition, he said. And respect all others.