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Dalai Lama receives honorary degree at SMU Mary Jacobs, May 9, 2011
PHOTO COURTESY OF SMU
During his visit to SMU, the Dalai Lama delivered a lecture at the Hart Global Leaders Forum, a gathering of about 2,000 local high school students.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
DALLAS—With his warmth, wit and irresistible giggle, the Dalai Lama charmed his audience on May 9 at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas.
The Nobel laureate and spiritual leader of Tibet was on campus to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the University, and to deliver a lecture as part of the Hart Global Leaders Forum. He spoke before an audience of 2,300, including local high school students, SMU faculty, students and staff, and the general public.
“I feel great honor accepting this honorary degree,” he said. “There is a genuine warm feeling here and it gives me inspiration.”
His talk met with several standing ovations. Among those who listened with admiration was the Rev. William B. Lawrence, dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.
“We Methodists can learn a lot from this Buddhist voice,” Dr. Lawrence said.
The Dalai Lama seemed to delight in surprising the crowd. Arriving on the stage, he pulled an SMU baseball cap from his robes and popped it atop his head, waving to the crowds. He praised American democracy in one breath and called himself a Marxist in another.
He also urged attendees to embrace compassion and forgiveness, and not to think of those as necessarily “religious” values but as human values.
“We are the same human beings,” he told the audience. “We may have different faiths, different languages, even different cultures, but these are secondary. When we come from our mothers’ wombs, there are no differences. Emotionally, we are the same.”
The Dalai Lama described how, in March 2011, he announced that he would retire as head of state for the Tibetan government-in-exile while retaining spiritual leadership of Tibet. As a vocal advocate of democracy, he said, the move was overdue.
“I’m very happy that our small community has implemented democracy,” he said. “Now I feel less hypocritical.”
The Dalai Lama extended greetings to his “very dear and close friend,” former President George W. Bush, and his wife Laura Bush, who was in the audience. He also noted that the world belongs to humanity, not to kings, and the United States belongs to its citizens, and looking directly at Mrs. Bush, he added, “not this party or that party,” he said, giggling.
When asked by an SMU student about reconciling the potential for “cultural imperialism” as the United States aims to serve as an ambassador for democracy, he said: “If you think democracy is an American possession, it is not.” Monks in Tibetan monasteries govern themselves according to democratic principles, he added, and both India and Taiwan have thrived under democratic rule while maintaining their distinctive cultures. “This is universal,” he said. “Democracy is not Western.”
Another student asked how he became Dalai Lama. (He was recognized at the age of 2 as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, and assumed power at the age of 15.) He described how a “search party” came to his village when he was a child, carrying articles owned by the previous Dalai Lama. He correctly identified the articles, he said, and seemed to recognize the visitors.
“Whether it was because of something mysterious, or just luck, I don’t know,” he said, again giggling.
Mark Chancey, associate professor in SMU’s department of religious studies, said the Dalai Lama’s humility reflects his Buddhist spirituality. “At the heart of Buddhism is a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t matter,” Dr. Chancey said. “Most of us are preoccupied with things that ultimately do not matter. When you have the clarity of mind and the perspective to know that attachment to the wrong things can never bring peace, and you’re able to reconcile that within your own self, it allows you to be genuine in a way that many people never quite attain.”
Dr. Lawrence said he admired the Dalai Lama’s response to the Chinese government’s harsh treatment of Tibet. In the lecture, the Dalai Lama praised the Chinese as “practical, cultured, hardworking, wonderful people” but added that “common sense is missing” in China’s policy toward Tibet.
“He has found a way to respond both with vigor and with peace,” Dr. Lawrence said. “One of the things we can learn from him is how to carry on dialogue about important religious matters with political forces that do not have our best interests at heart.”
Andrew Conwell, an SMU senior marketing major and member of Lake Highlands UMC in Dallas, said that students began lining up at 6 a.m. on the day that tickets were distributed for the event.
“Everyone knows who the Dalai Lama is, and hosting him at SMU was definitely an honor,” he said. “I liked how the Dalai Lama was very positive about America. Many world leaders are quick to criticize our government.”
The Rev. Stephen Rankin, chaplain and minister to the university, said the Dalai Lama’s visit generated a good deal of anticipation at a very busy time on campus, and that his largely extemporaneous talk was most compelling when he addressed the young people in the audience.
“He basically said, the 21st century is before us, what are you going to make of this century?” Dr. Rankin said. “He highlighted the fact that, we have to grapple with some very serious issues and we need to do it well.”
“The students were clearly thrilled to see him and were moved by his humility,” said Dr. Chancey, who shepherded the visiting high school students who came for the Hart Global Leaders Forum. “I don’t think many people will forget this day.”