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Dalai Lama: Humble Man Inspires Awe

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

His smiling visage appears as computer screen savers. His lectures sell out within minutes. His books have just made American publishing history when, for the first time, a religious leader landed two tomes on national bestseller lists at the same time.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, perennially describes himself as just a “simple Buddhist monk.” But as he addressed the World Sacred Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday, amid the fanfare of a rock star and security worthy of the highest heads of state, the question arises:

Why does a 64-year-old Buddhist monk from an obscure place on the roof of the world command such global respect and admiration?

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Here’s one thought from Bryan Borys, a USC public administration professor enjoying a weekend walk a few miles from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where the Dalai Lama will offer a sold-out, three-day teach-in beginning Tuesday. Borys has never practiced Buddhism--he was raised a Catholic--but finds the man fascinating.

“I think he’s the closest thing to a hero that anyone has around here nowadays,” Borys said. “We have a real hard time finding people we can look up to. The Dalai Lama is motivated by kindness and love, whereas a lot of people on the religious right seem motivated by meanness.”

The Dalai Lama’s broad appeal hardly seems more complex than that. He seems caring, people say. He seems genuine. He lives simply, wearing a maroon and saffron robe every day. His one apparent luxury, a Rolex watch, was a gift from Franklin Roosevelt. He actually seems to practice what he preaches, the rare leader who has managed to stay untarnished by any hint of personal scandal.

And he’s humble. Despite his stature in today’s relentless celebrity culture--and his coterie of Hollywood supporters from Richard Gere to Goldie Hawn--the Dalai Lama firmly resists efforts to idolize him. He consistently declares he possesses no supernatural powers despite widespread legends of the metaphysical gifts of Tibetan masters.

At one teach-in, recalled longtime follower Carol Hamilton--a Beverly Hills attorney who has founded pro-Tibet advocacy groups--one woman asked the Dalai Lama why her health improved in his presence.

The Dalai Lama smiled. “I don’t know,” he answered.

Many at Bowl Moved to Tears

On Sunday, before a near-capacity crowd of more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, the Dalai Lama’s powerful personal impact was immediately evident. As he walked onto the stage, smiling and bowing, the crowd rose and gave him an ovation.

Some people fought back tears, others openly wept.

“He’s phenomenal. Just to see him [in person] and hear him talk was very uplifting,” said John Paterson, a North Hollywood computer technician. “He says things we all know in our hearts to be true, but it’s hard for a lot of people to put it into practice.”

His wife, Genevieve Paterson, a massage therapist, said she started crying when she saw the Dalai Lama--and perceived an “instant aura” around him.

She said she came away with the message, “Don’t do harm to others and what extra you have, give it away.”

During 20 minutes of remarks, the Dalai Lama emphasized that a meaningful life was one of peace, happiness and service to others. He appealed to his listeners to embrace others in compassion while cultivating inner tranquillity.

Considered the most venerated figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama made his own humanity clear. He apologized for his raspy voice and jet-lagged manner. He also shared his problems of being the stateless leader of the Tibetan community.

Yet, in a quip that drew laughs from the crowd, he said, “These problems never disturb my sleep or my peace of mind!”

After the fatigued 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner left the stage, several people said they were struck by how he tried to appear ordinary.

Chiara DiGeronimo, a Los Angeles events producer who has supported Tibetan causes for three years, said she found his “down-to-earthness” endearing.

“We think of him as this deity and put him on this pedestal, and he was bringing himself to a human level. And yet we know he’s extraordinary. It just touched my heart,” she said.

William Francke, a Los Angeles scriptwriter, said he completely agreed with the Dalai Lama’s message of mutual respect and wondered aloud why warring religious factions don’t take heed.

“Why don’t people listen to this guy?”

But they are--in droves. The Distinguished Speaker Series sold out tickets to his Wednesday lecture in Pasadena in 15 minutes--a feat not matched by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell or Maya Angelou, said series co-founder Kathy Winterhalder.

The Land of Compassion Buddha, the Rowland Heights center sponsoring the Pasadena teach-in, has been deluged with thousands of calls from throughout the United States and from Japan, Finland, Canada, Costa Rica, Spain and India. Nearly half the callers have been non-Buddhists, said co-organizer Carolyn Hengst.

There was the Christian woman who told Hengst she found herself inexplicably mesmerized by store displays of the Dalai Lama’s gentle, smiling face on the cover of his bestseller “The Art of Happiness” and knew she had to come.

There was the man who figures to spend, all told, nearly $50,000 to fly himself and four staff members from his Pennsylvania healing center to the L.A. events. Peter Amato made his millions selling high-performance auto parts and racing equipment--and, along the way, dipping into drugs and other rowdiness--but now wants to be part of positive change, he said.

Then there was the woman who wanted to come but whose husband’s belief in God made him hesitate. Should they come? Hengst put the wife on the phone with her teacher, Geshe Lobsang Tsephel. He said: “Your husband likes compassion? Your husband likes morality? Your husband likes no suffering for anyone? Then come.” They plan to.

He Can’t Please Everybody

Of course, the Dalai Lama also provokes some complaints. A few callers told Winterhalder that she ought not invite an “idol-worshiper” to speak. The Chinese government protested the issuance of his visa to the United States. Within the Tibetan Buddhist world, the Dalai Lama’s 1996 ban on the worship of a particular deity is provoking dispute.

Hengst and other students of Tibetan Buddhism say the Dalai Lama’s appeal is rooted in far more than “fortune cookie Buddhism,” as one national newspaper put it last year in describing his aphorisms to be happy and caring.

The Dalai Lama, followers say, draws from a deep well of intense daily Buddhist practice--nearly six hours of chanting, meditation and visualization, despite his hectic schedule of lectures, teach-ins, travel, study and dealing with the endless line of people who want to meet him. His luminous presence also reflects, in their belief, the karma of past incarnations and his current one as the 14th manifestation of the Buddha of compassion.

“You just know in your heart you’re in the presence of an extra ordinary person,” said Martin Wassell, a Los Angeles producer and follower of the Dalai Lama for 24 years. “Here is someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.”

But the Dalai Lama reaches well outside the Tibetan Buddhist community. Steeped in decades of rigorous academic training and the finely honed art of dialectic debate, the Dalai Lama is said to delight in discussions with neuroscientists about the nature of consciousness and other mind-twisting matters. He offers thoughts on politics, economics, medicine and the media.

The Dalai Lama has also built ties with other faith communities. Three of his events will take place at Los Angeles synagogues, a matter more of coincidence than design.

But in the last decade, the Dalai Lama has met with Jewish scholars and rabbis to tap the secret of their success in holding together a people in exile. The Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959, and is one of more than 120,000 Tibetans in exile today.

“It’s not hard to see Tibet and China and think about the Hebrews and Egypt,” said Rodger Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” a 1994 best-selling account of an extended dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Jewish rabbis and scholars. Kamenetz and others have told the Dalai Lama that preservation of memory is critical in exile, and have recently begun incorporating prayers for Tibet into their Passover Seders, which commemorate the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt.

To Teresa Sullivan, a Los Angeles shop owner raised as a Catholic, the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists are “essentially the most Christian people I had ever met” in their constant practice of compassion for others.

The Dalai Lama’s ability to distill a 2,500-year tradition of profound complexity with a distinct nontheistic theology into simple, universal messages may represent his greatest genius.

“My religion,” the Dalai Lama frequently says, “is kindness.”


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