Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. –Dalai Lama
Three friends and I were among the 18,000 people who flocked to the Honda Center in Anaheim last Sunday, in celebration of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. We paid big bucks for center-front seats, a worthy trade-off for the privilege of seeing firsthand the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who embodies Tibetan Buddhist values and the art of happiness. Creative souls that we are, we thought it serendipitous that program featured a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama about “awakening compassion” and “the transformative power of creativity and art.”
Artists put the finishing touches on a giant mural, in the final hours before curtain call.
You know me: I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of writer. But I’m gonna give this to you straight. Global Compassion Summit, Day One was more glitz than substance, accessorized as it was with frothy celebrities, a fluffy hashtag, and Styrofoam cake. As a local resident (in any capacity, really), I was well and truly embarrassed. #WithCompassion
In an emotional opening, Venerable Lama Tenzen Dhonden attempted to set the stage. “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day, but if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.”
I’m guessing the event coordinators handpicked the performers, measured each act against a set of objective criteria. No doubt, they asked the finalists to be mindful of the Dalai Lama’s very specific birthday wish. They probably choreographed everything beforehand, too, as organizers are wont to do. But you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Some presenters wove their personal remarks into the overarching theme, if only tangentially. “Meditation alone will not change the world,” Jody Williams told us. “We have to have action.” After the applause faded, she added, “The Dalai Lama is my favorite action figure.”
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, sings a few stanzas of “Happy Birthday” to “the most rocking, compassionate simple Buddhist monk I know.”
Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke directly to the Dalai Lama. “”Whenever I get tired or I lose hope, I remember you. For 60 years, you have been fighting for the rights of the people of Tibet without becoming tired and without losing hope.” I teared up, right here.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks in Farsi, in honor of her compassionate mother.
The oceans are signaling their distress, this team of bespeckled scientists warned. We must respond with a shared sense of urgency, or face together the dire consequences of our inaction. Believe you me, I would’ve signed any petition they put in front of me, would’ve appreciated a very specific list of action items. Even the most compassionate among us are prone to inertia…
Desmond Tutu’s grandson made a brief appearance, as did a couple of philanthropists. At several points in the lengthy ceremony, the lights dimmed and pre-recorded birthday wishes flashed across the Honda Center’s Jumbotrons. It was a parade of luminaries whose names I didn’t recall and whose faces I didn’t recognize. Putting aside for a minute the Archbishop’s charming songfest, the repetitiveness became a source of irritation for an increasingly restless crowd. “I didn’t come here to gawk at celebrities,” someone said. “I came to hear the Dalai Lama.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, singing to the Dalai Lama.
By and large, the panelists seemed unprepared for the discussion du jour, so they talked instead about the subject they knew best. That is to say: themselves.
Comedian George Lopez made a self-effacing joke about language barriers. When it fell flat, he turned it into a political jab.
Recognize the guy on the left? Hint: Harem pants, gold lamé, and‘80s hip-hop. It’s Hammer Time, and MC’s upgraded himself to designer shades and a suit! In a bit of revisionist history, MC described the lyrics of U Can’t Touch This is “an exultation” to God. Note the panelists’ reactions. They were mirrored by the audience.
Julia Ormond (patterned skirt, blue shawl) started out well: “An important part of acting involves hearing other people’s stories and then evoking their emotions in your performances,” she said. But she stayed too long in the spotlight, prompting someone in the darkened balcony to shout, “Let His Holiness speak!”
Through it all, the Dalai Lama remained calm and observant. At times, he seemed amused by the outsized personalities that flanked him.
“The source of contentment and happiness lies within our selves.”
When the children’s choirs marched in, we saw his tender side. During the Agape Choir’s performance, for instance, a caucasian child was holding the only mic. Standing behind that soloist: a diverse group of smiling, swaying, clapping children who seemed just as eager for attention. The Dalai Lama’s smile was inclusive, and his embrace encompassed all.
Randy Jackson bellowed, “Whasssupppp, Los Angeles?”
Duuuude, you’re in Anaheim. But yeah, whasssup. Or whatever.
When Josh Radnor and Wilmer Valderrama took the stage, Ann Curry introduced them in the context of their TV series, now cancelled. “Your Holiness,” the moderator said, “You probably saw that popular TV show…”
Hit shows or not, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t.
Notables and not, the panelists sat together on the lengthy white sofa, chatting among themselves and occasionally addressing the Dalai Lama in their remarks. Ticket-holders gathered their belongings and headed toward the exits. More’s the pity, because when the Dalai Lama eventually fielded Ann Curry’s question about being compassionate in the face of criticism, his answer was golden.
His Holiness recalled for us–with twinkling eyes and make-believe horns—the time he’d been called a “demon” by a high-ranking Chinese Communist. Our critics can be our best teachers, he said. But if there is no truth to what they say…he waved a dismissive hand. His comments were so self-effacing, his laughter so infectious that we found ourselves chuckling about the accusation, maybe also rearranging our thoughts about the absurdity of it all.
He was just as mirthful about the gigantic birthday cake that was eventually wheeled onstage. Carved from fondant-covered Styrofoam, the 8-foot confection was painted a high-gloss silver, and then festooned with saffron and maroon flowers that matched his monastic robes. From a hidden compartment in the back, someone pulled a smaller, edible cake: lemon-vanilla chiffon with strawberry filling. The Dalai Lama ate a pretty big forkful, and then let loose his trademark belly laugh. “You should visualize yourself taking a taste,” he teased.
Watch this video, if only to hear his hearty laugh. (via Friends of the Dalai Lama)
At last, Ann Curry presented to the Dalai Lama his ultimate birthday gift: an aerobatic performer, female, gyrating above a spiritually symbolic lotus. I wasn’t the only one who cringed, by a long shot. No telling what the Dalai Lama was thinking, because his chair was positioned at stage right, and his face was cloaked in shadows.
The pink lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, associated with the Great Buddha himself.
When the symbolic metamorphosis was complete, Ann Curry accompanied the Dalai Lama again to center stage. Again, the belly laugh, as His Holiness took notice of the artists’ flamboyant costumes.
I later realized that, in these singular moments, the octogenarian monk was exemplifying some of the values we hold dear, as storytellers and visionaries. Beauty that comes of authenticity. Lightness of being. Diversity. Objectivity. Transcendence.
The Dalai Lama also said many lovely things about peace, education, happiness, and spiritual connectedness–variations on previous talks that you can easily find elsewhere. Now that I think about it, they weren’t all that different than his remarks at UCI, back in 2011 (my write-up). But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I came away with two important observations. Gifts of insight, if you will. 1) While compassion fuels creativity, ego is its arch-nemesis. 2) When we explore our compassionate, creative sides, we find the secret compartments in which the tastiest cakes are hidden. While I’m at it, maybe I should also add a third. 3) It’s difficult to write a fair but critical piece about something so subjective, and to (paraphrasing storyteller Ron Carlson here) “stay in the room with the story” for as long as it takes to discover the deeper truths.