First the Feet, and Then the Heart
First he took off his shoes. And then, after folding his legs under the familiar crimson and saffron robe and settling himself into an ornate wooden chair on the stage of Harvard's Memorial Church, Tenzin Gyatso, more commonly known as the Dalai Lama, made the audience laugh: "Oh, not very comfortable."
It would not be the last time the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet joked during his speech, sponsored jointly by Harvard's education and divinity schools. After telling the bowing audience to "sit down," he spoke of how honored he was to speak at such a famous institution. "A friend once told me, Harvard is so, so famous that just to walk in that place is something sacred," he said, followed by a smile. "That is too much, I think."
His Holiness, as he was addressed during introductions, was also serious as he hit on a number of complex issues: his definition of secularism, the meaning of Islam, and youth violence. He also addressed the topic of the day's speech, "Educating the Heart." In particular, he questioned whether education and intelligence alone bring inner peace.
"Those people who are more compassionate, those people are religious man, community man, family man," he said. "Much peaceful, much happier."
In contrast, "there are very smart scholars and professors who are full of competition, full of jealousy, and even full of anger. Sometimes they even commit suicide," he said, pausing when he realized who was in the audience. "I don't mean disrespect to the academic community."
The Dalai Lama also stressed that compassion starts at home. "If you see people who are more calm and ready to show love and kindness toward others, those people probably had a mother who provided more affection at a young age."
The 74-year-old was in the Boston area as part of a four-day tour that included a conference at MIT later that day and an address (wearing a red New England Patriots cap) before nearly 16,000 at Gillette Stadium. The latter raised nearly $450,000 for the construction of a Tibetan heritage center in Boston.
Throughout his Harvard speech, the Dalai Lama's comments were simple, which surprised Chi Pham, Ed.M.'09.
"I don't know what I was expecting, but thought that perhaps he would enlighten us with a long and eloquent speech as I'm used to sitting through during my time at Harvard," she said. "What I got was completely different, and in my mind, so much better. The Dalai Lama's words were simple yet powerful."
Tetsuya Takahashi, Ed.M.'09, who had traveled for two months through Tibet, was moved by the Dalai Lama's message that educators must include compassion in their teaching.
"His speech made me re-recognize the role and the task of educators," Takahashi said. "He mentioned that he knew the purpose of education -- to foster the soul of compassion." Looking at the front row, where the deans were seated, the Dalai Lama said, "The task is on your shoulders, not mine, so finish it now."
In her introduction, Dean Kathleen McCartney said the Dalai Lama's focus on compassion in education was exactly the reason she wanted him to speak again at Harvard. "His name is often translated as ocean of wisdom," she said, "yet he is quick to offer a translation that is more accurate: teacher." And although he is a spiritual leader, McCartney pointed out that the Dalai Lama likes to say that kindness is his religion.
His kindness was evident after the speech concluded and he had moved outside to a tree-planting ceremony in his honor. In addition to blessing a pregnant woman's belly and individually acknowledging the young Tibetan dancers who had performed before the speech, he made sure that the young birch hybrid created at nearby Arnold Arboretum was well taken care of. After the deans and Harvard President Drew Faust each tossed a shovel's worth of dirt on the tree's roots, the Dalai Lama circled the tree, covering it properly with many scoops of soil before dousing it with bottled water that had been left at the podium for the speakers.