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.
I would understand, given our cultural temperature and political predicament, if you read this account of yet another gathering in another stadium and rolled your eyes. Talk of selflessness, saving the children, and “change” has gotten pretty cheap these last few months. And given society’s obsession with celebrity and all things messianic, the image of a red-robed Zen master channeling peace, love, and understanding in a basketball stadium with Dave Matthews might strike even a mild cynic as a bit silly (or terrifying).
I submit, however, that what was most powerful about being in Seattle last spring had nothing to do with politics or religion, fame or egomania. It was about vision.
Like other visionaries who commit their lives to the pursuit of a higher ideal—no matter how modest or magnificent—the Dalai Lama’s not in it for the money, the power, or the fame. He’s on a lifelong quest for higher ground, grasping to get hold of the truth, and urging those so moved to join the climb.
Visionaries are dreamers with a work ethic. They aren’t seduced by the blinding sunshine of popularity or deterred by the darkness that inevitably falls with public opinion. They see a better future and then go about making it a reality, whether that means building new coalitions, battling entrenched stereotypes, or even risking personal safety.
Unlike the Dalai Lama, none of the 50 visionaries we chose to honor in this issue are filling stadiums—not yet, anyway. What they share is a passion for progress and a plan of action to realize their unconventional ideas and wide-eyed aspirations. In almost every case, the strides they’ve taken have already made a palpable difference. Without exception, every one of them gives us hope.
Speaking of vision, Eric Utne is back as a contributing writer in this, Utne Reader’s 150th issue. Nearly 25 years ago, Eric dreamed up a digest that would tap the best of the alternative press to fuel fearless conversations about the day’s biggest, best ideas. If not for him, and for Nina Rothschild Utne, who took the reins when Eric stepped away to pursue other interests, a lot of essential journalism would never have seen the light of day.
In the future, look for Eric, Nina, and other Utne-ites, past and present, on our new back-page column. I hope you’ll be as inspired as I am proud of their contributions.