The Dalai Lama is in Hawaii this weekend, and I was fortunate to get to go to hear him speak earlier today. I am not necessarily particularly a “follower”, and certainly not a devotee. I wish I could say that I felt his presence, that he had some kind of powerful aura, as others often say, that hearing him speak changes their lives. But, as he himself says, he is just a human being, the same as each of us. Still, he is an immensely famous figure, and so to get to see him in person, to get to say that I have seen him in person, is an experience I shall treasure.
His visit is the inaugural event of a new series, called Pillars of Peace, which local organizations here in Hawaii are trying to get started. They hope, in future, to bring more great leaders and speakers, to speak about various subjects, and to promote peace. I wish them luck. If there’s one thing to be said for today’s event, the production values were incredible for a local Hawaiian effort. Very clean, slick graphics, no technical difficulties, and some pretty high profile guest entertainers (incl. Jake Shimabukuro and Jack Johnson) before the show. The emcee could have been just a little more professional, and a little less “local boy”/pidgin/”howzit brah” in his speech patterns, but, still, overall, this event was I think the cleanest, sleekest event I’ve attended in Hawaii. It sets an example that I think a lot of other local efforts could afford to try to follow.
The program began with a series of performances from local entertainers, including a pre-recorded video performance by Jake Shimabukuro, a new composition that he composed specifically for this occasion entitled “Playing with Less,” in which he only uses three of the ukulele’s four strings; it is a beautiful song, and is meant to symbolize our need to find happiness with “less,” i.e. that we don’t need material possessions or monetary wealth to be happy. A beautiful, super cute music video of elementary school kids from Lana’i Island singing an original composition about peace and love was quite touching. Entitled “Singing to the World,” the song contains lyrics apparently written by the 4th graders themselves, and it’s just beautiful.
The pre-show also included quotes about peace from various world leaders and other historical figures, and I was happy to see a few from Israelis or Jews, including Moshe Dayan (“If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”) and Yehudi Menuhin. My sincere thanks to the Pillars of Peace organization and the Dalai Lama for the political message this sends, that they would not exclude such figures.
Sadly, we were not allowed to take any photos during the event, and, though I had hoped there might be video available online afterwards, it appears they are only providing a live stream at the time of the event. However, you can still watch two of his talks tomorrow (Sunday, April 15, Hawaii time) here on the Pillars of Peace website.
I hope I am not being too crass to say that the Dalai Lama did not say anything today I have not heard before; what I heard was no amazing insights, no superhuman wisdom. But, it was encouraging, reassuring, and uplifting to hear what he had to say on certain points; I only wish that more people lived by the ideals he espoused in today’s talk.
Despite being a spiritual leader, and a religious icon, educated his entire life in the traditional ways of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religious belief, His Holiness spoke out against the idea that “secularism” is in any way an attack on religion. He defended the idea, to the contrary, that secularism, on which the Constitution of India is based (and on which our own “separation of church & state” is based, though many fail to understand it), means respecting those of all religions, as well as those who are non-believers. I don’t know that he said it directly, but you could feel that he was talking to the Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and others of the world who would insist that their religion is better, or that their government, their society should be organized around their religious beliefs. The Dalai Lama assured us that we are all human beings, that we all share in that, and that morality and ethics comes out of human nature, and not out of religion – that non-believers are no less moral or ethical than those who are religious.
And he went further, decrying those who feign serious, devout religiosity while they are in church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, and who then, in their everyday lives, lie and cheat, exploit and bully. These people, he said quite explicitly, are not truly religious. They are not true to their religions.
His Holiness emphasized the importance of education and science over prayer and meditation, and spoke to how science and education serve to narrow the gap between appearances (illusion, belief, or assumptions) and reality. He spoke of respecting Nature, and not being too prideful to think we can control it or ward it off with our superior engineering. Human beings, after all, are a product of nature. But, without explicitly addressing Evolution (vs creationism) or the debates on climate change, he praised scientific discovery and technological wonders, something that I think many religious leaders around the world, and especially here in the United States, could learn to emulate. Science is not opposed to religion, and religion should not oppose science. Science helps us understand the world around us, and helps us discover technologies that make our lives better. Scientists are not to be disbelieved or distrusted, and we should employ our incredible human capacity for *Reason*, and not purely prayer or meditation, in the way we lead our lives, look towards the future, and look to solve problems.
Switching gears, His Holiness, of course, as we all know, advocates peaceful solutions to disagreements and problems, rather than violence. He speaks of diplomacy, and talking things out. One of the few questions he answered today (selected ahead of time from the internet, or from students in attendance) asked what his advice would be to those living in countries such as Egypt, where the more or less peaceful protests of the Arab Spring have overthrown totalitarian regimes and provided the people with the freedom to set a new path. He advised that they forget about the past, put behind them old differences, and that they unite to work together to forge a new path, looking to practical concerns, and setting forth to first attend to economic development, and to education. He did not explicitly speak of Sunnis vs Shiites or any other specific “differences,” but it is easy to imagine that this is the sort of thing he meant. I hope that we might see such a thing emerge in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East, though, frankly, I am not optimistic.
The event ended with His Holiness being presented with a huge conch shell, a special, very Hawaiian gift. I was disappointed, and truly surprised, that there was no hula, ‘oli, or mele to open or conclude the event, but this touch of native Hawaiian culture, acknowledging the spirit and identity of the land, was beautiful, and more than appropriate. The annual Merrie Monarch hula competition ended today, and there is plenty of hula to be found on YouTube. When I first came here to Hawaii, I must admit, I had very little interest in such things, but now, I know I am going to miss it. I wish we had such rich spiritual traditions to draw from on the mainland, so as to provide our special guests with something as spiritually, culturally, deeply New York as the hula, the conch shell, or the lei is of Hawaii.
It is not easy to fully embody the virtues the Dalai Lama proposes we all should live our lives by. But, I think the key thing is that we try.