For the past two days the Dalai Lama has been in Christchurch, a visit he requested after hearing of the February earthquake devastation. Given that there was almost no pre-publicity surrounding his public address yesterday, it was amazing and heartening to see at least 5000 people awaiting him in the CBS arena. No politicians, no City Council representatives (was this a political statement?). Had it not been for the size of the venue, this would have been a low-key, almost intimate gathering, ceremony reduced to a minimum with a welcome from the local iwi, a brief introduction from Bishop Victoria Matthews and a member of the local Tibetan community acting as host. I am sure this would be the Dalai Lama's preference.
What I saw and heard was a man of compassion, practical, wise, warm and witty. Very human, very down-to-earth. During the Maori welcome he vacated his special seat to sit next to Bishop Matthews and question her on the pōwhiri (questions she may not necessarily have been able to answer as a recent arrival in New Zealand. There was no-one to advise him on Māori protocol). He held her hands. I noticed how tactile he was. Hugging, holding - as though he was able to transfer energy to those in need. He quickly picked up the hongi (pressing of the nose and forehead) and applied it with gentle enthusiasm to all his subsequent greetings.
As he spoke to the families of those who died in the February quake and to the audience at large, he talked of the need for acceptance, to transform grief for a loss that was beyond anyone's control, into positive action for the future; the need to move on, rebuild. He positioned the Christchurch experience in a global context - the ever so much greater devastation in Haiti and Japan, the threat posed by global warming. Nothing in this message was particularly new but it was delivered with great mindfulness, insight and much aroha. After the address the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist monks, who had been seated patiently cross legged on the stage for hours, prayed in a chant which I found particularly mesmerising and beautiful.
The experience reinforces for me that the basic tenets of religion and of leading a good life are very simple and essentially practical. To care for one's 'brothers and sisters' and for the world about us. To be compassionate, open to others, accepting of difference. To me the great value of someone like the Dalai Lama is that he transcends religious and political divisions and offers a much needed global perspective that combines thought and action. Above all he is a delightful, charming human being.