Seeing the Dalai Lama in person is a combination of religious service and rock concert—or so I concluded after seeing this great spiritual leader in Louisville, Kentucky, in May of 2013.
There were 15,000 of us packed into an arena in downtown Louisville, a crowd that buzzed with excitement and anticipation. Just outside the main hall were food and trinket vendors selling slices of pizza as well as meditation bracelets and “Take Back the Yak” T-shirts.
If people were expecting a quiet, meditative experience, they’d come to the wrong place. But the celebratory atmosphere reminded me that religious experiences come in a wide variety of forms (and that when Jesus fed the five thousand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, there were probably some enterprising merchants in the back selling souvenirs to mark the occasion).
All the hoopla points to a paradox surrounding the Dalai Lama. In one sense, he embodies the exotic and foreign, hailing from remote Tibet and revered as the leader of a religious tradition steeped in mystery for most Westerners.
His followers believe him to be the 14th incarnation of Valokiteshvara, also known as Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. In other words, in the hierarchy of religious leadership he’s way above the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, or Grand Ayatollah.
At the same time, many of us feel a personal connection to the Dalai Lama, even if we know little about Tibetan Buddhism. He has become a worldwide symbol of compassion and peace in a way that transcends religious differences. An added paradox is that while he’s personally modest, he has a kind of high-wattage celebrity that outshines that of many Hollywood stars.
Dalai Lama’s Message
The Dalai Lama’s address (delivered in English with the occasional assistance of a translator) touched on a variety of topics. He praised Louisville for its efforts to encourage compassion among its citizens, saying that all cities should follow its model. He spoke of respecting all religious faiths and of how we must maintain loving-kindness towards those who have hurt us even as we work to end injustice.
But to be honest, I don’t remember what the Dalai Lama said as much as I recall the magnetism of his presence. I was fortunate to be just a few yards away from him in the press section and could closely observe how he carried himself and how he related to others on the stage.
He reminded me of a kindly great-uncle at a family reunion, the sort of person everyone wants to be around because he radiates love and good humor. (That impression was reinforced when he put on a visor to help deflect the glare of the lights–it made him look like he was heading out to a baseball game.)
I had read before about the Dalai Lama’s sense of humor, which is surely the mark of a spiritually advanced soul. I was totally charmed by it in person. Within two minutes of beginning his speech he had the crowd laughing as he made gentle fun of the nervousness of the monk who had introduced him.
His deep, infectious laugh put people at ease and invited them to share in his pleasure. He was also self-effacing in a way that seemed utterly genuine. At one point, for example, he said, “I am a Buddhist––but perhaps you already know that.”
To me one of the most interesting parts of his speech came when he was asked a question from the audience about his friendship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk from Kentucky who had helped pioneer dialogue between Christianity and eastern religious traditions.
He recalled their time together in India in 1968 and the bond that formed between them. “My understanding and respect for Christianity grew out of my friendship with him,” he said. “His death was a great loss, but his spirit still carries.” (For more on Thomas Merton, see A Thomas Merton Tour in Kentucky.)
His spirit still carries. That’s a wonderful turn of phrase, is it not? It brings to mind both the Holy Spirit and the image of Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind. I found it moving to recall the history of their friendship, which began in a remote outpost in the Himalayas and is still honored by the Dalai Lama nearly 50 years later. More than almost anyone else in the modern age, these two men modeled how interfaith dialogue and friendship can enrich and enlighten us all.
After recalling his friendship with Merton, the Dalai Lama went on to tell of a more recent encounter with a Christian monk while on a trip to Spain. “He had spent five years as a hermit in the mountains, but he asked to meet me when I visited his monastery,” he said. “When I met him, I could see in his eyes that he had learned the same lessons that I have. You do not need to leave your own tradition to learn these lessons of love.”
At the end of the Dalai Lama’s presentation, representatives from a variety of faiths gave short responses to his remarks (the speakers had been part of the Festival of Faiths, an annual series of interfaith events and speakers in Louisville).
But the best response to his words was saved until the very last, when members of Louisville’s St. Stephen Temple Choir filed onto the stage and made the rafters ring with several exuberant Gospel songs.
As long as I live I will remember that final scene, as the choir belted out “Oh, Happy Day!” and the Dalai Lama smiled and swayed in his seat and the representatives from the varied faiths clapped their hands. For a few minutes it seemed as if the gates of heaven had opened, offering a glimpse of what paradise will be like when all people will come together in joy and song.
When I left the arena, I had that pleasantly exhausted feeling that comes from having been at a really good party. And come to think of it, that’s exactly what it was.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.