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The Dalai Lama at Lehigh: “I am just one human being”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama speaks at Stabler Arena Thursday.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama began six days of historic teachings at Lehigh University Thursday afternoon with an impassioned call for “mutual respect and mutual understanding” between the world’s peoples and religious traditions.

“I am just one human being,” the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, told the Stabler Arena crowd that came from every continent except Antarctica to attend the teachings. “Among 6 billion human beings, I’m just one of them. We all 6 billion human beings share one planet. We all survive under one sun.”

He said the communications revolution and the global economy mean that “actually, we have simply become one community, one entity. In reality, there is no separate, independent, individual interests. Each of our futures are entirely dependent on the rest of humanity, the rest of the world.”

Many of mankind’s problems, he said, stem from “old thinking” and the lack of “that holistic, realistic view.

“It’s just one small planet,” he said.

The Dalai Lama will teach through Tuesday, July 15, on Tsong-kha-pa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: The Lamrim Chenmo. The teachings are sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center of New Jersey .

He also will present a sold out public lecture Sunday afternoon titled, “Generating a Good Heart.”

The Dalai Lama greets well-wishers outside after being welcomed by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast.

As befits a man who refers to himself as “a simple monk,” there was no elaborate opening ceremony. Shortly before 2 p.m., the Dalai Lama walked on stage, smiling and exchanging greetings with the monks, nuns, and personal guests assembled on mats on either side of the throne at the center.

The co-directors of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, Joshua W.C. Cutler and his wife, Diana Cutler, were greeted by His Holiness when he took the stage. Each presented him with a white silk scarf, called a khata, which the Dalai Lama blessed and then draped around their necks.

Joshua Cutler served as Editor-in-Chief of the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, which brought together more than a dozen scholars from around the world to translate The Great Treatise.

The Dalai Lama welcomed the crowd in English, with a simple: “Good afternoon, everybody!”

He joked that the three-volume Great Treatise “is quite a thick book. Reading all of this book in a few days, impossible.”

Then, he related the poignant story of why the text means so much to him.

Holding up a well-worn copy of the book, he told the rapt audience: “I brought with me my own personal book of Lam Rim Chen Mo because this text—on the 17th of March, 1959, when I left Norbulingka that night—this book, I brought with me.”

The reference was to the night that the Dalai Lama, fearing for his own life and the lives of thousands of Tibetans from the Chinese government, left his native Tibet to go into exile in India.

After brief opening remarks about the text, followed by chanting in three different languages of a sutra drawn from it, the Dalai Lama offered a brief overview of “my views or commitments.”

While acknowledging to appreciative laughter that he is “sometimes described as a staunch Buddhist,” the Dalai Lama said that believers and non-believers alike, as well as those from other religious traditions, can find meaning in the Buddhist message of “infinite altruism.”

Just the day before, he said, he had participated in early morning prayers with Muslims. His playful sense of humor was evident throughout the afternoon session, and he laughed as he recalled how he must have looked wearing “my Buddhist monk’s robe and Muslim hat.

“It was very, very hot, very humid,” he said. “So still, my robe”—and at this point, he sniffed his robe—“some smell.” He later joked that it was “the scent of sound ethical discipline.”

He encouraged those attending to join him in his efforts “to promote religious harmony and genuine respect.” He added that cultivating an understanding and respect for other religious traditions is “very important, since the September 11th event.”

The Dalai Lama delivered his opening remarks about his “views and commitments” in English, and then spoke in his native Tibetan for the teachings on the text. Thupten Jinpa, of Montreal, served as principal translator for the teaching.

In an interview following the afternoon session, Lloyd Steffen, the professor of religion studies and university chaplain who organized a year of academic events on Lehigh’s campus leading up to the Dalai Lama’s appearance, said he had “a great time.

“It’s a terrific thing that a spiritual leader attracts this kind of attention these days. He’s not a politician. He’s not a rock star … All is not lost.”

“Like a dream”

The crowd lined up early outside Stabler Arena to get in for the teachings.

The crowd attending the teaching spanned generations as well as continents. Three Taiwanese college students traveled from New York City for the teachings. All three saw the Dalai Lama when he appeared at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2007.

“This is very exciting because I am Buddhist, so the Dalai Lama for me is like a teacher. I studied the Lam Rim Chen Mo for awhile so this is very useful for me,” said Mike Yang, a student at Columbia University. “For me, it’s like a dream.”

Eve Pii, who attends the Fashion Institute of Technology, said: “When I studied by myself, I only could understand it piece by piece. But the Dalai Lama can give us the whole teaching. It’s a further explanation of the words, because this is not only words.”

After the lecture, Riccardo Spezzaterro joined a surge of people who stood in a long line at an outpost of the Lehigh Bookstore. He was already immersed in one of three books he would be taking home with him to North Brookfield, Mass.

“I heard him speak for the first time in Boston,” Spezzaterro said. “This was the first time he did this text in the United States and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Spezzaterro is a fairly new practitioner of Buddhism, having first been introduced to it while doing relief work in Nepal with Buddhists and Tibetan refugees. “I’m loosely familiar with the texts, but looking to gain inspiration,” he said.

Four practicing Buddhists who work with The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition traveled from Portland, Oregon after hearing about the visit more than a year ago.

Having arrived in Bethlehem at 4 a.m. Thursday, they missed the morning teaching, but eagerly anticipated the afternoon session.

Devout followers, they had traveled to see His Holiness in Vancouver, San Francisco, Switzerland and India within the past couple of years.

“I get chills just thinking about it,” said Harry Sutton. “We are Dalai Lama groupies."

“Warm-up acts”

Venerable Thubten Chodron sought to put the audience in the proper frame of mind for the Dalai Lama's teaching.

The two-hour morning session, which began at 9:30 a.m., featured speeches by two of the foremost teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in Venerable Thubten Chodron and Tenzin Robert A.F. Thurman, the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.

Prior to their talks, Guy Newland, professor of religion and chairperson of the department of philosophy and religion at Central Michigan University and author of the 2008 book Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, welcomed the audience to the event.

Then at 9:35 a.m., Donald S. Lopez, the Arthur E. Link Distinguished Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, took the microphone to introduce Chodron and Thurman, the duo whom Lopez good-naturedly referred to as the Dalai Lama’s “warm-up acts”—drawing chuckles from the audience, as well as from Chodron and Thurman themselves.

“One is a man (Thurman), one is a woman (Chodron). One is a nun (Chodron) and the other is a layman (Thurman). One has a soft voice (Chodron), the other has a loud voice (Thurman),” Lopez said in his introduction. “But both are perfectly qualified to prepare you for the Dalai Lama’s teachings.”

Chodron said the goal of her talk was to put the audience in the proper frame of mind for His Holiness’ teachings by asking them to not “believe everything that they think”—in others, to be open to learning more about themselves, about Buddhism and about others—and to check their “I-centered” thinking at the door.

“You have the ability to change your experience and the life experience of others by changing your mind,” Chodron said. “Instead of looking at the faults of others in a magnifying glass, (you should) look at your own in a mirror.”

Once an honest self-assessment has been performed and people come to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them, Chodron theorized that those in the audience would be able to act with love and compassion and travel on the “path to enlightenment” discussed in The Great Treatise.

“It’s important for us to realize that these teachings aren’t just something for us to listen to,” Chodron said. “We aren’t here just to hear the Dalai Lama speak because he’s famous or because he’s a celebrity. We’re coming here because of a deeper spiritual yearning. That spiritual yearning isn’t going to be satisfied by just listening to the teachings. Listening to the teachings is the first step, because first we have to get the information. Then we have to think about the teaching in the context of our lives and then integrate the teachings into our lives.”

Tenzin Robert A.F. Thurman told the crowd that the Dalai Lama's teachings are "a jeweled treasure that should be kept in your heart and in your bookshelf."

While Chodron’s talk focused on getting the audience in the proper mindset for the teachings, Thurman’s role was to give the audience a better understanding of the teachers—beginning with Tsong-kha-pa, the author of The Great Treatise, and ending with the Dalai Lama. Thurman’s rationale was that in order to understand the teachings at Lehigh, audience members first had to understand the teachers.

“What you are going to receive over the next four-and-a-half days with these teachings is the greatest thing, but it might take you five years to fully understand,” Thurman cautioned during his 50-minute talk. “But these teachings are a jeweled treasure that should be kept in your heart and in your bookshelf. And the man teaching you over the next few days (the Dalai Lama) is a wish-fulfilling treasure and you should cherish the time that you get to spend with, the time you get to learn from him.

“.... You’ll remember this time, these few days, as a turning point in your life, in the life of your family, in the life of Bethlehem and in the life of Lehigh University, because each positive shift that occurs in your mind causes a shift in the rest of our minds. We all shift together. And in a short while, the Shift-meister (the Dalai Lama) will arrive and it will be an awesome experience.”

When the Dalai Lama’s six-car motorcade—four black cars and two police cars—arrived at Stabler Arena at 12:55 p.m., there was a round of applause from the audience members, monks and volunteers who were enjoying their lunch break in the parking lot. His Holiness stepped out of a black Cadillac and was greeted by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast and Lehigh Provost Mohamed El-Aasser.

Gast presented the Tibetan Buddhist leader with a khata and the Dalai Lama blessed the ceremonial scarf, touching it to his forehead before wrapping it around Gast’s shoulders. He then shook El-Aasser’s hand before turning to acknowledge and then bow to the onlookers, one of whom shouted “Happy Birthday” (His Holiness turned 73 on July 6). Another woman yelled, “Please teach us.”

For the rest of the afternoon, that’s just what he did.

Single day tickets are still available for the teachings, with the exception of the Sunday, July 13 morning session, which has been filled. Tickets are $45-$60 per day, with each single-day ticket covering both the morning and afternoon sessions. Tickets can be ordered from Ticketmaster online at: Ticketmaster.com, by phone at (215) 336-2000, (570) 693-4100 or (610) 233-0006, and in person at any Ticketmaster outlet and at the Stabler Arena box office.

--Jack Croft, Tricia Long and Bill Doherty

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Thursday, July 10, 2008

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