This may sound a little irreverent, but I’ll say it. The Dalai Lama is a rock star. The parallels between HH the 14th Dalai Lama and rock stars are too many to list, and once I allow myself this irreverence, I can write truthfully. We all need celebrities in our lives, even celebrities do. And Dalai Lama is the celebrity’s celebrity.
Much as I would like to assume the pose of a dispassionate intellectual when it comes to the Dalai Lama, I am afraid that the reality is a little different. I too am one of his fans. And what follows is my story of when this celebrity monk came to my town.
One day, by complete chance, I happened to be skimming through the local events section of a free weekly newspaper called The Chicago Reader when I noticed that The Dalai Lama was visiting Chicago the next day, a Saturday, and was giving a public lecture in Millennium Park. There was a date mentioned when the readers could purchase tickets, but that date was already in the past.
I was very eager to go attend the event. Past attempts to travel to see him in Bloomington (he has an elder brother at Indiana University) and elsewhere had not materialized. Also, his health hadn’t been too good of late, and in recent visits, he had sometimes canceled his appearances. That night, my wife Rupal and I searched the Web to see if we could somehow get tickets for his lecture.
We just weren’t prepared for the craziness. Half of Chicago, or so it seemed to us, was desperate to get tickets. Some people were offering astronomical amounts of money for the tickets, and scalpers were cashing in on this demand. There was complete chaos in the Chicago-area CraigsList. There were dozens and dozens of people claiming all kinds of reasons why they really wanted (needed) the tickets. Many of these postings I found hilarious as well as a little sad. A number of people stated that they didn’t have money, but said they would pay it back by working for or running errands for anyone willing to give them tickets. I remember one post – the person didn’t have any money, but he was willing to trade his (old) bicycle for one ticket and the chance to see the Dalai Lama. Also, I found the utter conviction of some of these people quite touching – “I’ve had a bad year, I really need the enlightenment,” one poster said. In comparison to these people, I was merely a curious about the Dalai Lama.
In the middle of all this frenzy the hope of getting hold of two tickets was diminishing. We called every seller in CraigsList and most said that the tickets were long gone. We left our phone number with the others. The face value of each ticket was $10. Rupal and I decided that we would go up to $80 for two tickets, but no more. A hundred dollars seemed too high for an event we weren’t even aware of hours before.
Some sellers called back. Anything that was well over our set limit, we rejected outright. One lady called us twice to see how high she could get us to go. We told her $80 was our limit. We also told her that we’d be awake till very late in case she still was unable to sell them. She did call late that night, after 11p.m., saying that her sale had fallen through and that she still had two tickets left. She wanted $100 for the pair. We were both tempted to break our self-imposed $80 limit. But she lived in Palos Heights, well over 30 miles away from our apartment and I had no intention of driving that distance each way so late in the night. So we reluctantly told her thanks, but no thanks.
That night, before going to bed, I was racked with second thoughts. In the grand scheme of things, twenty dollars meant nothing to me, whereas the Dalai Lama did. And yet, one had to draw the line somewhere.
The next morning, we got up early because there was a webcast of the Dalai Lama performing a Buddhist prayer ceremony in a Chicago location. The video of it was being shown live on the Web. It was an intense and somber ceremony, and he addressed those who were praying for a few minutes.
Soon after that, we got ready and drove out to downtown Chicago, completely on a limb. Heeding Woody Allen’s dictum to simply show up, we were driving the 25 miles without tickets in hand. Enroute, I stopped at an ATM so that we could have over a hundred dollars in cash to buy the tickets with.
In downtown, the normally difficult parking situation was particularly nightmarish, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s presence. Our plan was that Rupal would go and look for two tickets, while I circled the venue, Millennium Park, until she gave me the signal to park. Parking was quite expensive, and wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t get the tickets.
I drove around the area for over 20 minutes, which seemed like a huge amount of time when watching the clock, until I finally spotted Rupal coming towards the car. Even from a very good distance, seeing her energetic stride, I could tell that she had managed to obtain the tickets.
She said that she’d gotten the first ticket fairly easily. She’d had to pay just the $10 face value, though we were ready to offer a lot more. Apparently the second ticket had proved a lot more elusive. Rupal had walked up and down the long lines of people waiting to get in, hoping that someone would want to sell her one ticket. Then a lady walked over to Rupal, said she had one extra ticket and simply handed it over to Rupal. Repeated offers to pay her were firmly refused. Flushed with our success at getting two tickets, we opted for a pricier parking lot at a nearby apartment complex.
It took us more than 30 minutes in the queue to get past the park entrance gate. The Dalai Lama was drawing crowds from every strata of society – 11,000 tickets, all sold out. At the $10 face value per ticket, I wondered if $110,000 could cover all the expenses triggered by this event. After seeing the number security guards and all the extra policemen and computing the overtime costs that they city had to pay them for coming to work on a Saturday, I realized that the city was actually subsidizing the cost. There was no way that $10 per ticket could cover all the expenses. The tax-paying citizens of Chicago were footing part of the bill.
I also had no idea that there were so many Tibetans in Chicago. They were there in vast numbers, their colorful aprons sparkling over the traditional dresses. Extraordinarily cute kids, fresh-faced young women, as well as older men and women with deeply lined faces had all turned up to pay homage to their spiritual leader.
The venue, Millennium Park is basically a huge grass lawn, with a curved retractable metal roof for when it gets cold. We found a small amount of space to sit, squeezing in between hordes of people waiting for the Dalai Lama to show up. I went to check out the souvenir stand set up for the occasion, which had a huge line of eager customers. Colorful T-shirts, monk’s robes, prayer flags and beads were selling faster than the cartons could be cut open by the harried volunteers. It was exactly like being in a rock concert, picking up mementos while waiting for the headliner to appear on stage.
After a prayer of invocation, throat-singing by 4 monks, and a quick and lively dance by Tibetan children, the man everyone was waiting for showed up smiling. The Dalai Lama’s lecture for the day was titled Finding Inner Peace in a World Full of Turmoil.
In his maroon and orange robe, he sat on a high chair, alone on the stage. “Some people say I have healing powers. That is nonsense!” He started out laughing merrily. He pointed to his bald head, laughed again and said, “See, the inner wisdom is shining out from here!" By starting out with irreverence, he was telling the audience that it was okay to laugh. He had a very infectious laugh, and though his subjects were serious he seemed to find amusement in many things.
“I am just a monk, a simple monk. And today, we’ll just talk. Okay?” The famed Dalai Lama charisma was on, full force.
And for the next forty-five minutes he spoke as if addressing each member of the audience one on one, switching seamlessly from topic to topic. A translator offered the Dalai Lama occasional help in articulating complex ideas in English by supplying the right word. He talked of the need for analytical meditation, of thinking for ourselves, the need for love and compassion and tolerance, and of the futility of hatred and force. He urged the audience to find some quiet time for themselves, and said that they needed to learn to be still with themselves and to learn to just observe.
People listened to him with rapt attention. It was a windy day and the prayers were fluttering above him. I noticed that just beyond the barriers of the park, groups of people gathered by the loudspeakers, straining to listen to him even though they hadn’t been able to get admission.
“Inner peace is more important than physical comfort,” he said and "War, I feel, is outdated. We cannot rely on using force." As I listened to him it occurred to me that we tend to like people who echo our own thoughts. The Dalai Lama had the charm to convince you that he was no more than an avuncular family friend of yours.
Like many great speakers he included multiple stories and made them very accessible.
“It is so cold here”, he said, drawing his robe tighter around him. He looked up and saw the Tibetan flag fluttering. The flag reminded him of a story of the time when he was a mere boy and Mao Zedong had invited him to Beijing. Apparently Mao had been okay with them flying the Tibetan flag in Lhasa and had given him permission to do so. But the Dalai Lama remembered something else about that day. Mao, who was having a bout of severe cough and cold, had invited the Dalai Lama to share a meal with him. After coughing all over his bowl of noodles, Mao noticed his guest’s empty bowl and using his chopsticks, he had transferred some noodles from his bowl to the Dalai Lama’s, urging his guest to eat some more. The Dalai Lama’s discomfort at having to eat the contaminated noodles for the sake of decorum came through in his narration, even after all those decades.
Not even the Dalai Lama was above some name dropping. While mentioning conflict, he brought up George W. Bush. “He is a good man. Some leaders are…like that, like that,” the Dalai Lama did an impression of a haughty standoffish bureaucrat who’s aloof. “But not Bush. He is a very friendly man. I know him! I wrote a letter to him after September 11.”
In another story, he was telling us about meeting a fellow monk who had come to meet the Dalai Lama in 1989 or so. They had both known each other in Lhasa, before the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet. This other monk had stayed back. This other monk’s life, at the hands of the Chinese authorities had become a struggle.
“There were times when it was difficult to feel compassion for the Chinese,” the Dalai Lama told the audience. He never once directly laid blame squarely on the Chinese. By telling us a story of his fellow monk, he created a parallel universe, telling us what his own life might have been like, had he not slipped away to India. The narration was very adept, and was also diabolically clever in that it made us feel outrage without him ever coming right out and blaming anyone.
He then used that story as a jumping off point to introduce two types of compassion – one that he called ‘limited compassion’ and the other that he said was the ‘unbiased compassion,’ and asked the listeners to strive for that. And right before the vast audience could lose focus and attention, the Dalai Lama skillfully brought his lecture to a close.
In spite of my attempts to remain objective and even critical, I came away very impressed by the man. Although there is no agreed-upon definition for greatness the Dalai Lama seemed to fit the bill.
For me the biggest takeaway was what he said towards the very end, during the Q & A following his lecture. What is the answer to all the terrorism in the world? someone had wanted to know. As part of his response, the Dalai Lama said that the way to peace was through teaching today’s school children that conflict and walking away weren’t the answers.
“The most important thing we can teach children,” he said, “is that we need to keep the dialog going.”