As the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama says he practices compassion to such an extent that he tries to avoid swatting mosquitoes "when my mood is good and there is no danger of malaria," sometimes watching with interest as they swell with his blood.
Yet, in an appearance Tuesday at USC, he appeared to suggest that the United States was justified in killing Osama bin Laden.
As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, "Forgiveness doesn't mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures."
It was, perhaps, an example of the Dalai Lama confounding expectations, something he appears to relish doing. The 75-year-old leader spoke on the first day of what was to have been a four-day trip to Southern California; he was delayed by two days when he fell ill in Japan.
Aides said he was forced to cancel appearances in Long Beach on Sunday and at UCLA on Monday because doctors had advised him not to attempt the long flight from Tokyo until he felt better. He had been in Japan offering condolences and support after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
He showed no ill effects when he took the stage at USC's Galen Center on Tuesday morning. Appearing robust and in good humor, he told the audience that he had suffered first from a sore throat, then from side effects of medication that made him "very faint."
"Today, I feel terrific," he said before putting on a red and gold USC baseball cap that fortuitously matched the colors of his traditional robes.
This was the Dalai Lama's first U.S. visit since stepping down recently as the day-to-day political leader of Tibet's government in exile, and his focus was largely on spiritual matters. He fled Tibet in 1959 as Chinese forces consolidated control over the country, and has lived in India ever since, frequently traveling the world in support of the Tibetan cause.
His speech at USC was titled, "Secular Ethics, Human Values and Society," a topic that was sufficiently broad to allow him to range over matters as diverse as the consciousness of animals, the strengths of India's multicultural society and the nature of happiness.
The Dalai Lama spoke about the importance of religious tolerance, and about the shared values of all major religions. But he said that people could not attain happiness through prayer, and that "this happy life is not a religious concept." Happiness, he said, is a secular concept, so "our aim is secular."
"I'm Buddhist," he said. "I respect religion. But I talk always about secularism."
The audience, which included some 3,000 USC students, responded to his message respectfully, even adoringly. Afterward, however, some complained that they had trouble understanding him; the Dalai Lama often speaks about thorny concepts in accented English, sometimes relying on a translator to fill in gaps.
Many others said they were inspired. And some spoke about the Dalai Lama in the sort of enigmatic terms one might expect of the Buddhist leader himself.
"I think truth is eternal, so we did not expect new truth," said the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal pastor. "But I think we were reading the truth of him; therefore, the truth took on new meaning. He was metaphysical and physical."
On Wednesday, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to accept an award from Amnesty International in Long Beach and speak at UC Irvine before leaving California.