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We were warned by a religion professor not to go, that we might be demon-possessed. We went anyway. Several compact cars pulled away from Southern’s campus at noon on Monday, October 22, packed full of damp students who were willing to brave the rain and claustrophobia in order to see him. We were going, whether we were excused from our classes or not. The Dalai Lama was worth it all, we reasoned.
After a long ride punctuated with the sounds of our cars’ windshield wipers, we squelched out and walked the few blocks to Centennial Olympic Park. I did my research before we came: I knew that the Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan people and a Buddhist monk from the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism, and is believed to be a reincarnation of the magistrates, or Lamas, before him. Practically, he is know worldwide for his speeches and efforts towards peace, non-violence, and religious tolerance, as well as his continued labors for the Tibetan people. As a group, we were excited to see and hear the man who has been the recipient of so many honors and titles for peace, the Nobel Prize among them, and the one given just a few days before: the Congressional Gold Medal. That day, he was going to be given the title of Presidential Distinguished Professor for Emory University.
Once we got there, we set up our blankets and coats on the damp grass in front of the stage and tried to curb our excitement by visiting with the people around us—over 10,000 attended. The space in front of the stage became a field of rain-proofed admirers, from hemp-wearing hippies to professionals with expensive umbrellas, all facing the stage where Emory’s colors were draped, and where we knew he would stand soon.
After listening to several different musical entertainment groups, ranging from a jazz trio to a group of Tibetan monks chanting, the ceremonies began. Through it all, I remember thinking that he looked like such an ordinary person, a sweet, wrinkly, Asian grandfather. His eyes seemed to hold the sadness of the world, and yet they sparkled with a sense of humor evident in his speaking style. If I hadn’t been sure that I would have been tackled by the several security people near and on the stage, I would gone and hugged him.
When he bowed to us and spoke in his charmingly broken English, he was not especially profound or revolutionary, but he was sincere in his urgings for us to become a part of the “century of dialogue,” of peace, of communication and community with our fellow people all over the world. He used examples of animal life to illustrate how we are all capable of compassion, and emphasized that as human beings, we are all capable of great or terrible things, and we must choose for ourselves how we will live. “We are all the same,” he said. He gave advice on parenting, on education, and on the necessities of awareness and concern for the world around us. I was especially impressed by his humility as he spoke to such a varied audience, awed that this man, who has seen so many of his countrymen tortured and killed, could be so giving, and without bitterness or malice.
The other surprising element that afternoon was the lack of noise and stirring from the crowd. It did not rain the entire time we were there. We were all hushed and contentedly reverent for the man who has made such an impact on our century and our world. Even as we stood and applauded, there was a lack of wild cries—we were all respectfully showing our gratitude for this man’s example.
As we left that place, quietly moving with the thousands of others, all I could think of was the serenity he seemed to have spread over us all. As an Adventist, I heard nothing that day which offended or contradicted my beliefs. The Lama himself admitted that Christians have a completely different philosophy from Buddhists, but he emphasized that we practice the same things, we have the same ideas of good and right ways to live and to treat others. If anything, his message of religious tolerance should ring true to Adventists, who have taught these ideas since the beginning of our church. He did not come to talk about Buddhism, or to convert us to it, but to speak on the universal need for peace and compassion. If that isn’t an Adventist cause, I don’t know what is. And surprisingly enough, none of us seem to have been demon-possessed. As Matthew Hermann said later, grinning, “I’d definitely see the Dalai Lama again,” adding facetiously, “although I might become demon-possessed, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”