Dalai Lama Visits New Zealand’s First University

Dalai Lama Visits New Zealand’s First University

(Otago, in case you were wondering)

The Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Dunedin was, in local terms at least, quite the scandal. Before the visit, Mayor Dave Cull had joined the ranks of other esteemed political figures (Barack Obama, Julia Gillard, John Key) who, wanting to be BFFs with China, have refused to officially welcome his Holiness. While Cull later backtracked from his comment that the Dalai Lama was “the leader of a minority sect,” he did not budge on his stance. The University of Otago went out on something of a limb in welcoming his Holiness, while the University of Auckland, for example, reportedly refused to do so.

Any controversy was far from the mind of his Holiness as he was welcomed, grinning, into the St. David lecture theatre for a question-and-answer session with University staff and students on 11 June. His smile only got bigger when Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne presented him with his very own official University of Otago cap, which he wore with glee throughout the session. This was his Holiness’ first official visit to a university in New Zealand, so, as the Vice-Chancellor pointed out, it was appropriate that he should begin with New Zealand’s first university.

In order to obtain tickets, audience members had submitted questions – over 2,000 were received – from which a few were selected and posed to his Holiness. Sitting Oprah-style on some rather hideous couches, flanked by Hayne and chair Mark Henaghan (whose well-known loquaciousness got a run for its money from the guest of honour), his Holiness proceeded to offer deep wisdom, anecdotes and a lot of cheeky chuckles to the packed-out lecture theatre.

Tenzin Gyatso, who was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the tender age of two, has been officially recognised as the 14th Dalai Lama since 1950. A casual 63 years on the job has left him jolly, unbelievably youthful, and down-to-earth, despite the politically difficult past of his nation. (The Tibetan government, with his Holiness as its spiritual leader, has been in exile in Dharamsala, India, since it was expelled from the People’s Republic of China in 1959).

In the session, which lasted close to 90 minutes, his Holiness did everything from getting the Vice-Chancellor to inspect his bushy eyebrows (and returning the favour by admiring her wrinkles – “a sign of wisdom”) to giggling at the ferocity of the kapa haka welcome, and making jazz hands to match their farewell wiri.

A theme of several questions – obviously pertinent to the University audience – was the interaction of science and religion. His Holiness said that “faith and reason must work together”: faith exists only among humans because it is a product of human intelligence, providing hope to sustain humans as they pass through difficulties in their lives. But faith and science are not antithetical: Buddha said “you should not accept my teaching out of faith” and followers should remain sceptical of their beliefs. They should investigate and experiment, and only then accept teachings. So scientific method and Buddhism can actually be good friends.

His Holiness mentioned the 2011 death of Dunedin’s monk Thupten Tulku, who reportedly stayed in death meditation – with his body showing no signs of decomposition – for 18 days after he was declared medically dead. This phenomenon, unexplained by science, has been observed in devout monks before. His Holiness said this was an example of the faith and science interface: this phenomenon should be measured and analysed in a scientific way – with fancy neurotechnology and everything – as well as simply revered.

When asked to compare creationist religions to Buddhism, his Holiness was all-embracing. While for him “it’s hard to feel their reality,” he said that if people find peace in Christianity or Islam, for example, more power to them. This sort of love-thy-neighbour simplicity was enough to send shivers down the audience’s spine. How good would it be if everyone thought like that?

In addressing the only openly political question put to him – “do you really want to separate Tibet from mainland China and why do you think the Chinese government portrays you as a separatist?” – his Holiness was his usual stoic and cheerful self. “They describe me as a demon,” he cackled, making mock horns with his two index fingers to emphasise the point. He said that misinformation – the only type of information available to most Chinese, thanks to Party propaganda – fuelled misunderstanding: “many Chinese have no opportunity to hear the correct news.” His government in exile seeks autonomy in order to protect Tibetan Buddhist culture, basic constitutional rights and the region’s unique ecology, rather than full independence from China. Mainland China’s own Buddhist population have said “please don’t forget us.”

Henaghan asked his Holiness for one word which students could take away from the talk. “One word: for me, not possible!” came the reply. What he offered was powerful, if not as succinct as his minders (trying to whisk him away for lunch before his next speaking engagement) would have liked. He urged the audience to think globally: everyone wants a happy life, regardless of secondary differences like race or religion. “You must think more objectively, more holistically and with more vision” to make the 21st century one of peace and happiness, in contrast to the century of global conflict and suffering that his generation lived through.

Like your kind and really wise old grandpa – complete with infectious chuckle and gleeful old-person cheek – he reminded us that exterior beauty is great, but that inner beauty is what really counts. “Please think more seriously about your inner values, because inner value creates peace of mind which is key for a healthy body and family.” It was impossible not to leave without feeling uplifted.

Three Peace and Conflict Centre post-grad students – Joe Llewellyn, Apusva Mahire, and Lisa Brockbank – all of whom are practising Buddhists, were enthusiastic about the talk and His Holiness’ visit, having earlier organised a protest against Mayor Cull’s reaction (they called it off when he apologised). “If you take his your-suffering-is-my-suffering principle, it really changes your actions and how you respond to things,” Llewellyn said. His Holiness communicates a universal and unifying message, with which everyone can identify and from which everyone can benefit.

On ya Otago for hosting his Holiness and choosing freedom of expression over pandering to political pressure.

Want to know more? Check out Soka Gakkai International (sgi.co.nz), a lay Buddhist organisation; head along to one of the Buddhist meetings at Clubs & Socs (7pm on Wednesday evenings); or to the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, which offers teachings three times a week.
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2013.
Posted 6:05pm Sunday 7th July 2013 by Phoebe Harrop.