SANTA CLARA -- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama brought his message of compassion and peace to one of the most cutthroat, competitive business centers in the world, telling a Silicon Valley audience Monday to put less emphasis on a materialistic life and adopt a sense of "mission."
The 78-year-old Tibetan cleric spoke for 15 minutes under what turned out to be the very loose rubric of the program's title, "Business, Ethics and Compassion" at Santa Clara University's Leavey Event Center, then joined in a panel discussion on the same subject with local leaders of the compassion community.
It wasn't exactly Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, but His Holiness seemed to have the capacity crowd of 4,000 hanging on his every word. That may have been in part because the Dalai Lama is a bit soft-spoken and English is not his first language. Some of his words of wisdom were lost to the ages. Others were occasionally clarified by his longtime interpreter. But the audience, which included tech entrepreneurs, students, Buddhist monks -- and a smattering of celebrities such as former San Francisco 49ers great Ronnie Lott, and recently deposed Men's Wearhouse owner and spokesmodel George Zimmer -- left the auditorium buzzing.
It was the conclusion of a three-day visit to the Bay Area that included similarly sold-out stops in San Francisco and Berkeley. After his public appearance Monday morning, the Dalai Lama continued his missionary work at the university, taking part in a discussion of "Incorporating Ethics and Compassion into Business Life" with such Silicon Valley stalwarts as Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe, and Jane Shaw, retired chairman of Intel's board of directors.
Everybody was making nice, of course. His Holiness is a figure of such serene self-assurance that when Lloyd H. Dean, CEO of Dignity Health, made what amounted to a prostate exam joke, the audience seemed to hold its collective breath, until the translator had finished his lengthy explanation of the remark. When HHDL broke into a beatific smile, people burst out laughing.
The appearances here were conducted under tight security, provided by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which required everyone attending the sold-out morning event to be in the building two hours before the Tibetan spiritual leader arrived onstage. When he did appear, he looked into the bright spotlights and immediately donned his signature red sun visor. A representative of the school stepped across the stage and offered him a Santa Clara University visor, which His Holiness quickly pulled over his eyes, to applause.
The Dalai Lama receives that kind of blanket protection wherever he goes in the United States, but the presence of about 50 members of the International Shugden Community amplified concerns. They lined up across El Camino Real from the arena in protest. The group represents a different Buddhist sect that prays to another Buddhist figure, Dorje Shugden, a practice they say the Dalai Lama has banned to protect his own health.
"People believe he is a man of peace. In reality, he's created incredible division with his words, with his speech," said Len Foley, the protesters' spokesman. "In India right now, there are placards on hospital and restaurant walls saying if you're a Shugden practitioner, you are not welcome here. He's forcing people to take an oath that they will not practice it. Because he's the Dalai Lama, it's very difficult for us to get the word out there."
Inside, the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize was being serenaded by children from the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, and a quintet of chanting monks from the Gyuto Foundation. When His Holiness spoke about business ethics, his remarks didn't deviate much from what he might have said to any other group on any other day. What his followers receive as profound truths might be mistaken for bromides from a less exalted figure. But the Dalai Lama goes far off Buddhism's central message, summarized in the Four Noble Truths, which deal with suffering, pain and depression -- all conditions, it was suggested to His Holiness, that exist at companies where perks such as free meals often replace the freedom to simply go home.
The holy man talked about some people having "no respect for life," and suggested companies "include teaching of compassion, teaching of warm-heartedness." When he was asked by James Doty, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University, about stress in the workplace, it produced one of the event's most revealing truths, though this one didn't get a laugh. The Dalai Lama, who has never spent a day working in an office, conceded his wisdom did not extend to the water cooler. "I have not much experience here," His Holiness said.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.