Campus Visitors: Dalai Lama

Tibet’s head of state and spiritual leader offers campus a lesson on “training the mind.”
by Liz Getman ’09

A group of meditating Tibetan monks knelt on stage, framed by a throne-like platform covered in dark red pillows and gold silk blankets. Their voices rose in a deep and sonorous chant that resonated throughout Ben Light Gymnasium, quieting the whispers of the waiting crowd. Then, almost as one, the monks and audience members rose silently to their feet to welcome their honored guest.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, addressed the crowd with an embracing warmth, speaking in a calm, yet commanding, tone. Sitting cross-legged atop the decorated platform, the slight but compelling 72-year-old spoke to his audience of the need for peace among all people, regardless of religious background.

“It is very important to make an effort to promote harmony among all,” he said. “Just a few meetings, [and the] exchange of a smile is not sufficient.”

The Dalai Lama is the head of state and spiritual leader of Tibet, and is recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the patron saint of Tibet and Bodhisattva, or enlightened being, of compassion. Bodhisattvas postpone their own nirvana and choose rebirth to serve humanity.

As part of his series of local speaking engagements titled “Bridging Worlds,” His Holiness presented the ancient Buddhist text, “Eight Verses on Training the Mind” to an audience that strained the capacity of Ben Light Gym at about 2,000. (Many others watched on screens in locations around campus, and the entire event was simulcast online.) The verses, written by Tibetan monk Langri Thangpa in the 11th century, offer essential practices for awakening compassion, wisdom, and love in the mind.

Suzanne Motheral, a student in the gerontology certificate program who attended his lecture, says the Dalai Lama teaches the eight verses in an “enriching” way — one that motivates listeners to improve the world around them. “He is a scholar and an expert,” Motheral says. “Given the adversity he has faced — his many years in exile — how he handles conflict is so inspiring.”

His Holiness spoke in both English and Tibetan — an interpreter instantly translated for the audience — explaining that the verses highlight the importance of selflessness and describe how to engage with others more compassionately. “If one lets go of the importance of ‘I,’ he is able to communicate to another, and can feel true happiness,” he said. “Let go of clinging to one’s self.”

President Peggy R. Williams, who introduced the Dalai Lama as a “simple monk” — the way he thinks of himself — encouraged the audience to listen to his message of peace. “My hope is that students, and all who were present, remember this as they continue their studies, and reflect on what his lessons meant to them,” the president says. “It’s about people respecting one another’s faith traditions. Ultimately, we all care about humankind.”

In 1989 His Holiness was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Tibet, which has been occupied by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China for more than 40 years. His commitment to nonviolence is just one way that he furthers the bridging of all worlds. “[Through] altruism, there is a possibility to eliminate destructive feelings and hatred,” he explained to the Ithaca crowd.

During his four days in Ithaca, His Holiness spoke at Cornell University in front of an audience of 5,000, and at the State Theatre to a crowd of 1,600. His visit centered around the blessing of Ithaca’s new Namgyal Monastery, which will accommodate a greater number of students and monks when finished in summer 2008. Namgyal Monastery is the Dalai Lama’s North American base and personal monastery. Lane Chambliss, a local architect who designed the new complex, attended the Dalai Lama’s blessing of the monastery, and says the experience was “especially moving. I could sense his thoughtfulness and compassion. What he has to teach is so worth knowing and so valuable in the world.”

With a smile and a soft laugh, His Holiness concluded his presentation, encouraging all present to practice altruistic ideals. The crowd recited a set of verses — “Generating the Mind for Enlightenment” — together, in a rhythmic beat reminiscent of the chanting from two hours earlier:

As long as space endures,
as long as sentient beings remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world.

Just one week after visiting Ithaca College, the Dalai Lama was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. George W. Bush presented the medal to the Tibetan leader, describing him as a “man of sincerity and peace.”