If there is one man alive today who is arguably the most universally recognized symbol of Buddhism it is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Variously revered as a deity, defamed as a cunning politician of ill will, and everything in between, the Dalai Lama humbly describes himself as a simple monk who does not even celebrate birthdays. However, the 18,000 people who attended the Global Compassion Summit in Anaheim and Irvine, California, from 5–7 July were more than happy to commemorate his 80th birthday on his behalf.
Nevertheless, those in attendance were aware that this was more than just an occasion to mark the birthday of a great man. Rather, it was an assembly to acknowledge the fundamental importance of, and need for, compassion. And in that sense, the Global Compassion Summit was a success, as all the participants that I spoke with came away with the same message—that compassion is the root panacea for most of humanity’s ills.
The summit opened with ceremonies and artistic performances. It often seems to be the case in the West that large gatherings with a connection to Tibetan Buddhism feature a sand mandala. This gathering was no different, with the creation of a mandala for world peace by two monks from Namgyal Monastery, His Holiness’s monastery in Dharamsala, India. A lotus was depicted in the center of the mandala representing the Padma (Lotus) family, in which the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig (Skt. Avalokiteshvara)—of whom the Dalai Lama is considered a manifestation—is a prominent figure.
I was able to speak with one of the performers, Jena Carpenter, a member of the Dream World Cirque troupe of performers, which put on a magical display full of dazzling colors and fluid motion resembling dakas and dakinis (“sky-dancing” manifestations of enlightened energy). While Jena is not a Buddhist per se, like many liberal-minded people in the United States she feels that Buddhism has had a significant influence on her life. Jena noted that although she had been unable to meet the Dalai Lama personally because of the tight security for the event, his message was very clear.
“I thought a lot about what a powerful message it was for the world to remember compassion before judging or criticizing others’ circumstances,” she said. “This simple way of looking with compassion will change our experience of the world. Every time we bring compassion to a challenge it improves our experience and the experience of others.”
She continued: “For many of us who live in the constraints of the modern world, with its iPhones, computers, and constant need to be plugged in and succeed, it’s hard to find time for spiritual practice and meditation. It’s energizing to be with someone not affected by the intense tempo of the modern world, but who is just trying to bring out the goodness in the world.”
When journalist and television personality Ann Curry introduced the Dalai Lama, she emphasized how His Holiness has given his life to the world and that this celebration of music, comedy, and other artistic performances was a way for people to demonstrate their gratitude.
The key event of the first day was entitled: “Awakening Compassion: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Public Talk and Dialogue with Artists on the Transformative Power of Creativity and Art.” The second day of the summit began with a panel talk “His Holiness the Dalia Lama on a Compassionate Planet: a Panel on the Effects of Climate Change and Taking Action to Resolve this Global Issue.” This was followed in the afternoon by: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Wisdom, Vision and Experience: a Panel Dialogue with Nobel Laureates, World Leaders, Professional Experts and Artists.” On the third day, the main event was: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Youth Leadership: a Panel on the Significance of Education in Advancing Universal Human Values.”
Throughout the summit, the topics discussed were diverse in nature and broad in scope, and touched on the same fundamental themes that seem to be common whenever high-level Tibetan Buddhists speak in the West—children and education, the environment, the future, and of course, compassion.
Whenever His Holiness spoke, he emphasized compassion and how he was speaking as just a human being, a humble man. There was no intimation of politics or acknowledgment of his revered status among Tibetan Buddhists. He spoke from the heart, as one person to the people, directly connecting with the audience in the simple yet charming manner for which he is renowned.
Giovanni Vassallo, an active member of the Tibetan Buddhist community in California, said of the summit: “It was a fun celebratory event. Outside, many Tibetans were singing and dancing. They displayed banners lauding His Holiness. For the believers, any audience with His Holiness is spiritual and potent with high blessings. The event included plentiful expressions of compassion and spirit. It blended the spiritual with secular themes.”
Giovanni noted that the event was not overtly Buddhist in tone: “I found it transcendent and enjoyable,” he said. “If it had contained more traditional Buddhist prayers it may have been viewed as less secular, I think. However, I think it reached many people in the audience as very positive and uplifting. His Holiness challenged all the thousands [who attended] to be more compassionate. . . . I thought [the experience was] quite spiritual.”
Lama Tenzin Dhonden, the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary for peace, noted that: “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day. However, if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.” (Los Angeles Times)
No gifts were given; rather, His Holiness requested that people use social media to spread the message of what compassion means for them, or examples of compassion that they have found inspirational, using the hashtag #withcompassion. Indeed, the fact that the hashtag was widely seen online in the weeks leading up to the summit, and that it continued to grow in popularity during and after the event, may be one of the more enduring gifts from the conference.
The spirit of the occasion was overwhelmingly positive and celebratory, yet through the compassion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the focus of the summit remained on point. As His Holiness says: “My religion is kindness.” And as the mandala around him displayed in the manner of the Vajra, Ratna, Buddha, and Karma families, he sat in its center, bringing forth compassion.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on awakening compassion (YouTube)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on wisdom, vision and experience (YouTube)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on a compassionate planet (YouTube)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on youth leadership (YouTube)
Dalai Lama marks 80th birthday with compassion-themed Anaheim summit (Los Angeles Times)