MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s Nelson Recreation Center used to almost shake with the din generated by frenzied crowds cheering the Panthers to several NCAA ice hockey titles.
On Friday, a 77-year-old man attired in simple orange robes kept the Nelson’s 2,800-person crowd silent and in the palm of his hand. He returned Saturday morning for a repeat performance.
This was not just any man. It was His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who returned to Middlebury College this past weekend after a 22-year hiatus to speak at two campus events under the theme of “Cultivating Hope, Wisdom and Compassion.”
“I am very happy, once more, to come here,” the Dalai Lama said Friday during an hour-long talk infused with equal measures of spiritual advice, compassion, encouragement and good humor punctuated by a playful laugh.
Sporting a “Middlebury” visor, he joked about how he had aged since his last trip to Middlebury, back in 1990. He noted he had arrived with a few new wrinkles in his face, less hair and one less organ; he had his gall bladder removed around three years ago following some painful episodes with stones.
“I am the same person, same body, but one important organ missing,” he said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama was particularly excited to see the many young students who filled the center. He called those younger than 30 years old “the generation of the 21st century,” and urged them to work for positive change in a society he said has seen too many wars and too much suffering. He noted 200 million people were killed through acts of war and violence during the past century.
“You are our hope,” the Dalai Lama told the students.
“We need to create a new shift.”
He added that time will move on regardless of how productively it is used.
“It is up to us to determine whether time is used in a meaningful way, in a constructive way, or is a waste of time,” he said. “That is our choice. The past is the past… and is put in history books. We cannot change it. Our future is open.”
The Dalai Lama urged the next generation to approach the world’s problems using dialogue, not force.
“The only answer is compromise,” he said.
He also cautioned students to not judge things by their appearance, but to dig deeper into what makes people and things tick.
“Education, I feel, is supposed to reduce the gap between appearance and reality,” the Dalai Lama said.
He praised science for increasing the world’s understanding of material things, which he acknowledged have enhanced comfort and convenience for many people. But he warned that money and material things — unlike a fellow person or a pet — don’t have the capacity to show affection.
“You can kiss a diamond ring, but it does not show affection,” he said.
Instead of chasing possessions, he said men and women should not lose sight of some basic principles in advancing humankind.
“In order to create a peaceful world, we need to develop concern for others,” the Dalai Lama said.
“Anger is the sign of weakness. Compassion is a sign of self-confidence.”
Throughout his travels, the Dalai Lama said the happiest people he has encountered have not been those who were rich, but those who were shown affection — particularly by their parents at an early age.
“A marvelous brain and a warm heart combined equals a happy life,” he told the crowd.
It is a formula that he believes can be shared by all human beings, whether they subscribe to an organized religion or not.
“Secularism (in India) means respect for all religions, including non-believers,” he said.
QUESTION & ANSWER
The Dalai Lama also answered some pre-written questions from college students and faculty on Friday. In his responses, he told the crowd that they should refrain from developing an “attachment” to their respective religions, lest they form biases that can cause conflict. He added he considered himself a Marxist (and not a Leninist) because he believes in the equal distribution of material things; and that humankind must work to reduce the gap between the rich and poor and to slow the progress of climate change.
In introducing the Dalai Lama on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy used the words “humility,” “patience” and “perseverance” to describe the Dalai Lama. He said the Dalai Lama was an inspiring model for the “resilience of the human spirit.” Welcoming him to the stage, Leahy said, “Here in Vermont we think of you as our friend.”
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz told the crowd that the Dalai Lama’s visit and message should have an appeal for everyone, regardless of their religious leanings.
“This visit by the Dalai Lama gives us the opportunity to step back from our daily activities and to reflect on what matters most in our lives,” Liebowitz said. “The message the Dalai Lama brings is not restricted to Buddhists or followers of any religion.”
It is a visit that drew a lot of interest on campus, noted Middlebury College Student Government Association President Charlie Arnowitz.
“I think students are really excited. I think obviously that having a prominent international figure like this come to Middlebury is certainly something that doesn’t happen every day or every year, so everyone has been anticipating him coming and excited to have him here,” Arnowitz said.
Arnowitz himself was excited on a personal level to see the Dalai Lama, the leader of tens of millions of Tibetan Buddhists and an exile from Tibet. Arnowitz studied in China last year and remains keenly interested in Asia. He is a political science major, but also kept an ear out for the spiritual crux of the Dalai Lama’s message.
Arnowitz acknowledged the Dalai Lama’s visit was not sitting as well with some of Middlebury College’s Chinese students.
“There has been a little bit of tension there (about the visit), but it hasn’t been anything overwhelming,” He said. “The overwhelming attitude among students has been that we are excited to hear him. Even those who oppose his political ideas are excited to hear his spiritual teachings.”
Others outside the college community were also excited to see the dignitary. Tickets to the Saturday talk for the non-college community sold out quickly, and many of those in the Tibetan community in South Burlington came to the Dalai Lama’s talk dressed in native garb.
Hundreds viewed the talk on live video from Middlebury’s 272-seat Dana Auditorium and 400-seat McCullough Student Center. In Burlington, the lecture was also broadcast live at University of Vermont’s 300-seat Billings Lecture Hall.
Friday was the first time that former Addison County Forester David Brynn has seen the Dalai Lama. He and two of his friends were among the 2,800 who secured a coveted ticket to Friday’s event.
“It is exciting to listen to his message about compassion, spirituality and taking a breath amidst all the various challenges we face,” Brynn said.
Student Tiffany Ting said there was a veritable “explosion” of excitement on campus when it was announced that the Dalai Lama would be visiting. Students who had committed to studying abroad for the semester were disappointed to not be in Middlebury for the occasion.
“I have seen articles about him in journals and things like that, but you never think you are going to be able to actually hear him talk,” Ting, a junior, said.
Telling a crowd of thousands, “I am one of you, there are no differences,” the Dalai Lama on Saturday morning delivered a public lecture that emphasized the “oneness of humanity” and the vital importance that we understand all people are the same.
Especially in our increasingly globalized world, the Dalai Lama said people are inextricably linked:
“Everyone wants a happy life… Your happiness is my happiness; your suffering is my suffering… your problems are my problems.”
A pragmatist, the Dalai Lama emphasized that everything depends on one’s motivations and subsequent actions to create positive change.
“Help serve others as much as you can,” he said. “That’s the proper way to lead a meaningful life. So at the end, you feel no regret.”
Free video replays of the Dalai Lama’s public talks are available on the Middlebury College website, www.middlebury.edu.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.