The Dalai Lama capped off a five-day visit to Washington on Saturday by offering a 75-minute lecture on the basics of Buddhism to 4,300 people at American University, then dropping by a prominent synagogue for the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
As the unofficial leader of the world’s 376 million Buddhists, the Dalai Lama lectured on “Finding Wisdom in the Modern World” in the university’s Bender Arena. The hall was draped with Tibetan prayer flags and women’s volleyball banners.
The practice of Buddhism is a years-long effort, he said, in cultivating the mental qualities of “mindfulness, heedfulness and introspection. … One has to constantly cultivate the right view and internalize it so it will manifest in right action.”
After a speech filled with references to Buddhist metaphysics, he encouraged the audience to “imagine making a prostration to the Buddha.” He then cut his translator short to encourage Christians and Muslims in the audience to visualize “Jesus Christ, the Trinity or … Muhammad” in following the dictates of their own faith.
He also let slip that on Tuesday he had visited the grave of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, an experience that he called “very moving.” Several Kennedy family members were present, according to Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet.
His week here, which was packed with visits with Chinese-Americans, congressional aides, a closed meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with the State Department’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, ended with a lunch Saturday at the home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.
From there he went to Adas Israel, a synagogue in Northwest Washington, which had constructed a “sukkah” or tent-like dwelling just outside the temple in honor of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Its rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, told the Buddhist leader about the sukkah, while children sang Hebrew welcoming songs. About 350 members of the congregation were there, according to Steve Rabinowitz, a congregant who helped manage press relations for the Dalai Lama’s Washington visit.
The Dalai Lama told the crowd he had “a lot to learn from the Jews” and their ability to survive in a diaspora. For the past 50 years, the Dalai Lama has been based outside of Tibet because of the Chinese invasion of his country. Once inside the synagogue, he spoke to a private meeting of about 400 local Tibetan exiles.
Although President Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama because of his upcoming visit to China next month, the Buddhist leader sent him a letter of congratulations Friday for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama was awarded the same prize in 1989.
Ms. Saunders said plans are to have the Dalai Lama return to Washington in December to meet with President Obama.
The bulk of the Dalai Lama’s speech was a lecture on the Buddhist concept of self, interspersed with prayers chanted by one of about 60 red, orange and brown-robed monks seated with him on a large stage.
“Buddhism denies the existence of a soul, or atman,” he began, speaking partly in English and partly in Tibetan with translations furnished by his longtime interpreter Geshe Thupten Jinpa. “The notion of a self is not only false but a form of distortion.”
At one point, evoking laughter from the audience by putting a red eye-shade on his head, he said the nonexistence of an independent, unchanging and eternal identity at the core of an individual was central to Buddhism and to those wish to practice it.
He compared this to the God of Christianity and the Brahman of Hinduism, who bring into existence individuals who gain a “self” upon creation. But it is human selfishness that causes all manner of evil, he said, thus Buddhists do not believe in a created soul.
“The Buddhist answer,” he added, “is there is no beginning, no end,” he said. “The Buddhist idea of no soul is ‘the antidote to reducing self-centeredness.’ ”
• Julia Duin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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