Long lines of people waited to pass through metal detectors at the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence on October 17. Absent, though, was the impatience so often evident when similar lines at airports grow too long. Why was everyone so sanguine? They were waiting to see the man Brown had invited to address them: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.Once the crowd of 5,600—most of them Brown students and faculty—was seated, the Dalai Lama emerged from backstage accompanied by members of his entourage and Brown President Christina Paxson. Onstage, she welcomed this spiritual leader of Tibet who, she said, “commands neither an army nor a navy,” and who looks to “resolve, not exploit” the world’s bloody conflicts.
By then the Dalai Lama had slipped on a Brown baseball-style cap and
was peering out at the audience with his photogenic smile. His talk, a
Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs, was
a wide-ranging meditation on “A Global Challenge: Creating a Culture of
Peace.” The word talk seemed a particularly apt description: he riffed
informally on his subject for almost an hour and a half without a
single piece of paper in sight, navigating his way skillfully through
noble sentiments, anecdotes from his world travels, a history of the
last hundred years, and offhand insights into international relations.
He warmed up by presenting two truisms: that human beings have more in
common than they often realize, and that violence leads only to more
violence. Connecting the global to the personal—a link that ran
throughout his lecture—he tied his theme of global peace to the simple
happiness each of us seeks. Freedom from violence in our inner lives as
well as our outer ones, he hinted, is really all that each of us wants.
“Peace is not something sacred,” he said. “We want that peace because we want a happy life.”
At seventy-seven years old, he continued, he has lived through “a
century of bloodshed” that included World War II, two atomic bombings
of Japan, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and
various civil wars. This century’s terrorism, he said, is a“symptom of
last century’s mistakes.”
Then the Dalai Lama paused and said to his audience, “I want to address
mainly the youth.” He asked for a show of hands by people under thirty,
and most hands in the room went up. How many were under twenty, he
wanted to know, and how many were fifteen or less? These, he said, all
made up the generation of the twenty-first century. To the audience
members in their seventies, sixties, or fifties, he said, “We are the
generation of the twentieth century. So our century is gone.”
Now the most important question, he continued, is what kind of century
will the twenty-first be? The responsibility for this century rests “on
younger people’s shoulders. Not my shoulders. For me it’s time to
relax. We are watching you.” Yet what effect can one person have on the
powerful currents of history? To answer that question, he argued, one
has only to look at the popular movements that have succeeded in modern
history. “During the 1960s and ’70s,” he said, we faced the “threat of
nuclear holocaust. That is gone. Not by force, but by popular
movement.” The Soviet Union dissolved because of its own people. In the
Philippines, President Marcos relinquished power because of that
country’s own popular movement.
Although the Dalai Lama’s talk ranged widely over international relations, science, and religion, what united it were two threads: his own unwavering optimism and his Buddhist belief in compassion. He hoped the twenty-first century would be known as the century of compassion, he said, when people would go beyond their own self-interest to look at others and say, “Their problems are my problems.
Their happiness is my happiness.”
As for his optimism, it emerged most vividly in the Dalai Lama’s
description of the audience he had with Queen Elizabeth in 1996. (“Very
nice lady,” he said.) He recalled that he was eager to ask the queen
one thing: “Since you observed almost all of the twentieth century,
would you say we are becoming better, worse, or the same? Without
hesitation, she said, ‘Better!’ When she was young no one talked about
civil rights or the right to self-determination,” and those are
universal principles today.
Tolerance, compassion, optimism: these are the values he kept returning
to, values that may have religious roots but that must be promoted even
more strongly in secular culture. “Secularism,” he said, “is not
hostile to religion.” Even some animals practice limited altruism, not
out of some vague idealism, but for their survival.
After answering a few videotaped questions, the Dalai Lama, never one to appear pretentious or take himself—a world religious leader—too seriously, ended on a mischievous note. “Please think [about] some of my points,” he said. “If you feel some interest, then think more. And you yourself investigate these things. And then try to share with more people.” But if you feel these points are not relevant, he continued, “Then forget. No problem."