Lama-palooza II: Paneling

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on May 18, 2010. His Holiness is wearing an Indiana University visor, from a previous speech. Photo by Ben Pollock.

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — On this sunny late-spring morning, two lines stretch a couple of blocks from the gym. Between them was a rainbow of vendor tents, selling books, beads and other Tibetan items. All in the queues already have tickets, for reserved seats. We’re going through airplane-like security, four walk-throughs inside each of two sets of doors, to see the morning session of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to this state, the first minutes of which will be spent with the provost teaching him it’s Iy-Oh-Wah smoothly, not his phonetic guesses that make the crowd laugh.

The scans and searches couldn’t go more professionally. We’re some 4,000 seekers: curiosity-, spiritual- or my kind, in-between. The McLeod Center is the basketball field house, not as big as Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, yet year in year out this decade, the University of Northern Iowa seems to have a stronger team.

There’s little doubt the Dalai Lama can fill the Walton next May (20,000 seats in a game configuration so maybe 15,000 for a speech). UNI sold out its afternoon session, 5,000 tickets. Every public appearance of His Holiness attracts Americans from hundreds of miles away. If there’s any softness in attendance it’s because his earlier appearances this tour were a few hours away: Madison, Wis., and Bloomington, Ind.

My notes from the morning’s panel discussion are decent enough to write an article, but the local press handled that just fine, the Register and the Courier. UNI’s Public Relations/Marketing crew snapped nice stills. Following are jots: I’m a visiting Arkie Jew, married to a Christian student of Tibetan Buddhism. [Two University of Arkansas faculty members helped arrange the UNI Tibetan events.]

This morning’s is a panel discussion. That’s such a dicey format. After college, in-person seminars either are lectures or panels. You’re in and out within 45 to 90 minutes, and do you ever really learn anything? I say this after attending a few hundred of them, and sitting on one and leading another. A multiperson presentation is only as good as its weakest participant. Only veteran panelists can develop a thought in the scant time allotted. It seems sometimes either that a multisession workshop’s organizers are trying to cram in more teachers or specialists than the hours allow or that planners are giving someone a bit of time or just the honor, whose material is not worth an hour.

UNI and, presumably, the Dalai Lama’s advance team got interesting panelists, and the moderator, UNI Provost Gloria Gibson (formerly at Arkansas State University) was well prepared and had control of the time and so forth. Still, she led in gaffes.

What worked this morning, Tuesday, May 18, 2010? No panelist for “Educating for a Non-Violent World” apart from His Holiness was close to world-class. Each though was solid and had a specialty, or a cause. Minneapolis corporate executives Art Erickson and Lee Rainey focused on the hardships of inner-city youth. Judy Jeffrey, a retired Iowa state education commissioner, linked cruel videogames and bullying. Fourth was Jackson Katz, a Los Angeles-based expert on family violence.

Her first slip, was early, speaking directly to the Dalai Lama: “Thank you, His Holiness,” later correcting to “Your Holiness.” No big deal. But there’s that big one at the end: Gibson was summarizing and thanked the Dalai Lama for his visit to “Indiana University.” The crowd’s gasp kept her from continuing.

She recovered immediately, claiming that of course she meant to say University of Northern Iowa but was looking at “Your Holiness” and saw the red IU logo visor he was wearing. (On stage he dons a billed cap or visor to shield his aging eyes from spotlights; he’s as often presented with locally themed headgear as he is a plaque, and plainly enjoys the former more).

Gibson called out,”Is there a UNI visor that we can give him?” A purple and gold model arrived within a moment.

Slips of the tongue are easy when you’re on the spot. Done too many myself. Thus I wouldn’t have pointed out Gibson’s but for her first question: “I would first ask the panel to contextualize the violence seen in our culture.”

Pity the non-native English speaker trying to figure that out. His Holiness understood perfectly, been there done that. As an educated native-born American, I had to hear the answers to understand her query.

His Holiness does fine with hearing and speaking English. His longtime translator, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, is there as backup, most often to translate an idiomatic Tibetan phrase; His Holiness seems to understand American slang.

His Holiness answers: “It all begins with the mothers, maybe sometimes moms and dads, but more often the mothers [are responsible for the children. The children must] learn generosity and they must learn compassion.”

Katz: “Non-violent men and boys should confront violent men and boys” to help stem abuse.

Jeffrey: Bullying, there’s more adult intervention when the bully victims are younger, not older.

Rainey: “Young men need to be fathers and not just baby makers.” He refers to his friend Erickson as a “European-American.”

Erickson: Here’s an indicator, no gang member has a father in his home. The problem is white flight. Both people and businesses leave big cities [it’s a chicken-and-egg as to which leaves first, but Erickson leans on business. Points to companies like Dayton (Target) and Honeywell but also to the big Sears store leaving downtown Minneapolis for the suburban Mall of America. “After a primary economy leaves, the secondary economy moves in.” It is defined by the people left behind: “Any way I can make money. That translates to stealing, selling drugs and selling yourself,” the last referring to prostitution.

Another question.

Dalai Lama: “Nobody take care of moral ethics, moral education.” He differentiates between the two. “When there is emphasis in one religion for worth, that creates problems. … God loves everybody. The Indian Constitution is very good on separating between state and religions because in India there are so many religions. I don’t disrespect any religion but respect all religions. Morals and ethics are not based on religion. … We must educate the brain and educate the heart.”

Gibson has the panelists ask questions of His Holiness:

Katz on men’s violence against women, children and other men, and the Dalai Lama answers: “This is a problem of the modern era. In the past [describes hunter-gatherers], this did not come up because everyone was needed for the work to survive. For this problem, education alone is not sufficient, need more happiness, more compassion. Hiding violence is not good, covering it up is not good.”

Erickson wants to learn how to “reweave a neighborhood” and how long it will take. The Dalai Lama jokes that Erickson already knows more on this than he. He has no clue, never lived in a poor urban neighborhood, just rural monastery. “Give them [poor residents] a sense of hope, give them a sense of responsibility. … Two centuries.”

Jeffrey blames violence in the mass media, especially electronic games, for violence among youth. The Dalai Lama replies media also gives the potential to show the opposite of violence, that the mass media contains the solution as well as the problem. He moves onto a tangent, about what he calls the “global economic crisis,” to, “We sometimes sacrifice fundamental human rights and doctrines for secondary interests: religion, race, nationality.”

To Rainey, His Holiness recommends bringing microfinance and microloans to the inner cities, to encourage small businesses there, just like in villages in developing nations.

Gibson calls time. An aide hands His Holiness rolled khatas, a tallis-like silk scarf, to unfurl and drape on the neck of each panelist, then the sign-language interpreter.

And I’m back to wondering about panels. What did we 4,000 learn, besides these experts have good causes and try awful hard, and that the Dalai Lama is funny, deep and adept at putting people at ease?

I don’t know what longstanding good the Americans on stage can do — domestic violence, youth intimidation and poverty. So far as U.S. nonprofits and world nongovernmental organizations, only relief agencies arriving for immediate, concrete assistance at disaster sites achieve their aims. The microloan group seems to work, too.

But somehow I think the Dalai Lama does good because he knows precisely that all he and leaders who work with him are batting ideas around. Dialogue is wise, he says, better than silence and suspicion. Maybe I’m assuming too much by thinking he knows his value to the powerful West is but symbolic. Maybe I’ll get a better handle on it in the afternoon, when His Holiness solos.

That’s in Lama-palooza III, while Lama-palooza I serves as an intro.

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