I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) for the first time in November 2005, during his visit to Stanford University. Back then, I was one of the big donors to Stanford for the creation of a Tibetan Studies program, so when the Dalai Lama visited, I was invited as a VIP guest to a luncheon in his honor.
Before meeting him, I was expecting to be disappointed. I had certain expectations of what a holy man should be like, and I was pretty sure HHDL would NOT be able to meet my standards. Yes, Hollywood celebrities adore him, and he wrote great books and had may quotable sayings, but ultimately, he is only human. Also, in the cultural context I grew up in, we often hear about corrupt and/or completely Dharma-incompetent Buddhist monks, so I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if HHDL was just another over-hyped bald dude.
It turned out, the Dalai Lama exceeded even my highest expectation. Wow. After meeting him, I wrote this short note to my friends (some erroneous details corrected from original email):
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Stanford for a series of talks:
1. A meditation/teaching talk.
2. A public conversation where he fielded questions.
3. A dialog with neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars.
I attended (1) and (3), and watched parts of (2) on webcast. I also attended a private luncheon in his honor, where he talked about his concerns for Tibet. After every event, I became even more impressed with the man. If I hadn’t already decided to dedicate my life to Dharma and humanity, this visit by HHDL could have been a life-changing event for me.
In (1), His Holiness talked about the importance of mental peace for a happy life. His target audience was young people. There wasn’t anything new in his talk for a semi-seasoned meditator, but what come out was HHDL’s charisma, humanity, and sense of humor. He laughs easily and enjoys making fun of himself. He shared personal stories, like when he was young, his tutor would always carry 2 whips, and the one painted in yellow was specifically for him. He talked about his regret of not taking English lessons seriously in his youth because, “Hey, I can always have an interpreter. But now, you see, I speak with broken English”. The crowd adored him. He always liked to say that he is really just a simple monk, and that he is always happy. When hearing him talk, you get a sense that both claims are sincere. I was amazed.
I had a chance to see him up close during the pre-lunch reception. He was warm to everyone he met. He smiled readily at people, held their hands, laughed easily, and all, without any of the airs and pretensions you would expect of someone with Secret Service protection.
During his lunch talk, the subject of Tibet came up. HHDL expressed concern that the Tibetan culture would soon be destroyed. You could tell this was a very painful subject for Tibetans because the Tibetans around us were either weeping or holding back tears, but he talked with such serenity, without a single trace of anger in his voice, and he repeatedly emphasized non-violence, mutual understanding, and his appreciation for the Chinese people. I was sitting right in front of the stage (!), so I saw his eyes as he spoke. At that moment, I was convinced that he was the Real Deal. This was the guy who lost his country to a brutal invading force, witnessed helplessly for decades while his people were oppressed and/or tortured and his national culture being destroyed, and suffered hopeless exile while repugnant propaganda about him was being fed to a billion people. Any man who went through all that lifelong crap should be reasonably expected to be brimming with hatred and anger. But this man showed none of it. All he had to show was compassion and humor. I was awed. (And he shook my hand).
I was further awed watching his dialog with neuroscientists. Here he was on stage surrounded by prominent scholars, and he held his own among them very well. He asked very intelligent questions and made very insightful points. After a while, one begins to suspect that this laughing bald guy, who spent most of the time whispering with his interpreter, was the smartest person on stage.
The most amazing moment for me came when HHDL was responding to a question about compassion and suffering. Referring to an earlier presentation by Bill Mobley which showed that similar parts of the brain light up when a subject experiences pain versus when he empathizes with somebody else in pain, His Holiness raised a major issue that nobody else had thought of. Interrupting his interpreter, he explained in his broken English that there are at least 2 types of compassion, one for people close to oneself (which he called “limited compassion”), and one for strangers (which he called “genuine compassion”). Both are qualitatively different, and hence need to be studied separately. If the brain patterns for both are the same, “then I feel the brain is very foolish”. Everybody laughed. Bill Mobley was so impressed he commented, “This is one of those experiences where you really understand how that incisive thinking completely defines a 20-year research program”.
I was totally awed. The Dalai Lama was not just a supremely likable man with a serene mind, a big heart, and a good laugh, he was very intelligent too. Wow. I didn’t expect that. I was blown away.
I don’t know what else to say, except I’m inspired to be a much better person.
After meeting the Dalai Lama, I told myself that when I grow up, I want to be just like him. Except I want to have hair. And sex. That celibacy thing just doesn’t work for me, sorry.