Editor’s Note: That Vision Thing

| November-December 2008

Last April, the 14th Dalai Lama journeyed to Seattle for Seeds of Compassion, a five-day event anchored by a simple but inexplicably unheralded theory: that the planet’s future hinges on whether or not we show our children benevolence and empathy.

Normally these sorts of gatherings are held at out-of-the-way retreat centers, where like-minded attendees nod enthusiastically as researchers, educators, and policy makers trade anecdotes. In this case, the Dalai Lama’s presence transformed what would have been a low-profile seminar into a marquee event that attracted the Pacific Northwest’s hoi polloi to a packed Key Arena (former home of the NBA’s SuperSonics) and a sold-out Qwest Field, which holds 67,000 people.

The accompanying hype prompted a visit from members of the Today Show’s A team, full-dress motorcycle motorcades, and an evening with musician Dave Matthews. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I managed to scam an afternoon ticket to one of the daylong sessions.

Friends of mine who have spent time with the Dalai Lama in more intimate settings have spoken reverently about his infectious sense of calm and unaffected humanity, which they say seems supernaturally vast, incisive, and inclusive. I was to be just one among tens of thousands, however, several stories from the main floor, staring up at a big-screen scoreboard. My expectations, beyond simply saying I got to “see” the guy, were low.

As I climbed to my seat in the rafters, a quick scan of the arena suggested that the Dalai Lama’s spirit had transcended the space. Most everyone else had been there since early morning, and they’d turned the uncomfortable plastic chairs and concrete floors into a cozy encampment. People of all ages, persuasions, and economic backgrounds huddled comfortably atop colorful blankets, families shared picnic lunches, and every now and then small clusters of attendees convened to meditate.

Despite the overwhelming sense of tranquility, the crowd was also a bit on edge, waiting on the Dalai Lama’s every friendly shrug, mischievous smile, leading question, and revelatory comment. He did not speak often or at great length from the makeshift stage, where he was joined by a revolving cast of guest speakers. What he did say, though, about the simple precepts of child rearing, the cyclical nature of violence, and our egos’ nagging appetites, rattled the collective conscience.