They prepared the stage for His Holiness to arrive by filling it with break-dancing boys and girls dancing with gusto, playing guitars and singing. We were in Honolulu, awaiting an appearance by the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist, at an event put on byPillars of Peace.
The event began with ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro who talked about how His Holiness had inspired him with his message of simplicity. To demonstrate, he removed one string of his ukulele and played with only three — showing that even with three strings, there was a lot he could do. He finished by saying that to make music, you must create it inside, before you can bring it outside.
Then the soulful Pam Omidyar, who founded this event together with her husband Pierre, took the stage to introduce the Dalai Lama. Omidyar reminded the 9,000 high-school students in the audience that by the time the Dalai Lama was their age, he had already been exiled from his country, Tibet, and had obtained the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Buddhism.
When the Dalai Lama came out he began by simply bowing — he bowed to Pam, to the singer on the stage, and to the audience. To see him, the embodiment of compassion, bow so genuinely was humbling. It made me want to stand and bow, too.
He was draped in wreathes of Hawaiian flowers, and began by saying that while he loved them, they were too heavy on his shoulders. He took them off, leaving one on as a gesture of respect.
The Dalai Lama started his talk by saying, “You are my brothers and sisters, and I speak to you from that place, because we are all the same.” When he said it, it resonated with everyone out to the last row of the stadium. That is what makes being in his presence transformational: He is so at ease with himself, he puts his audience at ease, too. You sense his authenticity and as he talks there is an overwhelming sense that he embodies the words he is saying.
He explained to the students that there are two levels of compassion: the biological compassion that we feel for our family, our friends, and our loved ones — and then the more substantial compassion which you can extend it to strangers and then to even your enemies.
He asked us all to begin by trying to cultivate it for someone we don’t know very well, and then to extend it to total strangers.
He talked about the gap between perception and reality — how people read a situation by projecting their own emotional baggage, which causes distortion. That is why he emphasized that we all must strive to have transparency in our interactions with people. Otherwise there is mistrust, which causes fear, which can then develop into frustration, anger and violence.
If developing compassion is something we can teach ourselves, then the Dalai Lama’s message is essentially “educating the heart” — an education that is not merely about developing the mind and getting good grades. Rather, it is about fostering an environment where we can learn empathy.
Too often, our society encourages competition and only values power. The result of an education that teaches those skills, I worry, will be insecurity and isolation. True confidence, however, comes from being compassionate to others– which is the main foundation of educating the heart.
The century of our generation has passed — it is now the next generation’s chance to do better than this generation has done, to create a society of connectivity and compassion.
When the Dalai Lama finished speaking, he bowed again and all the students stood and gave him a long, standing ovation. As everyone filed out, I felt grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this amazing man, and to gain a little more understanding of how we can educate our hearts. As we boarded the bus, the wind blowing in the trees made them look a bit like they were bowing, too.
For more by Agapi Stassinopoulos, click here.