UNIVERSITY PARK — The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, surprised his Texas audience Monday with his laid-back style, spontaneous wisdom and revelations, including calling himself a rehabilitated hypocrite when it comes to democracy and, when it comes to economic policy, a “Marxist.”
The 75-year-old exiled spiritual leader of Tibet quickly wowed the crowd by walking onstage at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium in his traditional maroon-and-saffron monk’s robes and then slapping a red SMU cap on his head.
The Dalai Lama acknowledged being a fervent believer in democracy, but only this spring did he step back from politics as the unelected leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, headquartered in Dharamsala, India. Not to have done so would have meant remaining a “hypocrite,” he said.
Last month, Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-educated academic who has lived in the U.S. for the past 15 years, was elected prime minister of the exiled leadership. The Dalai Lama made clear that he is now seeking political retirement.
That didn’t mean he devoted his remarks solely to religious matters after being awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from SMU.
After acknowledging former first lady Laura Bush in the front row, he described her and former President George W. Bush as close friends.
Then he admitted that he “sometimes had reservations” about Bush’s policies, adding diplomatically: “But his motivations were good.”
The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate urged the numerous high school and college students in the audience of more than 2,300 to clean up the mess that 20th-century people like himself had caused, stirring laughter as he did numerous times. He also said that the U.S. version of democracy is not the world’s only model, citing India, Taiwan and postwar Japan.
“If you think of democracy as an American possession, you are wrong,” he said.
And he urged governance through nonviolent means., a possible reference to events in Syria and Libya.
“How can you develop true harmony through force? Impossible,” he said.
He was beginning began to explain that economically, he is a European-style social democrat and a Marxist, but he his remarks were cut short by an official who concluded the event.
Remarks about China
Earlier, a Dallas high schooler asked how he became the 14th Dalai Lama. He made it sound as if casual luck led him to be deemed the reincarnation of the previous Tibetan Buddhist leader at age 2 by correctly picking out objects that had belonged to his predecessor, among other tests and “rumors” that he was smart.
Throughout, he made conciliatory remarks about China, which occupies Tibet, saying he would accept autonomy that would allow Tibetans freedom to enjoy their own culture while Beijing controlled Lhasa’s defense and foreign affairs.
“He seems much more approachable than I imagined,” said Li Zining, 36, a Chinese-born accounting professor at SMU’s Cox School of Business, acknowledging that she had gotten a negative image from China’s media.
“He’s a human being to whom I can relate. There’s much compassion. And he’s quite cute.”
Mary Shafer, wife of the SMU campus police chief and a self-described Roman Catholic, couldn’t follow all of the Dalai Lama’s halting English but was thrilled.
“To me, it’s like meeting the pope,” Shafer said.