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The humanity of the Dalai Lama

A couple of weeks ago I heard the Dalai Lama speak at Kresge Auditorium in a pricey $160-a-head symposium. When I heard the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and national leader of Tibet, was coming to town, I felt I had to see him. It isn't often that one gets to hear a world leader, and even less often that one gets to chat with a deity. Besides, press gets in for free.

The present Dalai Lama, the 14th Dalai Lama in the series, is a reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, you see. Yes -- it's recursive. The loop terminates at the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who, a long time ago, decided to reincarnate to serve humanity. Get the picture? The Dalai Lama is supposed to be the president and pope rolled into one.

The only problem is Tibet, an icy plateau in Southwest China, used to be part of China, then it gained independence, and then it was seized by China again in 1950. In 1959, the Chinese cracked down on an amazingly effective Tibetan national uprising. The Chinese were so peeved by the fact that Tibetan rebels had been blowing up Chinese military outposts that they forced the Dalai Lama into exile and stole from Tibet any autonomy it had left. Tibet still remains one of the most oppressed regions on the planet.

The Dalai Lama and the order from which he sprang is still very much a mystery to me. His holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, born in 1935, wasn't always holy. At the age of 2 he was identified as his predecessor's reincarnation. (I have no clue how.) After an intensive education he was, well, inaugurated. And this brings us to the present. The Dalai Lama, now based with the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, has been on the lecture circuit, raising support and, I presume, cash for the liberation of Tibet and the maintenance of his exiled government.

So there I was in Kresge, waiting for the Dalai Lama and a panel discussion on mind science. The Dalai Lama was introduced, and walked onto the stage. Smiling humbly, bowing with hands pressed together, he strolled in front of the podium, thanking those around him. Physically unassuming and dressed in flowing orange robes, he peered through his tinted glasses at the packed audience.

The Dalai Lama speaks English, but often refers to a similarly-clad interpreter who always stands beside him. The talk, on the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy, stressed Buddhism's emphasis on the individual, and the mind-body relationship. The talk pushed the limits of my comprehension, and during the talk I could hear minds disengaging all around me in the audience.

The Dalai Lama, without question, is an impressive, knowledgable speaker and ambassador. His call for understanding and tolerance was fitting. His timelessness and holy persona, however, were betrayed by moments of reality that crept into his actions from time to time. Speaking about the infinity of time and space, I saw him glance at the Rolex strapped to his wrist under his beads. While discussing the supreme control of the mind over the body, His Holiness, ever so discreetly, reached behind himself and adjusted the jockey shorts underneath his flowing robes. The Dalai Lama, I discovered, is a human being, with schedules to keep and common-man problems.

After his monologue, he sat at a table on the stage, flanked by Harvard neurobiologists who grilled him on questions of neurochemistry. Addressing him with lavish praise, this gang of hyperactive sycophants expected "Oh Exalted Teacher" to fill in the holes of their endorphine research. One eager researcher spent 20 minutes explaining his question on dopamine.

It is here that the true intelligence of the Dalai Lama emerged, and my respect for him was solidified. With modesty and calculated cleverness, he exquisitely and magnificently ducked all of the questions and tied his inquisitors in knots. He, apparently, had kept up enough on modern technology to know how to avoid talking about it, and, in a beautiful contest of minds, triumphed over his examiners by saying almost nothing.

I came into the presentation unsure of what kind of a leader the Dalai Lama was and is. He didn't levitate or walk on hot coals. He didn't seem mentally isolated or ancient. The Dalai Lama, was however, persuasive, affable, modest, and sharp as a spike. Watching him I get the feeling that he is a man who knows, every second of every minute, what he doing and why he is doing it. He seems, in other words, like a leader.

The Dalai Lama only took office after China invaded Tibet -- he has no experience running a free and independent country. After 40 years, there is no guarantee that his country still wants him. In short, no one really knows if the Dalai Lama is the right man to lead the struggle for Tibetan independence.

So far, however, the Dalai Lama has been doing a fine diplomatic job of fighting for a cause few people list as a priority and a country with few global strategic resources. His mission is a sad and lonely one -- and not the kind of mission to be undertaken by a holy man with his head in the sky. The Dalai Lama, I discovered, has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

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Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.