As my tram pulled into the station next to St. Jakobshalle, a mass of protestors are facing off against supporters of the Dalai Lama. I thought how strange it seemed that a group of people could be protesting a man who lost his freedom at the age of 16, his country at 24 and who has been a refugee for 56 years. The Dalai Lama, a compassionate, pacifist, Buddhist Monk who lives by the codes and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. As I exited through the opening tram doors, a sound wave of tension hits me like a fire hose. I am puzzled by all the noise and hostility that is taking place. Clearly the message is that life is never without struggle or sacrifice. This realization struck me and I wasn’t even inside the building yet. Looking upon the two sides, listening to the sounds of beating drums as each side chanted either their protest or support, I made my way through the series of security check-points and, finally, inside the hall.
An estimated 3,800 people gathered inside the hall awaiting the arrival of His Holiness. This is my first time attending a speaking engagement with the Dalai Lama. It is something that I have wanted to do since beginning my studies back in California at the Hsi Lai Temple with the Chinese Fo Guang Shan* Buddhist Order.
The “notification bell” tolled and everyone rose from their seats. Soft applause reminiscent of a “golf-clap” began to echo throughout St. Jakobs as the Dalai Lama entered from behind a large curtain. He began greeting the various individuals and representatives from different organizations on stage. Suddenly, my mind began to drift back to when I was a child, beginning to recall quotes from “Carl,” Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Caddyshack” regarding his encounter with the Dalai Lama. The thought makes me smile as I remember, thinking how magnificent the presence of this holy man must be. My mind snapped back to reality then as the smallish, almost eighty-year-old man was helped to take his seat on stage. The Dalai Lama is clearly not this huge figure with an entourage of “flowing robes” from my childhood imagination, he is just a man, just like you and I and he was quick to remind us of that.
He began to speak of three elements that make Buddhism so special: Philosophy, Religion and Culture and how they are all intertwined. All the various cultures that accept and practice Buddhism are encouraged to question it and not simply accept it as blind faith. “By questioning, one can expand their knowledge. I never stress that Buddhism is the best religion. I expect individuals to make up their own minds. Faith and discovery are what is important,” he said to the multicultural audience.
He then talked about how important it is for people to have compassion. (“One needs to practice patience, tolerance and vigilance”) before he proceeded to speak about the subjects of “The Four Noble Truths** and Emptiness***.”
As I listened to him speak on Buddhist Principles, I began to reflect on my own journey and the choices that have led me here. Choices, that initially led me out of my comfort zone and made me set new goals and meet old ones. Sometimes, my journey had seemed overwhelming, but I couldn’t even begin to imagine what his must have been like.
“How do you reach the one billion people who have neither faith nor religion?” The Dalai Lama asked. He let the question waft over the audience a bit. “Perhaps through tolerance and education,” he said, answering his own question. “But this will take some effort from all of us. Any individual can and should make contributions to society. None are too small. We are all capable of it. We just need to be conscious of it.”
I continue to listen, as the Dalai Lama speaks about the power of the mind and how it separates us collectively as the human species. “The mental process is more important than the sensory process.” I begin to think about how different my thought processes have become and also the areas that I personally still need to work on. “The mind is very strong and our mental health is directly connected to our physical health. Faith brings inner peace. Anger and fear bring negativity to the mind and body,” he said.
The Dalai Lama was then asked about the subject of Happiness from a member of the panel: “Happiness is something that we all struggle with. Happiness seems like it is something that most of us are always chasing. What is the key to happiness?” “Controlling one’s own mind,” the Dalai Lama answered. “What about death and loss?” an audience member shouted. “Tragedy and loss are sad, but they can also be quite liberating.” Life is truly what you make of it!
Christopher D. Markakis is a US-American writer and personal fitness trainer living in Zurich. He loves to travel and share stories with people. Whenever possible, he likes to enjoy a cup of coffee with friends.
If you are an InterNations member and would like to contribute an article, do not hesitate to contact us!
* Fo Guang Shan translates directly to Buddha’s Light Mountain. It’s a new international Chinese Buddhist movement based in Taiwan.
** The Four Noble Truths are basic principles of Buddhism that deal with suffering, why we suffer and how we human beings can approach it.
*** Emptiness is one of the central teachings in Buddhism and is often misunderstood. Generally, it means that every perceived subject or thing is empty until the mind gives it substance or meaning.