Friday, November 16, 2012

A visit

A few weeks ago the Dalai Lama spent  ten hours on the campus of MIT. In addition he spoke to over 2500 people at the Copley Marriott. All was done in support of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. The work of preparing for the visit occupied a host of volunteers and sucked the air out of many a meeting room as those with interests in the visit jockeyed for position. In the end all went well, but once again I was reminded that the intersection of science and matters of the Spirit is filled with traffic.

There is first the rock star status of His Holiness.  Everyone wants a picture and I would argue that he is the best known religious leader in the world today. That is saying something in the United States where Christian figures have occupied the pinnacles of recognition in the decades past.

This 78 year old spokesman for the heart and head commands attention. His story is a study in courage.  James Taylor warmed up the audience on Sunday and then stepped back to gaze in reverence as His Holiness took his seat. Everywhere he goes there are those from Tibet who seek to see and touch him carrying as he does their hopes and dreams. They have not gotten the memo that he gave up his political role. The resulting security demands are daunting. For weeks before the events men in black went over every aspect of the visit and it only took a bit of unexplained white powder to illustrate why their fieldwork was necessary.

Second, there is the shadow of China hanging over the visit. The Institute with its interests in China is wary of being too cozy with His Holiness and there are those who call our courage into question, but the line between being courageous and being foolish is often seen but seldom defined. Put another way, it is easy to be courageous when you have nothing at stake, harder when you do. The minimal attention paid the visit caused some tense moments when folk arrived Monday morning to find the large parking lot in the middle of campus full of security types and command centers.  Nothing riles a university like a lost parking space!

The visit had three parts. There was public teaching and conversation on Sunday that dealt with his new book: Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Joining His Holiness were Thomas Keating, the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement, now in his 90s, and David Stendahl-Rast who speaks of gratitude as key to the good life. The conversation went on for over two hours and when it was over folks left challenged by the wisdom of elders. I left wondering if there was not a bit too much talk about evolutionary improvement and too little talk about gratitude.

The next day was ordered around conversations

 Global Systems 2.0 | A panel conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other luminaries  read the poster.  Panelists included John Sterman, Rebecca Henderson, James Orbinski, Jonathan Foley, and others.

Panel I: Ethics, Economy, and Environment
Panel II: Peace, Governance, and Diminishing Resources

One friend known for low tolerance for posturing claimed he had left for the first time in recent conversations about the environment feeling some hope. The auditorium was not filled, but then the publicity had been modest. Rock stars do not overturn well honed behavior when it comes to academics.

Tuesday Kresge Auditorium was filled for a morning of teaching about Buddhism for the 21st century. It is the tenth anniversary of the rebirth of the Buddhist community at MIT and it was appropriate for attention to be paid to sacred texts.  During the visit there were other speakers and other gatherings. It was Family Week-End and there was more than enough activity to keep everyone spinning.

It is remarkable, therefore, that in the middle of it all there was the Dalai Lama, seen by some, missed by most. It could have been so much more, but in retrospect it was what it needed to be: a time for some to pause and ponder. In this community where hyperactivity is a golden calf I do not think you can ask for more. A graduate put it all in context:
I was privileged to attend Brother David's talk on Saturday, His Holiness's panel discussion on Sunday, and the MIT conference yesterday.  I wish I could have attended all of the events surrounding His Holiness's visit, but the three events I attended were for me an extraordinarily rich blessing.  

Furthermore, as an undergraduate student at MIT in the 1980s, and subsequently as an alumna, I have been dismayed at the absence of any substantive ethics discussion either in the classes I was offered or (apparently, at least from my outside perspective) within the Institute or its Corporation.   In all the world there is perhaps no other institution that is more obligated by its stature and purpose to lead in the field of ethics, and it was a sore absence.  I am thrilled and grateful that you are encouraging rigorous and compassionate practice of the discipline of ethics there, at the Institute, and here, within ourselves.

In leading so deftly, so warmly, so admirably, the Center has given all of us a great gift.   I was surprised to hear myself remarking to a friend last evening that after the past three days I feel the Center has even helped me to feel more kindly toward my alma mater, with which I have always had a powerfully ambivalent relationship.  There are no doubt countless more fruits of your very practical modeling of compassion, and I am grateful to you for mine, and for all the others experienced by people I will never know.

May you continue to be blessed in your ministry and in your personal path.

We are grateful!

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Massachusetts Institute of Technology