Nothing Special: The Dalai Lama in Berkeley — a report and photos from Steve Silberman

On Saturday, April 27, the Dalai Lama gave a talk on “Peace Through Compassion” at the Greek Theater, in Berkeley, California.

Steve Silberman
27 April 2009
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Photo by Olivier Riché

On Saturday, April 27, the Dalai Lama gave a talk on “Peace Through Compassion” at the Greek Theater, in the hills above the University of California at Berkeley in California. He was introduced by self-described “actorvist” Sharon Stone, who prefaced His Holiness’ remarks by saying, “We hear so often that we’re living in a time of scarcity. But when we look inside to our authentic selves, we find wealth and richness.”

Under drenching sun, the Greek was filled to the brim with a diverse range of practitioners, college students, monks, and local luminaries like Wavy Gravy, whose long-standing commune, the Hog Farm, provided food to the tie-dyed hordes at Woodstock, and Blanche Hartman, a senior teacher at San Francisco Zen Center. Philanthropist Richard Blum, who received the Berkeley Medal on Saturday for his work with the Blum Center for Developing Economies, made the crowd laugh by saying, “There seems to have been a problem with my previous incarnation, because I was born as an investment banker.”

Despite having a case of the flu, the Dalai Lama was sharp, funny, and profoundly humble. “I’m just one of six billion human beings,” he said. “Nothing special.” It was my first time seeing His Holiness speak, and I was very impressed by how direct and unpretentious he was. He spoke of a need for “internal disarmament through promotion of compassion” worldwide, and advised cultivating “fuller knowledge about reality” and “a calm, open, unbiased view” by practicing awareness and meditation. (“Don’t worry,” he said as he took off his shoes and crossed his legs to get comfortable in his chair, “I’m not going to do silent meditation now — I will talk!”)

“You cannot achieve peace through prayer,” he said. “We must achieve peace by ourselves.” The medicine for the ills of poverty and warfare in the world, he said, is “genuine concern for others’ well-being.”

In years past, the Dalai Lama has been criticized by some voices on the left for his seemingly cozy relationship with former US president George Bush. “Mr. Bush — I love him. He’s a very nice straightforward person with his friends — really! But he’s not, like, a great leader or politician,” His Holiness acknowledged. “I told him, ‘I love you, but some of your decisions, I have some reservations.’ Some of the advice that Mr. Bush was given by his advisors — it was based on their perceptions, but not on reality.” The Dalai Lama explained that when he was growing up in Tibet, he and his fellow monks saw America as the “champion of democracy, liberty, and freedom.” Throughout the talk, the Dalai Lama’s attentive translator, Thupten Jinpa, would jump in to provide a word that eluded His Holiness, acting like another lobe of the Dalai Lama’s brain. They clearly enjoy a warm and intimate connection. “Sorry, I’ve become older — and my English has become older too,” said His Holiness with a smile.

Joking about his life-long fear of caterpillars, His Holiness remarked that “I must have been a caterpillar in my previous incarnation.” He also spoke of the healing powers of lovingkindness in the human body, confirmed by many recent medical studies. “Compassion strengthens our immune system,” he said. “Anger, fear, and hatred weaken it.” Asked a question from the audience about the Internet versus face-to-face connections, he declined to criticize the online world, saying that he “doesn’t have much experience” of being on the Net.

“Our concept of ‘we’ must include all of humanity,” the Dalai Lama concluded. At the end of his talk, he donned a blue UC Berkeley visor depicting the campus mascot, a golden bear. He also gave white silk katas to Blum, UC Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, and the members of a world-music quartet who closed the event with a rendition of the Tibetan national anthem.

Our thanks to Steve for sharing these images and reflections from the day. You can see his entire album of photos on Steve’s Facebook page, here.

Steve Silberman

Steve Silberman

Steve Silberman worked as Allen Ginsberg’s teaching assistant at Naropa University in 1987 and as Philip Whalen’s personal assistant in 1993. He is the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.