May 4, 2011 by Leah
What a memorable week.
I was in the audience for a pretty special event today. Amnesty International decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by presenting the first ever “Shine a Light on Human Rights” award to His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The program took place at the Carpenter Center on the Cal State Long Beach campus, which is about a 10-minute bike ride from our house.
A couple of days ago, I got an email saying that security would be tight – no phones or cameras would be allowed in the building, everyone would have to pass through metal detectors, and per State Department security protocols, His Holiness would not be taking individual photographs or giving any private interviews or audiences. When I got there this morning, there were a couple of guys standing outside with signs about how Jesus is the Lord and Savior – one of them shouted at me, inquiring whether I had taken Jesus into my heart. I ignored him and he yelled something about how I’d be hot in hell. It didn’t exactly set a great tone.
Once we were allowed in, after very long lines and much waiting, we watched part of the 50th anniversary video Amnesty put together, which was really inspiring. Former prisoners of conscience were interviewed, and each and every one of them talked about how meaningful it was to know that people around the globe stood with them in their struggles. Amnesty’s first mission was basically inundating these prisoners and the governments that were holding them with letters from people who wanted to uphold the basic human rights of freedom of speech and religion. Over the course of five decades, there have been so many letters that most of these prisoners are eventually released.
The video wasn’t even over when everyone stood up – His Holiness, his entourage, and a bunch of other people had appeared on stage. The energy in the room was palpable – so much so that I spent the first half of the program trying not to cry. (This is also why I don’t go to church anymore. No point in sobbing the whole time.)
The first speaker was a former prisoner of conscience from South Africa, whose release from prison on treason charges was spearheaded by Amnesty and who now works for the organization in this country. The second speaker was Larry Cox, the Executive Director of Amnesty USA (he’s usually the one who “sends” all the emails I get, so it was fun to see him in person). I liked Cox’s message because he included a bit about how poverty is a form of violence, and it affects people in every country and every community and yet we turn a blind eye to it most of the time. Then he and three students from an East L. A. high school Amnesty club presented the award to His Holiness, who in turn gave the three girls white scarves. Then he spoke.
His message was about the gratitude he felt at receiving awards such as these, and at knowing people all around the world care about the people of Tibet. He spoke about how far things have come in the People’s Republic of China since the civil war. He said he was encouraged by the fact that, in the last two years, a thousand (?) articles asking for a new relationship between China and Tibet had been penned in the Chinese language, many of them by writers actually inside China. He told an anecdote about how, when he had the chance to meet the Queen Mother in 1996, he asked her, as someone who had seen almost the entire 20th century (she was born in 1900), whether she thought humanity had improved or deteriorated. She told him we are much improved, because no one talked about human rights during her youth, and now it’s an important global issue. He also put to rest the idea that he is a symbol (of Tibet, of compassion, etc.), saying, “I’m not a symbol; I’m just a monk.”
In the questions (carefully prepared and pre-screened, I’m sure) that followed, he kept to the same message. To a man from “Students for a Free Tibet” who asked what American students could do to help Tibet, he suggested starting a Sino-Tibetan Friendship Alliance, saying that the more friendships between the Chinese people and Tibetan people, the better understanding there will be between the two groups. He pointed out that the Chinese media is still censored, which is wrong because China belongs to the people, not the party. He holds out great hope that once there is a free media and independent judiciary system in China, the relations between China and Tibet will improve due to the goodness and morality intrinsic in people who actually have access to all the information.
To a question about what he recommended to immigrant youth who grew up in America and are now in danger of being deported, or exiled, away from the only home they have ever known (this is a huge issue in California right now), he said, “I don’t know.” Humility. Wow. He then went on to say that the United States is basically a free country and that we do have an independent judicial system and told the young girl who had asked the question that she probably had a better idea about how to go about using those tools than he did.
To a question about what advice he had for Muslims who have been facing discrimination and ill-informed attacks since 9/11, he said that people need to be educated. He said you’re not allowed to criticize something until you’ve learned everything you can about it, and that attacks based on prejudice are foolish. He said the Muslim friends he has and scholars he knows talk about jihad being the war against one’s own internal evil, and that the Buddhist tradition has similar language of war with one’s own inner nature. He said there are mischievous people who purport to follow every religion in the world, and that it’s wrong to judge the many by the few.
To a ninth grader from Bell (a very poor community recently rocked by a major government scandal) who talked about joining the Gay-Straight Alliance at his school because he believes every person has a right to be free from fear of bullying, His Holiness replied again that education is key. He said we need to concentrate on giving our children moral educations as well as intellectual educations, and pointed out that an intelligent person with no moral compass is a danger indeed. He said that the Buddhist tradition acknowledges several different kinds of giving of oneself, and one of those he finds particularly important is giving people freedom from fear, which we should all work to do. He also said he understands that that is a long-term solution, and that if you’re actually being bullied by someone based on a prejudice, then he’d suggest fighting back. The audience loved that one.
The final question was from a long-term activist from San Diego who asked what His Holiness would recommend to people who have been trying to change things for a long time and sometimes struggle with motivation. He responded with a history of modern China, of all things, which turned out to be a perfect example of the kind of situation that should be giving us all optimism. Things are by no means perfect, but the situation has been improving. He also said that not acting to help others in need around the world, or in our own communities, is just plain selfishness.
Then he was done.
I was so full of love for my fellow humans that I was actually planning to go back and ask the Jesus guys why they were picketing this particular event. I wanted to share with them the Dalai Lama’s message of uncompromising compassion for everyone, particularly the weak and the poor. To anyone who has actually read the New Testament, that should ring a bell. I didn’t get a chance to chat with them, though, because they had disappeared by the time I got back into the bright midday sunlight.
After what happened this week, with the President’s announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed starting a vituperative dialogue between everyone from members of Congress and the national media to people who happen to be Facebook friends with people who hold different viewpoints from their own, I cannot imagine a more healing, hopeful, amazing experience than the one I had this morning. And, I got a free poster out of it. $50 well spent.