NEW ORLEANS — The transcendental appeal of the Dalai Lama drew tens of thousands of people to two sold-out locations on Saturday.
Motivations and expectations varied, but at the core for most was a hope for a more peaceful mind and a more peaceful world.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spoke in front of more than 30,000 people at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during Tulane University’s commencement ceremony in the morning before talking to a crowd of 8,000 at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Waiting in a long line to get into the UNO arena, Domingo De Los Reys said that two years ago, he read a life-changing book written by the Dalai Lama.
Because of that book, “I am a lot more calm, and a lot less stressed-out,” he said. “I am more wise, and able to cope with daily things better.”
De Los Reys said that when he finds himself in challenging or unwanted circumstances, he always goes back to the Dalai Lama’s lesson that, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”
Rocking her 7-month-old baby, Daisy Pate said that she purchased tickets as soon as they went on sale to take advantage of a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Pate said she has friends who were attending out of curiosity and to learn more about the Dalai Lama, and others more familiar with his teachings — such as herself — she said, “who are excited to hear words of peace in these times.”
Also the mother of a 4-year-old, Pate said that she took her eldest to Friday’s closing sand mandala ceremony, during which the elaborate work of art created painstakingly over four days by Buddhist monks was swept away into the Mississippi River.
Pate said it was a “beautiful way for a child that age to talk about something like death — something that can be scary.” The lesson that everything has a beginning and an end got through to her daughter, she said, especially related to the recent death of a family dog.
While the toddler didn’t attend Saturday’s 21/2-hour event, Pate said that she knew the infant would fall asleep easily to the monks’ soothing chants.
Enlightenment-seekers at the Superdome started early for the Dalai Lama’s keynote speech to the more than 2,800 graduates.
Draft beer and bloody marys were flowing by 8:30 a.m., as graduates, faculty, friends and families, and everyone else who wanted an opportunity to listen to the Dalai Lama filled one end of the dome.
Wearing a dark green Tulane robe, the Dalai Lama entered with a second-line umbrella alongside the others who also received honorary degrees: Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey.
Before the ceremony, soon-to-be-graduate Sam Olmsted said he had always wanted to see the Dalai Lama and was looking forward to hearing “a voice of reason and spirituality in a time of turbulence.”
Olmsted attributed the unusually large attendance to the Dalai Lama’s theology that offered a “spiritual sense without a godly sense.”
Bob Marak, a resident of Shreveport who was attending his daughter’s graduation, said that he thought the Dalai Lama’s magnetism came from his “wisdom and understanding of the world in a very broad way the rest of us don’t get sometimes. There’s an awareness he may have, while the rest of us get caught up in the hustle and bustle.”
After talking to the graduates about pursuing purposeful lives and steering the current century marred by war and bloodshed into one of peace and compassion, the Dalai Lama embraced Tulane President Scott Cowen.
The Dalai Lama handed Cowen the black felt cap he had been wearing, saying it didn’t belong to him, and Cowen replied to the crowd the cap would now inspire him to reach greater heights.
Leaving the Superdome, Fairchild East said that she was grateful when she was given last-minute tickets. She said she was going through a rough patch and a friend suggested the event might cheer her up.
“It did — it sharpened my positive outlook on life,” East said. “It’s amazing being in his presence, even from far away.”
Across town at the Lakefront Arena, Angie Gates said she was inspired by the Dalai Lama’s struggle being exiled from his home, and his ability to sustain and survive a personal struggle while “encouraging and enlightening the rest of the world.”
At the culminating event of the Dalai Lama’s two-day visit — the first ever to New Orleans — he focused on a theme of the commonality of all human beings.
In his characteristically conversational and humorous manner, the Dalai Lama held members of the audience rapt as he insisted that he has no use for formalities and asked that they not look at him any differently than any other person they meet.
He talked about recent cataract surgery, his daily routine of exercise and meditation, and his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and he chuckled often — the crowd joining in each time.
Universal peace, compassion, and genuine collaboration will not come through prayer, the Dalai Lama said — it will only come through action.
Asked how he maintains his optimism in a troubled world, “There is no other choice,” he replied.
He called hope the basis of existence, and said that “sadness translates into more determination.”
As she walked out of the arena, Trisha Favre swung her arms in exultation. She said she especially liked the Dalai Lama’s message of being mentally prepared for anything.
That way, when faced with something that might invoke anger or despair, Favre said that she tries to remember to take a step back, approach the problem calmly, and view it in a different way.
The Dalai Lama also centered his final talk on the personal benefits of being considerate to the well-being of others.
As Matt Glynn walked to his car, he said he would take that message to heart.
“The more compassionate I am to the people around me,” he said, “the better I will feel.”