World Leader in the House

Photograph by Staff Sgt. April Davis, Oregon Military Department Public Affiars

They arrived by foot, bicycle, shuttle, taxi, and wheelchair. Some leaned on canes. A few limped in on crutches. But come to Matthew Knight Arena they did, 11,000 of them on a sunny afternoon in May. They came to hear words spoken by a venerable world leader whose spiritual lineage reaches back centuries, and who was, for decades, the spiritual and political head of the exiled people of Tibet, yet who prefers to call himself a "humble Buddhist monk."

For more than an hour before His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was scheduled to speak, the eager, the curious, and the devout lined up in front of the security detectors placed at the three entrances to the arena. The mood was upbeat, expectant. New-age fashionistas showed off their ethnic jewelry and sparkly scarves. Friends chatted. Couples held hands.

"Seeing him speak, I think it will change my life," said Sophie Thompson, a UO sophomore.

In 1959, when the Dalai Lama was 24, just a few years older than Thompson, he was forced to flee his homeland of Tibet following a Chinese invasion. He established his home in exile in Dharamsala, India. For the next five decades he garnered worldwide respect for his commitment to the Buddhist teachings of compassion, nonviolence, and religious tolerance along with his unwavering support for the Tibetan people. Among the many honors he's received is the Nobel Peace Prize (1989).

Josh Ford brought his 10-year-old daughter to the talk because, he said, "I think it's important for her to hear the message the Dalai Lama wants to share about peace."

Rabbi Hanan Sills '78 said he almost stayed home and watched the talk via the Internet, but was glad he made the effort to see the Dalai Lama in person.

"I value his teachings, his being in the world, his way of living, his presence," said Sills, who led the Hillel Center at the university from 1984 to 1998, and taught in various departments.

Also in line were scores of middle school students wearing burgundy and gold T-shirts with the words "Peace Jam Northwest 2013" on the front, and on the back the lines "My brain and my heart are my temple. My philosophy is kindness." Bryan Costa, of Monroe Middle School, said the youths are part of a program, begun by the Dalai Lama and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, to teach young people about peace.

Inside, almost every seat in the vast arena was filled—tickets for the event reportedly sold out in 30 minutes. The stage was festooned with flowers and at its center sat an elegant red chair donated by La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery in Eugene, owned by Brad Parker '89.

When His Holiness—also known as Yeshin Norbu (the Wish-Fulfilling Gem) or Kundun (the Presence)—walked onto the stage, the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation. He stood in bright stage lights, but also appeared projected on the arena's scoreboard replay screens, each 20 feet by 12 feet, so even those with upper-level seats could see him up close. Taking his time, the Dalai Lama bowed to all quarters of the arena, then motioned the audience to sit.

His Holiness's visit to Eugene was more than a decade in the making. It was initiated by the Eugene Sakya Center, a Tibetan Buddhist group that offers meditation sessions and classes on Buddhist fundamentals. One of Sakya's resident teachers, Lady Palmo, was wounded and her parents and three siblings were killed during the same invasion that forced the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet. She was 15 at the time and spent the next 16 years meditating in caves in Tibet and India, "transforming the adversity she had experienced into forgiveness, compassion, and joy," according to the center's website. Palmo and her family moved to Cottage Grove in 1997. Her sons, Jigme Rinpoche and Ngaglo Rinpoche, head the Sakya Center.

For almost a decade, Lady Palmo wrote monthly letters to the Dalai Lama, asking him to come to Eugene. The Sakya Center secured the cooperation of four University of Oregon presidents (one interim), which was an essential requirement for an appearance.

According to Mark Unno, UO associate professor of religious studies, a committee made up of university administrators, logistics experts, venue specialists, and members of the Sakya Center met weekly to finalize detailed plans for the visit. The U.S. State Department and the Eugene Police Department hammered out transportation security arrangements. The center and the university coordinated with the Maitripa Buddhist College in Portland, which cohosted the visit and sponsored a series of events, including a talk by His Holiness at the Portland Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

"It was an amazing process to be involved in during the last nine months," Unno says, "for all these people to come together for one purpose—the successful visit of the Dalai Lama. It was a signature event for the university."

At the arena, UO president Michael Gottfredson presented His Holiness, 78, with the Presidential Medal, given to the world's foremost citizens honoring their leadership in the global community. Then one more gift, a bit less weighty: in keeping with his custom when speaking at universities, His Holiness received and, broadly smiling, donned a UO sports visor. So bedecked, and with no notes, he began his talk. He delivered his message of compassion, global interconnectedness, tolerance, and the oneness of humanity with his well-known gentle humor.

"I notice in America, knowledge about outside world, sometimes limited," he said with a chuckle.

He also described the effect of selfishness on the human heart. "I, I, I, me, mine—such people [who say those words] have great risk of heart attack," he said. "Inside, strong self-centered attitude. Extreme selfish, sometimes I call blind selfish. That selfish closes our inner door. [They] find it very difficult to reach out to other people. You feel lonely, then more anxiety, more suspicious, more distrust. That's the cause of heart attack."

His Holiness told the crowd the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman (and likely "very, very attractive"); that the under-30 generation "has the opportunity to create new shape of the century" and that, when it comes to community affairs, "action is more important than prayer." He exhorted the audience to face complex issues with wisdom, warm-heartedness, and patience.

"There is a Tibetan saying, 'nine times failure—nine times effort,'" he said. "Sometimes you American brothers and sisters, too much impatience."

The day following the talk, Tibetans Lama Jigme and Kyizom Wangmo, who own Potala Gate import store in Eugene, remained elated at having seen the man they consider a father figure and spiritual leader. Jigme and Wangmo were among a handful of others from the local Tibetan community who had greeted the Dalai Lama at a smaller event before his Knight arena speech.

"Being in his presence, the feeling is not just that you are blessed but that all your negative karma has been removed, just by seeing his face," said Jigme, whose words were translated by Wangmo. His Holiness touched Jigme's prayer beads and blew on them, fulfilling his deepest wish, he said.

"Being there, being able to touch his robe, was a life-changing experience," Wangmo remembered. "Your whole life has changed for the better. Now, you feel you are weightless."

—By Alice Tallmadge, MA '87