The older man next to me in line outside the Yum! Center wears a blue sweater – “powder”. It’s too hot to wait in the sun in a sweater. But he is genuinely pleased when he speaks with me, smiles: “Have you seen the Dalai Lama before? He’s very inspiring. He’s very funny.” This feels good.
The track lighting inside the arena sets a mood of “cobalt” over our faces. Track lighting? From where I sit at the very tip-top I can see the metal catwalk and constellation of wires and bulbs and a scattering of colored gel filters to fit all kinds of moods. They chose blue for the Dalai Lama. It smells like funnel cake in here. I'm freezing. This feels wrong.
There are colors of red, too: bright Cardinal walls and tile and banners, the brick color of Buddhist robes – everything about the day the Dalai Lama gives his public talk, “Engaging Compassion” , at the KFC Yum! Center  is going to feel wrong and right. hot and cold. Moving and jolting. Blue, red – watercolors in my head. Too bright, too dark. And the first thing I write in my notes under “5/19/13: Dalai Lama” is “chaos reigns.”
A man in long white robes with long blonde hair waits in line for a soft pretzel. People pass each other and look into your eyes with a certain solidifying brightness. Commemorative T-shirts for sale; wall calendars of Tibet tucked under arms.
And Section 321 Row U Seat 1 is enough to give you vertigo, I find. You climb a mountain to sit where I am sitting, and the word “sherpa” is stamped into my brain as I sing the Alphabet Song to myself, looking for “U” and step gingerly up blocks of concrete. The couple in front of me is eating orange popcorn from a plastic bag. “Engaging Compassion” colorized on the jumbotron – dissolved now into Ben Sollee’s face: “Tibetan Freedom Concert”.
This is not right. This is a spiritual sporting event.
But everything changes when the man seated next to me finally finds his spot: Section 321 Row U Seat 2. Khakis, sensible shoes, summer oxford (blue again: “baby”), wire glasses. Extremely tall. Up here he is folded like a grasshopper. He is perhaps in his 50s or 60s but I can’t quite tell and it does not matter because when he says “thank you” as I stand, grasp the railing-of-dear-life on this mountain of seats and let him pass – he has the calmest, most genuine eyes I have seen here today. Thank everyone’s god. That was a real “thank you”. And he tucks those long legs into this ridiculous aisle beside me with a patient smile. He says: “How often do you get to see the Dalai Lama?” His voice is very even, and he tells me that he is a retired military doctor. He has not bought any funnel cake; I am happy to shake his hand.
When the Dalai Lama enters the arena this doctor, myself and all the 14,000 others in the stands will rise and cheer without question. The Dalai Lama is slightly stooped when he walks. He will greet a collection of spiritual leaders seated on stage; I can see he is smiling on the jumbotrons. One man yells “I love you!” as quiet settles. It echoes. It feels right.
The Tibetan monk that introduces His Holiness will speak extremely broken English, monotone, coughing into the microphone with abrupt doglike barks of breath between sentences. An uncomfortable brittle feeling across the crowd. The see-saw in my belly continues. Right, wrong. Hot, cold.
And now here is the Mayor at the mic wearing a prayer scarf. He speaks. We clap.
The Dalai Lama rises from his chair. We rise. We clap.
He is at the mic. He dons a maroon visor; it looks a little silly. I notice his large square glasses in the lights. He congratulates the introducing monk on his English, and says: “It was his first time. He was much nervous.” The Dalai Lama mimics the doglike cough, and he smiles; he laughs – a genuine chuckle. The nervous monk laughs; we laugh. 14,000 people laugh. This couldn’t be any more perfect.
The Dalai Lama gestures his arms and shakes his fingers and hands when he speaks to us about "Engaging Compassion". His face is animated and easy. He moves the maroon visor around on his head seemingly for emphasis, and the way he says “automatically” – “aw-tuh-met-tic-cally!” – is so endearing.
He will laugh his laugh often and make jokes - he really is very funny. His voice will get low and gravelly when he speaks about his friend and mentor, Kentucky monk, philosopher and writer, Thomas Merton. You can sense the emotion there. He will tell us all that we absolutely must build a “compassionate century” and explain that this starts with the individual: “Humanity is a collection of individuals, so motivation must come from the self.” He will remind us that conflict is always present, always – but that a compassionate mind, a mind without fear, can overcome this: “Fear brings hatred…a peaceful mind is entirely based on compassion.”
With a long, tan arm gesturing to the delegation of faith leaders on the stage with him, he will explain the importance of respect and interfaith: “All religions have the same potential to produce a good human being, a dedicated human being.” He will say so much, and I will lose my sense of time completely.
Both the retired medical doctor and I scribble away together throughout the Dalai Lama’s words. Sometimes we don’t understand exactly what he says through the echo of the stadium. We look at each other, shrug. We keep listening. It doesn’t matter. The Dalai Lama laughs and cups his hands over his chest, over his heart, for emphasis and the exact quotes are not necessary.
We saw the Dalai Lama together. We: the short writer with a collection of tattoos in U1 and the retired military doctor with calm eyes and miles of khaki legs scrunched up in U2 – together somewhere in the nosebleed section on May 19th, 2013 at the KFC Yum! Center. We experienced that “once-in-a-lifetime” thing together. And this retired doctor will notice my tattoos; the Henry Miller quote from Tropic of Cancer will seem a little risqué to him. But he will tell me a story about a quote tattooed on a man’s chest that he found moving: “There is always a reason to dance”. I will tell him that dancing by myself has kept me sane in the past year of my divorce, of living alone. He tells me that is good, and it’s going to be ok – he didn’t get it right until the second time, either. His wedding band is gold.
The Dalai Lama says: “Despite different traditions, different philosophies, different histories, all carry human value.” Hand over heart and an easy face. Compassion.
The military doctor will hug me when he leaves. Compassion: I understand.
Image: Courtesy of Dalai Lama Louisville facebook page www.facebook.com