This week I was at the Melbourne Convention Centre to hear the Dalai Lama speak on Compassion The Foundation of Well Being.
I’ve been curious about His Holiness for a while. How could I not be curious about someone who is said to have revealed himself as the reincarnation of the first thirteen Dalai Lamas to shocked parents at around age three.
Since that time he has been intensively educated in Tibetan culture and Buddhist philosophy.
Add to that exile from Tibet since 1959, a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and a lifetime of international travel and there’s a lot to be fascinated by.
And to be honest I’m equally fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s modern media presence.
Okay. I saw him on Masterchef. That surreal and slightly uncomfortable episode in series three where Ellie stuffed up her vegetarian dish and ended up in tears. Only to be comforted by an ever compassionate Dalai Lama.
What on earth? What is going on there? To me it seemed like a complete undermining of the reverence of the role of Dalai Lama. What’s he doing selling himself out on reality TV? It seemed, well kind of tacky.
I didn’t understand it. And from that point on, with his spurious twitter feed aiding my scepticism I’ve been curious as to whether His Holiness was an amazing saint of a man who could transform lives with eye contact, or just some sort of doddery do-gooder being wheeled out by misguided advisors for various media appearances.
Best I go and see him for myself.
I had been told that seeing him in person could be an incredibly moving experience. But I was maintaining a calm, meditative composure. Thinking about what the experience might be like. Hoping I wouldn’t cry. Wondering why I didn’t pack any tissues. I was intrigued, I was keen and I was enjoying a grown up afternoon in the city with no-one wiping snot on my clothes.
As I arrived at the Convention Centre I took in the surroundings noting they were vast, comfortable, clean but just so corporate and not a little soulless. The foyer lined with vendors hocking buddhist wares did nothing to ease my concerns.
I did however manage to lose my critical mind for a moment watching a group of Buddhist Monks creating a sand mandala. How amazing. How focussed. How bad would it be if I sneezed?
There was a definite air of excitement as His Holiness took to the stage. You could feel the reverence in the crowd. And yet the reverence and the ceremony seemed to happen around him, and certainly did not emanate from him. He seemed decidedly immune to the formality, wandering straight to the edge of the stage and declaring “Old friend!” before warmly embracing a Catholic Friar and then taking a seat.
After his introduction he remained seated for several seconds as the anticipation of the crowd built. “Is it my turn?” he then asked casually.
He spoke in a relaxed manner for a minute or so before turning to his translator and asking, “What is the theme for today?”
And he continued in this loose vein to speak about oneness, about compassion, about secularism, about a range of things so broad it really was like having a meandering conversation with an old friend. A very wise and interesting old friend.
And while everything he said was interesting, and much of it important, none of it was as interesting or as important as witnessing his humility. The ease with which he engaged an enormous room of strangers. The kindness with which he treated with those near him.
He touched people – holding hands, holding faces, looking into eyes. He made terrible jokes and laughed heartily. He was not caught up in the protocol, he was just himself.
Simple things all, but not easy.
So on reflection now, having seen him for myself, I see the Dalai Lama as neither a saint nor an irrelevance. I see him now less the way the media presents him and more the way he sees himself, as a simple Buddhist monk.
He is just a man, and that is what makes him remarkable.