Thursday, October 30, 2014

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Secular Ethics in Our Time

Photo by Tamika More at AL.com
On Sunday, October 26, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made a public appearance at Regions Field in Birmingham, Alabama at the final event in the city's Human Rights Week. It was my privilege to be in attendance, and the following is my account of the afternoon.

Preliminary Activities

The event was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m. My wife and daughter and I arrived around 1:00 to make sure we could find a parking spot and get settled in out seats. As we entered the Regions Field stadium, preliminary activities were in progress. There were interviews on the big screen above the baseball diamond with civic leaders discussing Birmingham’s history and the city’s legacy in the area of human rights, having been a catalyst for change during the painful struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s. Interspersed with interviews on screen, various choirs came on stage to perform. One group sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a children’s choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” 

Photo by Judson Garner/WBRC

Just prior to the arrival of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a group of Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta, Georgia offered two Tibetan chants. A Tibetan interpreter gave a translation for the chants. The first was ‘For the peace and well-being of all sentient beings.” The second chant was “To the source of all joy, happiness, and unconditional love.”

The Mayor of Birmingham, the Honorable William Bell, went on stage to welcome all to the gathering and to introduce the Dalai Lama. There was a nice breeze that afternoon, but the skies were clear and the sun was hot. There were some light-hearted moments as attempts were made to provide shade for His Holiness as he spoke while seated in the large chair. (The Dalai Lama’s chair is an over-sized leather and wooden chair, nearly four feet wide, that was designed to allow His Holiness to sit in his favored cross-legged position). Finally, a large canopy was brought onto the stage to allow both the Dalai Lama and the mayor to sit in the shade.

Birmingham Business Journal Photo

His Holiness the Dalai Lama Speaks

The Dalia Lama had his translator at his left side to help him on occasion to find the right word for his English-speaking audience. The mayor sat at his right side, throughout the talk, with the Tibetan spiritual leader often making asides and references to the Birmingham civic leader. The audience paid close attention, laughing at humorous comments and sometimes applauding at important salient points.

In the course of his talk, the Dalai Lama emphasized “the sameness and oneness of humanity.” There were essentially three points that he wanted to make, and he told the crowd that he always brings these three concepts to fore when he speaks publicly:
  • All religions have the same potential, but use a different approach
  • A commitment to the promotion of religious tolerance
  • The importance of a secular ethic 

1. All religions have the same potential, but use a different approach.

“What all of us want is a happy and peaceful life.” He compared the different religions to a supermarket. “I mean no disrespect,” he said, “our religions offer something like a supermarket variety of food and drink to give satisfaction to more people.” Similarly, a variety of spiritual practices and traditions “satisfies more people, and helps humanity immensely.” He spoke of love, forgiveness, and contentment to be found in religious practices, but added that “on the other side, conflicts in the name of religion.”

2. A commitment to the promotion of religious tolerance

“We all have some spark of our Creator – that gives us courage.” He also made the point that some religious traditions have no concept of God or Creator. “Carry your life with compassion to help others if possible, or at least to not harm.”

“Our own happiness or unhappiness is the result of our own actions.”  “There are some mischievous people in all religions,” the Dali Lama said, “they do not represent all in their tradition and we cannot generalize to all within that faith.”  

“I am fully committed to religious tolerance,” he told the crowd, adding that “We depend upon others for our own survival…we have a responsibility for humanity.” He made the point that as human beings, “we are social animal…love and kindness bring us together.”

The Dalai Lama sprinkled his conversational address with other points such as, “calm mind, better for health,” and that sometimes medication helps. “Inner beauty is more important that outer beauty,” that in a marriage, both must pay attention to inner beauty rather than outer appearance. He also noted that without inner values, religion is only an outward ceremony.

3. The importance of a secular ethic.

We are all human brothers and sisters, we all have that common experience of family and the need for affection, the wish for a happy life. 

“Out of 7 billion on the planet, 1 billion are non-believers. Our secular outlook must respect all religions as well as non-believers.”

“Those who believe in no religion have the same right to a happy peaceful life." The Dalai Lama continued to emphasize the oneness of humanity and our responsibility to all, regardless of beliefs or non-beliefs.

Questions and Answers

His Holiness spoke somewhat informally, often being playful and joking. He came across as a grandfatherly figure, gently urging everyone toward peace and happiness. After his talk, Mayor William Bell had some questions for the Dalai Lama. In his response to the mayor’s questions, he was more forceful and hard-hitting, more prophetic, as it were, than he had been in his address.

With the question of how to deal with violence in our society, he said, “That is not easy!”  He then offered the concept of 21st century people vs. 20th century people, saying that real hope lies in the generation of the 21st century. His Holiness asked for a show of hands of all who were under 30 years of age. “You are the 21st century generation, and it is your responsibility to bring a peaceful world.”

He went on to talk about 20th century people (his own generation) who had brought terrible violence to the world. “Our century, though bringing many discoveries and advancements, also brought much violence, immense suffering and bloodshed. There was the belief that force is the best method for solving problems. This led to the idea that one had to destroy the enemy. In modern life, that is no longer appropriate. To destroy the other is to destroy yourself.”

The Tibetan spiritual leader stated that the U.S. has a real responsibility to promote democracy and went on to enumerate a number of things that must be considered if we are to reduce violence:
  • Gun control must be addressed
  • The denuclearization effort must continue
  • The United States must take a look at its arms trade. “You are making a profit on the deaths of many innocent lives – not good.”
  • De-militarization is a necessary eventual goal
  • The century of dialogue must happen (as opposed to the previous century of fighting)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama stated that he would not live to see a peaceful world in his lifetime, but reiterated that it is the 21st century generation’s responsibility to create a peaceful and compassionate world.

After the Dalai Lama left the stage, most of the people began filing out as well.  On stage, however, the program continued with a performance by some drummers, a song presented by the Birmingham-Southern Choir, led by Lester Seigel, and some music performed by the Alabama Symphony.  A few stayed on to casually listen to the music as the afternoon sun began to cast shadows across the stands. Friends greeted friends as people found their way out of the stadium. Most people delighted in this once-in-a-lifetime event.

*    *    *

Note: This account of the Dalai Lama's address at Regions Field is based upon my own notes jotted down while in attendance. It is therefore not complete, but rather the gist of the event as I experienced it. I tried to make the quotes as accurate as my hearing and penmanship could make them, so they may not be exact in all cases, but it is my best attempt to convey what took place. For a full account, the event may be viewed online here.  

The official website of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has an account of the entire weekend, including the Dalai Lama's meeting with the local Tibetan community ("Audience for Tibetans, Interfaith Discussion and Secular Ethics Public Talk"). To read that account, go here.

For more quotes from the Dalai Lama's visit, see Greg Garrison's article in The Birmingham News, "What Alabama learned about the Dalai Lama: 15 quotes and thoughts to take away"

Also, see yesterday's post, "The General, The Mayor, and The Dalai Lama"

Over 10,000 attended "Secular Ethics for Our Time"
Photo by Sonam Zoksang from the official website of the Dalai Lama


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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The General, The Mayor, and The Dalai Lama

Birmingham Celebrates Human Rights Week


Last weekend, the city of Birmingham was privileged to host His Holiness the Dalai Lama for its celebration of  Human Rights Week.  A few months ago, when my wife and I first heard that the Dalai Lama would be coming to town, we were elated by the news. So much of the news about politics, whether local or national, is filled with negativity and discord, but sometimes things can go very right when leaders come together to make them happen.

Gen. Charles Krulak 
(photo by Tom Coiner)
Some of the credit for the good news in town must go to General Charles Krulak, president of Birmingham-Southern College. In 2011, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general became president of one of the top academic institutions in the state that had recently been rocked by financial mismanagement. The school was located in a city that had been dubbed The Magic City back in it’s heyday, but in recent decades had found itself in the doldrums as a result of white flight and a fading steel industry. The city of Birmingham has made many attempts to get its footing and has seen many ideas fail, such as a professional football team, a horse-racing track, a water theme-park, and recurrent talk of a domed stadium – all attempts at making a good name for the city, but none ever getting off the ground.

As it turned out, the General came to town with hope for the college and a vision for the city. He looked around the town, saw its assets and  offered  a challenge to the people to invest in their city, embrace its human rights history, and make the city a place to celebrate. In a 2012 op ed piece “Birmingham should embrace its human rights history” which appeared in The Birmingham News, Krulak wrote:  

No matter your political persuasion, the simple fact is that without Birmingham, there would not have been an African-American president or an African-American national security adviser. Without Birmingham, there are many other men and women of different races, different religions and different cultures who would not have the opportunities they have today. To fail to embrace our rightful role in the history of human rights is to do ourselves a grave disservice.

General Krulak enumerated the tangible as well as the intangible assets that the city has to offer and expressed the hope that we might “come together as a Birmingham that embraces its past and uses that past as a springboard to a bright future.” He mentioned “The Freedom Trail” that he had seen in Philadelphia and proposed that Birmingham could do something similar to present itself as the birthplace of human rights.

(Photo: Courtesy of Greater Birmingham 
Convention & Visitors Bureau)


True to the General’s challenge, the city of Birmingham developed the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail in 2013 as part of its celebration of the 50th anniversary the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Also following through with Gen. Krulak's advice, we have just witnessed the celebration of Human Rights Week in our city. It is little wonder that The Vulcans recently honored General Krulak with an award as “Birmingham’s most influential newcomer.”




Meanwhile, Mayor William Bell was at work to highlight Human Rights Week by inviting His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to Birmingham. In preparation for the event, the Mayor met with the Dalai Lama at a conference in Kyoto, Japan. A news article quoted the mayor who drove home the theme of Human Rights: 

"It was a great honor to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama and discuss our shared legacy of Human Rights," Bell said in a statement released today. "Birmingham continues to establish herself as the cradle of Human Rights for the United States. The peaceful protest model first established here has been used around the world to enact real and significant change."

Office of Tibet Photo

His Holiness mentioned their meeting in Japan when he spoke to the public at Regions Field. “We met in Japan when you asked me to please come to your city.” Earlier, the Dalai Lama, had joked about their titles. Though a man with a serious message, he is also adept at using humor to make a point. He made light of his own title, saying people tend to think, “Oh, he is the Dalai Lama, somebody holy and special, when I am just human being like you. If I think too much that I am Dalai Lama, I create for myself a prison.” He then referred to Mayor Bell as “The Lord Mayor,” and said that if any of us think too much about titles, we create our own prison.

My hat is off to the General and to the Mayor for their vision for the city, and to the Dalai Lama for his vision for the world. It was indeed a remarkable thing for the mayor Bell to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to town to bring a message of peace. Such a weekend, attended by thousands and viewed live on the internet by many more thousands, can help us see that it truly is not dark yet

There were four main events during the Dalai Lama’s visit. He went to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing, on Friday night. On Saturday Morning, he met academics at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where neurological research was discussed in a scientific symposium, “Neuroplasty and Healing.” Then on Sunday morning, His Holiness met with other religious leaders at The Alabama Theater for discussion and dialogue. The event was billed as “Beyond Belief - an Interfaith Discussion.”  The final event “Secular Ethics in Our Time” was held at Birmingham’s Regions Field on Sunday afternoon. My family and I were able to attend event at Regions Field and it was truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Tomorrow I will talk about what the Dalai Lama said.

Photo by Joe Songer at AL.com


Three of the events have been archived on video and are available for viewing:



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