Hello, Dalai! Portland Welcomes Buddhist Icon

How His Holiness' appeal transcends religion.

Photo by Mark Sakamoto.

Photo by Marc Sakamoto.

Portland’s biggest cultural event of this week will probably not be a play. It will not be an art show, a comedy set, a symphony performance, or even a local journalists’ live tweets from “Falstaff.” The biggest cultural event kicked off yesterday and ends tomorrow: suffice to say the Dalai Lama is in town. Hosted by Maitripa College in Southeast Portland and emceed by KGW anchor Laural Porter, Mayor Charlie Hales and Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller, the “Environmental Summit” features several sold-out events from college symposia to publicly-accessible talks that will also be broadcast online.

At yesterday afternoon’s forum, His Holiness spoke at length about compassion, education, and the universal oneness of all human beings, but the talk was hardly a seminar-style lecture about prescribed topic the environment—nor was it a sermon, per se, lacking citation from any religious text. The Dalai Lama’s extemporaneous speaking style wafts along on a current of soft, humble wit. His talking points are oft repeated, and in his broken English, cryptic intangibles float outside their connective framework, lending the phrases to broad interpretation. (“Want happy life,” for instance, as a declaration, has to be true.) The Lama’s submissions work best as a meditative mantra, or even a folk song with many verses and one chorus: “We are all one.”

A Seattle-based Tibetan opera singer and a Native American choir opened the show with ruminative, raw vocals that bespoke their humanity and lulled listeners into patient contemplation—at which point the Dalai Lama made a rather playful entrance, approaching one of the Native singers mid-note to examine his necklace pendant. Sitting down behind the still-singing group and fully aware of his show-stealing status, he courted crowd laughter by conspicuously unfolding a royal blue Portland Pilots visor and popping it on his head with a deft flourish. In another life, His Holiness might’ve made a great magician or mime.

Lest such a comparison raise your hackles, bear in mind that a) this is not an insult if we are all one, and b) the demand for showmanship comes standard with a political and/or religious position. As a technically religious figure in a largely secular city, why would the Dalai Lama be so broadly well-received? To my observation that he’s entertaining, my colleague Barry Johnson adds another insight: “Maybe it’s just that the world needs someone who represents what he represents: the possibilitiy of of release from the ‘stress’? I see it as a manifestation of loss/desire. We want a spiritual life that redeems our pain, not one that reminds us that we cause the pain ourselves…which of course Buddhism does when you study it for a minute.”

Yesterday,  Laural Porter reverently ran her fingers over a traditional Tibetan scarf that His Holiness had gifted her. Such treasured artifacts from Eastern tradition are prized in Portland; as local comedian Marcia Belsky recently joked, prayer flags on white people’s porches are enough of a phenomenon to be “a bit much”.

This prevalent co-opting of Eastern totems invites, at the very least, a thought experiment: Imagine, concurrently, a Portland homeowner’s garden with a Buddha statue in it. Easy, right? Now imagine a home garden in China adorned with a large statue of a crucifix, in the same aesthetic and exotic spirit. Imagine each of these two homeowners saying, “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s an antique. I picked it up during my travels.”

In each case, the artifact is divested (or disabused) of the set of religious dictates that originally inspired its creation. Installed in its own cultural context, it would conjure memories of past generations of believers: meditating grandfathers, Hail-Mary-muttering mothers, or monk uncles. It could also serve as a palpable enforcer of an ongoing daily religious practice. But imported into a foreign space, it’s simply an aesthetic object with, at best, a faint aura of general importance. If you’re really spiritually attuned, you may research it a bit and reflect upon it. If not, you just make sure it matches your drapes.

To be fair, the Lama’s temporary installation in Portland is spearheaded by the city’s devout. Under the banner of Maitripa College, which teaches Buddhist studies, a group of men and women monastically dressed in crimson robes yesterday brought a formal Buddhist presence to the Catholic university campus of University of Portland. But only 2% of Oregon identifies as Buddhist, and overall Oregon has the smallest percentage of any type of church-goers in the nation. For every dyed-in-the-cloth Buddhist that’s following the Lama, there are probably more new-agers and secular humanists padding the ranks.

A world-renowned spiritual figure who hardly ever places specific lifestyle demands on his flock, the Dalai Lama seems to have less in common with at least the out-going iteration of the Catholic Pope than with fantasy Jedi figurehead Yoda. Favoring approachability over authority, he admitted a desire to disarm audiences. “If I come here with a strong feeling ‘I’m Buddhist,’ or ‘I am the Dalai Lama, his Holiness,’ that attitude creates some distance from you.”

Further tailoring his message to his audience, His Holiness contended, “Races, faith, these are secondary. Seven billion human beings are same human being, emotionally, mentally, physically.” However, he also stroked our city’s sense of personal style with an observation better suited to Lauren Weedman’s recent Portland-preening: “The right of people…different dress!” was his opening remark.

All specific theology swept aside, His Holiness obviously brings a calming and inspiring influence to his crowds, from true Buddhist believers to lookie-loo would-be Padawans. His narrative pace at first demands patience, but eventually inspires it. The words unfurl slowly, like a row of prayer flags offset with open spaces that pique listeners’ anticipation. Here and there, he offers surprising, amusing asides—a mention of alien life forms, a joke about sex with monkeys—but never breaks his slow stride toward universal harmony. “The 21st century needs to be a century of peace,” he contends. Hard to argue with that.

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One Response.

  1. saachi says:

    new-agers and secular humanists?? in portland!?? say what?!?

    think people here prizing and being reverent about finnimbruns from the east is a bit much, you should have seen the western touristy crowd flop down to a lotus position, close their eyes, chanting “Om” counting beads and have a go at attaining a supposed state of “higher being” in the ruins of temples in India looking all sadhu’ish …had me doubling over with laughter.

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