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Dalai Lama’s message fits busy, liberal society

Vancouver Peace Summit, September 27, 2009

The Vancouver Sun

by Daphne Bramham

Secularism reigns in Canada. “God” is a word rarely heard in Vancouver where six of 10 people report no religious affiliation.

Yet, tickets to this week’s Peace Summit (where God and a stellar group, including rock stars, movie stars and Nobel laureates, are talking about compassion) are among the hottest in town. And in 2006, the Dalai Lama was granted honorary Canadian citizenship.

The drawing power of the Tibetan Buddhist monk – a near god to his followers – reflects, perhaps, the findings of a 2002 study that 81 per cent of Canadians engaged in some form of private, religious/spiritual activity.

But even more sought after than tickets to the summit are invitations to private parties aimed at raising money for the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education planned for Vancouver.

Some of the jet-set was flown in by Vancouver’s own Frank Guistra. Julia Ormond, an actress and campaigner against human trafficking, arrived with him at a party at Stewart and Shannon Belkin’s Southlands estate Sunday night. Emmy­winning musician Peter Buf­fett, Rev. Mpho Tutu (Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu ‘s daughter), eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Oprah-approved philosopher Eckhart Tolle were also there. So were singer Sarah McLachlan and former Canuck Trevor Linden.

Also on the guest list were Sir Bob Geldof of Live Aid! fame, supermodel Christie Brinkley, comedian Steve Martin and writer Doug Coupland.

Certainly, the Dalai Lama isn’t as big a drawing card as Pope John Paul II, who filled BC Place 25 years ago. But it’s also fair to say that a pope’s visit rarely inspires parties or draws from among the ranks of those who are loathe to even describe themselves as religious – spiritual, maybe, but not religious.

Ironically, for a man believed to be the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a reincarnation of an enlightened being, it’s the Dalai Lama’s humanness that’s most compelling.

There is a guilelessness, humbleness and ordinariness that’s both appealing and disconcerting. From popes to evangelists to rock stars to prime ministers and premiers, their entourages are so large that we rarely get close enough for even a glimpse of these public figures.

Although he’s spent his life in exile, the Dalai Lama has few guards and no bullet-proof glass surrounds.

Many people bow to him, but almost as many others feel comfortable joking with him. As he munched a chocolate chip cookie to the clicking of cameras in the media zone Sunday afternoon, one woman told him if he wanted to stay in Canada, she had a pull-out couch he could sleep on. He laughed.


A few minutes later, after a few sips of tea and the cookie eaten, the Dalai Lama pulled out his toothbrush and headed for the men’s room.

Distance and those physical barriers – albeit it often neces­sary for their very safety and survival – doesn’t just separate us from them, it separates them from us.

As Nobel laureate Jody Williams asked rhetorically on Sunday, “How often do people in power sit alone in a room and make decisions without any thought to the impact of those decisions on millions of others?”

Forcing the “men in suits” to listen to peoples’ stories of how landmines had affected their lives, their children and fami­lies is what resulted in a new landmines treaty.

The Dalai Lama makes no claim to infallibility or even having all the answers.

But there’s another reason he attracts a following. There’s no fire and brimstone. No list of sins. No need for confession. No dire consequences. No need to show up on specific days, at specific times or places.

His philosophy of kindness and compassion, on the surface, seems tailor-made for a busy and a self-absorbed schedule in a liberal society that values rights more than responsibili­ties and individualism more than communitarianism.

But people attending the panel discussions or watching on­line are learning that it’s far from simple. Compassion isn’t pity, doing something to make yourself feel better or an attachment to others, a nation or a culture.

Compassion is unlimited and unbiased; rational not emotional; active not passive.

It requires training, cultivation and thought.

In other words, it’s hard work.

So is the Dalai Lama a pop icon of Warholesque proportions? A glitterati guru?

Or with his simple message and accessibility that harks back to the great prophets Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha, is he leading people to goodness?

Who knows? And honestly, who cares if, even for a few minutes, hours or days, a few people are inspired to at least search for peace?

Tue Sep 29, 2009