There he stands in the University of Minnesota’s hockey arena, not a large, nor a small man in a drape of maroon cloth, his neck and arms bare, and a plastic visor circling his balding head like a slightly errant halo. He’s being introduced by the University’s president in stately black with a soft velvet tam on his head. The president’s words are also stately, full of clauses and politeness and references. Soon he’s joined by another stately gentlemen, likewise wearing a modern version of the medieval scholar’s robe, though this one in gold. They want to add a white drape to the Dalai Lama’s neck, shoulders and back. This drape dips low in the back, almost to His Holiness’s knees: it’s also medieval in origin, a scholar’s hood, though it stands for a contemporary honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.
Sitting far up in the angled seats which fill what would be the hockey court if this were game time, my daughter and I slowly begin to relax toward each other. She’s attended other midwestern visits of His Holiness, head of the Tibetan community in exile, now that China has taken over the country of Tibet and sent its Buddhist leaders fleeing. Minnesota is home to the second largest Tibetan community in exile in the United States, the University’s president tells us. We are surrounded by Tibetan exiles, the women in wrap-around, floor-length dresses which tie in the back. The dresses are often bright turquoise, which like the maroon of His Holiness’s garb must be a favorite color from the country’s mandala.
After draping His Holiness in the white medieval “hood,” President Bruininks also presents the Dalai Lama with a visor stamped with the University of Minnesota It’s a moment for amusement and applause. Finally the Dalai Lama begins to voice his appreciation, bending to show us how his bald head shines through the top of his favorite headgear. More amusement: a revered spiritual leader is poking gentle fun at himself, and with such childlike simplicity and awkward grace that my daughter and I relax even more. Our shoulders now rest against each other.
I’ve been in the presence of other religious leaders–Protestant ministers who, as a rule, are rather stiff; and an occasional Catholic priest, who often seem obscured in chants and incense. The direct and simple message of the Dalai Lama seems more like gentle conversation, as in fact it is: not a religious observance, but a talk about world peace and inner peace promoted by the qualities of compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline. He reminds us of horrific tears in world peace: the dropping of two atom bombs at the end of World War II, and he describes visits to Hiroshima where a peace garden stands over what was the bomb’s “ground zero.” He mentions the importance of mother love in supporting adult peacefulness and contentment. He wants us to be happy. My daughter and I sigh deeply, our eyelids droop. Soon we slip in dozing, then waking briefly to take in a bit more of His Holiness, then sleeping again. We are tired working women, grateful for the gentle voice, the message of love and acceptance, encouragement to live with compassion.
We wake to applaud this genuine and most compassionate world leader, and walk to our car through the drizzle, a bit more emboldened to work for peace and human rights, within ourselves and for others.