Monday, October 27, 2014

History in the Making

His Holiness the Dalai Lama made his first appearance in Alabama this weekend. For me his visit to Birmingham was the culmination of a long spiritual journey — and I got the distinct impression it was the same for many of those attending Sunday's events. Shortly before the interfaith dialogue began, a man in a rumpled jacket and jeans took his seat next to me. I turned to him to say hello and we struck up a conversation. He was of Indian descent but grew up in Canada. "I'm a truck driver," he said. "When I heard the Dalai Lama was speaking here today, I asked for this route. I parked my rig a few streets over."

The Dalai Lama's presence unites spiritual leaders at the
Alabama Theatre's Beyond Belief interfaith discussion.
More than 2000 people coming together on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama to hear the wisdom of a non-Christian spiritual teacher would have been unheard of a few scant decades ago. Indeed, the softening of racial and religious lines was almost as inconceivable as say, being able to make a phone call via a satellite in 1962, the year I was born.

How many actions both subtle and overt, conscious and unconscious, led each and every one of us to the Alabama Theatre? For various reasons, we were there to listen to the teachings not just of the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion (also known as Tenzin Gyatso,) but from various religious leaders representing the great religions of the world.

On the stage with His Holiness was an Iman, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Christian minster (and president of Urban Ministries) and a professor of religion and democracy. Each contributed his or her answers to moderated questions. The result was, well, impressive. All these leaders in "the God business," as Reverend Eric Andrews, president of the Paulist fathers (an order of Catholic priests based in NYC) put it, are seeking the same thing: peace, love and harmony. And while that may sound trite, if you were sitting in that beautiful old downtown theater listening, you may have felt what I did: This was not lip service.

Interfaith discussions aren't new, but to be presented by a municipality like Birmingham (once known as "Bombingham") as a means to promote peace and understanding is (hopefully) a trend that will continue. And although many spiritual leaders strive to reach across the aisle of the mosque or church or synagog, it seems the Dalai Lama is uniquely equipped to effectively unite those with differing spiritual convictions. Why? Sure he's super smart and kind and gentle, but the most amazing thing about the DL is his beautiful sense of humor. The Dalai Lama's laugh alone might be enough to stop violence in the world. His laugh is a child's laugh, spontaneous and open and filled with appreciation and pure joy. He does not take himself too seriously, which is sort of amazing considering the very serious issues he ponders everyday.

View from the Jumbotron:
Tibetan monks perform a traditional prayer before
The Dalai Lama's speech at Regions Field.
This weekend, as I spoke with friends about the Dalai Lama's visit here, I was reminded of the great example this man sets for us. In 1959, he fled his homeland in Tibet, which was under siege by Communist China. He was only 19 years old and already the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. Many loyal Tibetans, who were not so fortunate to escape to India and beyond, were tortured, imprisoned and/or put to death rather than renounce their traditions. The Dalai Lama could be angry, resentful, or even filled with hatred towards the government that oppresses his native land and people, and yet, he teaches compassion for all. "A person who creates a problem for you is God's creation," His Holiness said during his visit. "You must respect him."  In fact, we owe the presence of this great spiritual teacher to those who drove him from Tibet. Had the communists not threatened his life, he most likely would not have become the very public spokesman for peace and understanding that he is today. Incarnation or not, he is an admirable being who practices what he preaches and we are fortunate to have him among us.

"We need a sense of oneness," he said to the crowd at Regions Field, during his second talk on Sunday. "We are individuals, but without other people, we cannot survive. We depend on others. The future of the West depends on the East, the Eastern future depends upon the West. Humans must work together."

He went on to say, "I never asked for this (to become the Dalai Lama). If I make too much emphasis on being the Dalai Lama, it creates a type of prison. (If you say to yourself) 'I am something special' it creates your own prison. We are all the same. (That's why I) emphasize oneness of humanity."

What influence will the Dalai Lama have on our city? As he concluded his talk to more than 7,000 people who gathered at Regions Field, he turned his message to the young people in the audience (like Jack, who sat beside me, quietly munching popcorn and Dippin' Dots).

"Eventually, we should think with vision," he said. "This century should be the century of dialogue. The proper way to resolve conflict is through dialogue. To create a peaceful, compassionate, non-violent world, we must make this the century of dialogue."

Too often, I am so caught up in my own stuff that I don't recognize and appreciate what is right before me. But yesterday, sitting with my family amongst thousands of other well-intentioned folks at Regions Field, listening to this great man speak, I had to consider how fortunate I am to live in such a time that Christians and non-Christians can come together to celebrate peace. No matter how much hatred and violence there still is in this world today, we continue to move towards a more loving society. It will take time, of course. Patience is key. But this is not a passive patience, but an active commitment that, in time, the Dalai Lama's dream — and the dream of Dr. King, and Gandi and every spiritual and peaceful leader who has walked this earth — will be realized.


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