Dalai Lama speaks casually to thousands from armchair on stage

VANCOUVER (CP) – The Dalai Lama and retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu teased each other and an audience of some 13,000 mercilessly Sunday, often bursting into giggles and waving at each other.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist head and Anglican leader are in Vancouver to participate in a roundtable discussion along with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi scheduled for later in the week.

The Dalai Lama was introduced Sunday afternoon by Tutu. He described the monk as an old friend before sinking casually into an arm chair on the stage to hear the Dalai Lama speak on the concept of universal responsibility.

The sold-out crowd included monks in traditional garb, but they were far outnumbered by laid-back West Coasters, leaning forward attentively with their blond hair tucked behind sunglasses.

Earlier in the day, a lineup of thousands snaked around the Pacific Coliseum as Buddhist followers and the curious alike waited to hear a spiritual teaching inside.

Tutu acknowledged his Tibetan friend’s celebrity-like appeal in the West.

“He is about one of a very few people who can fill Central Park in New York with adoring devotees who respond to him as if he were a pop star,” he said.

Leaning forward in his chair, the Dalai Lama spoke to the audience about the interconnectedness of nations, calling it “suicidal” for societies to ignore the impact of their actions on each other.

Asked by one audience member if he thought violence was justified to settle Tibetan territorial disputes with China, the answer was a firm “No.”

“Violence becomes easily out of control,” he said, suggesting that Tibetans and the Chinese need to learn to live together.

The Dalai Lama and many of his countrymen fled Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1959, setting up a government in exile in India.

He is considered a separatist leader by the Chinese government. Beijing has objected to the announcement of a meeting with Prime Minister Paul Martin later this week in Ottawa.

While Martin has insisted he will greet the monk on a strictly spiritual level, China says the Dalai Lama also has a political role and is working to separate Tibet from China.

But the 14th Dalai Lama insists he wants only autonomy so Tibetans can preserve their language, religion and culture.

The exiled leader was asked by an audience member why there have never been any female Dalai Lamas.

He seemed to suggest openness to the idea and teased Tutu about a lack of female archbishops.

“At least the 14th Dalai Lama, I think as a male. I don’t want ... surgery to become female,” he said laughing.

Earlier in the day, the monk was whisked to a downtown luncheon, where he was privately greeted by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell whose handlers have also referred to the meeting as one in a spiritual capacity.

He was joined there by Tutu and Ebadi before returning for the afternoon’s public talk.

During his spiritual lesson earlier in the day, the Dalai Lama elicited giggles as he tested the cushion of his ornate throne before being seated, then later when he donned an orange visor.

Before speaking on the importance of cultivating a good heart, the Dalai Lama said he realized there were non-Buddhists at the meeting and that it might be “better and safer to keep one’s own tradition.”

Organizers of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual teaching said they expected many of those in the audience to have had little prior exposure to Buddhism.

Tickets for both 13,000-seat events Sunday were sold out.

The morning crowd was triple the size that Teoni Spathelfer said she saw the last the Dalai Lama visited Vancouver in 1993.

People are drawn out by his inclusive message, said Spathelfer, who travelled from the B.C. Sunshine Coast to hear his teaching with her teenage daughter.

“I think his role is just to remind us about what’s important and our common humanity,” she said.

She acknowledged some might be attending because of a sense of hype attached to the Dalai Lama’s visit.

“That could happen in any area. If the Pope came, there would be many more people and not everybody knows what it is to be Catholic,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to know all the fine details of being a Buddhist because the Dalai Lama doesn’t insist I come here as a Buddhist.”

Filing out after the teaching, one woman struggled to hold back tears.

“He reminds me sometimes we know something, but we need to be reminded to grow stronger,” said Rinchen Wang-Mo, who moved to Vancouver from Taiwan and has heard the monk speak previously.

“The first time I saw the Dalai Lama, I just (wanted) to cry because the love is so strong.”

The majority of the monk’s time in Canada will be spent in Toronto, where he will lead followers and others in the Kalachakra ritual, a ceremony that lasts several days and is among the most important in the Tibetan Buddhist faith.

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