By Stacey Pontoriero
On September 25, 2005, Rutgers hosted Tenzin Gyatso, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and the man better known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. He came to deliver the twenty-fifth annual Mason Welch Gross lecture, but this lecture was a bit different: it took place in a packed Rutgers football stadium, with 36,000 people in attendance. A large group of Rutgers English faculty, staff, students, and alumni were there for this memorable event.
His lecture “Peace, War, and Reconciliation” gave the Rutgers community the opportunity to meditate on issues of political conflict and moral responsibility. Despite the huge crowd, the Dalai Lama’s modest and humorous nature made his informal speech seem like an intimate and casual conversation. His overall theme was that “war is an outdated concept,” an approach we should strive to move beyond for the future. But his speaking style had him seemingly wandering through many different issues, including political conflicts, the personal roots of both hatred and compassion, the death penalty, the arms race, and competing philosophies of enlightenment. This digressive quality was emphasized by his occasional reliance on his translator, who helped him convey complicated thoughts as they occurred to him during the talk.
“It was such an interesting lecture,” said Professor Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau. “Instead of hammering home a point in the way we’re used to, with a forceful logical argument, he suggested that individual calmness and patience are necessary components of compassion. And he used the time of his speech to make us feel a little of what that’s like.” His untraditional lecture approach was evident from his first few words, when the Dalai Lama warned his audience that he had “nothing special” to offer on the subject, but joked that if he was boring, “at least today this weather, not hot, not cold, quite pleasant. So just a few minutes you spend here, okay. Not much problem.”
The Dalai Lama’s humor and charm came as a surprise to many, considering that he is the dynamic political and spiritual leader of Tibet. His role began at the age of two, when he was recognized as being the reincarnation of his predecessor and the embodiment of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. At fifteen years old, he assumed the position of head of the state when China’s policies threatened to drive the Tibetan culture into extinction in the 1950s. He has been a central figure in the struggle to preserve Tibetan culture since that time, when more than 80,000 Tibetans, including him, fled into exile.
Now seventy years old, he travels extensively to bring his Buddhist teachings to a worldwide audience, emphasizing the importance of compassion, education, and nonviolence. “I think our very concept of we and they no longer exists,” he said at Rutgers. “This whole planet is just us, just we. So therefore, destruction of other areas is essentially destruction of yourself.”
The Dalai Lama is also the author of more than thirty books that have been translated into English, on subjects ranging from modern ethics to the connections between science and spirituality to personal happiness. “We are living today in an interdependent world. One nation’s problems can no longer be solved by itself,” he has written. “I have always believed in the need for better understanding, closer cooperation and greater respect among the various nations of the world. Besides, I feel that love and compassion are the moral fabric of world peace.”
Whether the Dalai Lama’s lessons were learned or simply heard, Rutgers succeeded in hosting an enriching and enjoyable event. Each of the 36,000 listeners had the chance to consider how compassion, peace, and patience could improve their everyday lives, a small yet significant step toward the dream of world peace.
Video of the lecture at Rutgers, and more about the visit
The Dalai Lama's biography and Nobel Prize acceptance speech
The official U.S. website of the Tibetan Government in Exile