Just reaching Emory from my house was an exercise in patient acceptance, considering we got stuck in a typical Atlanta traffic jam about five miles away from the mall where we had to park. Philosopher tried to calm me down, saying “Oh, it’s not so bad. We’ll get there.” And then after I took a few deep breaths he said, “Man, this really sucks.” Freeboarder tuned everything out by listening to music on his iPod. But after merging onto three different highways and taking a shuttle to the venue, we arrived at the auditorium for the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
His Holiness walked onto the stage with Richard Gere, Alice Walker, his translator, and a few professors from Emory. The audience stood as he glided in his scarlet robes toward an armchair in the center of the stage. He stooped forward, as if his head were permanently lowered from all the years spent meditating, but when he sat down his posture was upright. He spent a few moments adjusting robes to cover his bare arms, and then he put on a red visor. He looked like he was clowning around when he put the visor on, and I wondered if it was a souvenir from Emory.
My main impression from the Dalai Lama is one that many have mentioned about him–he has a child-like exuberance and an infectious laugh. He emanates joy. He made several jokes during the talk, which I didn’t always understand, but it didn’t matter. Just hearing him laugh made me feel the the truth of the prayer Om Mani Padme Hum, which Robert Thurman translates into English as “the jewel is in the lotus flower” or the English saying “God is in his universe, all’s right with the world.”
The room was vast and dark, lit only by a few blue halogen lamps along the reserved seats on the floor. My sons and I sat in the bleachers, up in the nosebleed section, as they used to call seats farthest from the stage when I’d go to Aerosmith concerts as a kid. The Dalai Lama sat in the center, with Alice Walker and Richard Gere to his right, a translator to his left. The speakers were flanked by enormous screens that zeroed in on close-ups of their faces. Most of the time I focused on the screens, because from where we sat the speakers looked like figurines in a doll house.
An art professor from Emory began The Creative Journey discussion with a question: How does art fit into the spiritual path? After huddling with his translator for about twenty seconds, the Dalai Lama’s answer was “I don’t know.” The crowd cracked up and cheered.
Richard Gere and Alice Walker had a lot to say about the subject. Both would chime in when the Dalai Lama was conferring with his translator. The three of them spoke about compassion as the root motivation of art; the role of the ego when creating; the differences between Tibetan art and Western expressive creativity (the Dalai Lama was reluctant to speak about this theme); the need to embrace the joy in the struggle; the struggles of Tibetans, South Africans, African Americans; the spiritual path as a way for Americans to escape the mediocrity that has invaded many aspects of our society.
Alice Walker spoke about her evolution as an artist and how she used to write out of sadness. But she encouraged young artists to persevere, because over the course of her journey she has learned to experience great happiness, even when she’s in tears over a character she has created.
Richard Gere talked about his early acting career and how he was just as troubled and angry as the young men he played in films. He and Alice Walker expressed gratitude for having found meditation, and how the peace they reached through sitting quietly has helped them become more creative and more imaginative.
The best part of the day was getting to look over at my sons during the talk. They listened as best they could to the wisdom and experience of the three speakers. It was hot in the bleachers, and His Holiness was hard to hear at times. His voice is somewhat low, and even though he speaks fluent English he has a strong Tibetan accent.
Richard Gere and Alice Walker didn’t agree about a few points, which provided us with a good discussion at Fellini’s, where we went for pizza afterward. In my next post I’ll write more about the specific points I remember from “The Creative Journey.”