Nation & World

The Dalai Lama speaks at Harvard

4 min read

Delivers message of compassion

It was a simple message delivered by a self-described “simple Buddhist monk”: Compassion reigns supreme.

The Dalai Lama addressed a capacity crowd at the Memorial Church on Thursday (April 30). With his trademark affable, down-to-earth style the religious leader counseled the audience about the important things in life in a talk titled “Educating the Heart.”

The event was hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Harvard Divinity School (HDS).

The spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has lived in exile since the Chinese suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people for autonomy from China and his support of peace and tolerance.

After introductions from HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development, and HDS Dean William A. Graham, the John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, the 73-year-old Dalai Lama unlaced his brown shoes and slid them off, folding his feet up under his dark red robes to “get comfortable” before beginning his talk.

He offered his perspective on religion and education, and stressed the importance of both in developing compassion.

The comparative study of religions is critical, he said, to foster broader understanding and appreciation among people of different faiths and traditions and to help them comprehend that principles like love, compassion, and tolerance are at the heart of every religion.

“All traditions,” he said “consider these important values.”

The Dalai Lama noted that some people consider Islam to be more militant than other religions because of the actions of radical factions, but he said that at the core of Islam is a loving god. “Praise Allah,” he said, “means infinite love, compassion.”

Education has an important role to play in enlightening the spirit, said the Dalai Lama. But he warned that people with intelligent minds but lacking a compassionate heart can succumb to competition, anger, and jealousy.

Educating the heart on compassion, and giving love and kindness to others, he offered, will lead to true inner peace. It’s critical, he added, “to educate [people] to be good social members.”

In response to a question from McCartney about how to seek peace as individuals and cultures, the Dalai Lama answered emphatically that nonviolence was the only approach.

“I always tell people we must avoid all violence. … That means talk, dialogue, respect [for] others’ interests, other points of view … and then [an effort] to compromise.”

The Dalai Lama’s last visit to Harvard was in 2003, when he also spoke at the Memorial Church.

Drawn to Harvard in part because of the many future leaders educated here, the Dalai Lama said he was happy “to interact with people of a famous institution.” But he drew chuckles from the crowd when he said a friend’s comment that just to walk through Harvard is something sacred “is too much, I think.”

The Dalai Lama is in Boston as part of a four-day tour that includes his visit to Harvard as well as to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the inauguration of a new center for ethics named in his honor. He will also participate Friday (May 1) in a panel discussion organized by Harvard Medical School titled “Meditation and Psychotherapy: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom.” On Saturday (May 2), he will speak at Gillette Stadium.

After the Memorial Church talk, the Dalai Lama, accompanied by Harvard President Drew Faust, University Marshal Jacqueline O’Neill, McCartney, and Graham, planted a birch tree in front of the Memorial Church. The tree was a hybrid, a combination of Eastern and Western varieties, created especially for the occasion by the staff of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum.

“Just as the Dalai Lama illuminates our role as stewards of the environment, compassionate toward all creatures,” said Faust, “so shall this tree shine for all who pass this way, a reminder of our interdependence.”

The lack of a ticket to the event did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Malden resident Ngawang Sherpa, originally from Tibet. With “Team Tibet” written across the back of his black jacket, he and a collection of friends staked out a spot outside the church hoping to catch a glimpse of the spiritual leader.

“He’s our everything, the soul of our souls,” said Sherpa, holding a traditional white Tibetan scarf and a lily that he hoped to present to the Dalai Lama. “He is the one who works for peace.”