(Anaheim, CA) Today I went to the Dalai Lama’s birthday party. Like birthday parties, there was planned entertainment and a cake but unlike such celebrations, there were 18,000 people in attendance, along with surprise guests that ranged from major international peace activists and environmentalists to actors and musicians giving tributes to the birthday celebrant.
Former “Today” host Ann Curry facilitated the flow of tributes the first two hours, from children’s choirs, actors Julia Ormond, Josh Radner, Wilmer Valderrama, rapper MC Hammer, and pre-taped tributes from Desmond Tutu and Maria Shriver.
Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel laureate for human rights activism in the Middle East, spoke passionately about how Dalai Lama’s compassion gave her the encouragement to continue and not give up while comedian George Lopez joked about how he talked to His Holiness earlier and said, “I just found out the purpose of life is to be happy.”
The majority of the time, His Holiness smiled and listened without interpretation, his head slightly tipped toward his translator, who the majority of the time also had a look of radiated playfulness and joy.
“What do you give someone who has everything?” Curry asked at one point.
After the tributes, His Holiness blew out a candle from an 8-foot birthday cake crafted by instructors and students at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana and arose to speak about awakening compassion but first, he began by responding to that question.
“When I hear the speakers sharing about kindness and the positive audience response, it gives me encouragement and hope.”
“People sharing deep realizations with others comes from people’s inner peace. And now scientists are sharing in this way and peace may be possible within my lifetime.”
Regarding his prescription to awaken compassion, he said the first step is to develop compassion for yourself, analyze your reality to firm up and moderate emotions so you can take the next step, which is express compassion with your family, neighbors, and community, “so at the end of your life you will be happy because you made a contribution. Doing nothing is hypocrisy,” he added.
He spoke briefly about the violence of terrorism and how it can be combated at the individual level with compassion and nonviolence.
“An individual’s future is dependent on all of humanity. Today individuals have fear, distrust, and violence. We all come from our mother and can have an appreciation for a mother’s affection. Those terrorists also have a compassion for their mother and a capacity for compassion.”
Wrapping up the end of the three-hour celebration was an exchange with artists and His Holiness about the ways art can awaken individual compassion. Music producer Randy Jackson said it’s a choice for a musician to write something that inspires and aids others to reach greater heights in our humanity.
Curry turned to MC Hammer, commenting on his “Can’t Touch This” rap, how it is still infectious today.
“I wrote that song from a place of joy and celebration, celebrating the moment that God was blessing me,” Hammer said.
In response to how entertainment, which often appeals to the lower impulses, can be transformative, Ormand expressed how she finds empathy with the character to make that person more real while Valderrama, took a break from entertainment altogether after “That 70’s Show” since he was continually offered roles that misrepresented the Latino community.
His Holiness chimed in with a different perspective.
”A materialistic lifestyle is ultimately from an education system that doesn’t deepen our values.”
His Holiness added that a more holistic education, that promotes emotional as well as physical hygiene, would retain what children naturally do – play and laugh together regardless of color or religion.
“But this is complicated and needs a long-term plan, long-term effort.”
Regarding the negative atmosphere social media can breed, His Holiness said, “Criticism is not bad but when it comes out of anger it is bad. It can motivate us to do good, have compassion.”
As the Dalai Lama continues to be accused by the Chinese government of trying to split Tibet from the rest of China, Curry asked how he deals with criticism. He explained he responds in a calm manner.
“One Chinese official called me ‘a demon’. So I said, ‘Yes, I’m a demon,’“ he said, laughing, making a gesture of horns on his head as the audience burst out in laughter.
“If you did wrong and you are criticized and there’s a basis, let that person be your teacher. We also have the ability to keep calm in any situation. We can take appropriate action but develop calm.”
In an interesting finale, Curry led His Holiness to the edge of the stage where the lights dimmed and three women dressed in white danced below a pink lotus flower, a Buddhist symbol of rising above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. It slowly opened to reveal a sparsely clothed woman in a prayerful pose, who began twirling upside down from a satin sash as she performed the splits. Perhaps the organizers didn’t quite understand the concept of the pink lotus, generally reserved for the highest deity, the Buddha himself, often seen sitting on the bloom. But the intention was good and this monk has been meditating and training his mind 70+ years and practices what he preaches – kindness.
“How did you like it?” Curry asked.
“Very good. Very good,” His Holiness replied.