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The Visit


May 26, 2011 by Steven Worden

On the face of it, it was like something out of a short story by Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. Or, as when the Jersey Lily visited the West Texas town of Langtry, home of her her biggest fan, Judge Roy Bean (“Law West of the Pecos.”)

Last week, to cap off a festive Tibet Week, His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (“Oceanic Teacher”), the incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, and Nobel Laureate, Tenzin Gyatso, graced Bud Walton arena.

But only the most churlish could find something to complain about the Dalai Lama. It would be like “hating on” Santa Claus. An affable, athletic, and pleasant-looking man appearing much younger than his 76 years and clad in maroon robes, His Holiness peppered his talk with short bursts of laughter, scratched his closely-cropped head, and rubbed his nose – all to the enormous delight of some 13,000 rapt attendees – His Holiness, “riding the clear light of bliss.”

Sociologist Emile Durkheim, an expert on “the Sacred,” would have been fascinated. Durkheim argued that religion has a universal tendency to urge awe, respect, and reverence in regard to certain beings to distinguish them from the ordinary. In Bud Walton Arena, organizers told the audience the rules: Stand when His Holiness arrived and departed. Remain standing until His Holiness left. The crowd eagerly obliged. Durkheim observed that such crowd gestures performed together bring people together, reaffirm their common bonds, and reinforce a social solidarity. Around me, fellow attendees excitedly told each other how many hours they had traveled to get to the talk, how happy they were to be there, and what a privilege it was to see the Dalai Lama.

Durkheim further said, “Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness.” One attendee commented, “It certainly is a well-behaved crowd, not like coming to a basketball game.” Indeed, everyone seemed very polite, carefully excusing themselves to get to their seats, cheerfully deferring to each other. Perhaps that was because, at least in my section, the crowd seemed to be older, white, middle-class, female, and​ quite respectable. But, “minority” religions tend to have more appeal to the more educated and affluent. After all, not everyone can easily learn the difference between sunyata and samsara, or has the time to meditate on thang-kas and following the path of Vajrayana.

So when the Dalai Lama began to speak, virtually every comment, laugh, gesture, and quip was met with nodding approval and rapt attention by the audience. His Holiness spoke of the value of non-violence, compassion, and inner peace, the avoidance of hatred and ill-feeling, and the importance of environmentalism. The huge crowd hung on his every word. Clearly, for many the message was not new, but it was the sheer experiencing of the presence of the Dalai Lama, himself, that stirred them. So, where does this come from?

According to Max Weber, a leader’s authority could be generated from three sources: tradition, rational-legal procedures, or personal charisma. In this regard, the Dalai Lama hit every note: as a 2-year old, he had selected artifacts belonging to his previous incarnation as the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, confirming himself as his successor. Second, he undertook at the age of 6 “a curriculum of study that is still unrivaled in the modern world for its rigor, depth, and scope,” which culminated in a PhD in Buddhism (lecture program notes) a rational-legal procedure always relished by credential-obsessed universities.  Third, it is obvious that His Holiness exudes a unique charisma, or as Weber said, “a certain quality by which he is set apart from ordinary men and possesses exceptional powers and qualities.” The Dalai Lama’s unpretentiousness, self-effacing good humor, apparent courage, and warm-heartedness point to the possibility of living an integrated and transcendent existence in a vapid, competitive, and “disenchanted” modern corporate world.

Okay, maybe it did cost some $275,000-$300,000 for the day’s events, but for the students, faculty, and many economically comfortable and educated visitors, just to see and hear such a remarkable leader reiterate truths essential to the survival of humanity, the money probably was, in their opinion, as well spent as the millions yearly allotted to football and basketball coaches.


Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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