Even though they could have chosen to watch the Dalai Lama streaming live from their computers in the comfort of their closest Starbucks, students showed up in the thousands to see and hear him speak at the three universities in San Diego two weeks ago. They waited in line for hours and submitted to the tightest possible security, including the State Department's specially trained explosives-detection security canines sniffing at their backpacks -- all in good humor.
What is it about this man -- 77-years old, speaking in an accent you must strain to understand -- that people of all ages and backgrounds are so hungry for?
I asked some of the students who were waiting why they were there.
"I'm sick of politics. Sometimes you don't want to hear the news. You worry about how it will be for your children when you have them. You want to hear something better. Some kind of hope," 19-year-old Megan Voigt told me.
"My parents came here from Iran. They lived in fear. They didn't want their children to be born into fear. No parents want that for their children and yet millions of children are born into fear and violence. So what the Dalai Lama teaches makes sense," said Amir Jafari, 26.
What does he teach? Compassion. Respect. Personal responsibility. But it's not as much about what he teaches as it is that he has spent his life practicing what he teaches, that makes him so unusual and appealing. Especially when you consider how easily -- and justifiably -- he could have succumbed to hatred and vengeance. He has always had the power to fuel the hatred and vengeance of the Tibetan people who have been exiled and denied their basic human rights by the Chinese government, but he chooses not to.
In the auditorium, when the Dalai Lama began to speak, it was so quiet you could have heard a prayer shawl drop. Students who would normally have been dozing off in lectures leaned forward in their seats to hear him.
"I am just an ordinary man," he said at one point, and he means it.
He sniffs, wipes his nose with his finger, laughs that laugh that makes everyone around him laugh, relax and breathe easier. Seeing him sitting there in his maroon and saffron robes, wearing a UCSD sun visor (that was exchanged for a USD visor when he went to speak there) you could see vestiges of the two-year-old child then named Lhamo Dhondup who was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1937. I'm not sure that Megan or Amir, the students I'd talked to earlier, were prepared for His Holiness' ordinariness. I know I wasn't.
At the press conference earlier that morning a reporter raised his hand and asked the Dalai Lama if he was in San Diego because relations between him and China have improved. "No!" he said, brushing away the notion with a wide sweep of his arm, then gruffly suggested the reporter do more research.
"Media very important," he later told the press. "People should know the reality what is going on. Media people should have long nose, elephant nose, to know what's going on." This time he waved that graceful arm of his like an elephant's trunk and chuckled.
I cannot think of a word that more accurately describes the Dalai Lama than real. In an era of reality shows that are all show and no reality, of hiding one's sadness behind the safe façade of a Facebook wall, there is something very comforting about being in the presence of someone that genuine. People like Howard Cutler, the psychiatrist who co-wrote The Art of Happiness with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who have travelled with him and observed him in many circumstances, say he is the same with everyone: heads of state, Hollywood celebrities and the men and women who serve his meal at a banquet.
We are all hungry for that. We need to know we are more than our grades, more than the kind of car we drive, more than our bank accounts.
"Big house, big car, that's the meaning of life? No! Certainly not! I think one mistake up till now, we look at material events, not talking about our inner value."
Like Megan Voigt, many of us are weary of the political climate in this country. It is a climate of disrespect and intolerance for anyone who does not share our views. Disrespect may garner more attention and higher ratings, but it is toxic and corrosive.
We have to respect. We have to listen. Even if they have different views. Listen, respect. Then friendly argument. We have to take for granted differences of humanity.... 6 billion human beings have 6 billion different views.
While he talked, I found my cynical self wondering if he was too idealistic, human nature being what it is. And as I wondered, he spoke about how we cannot control the human nature of others, only ourselves.
Fear destroy calm mind. Extremely important to take care of our inner emotions. It really worthwhile having a map of the mind or the emotions -- then eventually you will find ways to reduce the destructive emotions and increase the positive emotions. You may be surrounded by hostile atmosphere and still you can keep peace of mind. The ultimate source of happiness is within ourselves.
I have heard these words in so many different ways, from so many different sources, so many times. So why did it feel like this was the first time I was hearing them? How could this message be so fresh? Could it be that it is still fresh to him?
I've always had a hard time understanding the Buddhist concept of non-attachment but after hearing the Dalai Lama talk about his deep respect for both science and religion, I have a better grasp of it. In one sense it means flexibility, open-mindedness, the willingness to hold our views lightly enough that we are able to let go of them, even change them for the better good.
Traditional habit we must respect but at the same time we have to look at the reality of today. We can't say 'it's our way of life' - we have to think about the reality. What benefit? What harm? That's important.
After he spoke, his interpreter read a question that was submitted beforehand: How can you remain optimistic when there is so much distress in the world?
He thought about this, then answered.
There are good things. In spite of sad events I think humanity becoming more civilized... I disagree humans basically bad, we are doomed. I disagree.. Very hopeful. Even bad events you can transform. You must make big effort... It is far better to remain optimistic when there is so much distress... Find ways and means to work with problem.
On the way out, I wanted to see Megan and Amir again, to ask them what they thought. I didn't see them but I hoped that Megan was leaving with the sense of hope that should be the right of all 19-year-olds, and that Amir will do the hard work necessary to keep his own mind free of fear and violence.
It felt good to be in the sea of students, all slowly moving toward the exit, waiting for His Holiness' motorcade to be escorted from the campus and out of reach of anyone who would wish him harm.