The best thing about the Dalai Lama’s visit to the University of Northern Iowa came when he walked out on stage and shocked the crowd with a timely prayer for the recently departed Ronnie James Dio, followed by a stunning rendition of “The Man On The Silver Mountain” backed by U.N.I.’s symphony orchestra.
There’s nothing musical related to this post, unless you want to count the fact that Alex Chilton’s “Dalai Lama” was running through my head continually as I walked towards the McLeod Center on the campus of my alma matter.
If there’s a hint of pride in those words, it’s because Northern Iowa seems to be on a stunning streak of sorts-and by securing a visit from His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, it is nothing short of icing on the proverbial cake.
Cedar Falls was one of only six stops for the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the United States, and the event was billed as a keynote address on the power of education, with the emphasis on educating for a non-violent world. Since Northern Iowa began as a teacher’s college over a hundred years ago and still graduates a large percentage of educators each year, His Holiness must have felt that this Midwestern public university would be an ideal place to relay his message.
U.N.I.’s Wind Symphony did perform an original piece called “Joy,” composed by Jonathan Schwabe, a professor at the university’s school of music. His Holiness was provided with the original score of this work and he received an honorary doctorate degree from the university. He seemed to enjoy this designation, telling the capacity crowd that he did not have a lot of time for homework and that he thought himself to be somewhat “lazy” when it came to studying.
The Dalai Lama used humor a lot during his hour-long discussion, and it continued into the brief question and answer period afterwards. When he was asked about his life-long commitment to learning and continual education, he confessed that it only arrived at the age of fourteen.
Prior to that, His Holiness admitted that he was a little less focused on studying, to the point where the tutor assigned to him used harsher measures to get him to focus on his schoolwork.
He explained that his tutor also was assigned to the Dalai Lama’s brother and when both misbehaved, both students were provided with a stern whipping in order to get their attention.
A tutor physically hitting the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet?
Evidently, even the tutor understood the significance of his young pupil, as he created a special, yellow whip to use on His Holiness, to which the Dalai Lama admitted the pain stung just as much as the normal whip used on his brother.
In other words, there was no special treatment provided to him and fear was the motivating factor in righting his ship to become a worthy student.
That message-the notion that the Dalai Lama was something special-was repeated over and over by His Holiness, as he attempted to demonstrate that he was just like everyone else.
He felt it was important for the audience to understand that he was the same as everyone else and to not think that because of the fanfare, the adulation, and all of the attention placed on his visit, that he should be singled out as something more than another person.
He told a story in which people often approach him and ask for healing. He reminded everyone that he had his gall bladder removed a few years ago, and that if he truly had any healing power, he would have certainly used it on himself first instead of going under the knife.
Yet as much as he would like to us to believe that he is nothing more than a simple monk, the truth is that there is significance to his presence and that this was a significant event for the university and for everyone in attendance.
With several thousand people present, you could have heard a pin drop whenever he spoke. He apologized for his broken English and there was a dashing interpreter at his side, providing him with assistance to find the correct words to convey.
He confessed to using the wrong words at time, once confusing the word “optimism” with “pessimism.” Again, his humor and humbleness was critical in bringing him down to a level where the audience was comfortable and more receptive of his message.
The message was a simple one: incorporate a humanistic view into teaching, stressing the importance that, at our core, we are all human beings. He urged the future educators to look beyond the regional, religious, and racial differences between people and understand that those are all secondary issues. The first thing that we should all realize is that we’re all brothers and sisters, so put aside the trivial differences, treat each other with respect, and remember that the road to world peace begins with a path from within.
I’m not a Buddhist.
But the message that the Dalai Lama spoke could have been spoken at my church because it is a universal message. Every now and then-particularly in a society where so much is reported on what’s wrong with the world-it’s refreshing and necessary to have the idea of peace and harmony reminded to us with a person of such stature like the Dalai Lama.
He admitted that as long as that message is adhered to, who delivers it is irrelevant. His Holiness hinted that even his own religion is riddled with factions and conflicting beliefs, but like humanity itself, the moral compass is unwavering.
U.N.I.’s President, Benjamin Allen did an admirable job under the spotlight of today’s event and seems to be doing an even better job of bringing this small university housed in a small town into more of a national spotlight. The Dalai Lama’s visit to the campus of Northern Iowa will surely put the university on a different level than the recognition its sports program(s) gave it with their recent success.
But he did put on a Panther cap within moments of coming on stage, so maybe that's a good sign for the school's football season this fall.