Spring 2010 Issue

Simply divine

Commonly called a world celebrity, even a ‘rock star’ - Barry honors students describe the Dalai Lama as ‘laid back’

By Richard A. Webster

Left to right: Students Emily Hanna, Legna Rodriguez, Fatima Zimichi, Krystal Lago, Vanessa Thomas, Kelsa Bartley and Dr. Pawena Sirimangkala, associate professor of communication, visit the Lincoln Memorial October 8, 2009, during a trip to hear the Dalai Lama speak in Washington, D.C.

“Laid back,” “down-to-earth”, “outgoing,” – that is how six Barry students described the Dalai Lama after seeing him at a conference in Washington, D.C., “Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century.”

“You’d think for such an amazing figure and world leader that he would [act] how you’d imagine a king or queen would,” said senior Krystal Lago. “But he was very down to earth and fun and was cracking jokes every five minutes. That surprised me.”

After seeing a documentary about the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism in their honors program course, Dimensions of Culture, the students were determined to make the trip to the conference held October 8 and 9, 2009. Luckily, the honors program budget was able to fund most of the trip with some support coming from the Student Government Association.

The message of compassion inspired them, but it was his approachable and humble manner that made it resonate, said Dr. Pawena Sirimangkala, who accompanied the students on the trip.

“The Dalai Lama kept saying not to look up to him as a monk but as another human who wants to improve the earth,” said Sirimangkala, an associate professor of communication. “He’s easier to relate to and that’s something this generation can identify with versus the more formal rituals of other religious leaders.”

The conference focused on how the educational system could meet the challenges of the 21st century and do so in a way that will teach students to be ethical, competent and engaged in a more complex and interconnected world.

For her honors thesis, senior Kelsa Bartley is teaching photography to children between the ages of 8-14. She found the conference’s theme and the Dalai Lama’s message especially relevant.

“The Dalai Lama said there is middle ground between religion and science and we should use that to educate kids,” Bartley said. “If we start with that concept when they’re younger they grow up as compassionate citizens. I think the main point is to be open to different ideas. Just because you believe your way is right doesn’t mean a problem can’t be approached from a different perspective.”

Dr. Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida International University, isn’t surprised to hear how the students from Barry reacted to the Dalai Lama. Katz has known the Dalai Lama since 1973 when he was a student studying the Tibetan language, and has watched how his public profile has grown over the decades.

“In traditional Tibetan culture he was [similar to] the pope and people would bow down if he walked by. But since he’s been exiled he’s become globalized and has adapted beautifully, which is why he’s so informal. I don’t know if anyone else can deliver that message as well as him. He walks the walk. He’s a rock star, a Nobel laureate, a super celebrity and probably one of the most beloved people in the world.”

After returning from the conference, the honors students convened the first meeting of the Intercultural Communication Workshop, a discussion group open to all students. The inaugural gathering focused on one of the themes from the event, “what is your spark?”

“What do you love to do that makes you happy?” asked Emily Hanna, a senior majoring in biology. “Who helps you maximize your spark and who gets in the way? This [was] one of the ideas that the Dalai Lama focused on. He talked about how you have to be at peace with yourself first before you can help anyone. It was really inspiring, so we wanted to bring that message back to Barry.”

Richard Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.