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By Rebecca Kemble
Last week, Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, addressed a joint session of the Wisconsin State Legislature. He spent four days in Madison visiting Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery and participating in the “Change Your Mind, Change The World” conference organized by two research centers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to the Wisconsin State Capitol began as a conversation over a year ago between Rep. Jeffrey Stone (R-Greendale) and Sherab Phunkyi who works for the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms. On January 10, 2012, Phunkyi was driving a van full of members of the Assembly Committee on Jobs 250 miles north of Madison to Hurley, Wis. to attend a hearing on a mining deregulation bill when Rep. Stone casually began asking him questions about the Dalai Lama.
When Phunkyi received news last year that the Dalai Lama planned to visit Madison in May, he remembered their conversations from the road trip and suggested to Rep. Stone, that the Legislature, through its leadership, might extend an invitation to His Holiness to address the body. Last winter Assembly Speaker Robin Vos made the formal request on behalf of the legislature and the Dalai Lama accepted.
Sherab Phunkyi emigrated to the United States on October 2, 1992 after living in exile in Dharamsala, India since 1959, when he fled Tibet with his father as a six year old child. He was educated in India and served in various posts within the Dalai Lama’s administration in exile. Within a few years of coming to Wisconsin, he became President of the Wisconsin Tibetan Association and took a job with the legislature. On the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s visit, Phunkyi served as protocol officer, educating legislative members and their staff about etiquette and how to receive a khata, the traditional Tibetan blessing scarf, from His Holiness. While most legislators seemed honored and deeply moved to receive these blessings, a few didn’t quite know what to do with the khatas, treating them as a fashion statement by knotting them up around their necks, or in the case of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), wadding it up and stuffing it into his pocket. The Dalai Lama’s speech began with a great belly laugh, and an invitation for people to sit down and relax. “According to my own experience, to stand a little bit longer sometimes uncomfortable. So, better to sit and listen!” (For a transcript, more photos and a link to the video, click here.) Referring to himself as “a promoter of democracy since my childhood,” the Dalai Lama narrated the trajectory of his political career as one of devotion to shifting the Tibetan political system away from religious control toward elected representative democracy. His political responsibilities formally ended in 2011 when he relinquished his post as head of the state and government-in-exile of the Tibetan people, transferring power to elected leaders. His Holiness described the system in which the Dalai Lama held both political and spiritual leadership, which vested an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the religious hierarchy. “In the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama started this system. Now I am the 14th Dalai Lama ending that voluntarily, happily, proudly. So I feel my greatest contribution for democratization. I think I made some sort of significant contribution so I feel proud.” He also seemed relieved to not have to conform to the formalities associated with being head of state. After 45 years of having to “stand like a statue” at state occasions, he said, “I’m fed up with this sort of formality. I don’t like it.” And then he let out another peal of laughter. Once he warmed up the crowd with a couple of laughs and a joke about Prince Phillip being so bound by formality that he couldn’t help his wife, Queen Elizabeth, when a gust of wind blew her dress up around her neck while she was giving a speech, the Dalai Lama got down to the more serious business of calling for legislators to make better decisions based on a deeper understanding of the basic equality of all people, and compassion and concern for others.
“I always consider, believe, we are the same as human beings. Whether king or queen or high Lama or high sort of special leader like Dalai Lama and beggar, we are the same. Same human being. My logic is, the way we’re born, the way we die – same… These two things are the most important events for our lives.” “So 6 billion human beings - basically the same. Mentally, emotionally, physically, we are all the same. More important, everyone wants happy life, successful life. And of course, those chosen people here, I think, very much concerned about successful life, at least for the next election!” At this he broke into a side-splitting guffaw and turned to Assembly Speaker Vos sitting behind him and added, “Isn’t it?” Regaining his sense of purpose, His Holiness went on, “Now, when we examine, when we analyze the situation, the ultimate source of successful life is not money not power but here, inner value.” The Dalai Lama speaks in a thick accent and most legislators had difficulty understanding all of his words, but they surely received his message, which became more pointed and pronounced. “Because with sense of love, sense of affection, sense of concern for others’ wellbeing, then there’s no room for cheating other people, telling lies, bullying.” Although it’s likely that the Dalai Lama was briefed on the general state of Wisconsin politics, where for the past two-plus years the Republican-dominated legislature, executive and judicial branches have rammed through unpopular legislation that undermines the basic rights of citizens and disregards their most pressing needs for adequate healthcare, housing, jobs and even access to enough food to survive, I doubt he realized how poignant his use of the word “bullying” in this context actually was. But His Holiness did not end there. He continued to talk about the source of human values coming from the affection and nurturing one receives as an infant, and described the negative consequences in a person’s life when they are deprived of that. “Those very successful politicians or businessmen, or educators, at an early age, if lack of affection from our mother, or sometimes even abuse, then such successful people, deep inside, some kind of sense of insecurity, fear, that automatically develops distrust. Distrust creates in yourself distance from others. As a result, lonely feeling, more anxiety.” While most of the legislators were hanging on the Dalai Lama’s every word, others were exhibiting that distance and insecurity by fiddling with their cell phones or in one case, actually sleeping. But it wasn’t until the Dalai Lama mentioned aspects of the female reproductive system that some lawmakers actually cringed and squirmed in their seats. “We are social animals. We come from our mothers’ womb and are nurtured by mothers’ milk. So therefore we have the same potential for affection. So now we should think how to nurture that experience then extend to others a more compassionate attitude.” His Holiness described his three lifelong commitments as educating people about and promoting basic human values and secular ethics; secondly promoting religious harmony; and thirdly preserving Tibetan language, culture and nonviolent tradition throughout the diaspora. He asked audience members to hold him accountable for these commitments and to let him know if he is going astray. “Please watch me whether I sincerely carry these two commitments or not… If on occasion the next time I come here, if you have some sort of doubt or some kind of criticism, then please tell me.” Notwithstanding the photo ops and blessings bestowed, the Dalai Lama’s speech did not appear to have any effect on the actual decisions made by legislators later in the day. Bills gutting consumer and tenant protections, the power of Circuit Courts, and the power of the elected supervisors in Milwaukee County all moved forward immediately after His Holiness left the Capitol. Governor Scott Walker and his wife Tonette met with His Holiness at the Alliant Energy Center where the Dalai Lama was addressing a crowd of Buddhists on the topic of Dependent Origination. No media was allowed into the meeting between Walker and His Holiness, and Walker reported that he didn’t really talk to His Holiness, he just listened. This in stark contrast to his recent 10 day trip to China where he opened a new office for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and promoted Harley Davidson motorcycles. During his China trip, Walker’s staff blasted social media sites with updates and photos of his every move. Perhaps Walker figured that a photo of him with the Dalai Lama would scare off potential Chinese investors.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.