PORTLAND - The Dalai Lama admits to occasional self-doubts about fulfilling his role as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. But as long as he's on this planet, he figures he might as well be helpful to other people, to reach out with compassion and good cheer to create a more peaceful world.
"Each of us has the potential to contribute," he said in an afternoon talk yesterday to 7,600 Oregon and southwest Washington high-school students. "You have a great opportunity to make a new shape of the world."
During a lengthy talk lasting more than an hour, he returned again and again to that theme as he urged students to break cycles of violence that can poison their lives and schools.
He also warned against getting caught up in external appearances, noting that dyeing one's hair blue or fixing a big nose won't help the inner person. And - to the delight of the students - this holiest of Buddhist monks showed ample signs of his humanity. Sitting comfortably in a wooden chair atop a stage at Memorial Coliseum, he popped candy in his mouth to sate a sweet tooth. Then he grinned like a mischievous schoolboy as he struggled to chew the gooey concoction.
"This taste is very good - but sticks to my teeth."
The Dalai Lama's talk was billed by organizers as the "Educating Heart Summit," and was one of the major events in a three-day visit to Portland scheduled to end today. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since a violent, 1959 crackdown in his homeland by China. But he spends much of his life on the road, giving speeches that stress nonviolent resolutions to conflict. He received the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace.
His message resonates in an era when schools must be on guard against violent acts by gun-toting students. Included in the audience were some 35 students from Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., where Kip Kinkel went on a May 1998 rampage in which his parents and two students were killed and 24 other students were wounded.
"I think it was a really good message," said Meghan Cummings, a Thurston student, of the Dalai Lama's talk. "We need to stop to realize when we get too obsessed with material things that we can hurt people."
The Dalai Lama was introduced by Sharon Kitzhaber, Oregon's first lady, and the youth summit had the support of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
But the event was questioned by some Washington politicians who thought it was inappropriate for public schools to send students to hear a religious leader. As a result, private donors were accepted to cover the cost of the buses the students took to Portland.
As students filed into the coliseum, they were met by a handful of Christian protesters who held signs proclaiming "Jesus Gives Eternal Life." One man shouted denunciations of the Dalai Lama.
During his talk, the Dalai Lama largely steered clear of religious themes. At one point, he said that practicing religious beliefs can help develop a warm-hearted, compassionate person who can help change the world. But he also said it was possible to develop those traits without religious beliefs.
Students, in a question-and-answer period, asked some hard questions.
One girl wanted to know how to react to a shooter who takes aim at a classmate.
The Dalai Lama said acts of violence should be remembered, and then forgiveness should be extended to the perpetrators.
But if someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, he said, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.
Another student asked whether the Dalai Lama, who was picked as the spiritual leader by monks at the age of 4, ever had any doubts about his exalted role.
"I sometimes have feelings of not being able to fulfill the responsibilities," the Dalai Lama said.
But when these feelings come over him, he said, he tries to think positive thoughts.
As he finished his talk, students stood and cheered. He cupped his hand to his forehead in a farewell sign of respect, smiled and then disappeared behind a black curtain that hung across the stage.