Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hallowed Homily

Several months after it was first announced that the XIV Dalai Lama would visit the University of Oregon campus, the week of the visit by His Holiness had finally arrived and the day was nigh.

Friend Lupe Marroquin, who was more than just mildly interested in seeing His Holiness, made the trip down from Anchorage without a ticket hoping to find one of the elusive ducats to the sold out event. When I posted a notice on Facebook in hopes of finding her a ticket, one friend commented: “You’re dreaming, dude.” Scalpers were asking $300 and up for tickets on various Internet sites.

However, Lupe was rewarded for her due diligence: the night before the appearance of His Holiness, the Eugene Sakya Center sponsored a “Tibet Peace Concert” at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The concert, held in honor of the visit by His Holiness, seemed like a good place to try to find a ticket to see the Dalai Lama, so Lupe and Rebecca attended the show -- a benefit for the Palmo Peace Center.

The concert featured a variety of artists, including Peter Rowan, Beta Collide, Laura Kemp and Trio, Nawang Khechog, Priyo and Gypsy Moon, In Accord and the ever-popular Sugar Beets. By all accounts, the show was fantastic. And, as luck would have it, Lupe found a ticket for the Dalai Lama at cost ($20); needless to say, she was elated.

The next day, Lupe, Rebecca and I strolled over to the unusually sun-baked campus at the appointed time on Friday, May 10. Security at the doors of Matthew Knight Arena was more elaborate than I’d ever seen: Department of Homeland Security-style airport scanners were set up at every entrance. We passed through unabated, and Rebecca and I bade Lupe farewell until after the show and took our seats.

More than 11,000 UO students, faculty, staff and the general public packed the Matt Court, one of the few times I’ve seen the arena that full. As His Holiness appeared to take the stage, the crowd grew mute, and then silent. An infant’s howl pierced the calm momentarily, then His Holiness -- hands folded in prayer -- acknowledged the crowd as the audience applauded and cheered. As the din subsided, a woman could be heard shouting, “I love you!”

Mark Unno, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Oregon, took the podium, noting that this was “a beautiful day in the life of the universe.”

Unno then introduced UO President Michael Gottfredson, who presented His Holiness with the UO Presidential Medal. “This is indeed an historic day for our community,” said Gottfredson, who presented His Holiness with a new Oregon visor.

The Dalai Lama then spoke -- not so much like a lecturer, but more like someone having a conversation with a friend over tea, noting that he would like to address the audience as “brothers and sisters. Physically, emotionally and mentally, we are the same. I always make clear the concept or sense of oneness of humanity -- this is very important. (There is) too much focus on our differences.”

“For a better future for humanity, sometimes if necessary, we can sacrifice the secondary levels of differences of race, religion and nationality -- but usually it’s the opposite,” he continued. “If our mind is biased, then we cannot see.”

The Dalai Lama also focused on the role of teachers, saying that “education helps reduce the gap between reality and perception. Teachers have tremendous responsibility to nurture peace through education.” He noted that the educational system should focus more on inner value and less on materialism, and emphasized that “we must pay more attention to human compassion.”

“The seeds of my compassion came from my mother,” continued His Holiness. By their nature, “females are more biologically sensitive. Those who receive maximum affection from their mothers at an early age will be happier. Those lacking that affection will only sense insecurity, fear and anxiety. Therefore, (parents should) provide maximum affection. Spend more time with your children.”

After about 40 minutes, His Holiness simply noted: “That’s my talk. Now some questions.” The individuals with queries were displayed on large screen monitors placed throughout Matthew Knight Arena.

Most focused on the question of how to deal with conflict in the world, and the role of faith and religion in this endeavor. “All religious traditions carry the same message, same practice: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline."

"The different philosophies come because of the individual approaches of different cultures, but the message is the same." Because we are social animals, the “best way to fulfill your own interests is to show compassion to others. Outer peace must come from inner peace.”

The future is bright in the 21st century, he believes, and we all have a role to play. “The main purpose of (teachers) is to transform minds.” If they do their job, the next generation has “a real opportunity to see a better world: friendlier, happier and peaceful.”

Action, he concluded, will be more important that prayer. “A world without armament is very possible.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Free Tibet

Despite all the feelings of goodwill surrounding the visit of the Dalai Lama to the University of Oregon, not quite everyone on campus was so thoroughly enamored by the unprecedented visit by His Holiness.

For some Chinese students at UO, the Dalai Lama is an “enemy to Chinese,” according to The Emerald, the independent news organization on campus. (Full disclosure: I was a reporter for The Emerald -- formerly the Oregon Daily Emerald -- for several years as an undergraduate at UO). From the point of view of some Chinese students, Tibet is a province of China and its people are in rebellion.

However, most Tibetans disagree with this perception; they feel they are an autonomous country that China has invaded illegally in violation of international law. A quick review of Tibetan history appears to support this stance. Tibet has primarily been its own country since roughly the time of Christ.

Though Tibetans and Chinese have been fighting for centuries, other cultures have also laid claim to Tibet -- the Mongols, Indians and Nepalese. In 1950, when it was clear that the People’s Liberation Army led by Mao Zedong would defeat the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, Tibet expelled both sides in the dispute.

When Mao assumed power, the Chinese government moved to secure Tibet quickly, assuming sovereignty in a “Seventeen Point Agreement” that the Dalai Lama -- as both temporal and spiritual leader -- refused to acknowledge. During a rebellion in 1959, His Holiness fled Tibet along with 100,000 other Tibetans and established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.

Since then, the Chinese government has destroyed over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and shrines and millions of Tibetans have died. Today, more than 300,000 Chinese soldiers remain in Tibet. Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation is exemplified by cases of self-immolation by Tibetan monks, the most outward sign of protest.

The real question here is who invaded Tibet? The Chinese? Or the communists? The government in China is radically different under the communists and unaccepting of religion. But even the Dalai Lama believes that Tibet needs the support of China’s central government. In turn, China needs to respect Tibet’s own culture and diversity.

But back to the issue of the Dalai Lama on campus as it relates to international students from China: some are concerned the UO will be dropped from the Chinese Ministry of Education’s list of accredited universities, but others are less concerned: “America is a kind of like ‘freedom country,’” one international student from China told The Emerald. “So people can do anything they want because it is legal.”

Freedom, huh? Irony aside, that kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? Most Tibetans -- including His Holiness -- would likely agree.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Educating Tenzin

One of the more compelling questions about His Holiness is this: Just how is a Dalai Lama -- the one who is revered by all Tibetan Buddhists -- chosen?

The short answer is: his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. But the story is much more complex.

The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of those who have been exempted from the circle of life and death.

When the 13th Dalai Lama died at the age of 57 in 1933, a search party was organized by the Tibetan government to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

As the 13th Dalai Lama was lying in state, his head was discovered to have turned from facing south to northeast. Shortly after that, the regent -- himself a senior lama -- had a vision of a three-story monastery with a turquoise and gold roof with a path running up a hill, along with a small house with strangely shaped gutters.

As a result, the search party was sent to the northeastern province. As they searched the neighboring villages, they saw gnarled branches of juniper on the roof of a house and they were certain the new Dalai Lama would not be far away.

Approaching the house of the parents of the 14th Dalai Lama, the group asked to stay the night but did not reveal their purpose. The leader of the party then pretended to be a servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house. The child seemingly recognized the servant as a lama, and the next day the search party left, only to return a few days later.

This time they brought a number of articles belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, along with several items that did not. In every case, the toddler correctly identified those items that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, saying: "It's mine. It's mine." This convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation, and it was not long before the boy from Takster was acknowledged as the Dalai Lama.

Eventually, the boy -- along with his parents and a large group consisting of the search party and other pilgrims -- ventured to Lhasa to begin to receive his primary education. In accordance with tradition, His Holiness forfeited his given name -- Lhamo Thondup -- and assumed his new name, Tenzin Gyatso.

The curriculum was the same as that of all monks pursuing a doctorate in Buddhist studies -- logic, Tibetan art and culture, Sanskrit, medicine and Buddhist philosophy. The final and most difficult focus (and hence, most important) includes five categories: the perfection of wisdom; the philosophy of the Middle Way; the canon of monastic discipline; metaphysics; and logic.

Tenzin Gyatso completed his doctorate when he was 25 years old.

During the final examinations, he was queried by 30 scholars on logic, and debated 15 scholars on the subject of the Middle Path. Finally, 35 scholars tested his knowledge of the canon of monastic discipline and the study of metaphysics. Conducted before an audience of monk scholars, His Holiness passed the examinations with honors.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Far-Flung Friends

For me, one of the more interesting storylines about the Dalai Lama is his relationship with Heinrich Harrer, one of four men who first scaled the formidable north wall of The Eiger (above) in the Swiss Alps.

As a youth, Harrer was an Olympic-caliber skier, but mountain climbing was his true passion. Having climbed the fearsome vertical cliffs of the North Face of The Eiger (documented in his book, “The White Spider”), Harrer won a spot on a Himalayan expedition to the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat in Kashmir in 1939.

While enroute, the four-man team led by Peter Aufschnailer was placed under the “protection” of British solders in Karachi, Pakistan. Two days later, England declared war on Germany. As Austrians, all were sent to British prisoner-of-war camps near Bombay, India.

However, Harrer and Aufschnailer eventually escaped after several attempts and found their way to Tibet, their only possible avenue of escape -- one that would have been impossible to all but trained mountaineers. Arriving in the capital of Lhasa, the pair became salaried employees of the Tibetan government.

Harrer later became tutor to the XIV Dalai Lama in English, geography and science. The two would remain lifelong friends. He documented his experiences in his book “Seven Years in Tibet," which became a bestseller in the U.S. and was the basis of the 1997 film of the same title (above) featuring Brad Pitt in the role of Harrer.

In a foreword in the book, His Holiness writes that “Harrer has always been a friend to Tibet. His most important contribution to our cause introduced hundreds of thousands of people to my country.” In 2002, the Dalai Lama recognized Harrer with the Light of Truth Award for his efforts to bring the situation in Tibet to international attention.