Mark Collier / Staff Photo
The Dalai Lama, his translator and the crowd dissolve into laughter as he makes a quip about mosquitoes during his talk before a crowd of 2,800 at Middlebury College on Saturday.
For Middlebury College, the speaking invitation reached back years, the acceptance took months, the preparation spanned weeks, the security check for all 2,800 attendees required hours.
But the subject of it all focused on something else: The moment.
The Dalai Lama concluded a two-day visit to Vermont on Saturday by urging people to stop and cultivate “inner values” so they could start working for a better world.
“I always consider we are same — physically, spiritually, emotionally,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said in halting English with help from a translator. “I believe it’s important we have this concept of oneness of humanity. If you can help other, serve other as much as you can, that’s the proper way to lead meaningful life.”
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner (“here in Vermont, Your Holiness, we think of you as our friend”) to a sold-out Nelson Arena crowd and hundreds more who spilled into overflow broadcasts at Middlebury’s 272-seat Dana Auditorium and 400-seat McCullough Student Center and, in Burlington, at the University of Vermont’s 300-seat Billings Lecture Hall.
The 9:30 a.m. public program — with attendees still and silent, and not because they arrived frozen after the season’s first frost — came after days of less-than-peaceful planning.
Brattleboro entrepreneurs John von Wodtke and Shari Zarin recalled waking early last month to try to reserve one of the $20 tickets. They logged onto separate computers, only to watch the electronic box office crash. He saw all the seats go to others in less than three hours. At the same time, she refreshed her screen and — surprise — found her request for two tickets seemingly the last to be granted.
More miraculously, the husband and wife also snagged a room in the small two-hotel town (and found themselves checking out beside Leahy) and cleared an airport-style security screening where the U.S. State Department required event staff to arrive at 5 a.m., the press at 6 a.m., and public at 7 a.m. to weed out a list of 40 prohibited items ranging from water bottles and backpacks to posters and iPads.
Once inside, the crowd gave the self-described “simple Buddhist monk” four standing ovations. In between, the 77-year-old summed up his life story, rewinding to his birth to a farm family in 1935, his naming by Buddhists as the reincarnation of his homeland’s patron saint at age 2, and his monastic training beginning at age 6.
“I lost my own freedom at age 16, then I lost my own country,” said the man who escaped to India a decade after China took control of Tibet in 1949. “One of the strongest sources of our inspiration — America. Despite some drawbacks, greatest democracy country.”
Those comments drew nods of recognition from dozens of fellow Tibetans who sat in the reserved front rows and met privately with the Dalai Lama after his public speech.
“In Vermont we have 150 Tibetans — and they’re all here,” said Tseten Anak, just one of many members of his Burlington-based delegation wearing traditional chuba coats.
Beside him, Tibetan boys with smartphones stood on chairs to capture the man whose talk, “Finding Common Ground: Ethics for a Whole World,” incorporated the subtitle of his latest book, “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.”
“The fundamental problem, I believe, is that at every level we are giving too much attention to the external, material aspects of life,” he writes in his book. “It is vital for us to find a genuinely sustainable and universal approach to ethics, inner values, and personal integrity — an approach that can transcend religious, cultural, and racial differences and appeal to people at a fundamental human level.”
On stage, the monk in burgundy and orange robes confessed to peeking inside the medicine cabinet of a posh American home.
“Door little open. Whether it illegal or not, I open. Oh, that family — everything look very good, but they need tranquilizer.”
The Dalai Lama offered more humility and humor during a question-and-answer period. One person asked how to monitor world news and remain peaceful.
“When we face our problems,” he replied, “if that problem can be solved, then no need sadness. If that problem cannot be solved, then no use too much worry.”
Someone else asked whether prayer works.
“That’s difficult question — result from my prayer to myself very helpful, but our own future obviously depend on our own action. Buddha himself taught you are your own master.”
A third person asked whether Americans should travel to Tibet.
“If the situation is good, a visitor from outside world very, very helpful. Tibet really feel we are not alone.”
(For cash-strapped tourists, he suggested bringing home souvenirs: “You can buy and then you can sell higher price here.”)
As for the secret to his smile?
“If there is a secret, then I should keep as secret.”
And for those weary from rising early, the monk noted he woke at 3:30 a.m. Every day.
The Dalai Lama — who has traveled to more than 60 countries and authored 70 books — has visited Middlebury twice before, first in 1984 for a symposium on Buddhism and Christianity, then in 1990 — the year after he won the Nobel — for a conference on religion, ethics and the environment.
With 22 years separating his last and latest visits, the elder couldn’t guarantee he’d be back when he turned 99 in another 22 years.
“Maybe wheelchair,” he guessed of his body’s future mobility. “But mouth?”
He moved his fingers against his thumb fervently to mimic the way he talked. Then he enjoyed one last laugh.
Middlebury College is offering free video replays of the Dalai Lama’s public talks on its website, www.middlebury.edu.MORE IN Vermont News
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