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Hello, Dalai!

How to meet and greet the Dalai Lama
‘Universal Peace’ by Frank Balaam
‘Universal Peace’ by Frank Balaam

Unless you’ve been leading a monastic, media-free existence, you know His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is coming to Oregon. The Dalai Lama is both the former head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet, and to quote his webpage (you can also find him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — he’s monastic, but he’s also all over social media), Dalai Lamas “are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity.”

So as he postpones nirvana and as part of his mission to promote values and ethics in the interest of human happiness, encourage harmony between religions and foster the welfare of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama is making his first-ever trip to Eugene. We get a lot of famous people coming through this town, but not usually of the “manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion” variety, so the question arises: Is there an etiquette for what to do if you happen to meet the Dalai Lama?

When I was in college at a small liberal arts school, or as my parents liked to say, “a hippie college,” I took a course in Tibetan Buddhism. One of my professors co-taught the course with Geshe Lhundub Sopa (geshe is an academic degree for Tibetan Buddhist monks) and my fellow students and I were wide-eyed in wonder at this mysterious figure, swathed in robes of burgundy and yellow, who had come to explain the bodhisattva’s path and the altruistic desire to make service to others the driving force of spiritual development and to answer questions such as “Why are many Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, meat-eaters?”

Basic answer: Vegetables have historically been difficult to get year-round in some high-altitude parts of Tibet, and surviving there has required meat as a traditional source of fat and protein. And while it’s not OK for Tibetan Buddhists to kill, it is acceptable to eat meat. The issue is a source of much debate among scholars, Buddhists and vegetarians.

Geshe Sopa was one of the scholars who personally tested His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his final examinations, and he was sent by the Dalai Lama to the U.S. with a lifelong mission of bridging cultures and sharing the Dalai Lama’s vision of global human values and ethics. This led the monk to become a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and to a stint at my small school in Florida, where as he walked in on the first day, someone breathlessly exclaimed, “Hey, he’s wearing Ray-Bans!” Tibetan monks, as it turns out, need sun protection, too. 

Anticipating the way a group of hungover college kids might react to a Tibetan monk in their midst, our professor had tried to prep us. “Don’t come to class in your bathrobe,” he pleaded. “Dress respectfully.” “Please don’t point your feet at Geshe Sopa.” 

The soles of the feet are the lowest part of the body, and it is rude in Tibetan culture to present the lowest part of your body to a monk or to a sacred object. Tibetan monks carry ancient wisdom and beliefs into a modern world and this results in some interesting intermingling of cultures. 

In addition to Eugene, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is speaking in Portland, and after his May 11 talk in PDX on  “Inspiration for the Global Environment,” there will be a Q&A led by Anthony Kiedis. Yes, that Anthony Kiedis: the lead singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers who has performed wearing nothing but a sock over his penis and has a bassist named Flea. He’s there because the Chili Peppers are playing a set after His Holiness speaks. Or as one of my friends put it, no disrespect to His Holiness intended, “So the Dalai Lama is opening for the Chili Peppers?” 

And His Holiness is the appropriate way to refer to the Dalai Lama.

James Blumenthal, who teaches Buddhism at Maitripa College and Oregon State University, says it’s not that big of a surprise that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would offer to come and play for the Dalai Lama — they’ve been supportive of the Tibetan cause, of the Dalai Lama himself and of the need to work to protect and preserve our environment, which is the theme of the Dalai Lama’s Portland trip.

Blumenthal says, “It’s a testament to the Dalai Lama’s skillfulness that he’s able to carry this ancient wisdom and speak to a contemporary world in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

From audiences of thousands, such as at the UO’s Matt Knight Arena or Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum, or with a small group of physicists or politicians, “He’s able to speak to whatever audience that is in front of him in a way that’s most beneficial to them,” says Blumenthal, who has once served as a translator for the Dalai Lama.

The chances of someone from Eugene having a random encounter with the Dalai Lama in town this weekend are slim to none, but you never know. Stranger things have happened around here. So aside from not sitting down with the soles of your feet pointing at him, while he’s sitting in the red chair generously donated by a local Eugene La-Z-Boy storeowner, what else do you need to know?

“The Dalai Lama has encountered the whole range of things and doesn’t stand too much on pretense,” Blumenthal says. 

That said, according to Blumenthal when you meet a great religious figure, like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and you treat that person with respect, then the benefit comes back to the mind of person who gave respect to the encounter. 

If you’re going to hear the Dalai Lama speak at a big venue then Blumenthal says, “It’s respectful to wear nice clothes,” nothing too wild or too revealing, not unlike what a Catholic might wear to hear the pope speak. Also like the pope, the Dalai Lama is often asked for blessings. However, the University of Oregon on its “Frequently Asked Questions” page about the Dalai Lama’s visit says it “cannot accept offerings or requests for His Holiness.” 

But those going to the Portland event at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 11 may get one of 10,000 khatas. A khata is a traditional Tibetan offering scarf, usually white, made of silk or other fine material, Blumenthal says. He says the scarf is given to a lama as a gesture of respect and the lama will give it back, putting it around the person’s neck as a blessing. He tells EW that when Tibetans meet a lama they are often prepared with a khata in their pocket. Joe Mosley, assistant director of communications at the UO, says that as of press time he is unaware of any similar khata plans for Eugene. 

If by chance you were personally able to hand a khata to the Dalai Lama, you would pass it to him with both hands, and if you shook his hand, you would shake it with both of your hands. “It’s a way of showing that what you hold in your hand is precious to you,” Blumenthal says of the two-handed hold. If a Tibetan were to hold a religious text or statue, they would also hold it with both hands, he says. 

Lamas are one of only a few Tibetan Buddhist monks who have achieved the highest level of spiritual development and are often reincarnations of previous lamas. If a Tibetan sees a high lama, they will usually put their palms together — in a prayer position — and kind of lean over, making their bodies small and making sure their head is not higher than the lama’s head. 

The Dalai Lama isn’t thinking that rather than throwing the O, the sea of people at Matt Arena are going to lean over with their palms together. Blumenthal says, “He doesn’t expect anything; he knows it’s a different culture.”  

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, will speak on “The Path to Peace and Happiness in the Global Society” at 1:30 pm Friday, May 10, at the UO’s Matthew Knight Arena, 1776 East 13th Ave., and at 1:30 pm Saturday, May 11, on “Inspiration for the Global Environment” at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 300 N. Winning Way, Portland. His Eugene talk will be broadcast live on KLCC public radio. Want to know more about the Dalai Lama? Go to his website at dalailama.com or to learn about Buddhism, check out the Northwest’s own Maitripa College at maitripa.org.