By turns mirthful, wise and solemn, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama addressed a full-house crowd in Middlebury on Saturday. His remarks — titled "Finding Common Ground: Ethics for a Whole World" — ranged from personal prayer to political beliefs, and hinged on the importance of compassion and mindfulness.
"If you can help other, serve other as much as you can, that's the proper way to lead meaningful life," said the Dalai Lama in his halting, deliberate English.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet and the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Saturday's midmorning address — which had some ticketholders queueing up well before 6 a.m. for good seats — came after a Friday afternoon talk in which the Dalai Lama addressed the college's students, faculty and staff. Both events are available to stream online at the Middlebury College website.
The day's address kicked off with remarks first from Middlebury College president Ronald D. Liebowitz — but the president's introduction was interrupted when the Dalai Lama, accompanied by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), appeared on stage midsentence. Led by a contingent of Tibetan Vermonters, the crowd leapt to its feet in the first of at least four standing ovations.
"Nobody could really introduce this man and give him credit," said Leahy a few moments later, praising the Dalai Lama for his steady voice of compromise, tolerance and peace. "Here in Vermont, your Holiness, we think of you as our friend."
The Dalai Lama's address, as well as his answers to questions submitted by the audience in advance, were far ranging. He stressed the interdependence of individuals on the planet, citing an old Hawaiian saying that "Your blood is my blood, your bone is my bone."
"I think that means, 'Your happiness is my happiness, your suffering is my suffering,'" he said. Later he added, "Destruction of your enemy is truly destruction of yourself."
He also praised American freedom and democracy, calling the country a source of inspiration for Tibetans struggling under the oppression of the Chinese government. He also said that while he considers himself a Marxist, the American system of capitalism has fostered tremendouse innovation and individual creativity — "really the greatest gift to American people," he said. He also warned against relying too heavily on what he termed "sensory experience," advocating for meditation and times of quiet in a busy, materialistic world.
His remarks were punctuated by moments of deep humor, in which the Dalai Lama himself laughed so joyfully that he rocked in his seat. He joked that in order to finance a visit to Tibet, visitors should purchase antiques to resell in the United States ("a little bit dirty, maybe some smell," he acknowledged). Asked if he had a "secret" to his smile and outlook on life, he responded, "If there is some secret thing there, then I should keep as a secret."
Some of the morning's most poignant remarks followed after the Dalai Lama paused thoughtfully before answering a question about how prayer works. He spoke of the internal benefit one takes from prayer, but added, "I do not believe peace will come through prayer. Peace comes through active action. ... Our own future obviously depends on our own action."
This weekend's events marked the Dalai Lama's third visit to Middlebury College; he visited the college in 1984 and 1990 for symposiums. Competition for the public tickets were fierce, overloading the college's online ticket sales system in late September. But Vermont's Tibetan community had no trouble securing invitations. They turned out in full force, 150 strong, to listen to their spiritual leader's remarks and to meet with the Dalai Lama for a private audience. "This is a dream come true," said Tsering Dolkar, a Burlington resident who moved to Vermont in 1998. "It's a blessing."
That word — "blessing" — came up repeatedly in conversations with Tibetan and other Buddhist attendees at the Saturday event. "He is everything to us. There is no word to explain," said Tamding Tsering, a South Burlington man who arrived in Vermont in 2006. But Tsering said that the Dalai Lama's words hold resonance for people of all nationalities and faiths — and said his message of contentedness, contemplation and mindfulness is especially relevant in a time of economic crisis.
"If you read his message twice, you will find a new meaning," said Tsering. "That's the beauty of his speech."