At the University of Arkansas with His Holiness the Dalai LamaOn May 11, I spoke on a panel at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, with Professor Vincent Harding and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Sidney Burris, moderator of the panel, began by asking the three of us to share what led us onto the path of nonviolence, and he asked His Holiness to begin the conversation. I would follow and then Vincent Harding, colleague and confidant of Martin Luther King and long-time champion of African American civil rights. (His book: There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America.)

Professor Vincent HardingI felt as privileged to be on the stage with Vincent as with the holy one in his splendid saffron and red robes. I sat between the two, closest to His Holiness, and I could observe his every move. He’s very lively, natural, took off his shoes and sat in lotus position, punctuated his words with laughter and chuckles when he said something amusing or especially insightful, whipped out a visor from his little bag nearby when the glare of stage lights got to him. He’s a born teacher. I guess he’s used to it. He’s traveled the world, met with leaders of nations, doing his best to negotiate peacefully with the Chinese, who invaded his country, Tibet, in the late ’50s and occupy it even now, forcing thousands of Tibetans into exile in India, including His Holiness, the spiritual leader of his country.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaHe spoke a language we all could understand, about what it means to be a human being, how in our depths we are spiritual, social beings who can never be happy or even healthy unless we live in a positive, harmonious way with others. He laid out the dynamic of how attitudes and ways of perceiving others trigger emotions, which in turn trigger speech and actions; and he made a strong point of distinguishing the actions of another, which might be evil and harmful, from the person doing the actions, who always deserves respect. He pointed to Osama bin Laden and his violent, destructive actions. Yet, he said, when he heard Osama had been killed, he felt sadness, and he feared that the violent act of killing him will only invoke more violent acts in retaliation. “Osama is killed. Will ten new Osamas rise in his place?”

He called us to deepen our knowledge and practice of our spiritual tradition because only from the deep place of meditation will we be able to learn the lessons that our enemies teach us.

We were in a huge stadium-like auditorium. Twelve thousand people sat out there hushed in darkness. But seated there so close to this holy man, and caught as I was in the simple, transparent truth he was speaking, I felt like it was only the two of us and we could have been sitting at a kitchen table.

I spoke next and told of growing up in a strong, devout Catholic family and learning to pray when I was young and how my parents were supportive and proud when I chose to dedicate my life to Christ by becoming a nun and how I had grown to understand that following the way of Christ meant immersing my life with the poor and struggling ones and how that led me to write a man, then witness his killing by the state and how that changed my life. I told the man to look at my face as they killed him, that I would be the face of Christ, and then I told about  my journey over to the victims’ families, after first getting it all wrong and staying away from them, and then through grace reaching out to them, too, and what they are teaching us, and how some of them realize that even being allowed to witness the killing of one who killed their loved one will only deepen their anguish and can never heal their loss.

Opening introductions

Chancellor Gearhart, Prof. Harding, Sister Helen, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thuptin Jinpa and Sidney Burris.

I was given five minutes to speak and I pretty much kept to the time. All the words poured out smooth and whole and I felt calm and poised and confident. I go to this quiet place in my soul every time I stand before a crowd or governor or legislator or anyone to tell of my journey into the Gospel of compassion that Jesus has laid out for us to follow.

After we finished we stood up there on the stage and bowed to His Holiness and he back to us, with his beatific, childlike smile, and then he bestowed the white scarf of blessing (called a kata) on us. You can see it in the photos. This is almost the only way the Dalai Lama physically touches people. He puts the scarf in your hands, holds them briefly, then places the scarf around your neck.

A special collection of friends, family, and co-workers flew in from seven states to attend this once in a lifetime event. All on their own initiation. They saw the event on my online calendar and decided they had to be there. I’m glad they were there.

Encountering the Dalai Lama was one thing. Soul reverberations and insights that follow are quite another. In my next post I’ll share a few insights from the Dalai Lama “afterglow.”