LOUISVILLE, Ky. – What can children and teenagers do to build a compassionate world? About 2,400 students, meeting in Louisville with the Dalai Lama on May 21, agreed on the answer: a lot.
Already, the Catholic schools in Louisville, seven private schools and about 150 Jefferson County public schools have joined the Youth Engaging Compassion effort – posting compassion charters in their hallways and weaving lessons on compassion into class discussions on subjects such as violence and the environment. Students are involved in service – for example, boys from local Catholic high schools attend all the funerals of paupers in Louisville, dressing in sports coats and ties. Sometimes they are the sole mourners praying at the gravesites of indigent strangers who have died alone.
Graduating students from duPont Manual High School – a public school – just finished building a Habitat for Humanity house for a refugee family from Burundi as a senior class project. Younger students at the school have started a Passion for Compassion campaign, keeping lists of the compassionate acts that teenagers from the school perform.
Daniel Varghese, a senior at St. Xavier High School and one of three students chosen to present introductory remarks at the Youth Engaging Compassion event on May 21, said he sometimes gets discouraged that people won’t do more to more to help a world troubled by poverty, addiction, racism and sexism. In order to make change, “we have to recognize that we are part of the problem, and to look within,” Varghese said.
“As students, we may feel we’re too young to have an impact,” said Grace Bagga of Louisville Collegiate School. But “in the time it takes to make excuses or feel bad, we can help.”
Showing compassion can involve not just the outpouring of concern after a major disaster such as the Oklahoma tornado, but simple ordinary acts, she said – such as giving a welcoming hug to a newcomer or preparing a meal for a family enduring illness. About the time Bagga mentioned a hug, up to her side drifted a familiar-looking man in saffron-and-maroon robes – the Dalai Lama, chuckling, waving his arms and instructing her cheerfully, “Go ahead! Go ahead!”
Bagga paused – unsure, caught by surprise to see him standing beside her on the stage, ahead of his introduction. So, of course, he gave her a hug.
For the Dalai Lama and 2,400 teenagers, it was pretty much love at first sight.
Questions and answers. Ten of those teenagers were on stage to ask questions of the 77-year-old Dalai Lama. They included a question from a 13-year-old: Looking back on yourself when you were 13, what advice would you give yourself? (Study more, play less).
He answered a question on technology by saying computers can be valuable for gathering information (and he’s met people who found their spouses online), but people also need to spend time reflecting on what they dig up on the Internet.
“Think more, analyze more,” the Dalai Lama said. “The computer can never really replace human thinking.”
Some high points of that discussion (in which the Dalai Lama spoke with sparing help from a translator, in fluent but occasionally idiosyncratic English):
Naïve? Siera Hanks, a student from Atherton High School, said some people look down on compassion, considering it naïve and idealistic, the province of bleeding hearts; preferring cool cynicism instead. “We’re old enough,” she told her peers, to have seen how harshly people can treat one another. “Shared suffering is lessened while shared joy increases,” Hanks said. “Don’t be ashamed of being compassionate.”
Hardwired for compassion. Biologically, humans need compassion, the Dalai Lama said. After birth, we depend on others to care for us, and those who are neglected or abused develop “deep, innate, some sense of insecurity, sense of fear.” They have trouble trusting others – and that insecurity and calm can lead to depression and drug and alcohol addiction. His mother was illiterate and uneducated, “but very warm-hearted person,” he said. He was the youngest child in the family, and she carried on her shoulders as she worked in the fields. The seed of compassion, he said, was planted in him by his mother. Now he tries to pass it on to others.
Open-hearted. He views all 7 billion humans as his brothers and sisters. “The first time meeting – I feel, oh, another human being. No difference!” If he approaches people honestly and openly, without formality – the Dalai Lama is notoriously playful – their reserve melts and “they also become much happier.” Those who are happy and calm show kindness to others. From one person to the next, from an individual to a community to a world, compassion spreads.
Anger. People turn to anger and aggression out of weakness. If the mind is calm and the body strong, people can weather illness and other challenges more easily. “Compassion is sign of strength,” the Dalai Lama said. “Anger is sign of weakness.”
Hobbies. Camille Sears of Easter High School asked: Does he any hobbies that might surprise people? As a child, the Dalai Lama loved dismantling mechanical toys – cars, trains, soldiers – to see how they worked. As an adult, he’s a science geek – he’s convened seminars with some of the great minds of the world in cosmology, neurobiology, quantum mechanics and psychology, trying to understand the links between science, behavior and the mind.
Fear. Have you ever experienced fear? Yes – after being bitten by a small dog he later was told was rabid. He also fears real dangers to the world – after visiting a concentration camp, the possibility of another Holocaust; the stockpiling of nuclear weapons that could destroy the world several times over; the environmental risks of rising carbon emissions
After the dialogue ended, some students said they were surprised at how funny the Dalai Lama was – and how much he seems to understand teenagers.
“He was able to relate a lot to kids,” said Skyler Cobb, a student at Jeffersonville High School in southern Indiana. “He was hilarious.”
Sean Kennedy, also from Jeffersonville High, said he appreciated the idea that “with compassion, you’re strong. Showing anyone anger, you’re weak. It’s assumed the hotheaded people are fit ones. They can’t even lift.”
Elizabeth Nguyen, of Pleasure Ridge Park High School, liked how the Dalai Lama approaches ideas from a different way of thinking, such as when he said that “we should not become a slave of money.”
She said of the Tibetan monk, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: “He’s not so clouded by modern technology and the American lifestyle. He has a clearer lifestyle.”
And when he sneaked up beside Bagga and then hugged her, “that was adorable.”
Click here to view photos from the Youth Engaging Compassion event.