I don’t know how many times the Dalai Lama has visited Madison in the years I’ve lived here–I’m guessing this is his third time that I know of, eleventh overall. I also recall his visiting Harvard when I was in grad school there. But when I learned he was coming again, and that there would be a public event at the Overture Center (just two blocks away from Grace), I decided to buy a ticket. More information about the event, the panel, and the Center for Healthy Minds is available here.
Several converging interests compelled me. First was simply the history. He’s over 80, not in particularly good health, and this might be my last opportunity. I have strong interests and sporadic practice in meditation; I’m fascinated by the work that Dr. Richard Davidson and his team are doing at the Center for Healthy Minds. While I was still in academics, I was becoming more and more interested in the role of the body and brain in creating what we humans call “religion” and the neuroscientific research into the effects of meditation and mindfulness have implications for the study of religious experience and mysticism. Perhaps most interesting for me is how the Dalai Lama is experienced in twenty-first century America–a profoundly religious figure who is embraced and revered by people who have no truck with organized religion.
I was not disappointed. The afternoon event was billed as a panel discussion, with brief statements by Dr. Davidson and other participants. I didn’t keep time (we were told to turn off our cellphones) so I wasn’t able to determine precisely how much the Dalai Lama himself spoke. He answered some questions and engaged in dialogue with the moderator Dan Harris of ABC News. As I told people who asked about it, he should have been a comedian. He was charming, funny, and delightful.
I noticed several things. First, an impression I’ve had from other events and presentations by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds was confirmed. For a myriad of reasons, they want to distinguish clearly and completely what they are doing and researching from the category of “religion.” Harris himself brought it up, alluding to controversy that has erupted in various places when mindfulness practices have been introduced into schools. Mindfulness is a range of techniques that have nothing to do with what we might call ritual or religious practice, at least according to the neuroscientists. I wonder whether scholars of religion would make the same judgment.
Second, the figure of the Dalai Lama himself. Whatever he said, however profound, what was more important, more meaningful to most of those in attendance was his presence–the sense of being in close proximity, seeing, someone of great religious and spiritual significance. The Dalai Lama has an aura. It was palpable in the theatre when he entered, and the response of those in attendance was equally palpable. Whatever assertions Dr. Davidson and the other panelists were making about “science” the Dalai Lama’s presence and our response undermined those claims.
In the course of the afternoon, I reached for comparisons and wondered whether the Dalai Lama’s presence, and the response his presence elicited from the audience could be compared to that of Pope Francis. On the one hand, the crowds Pope Francis attracted during his visit to the US were much larger than our gathering in Madison; on the other, I suspect that onlookers experienced both in somewhat similar terms and categories.
It is especially interesting to think about yesterday’s event in light of the current political and cultural climate in the US. With the current negative mood in our nation, divisive national politics, and violent rhetoric, the very premise of the panel that through mindfulness we might bring about a better world by 2030 seems tone-deaf. Given our political climate, with the loud anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s hard for me to imagine how a different world might be created by 2030. And for the most part, the deep racial and economic inequities that are a profound reality in our nation were not addressed. The demographics of the audience were overwhelmingly white, mostly middle-aged or older, in no way reflective of the diversity of our society.
Nonetheless, I found the afternoon fascinating and moving. On both a spiritual and an academic level, I encountered the sacred. The Dalai Lama spoke about the importance of compassion and asserted that selfishness, the right sort of selfishness, was the way forward. More on the day from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.