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The Tulane Unified Commencement Ceremony and a Public Talk at the Lakefront Arena

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 18 May 2013 - Relationships formed between staff and students of the Tulane University School of Social Work over more than twelve years culminated today in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s presence at the 179th Tulane Unified Commencement Ceremony. This grand celebration for 2800 graduates, who came from all 50 states and 63 countries, the youngest among them being only 19 and the oldest 96, took place before an audience of more than 30,000 in the New Orleans Superdome.

His Holiness was welcomed on arrival by University President Scott S. Cowen who introduced him to members of faculty and his fellow recipients of honorary degrees, musicians Allen Toussaint and Dr John and United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. In an impressive ceremony that combined formal speeches and awards with a more festive atmosphere that Dr White’s traditional jazz band brought to the occasion, His Holiness was invited to give the keynote address.

“Respected President of this esteemed university, respected professors and teachers, and young brothers and sisters who are today reaping the reward of years of hard work. You might have lost sleep over your exams, but now you have achieved the result. I am impressed to note that while you studied many of you have also made efforts to help others. Education gives us a good preparation, but it is by actually putting it to use in the service of others that we make our lives meaningful.

“The very purpose of our life is happiness, which is sustained by hope. We have no guarantee about the future, but we exist in the hope of something better. Hope means keeping going, thinking, ‘I can do this.’ It brings inner strength, self-confidence, the ability to do what you do honestly, truthfully and transparently. I appreciate your having already begun to help others.”

He went on to say how important it is that the USA, the world’s greatest democratic nation, pays attention to the rest of the world. Today, we need to think on a global level, to think of the oneness of humanity, and consider the welfare of all 7 billion human beings. He said:

“I’ve had no modern education, so my knowledge compared to yours amounts to zero, but I have observed that many of the problems we face today are of our own creation. Because we created them, we must also have the ability to reduce or overcome them. You young people are educated, fresh and bright; you have the future in front of you. My generation belongs to the twentieth century and our century is over, we are almost ready to say goodbye. The twentieth century saw many great achievements, but it was also an era of bloodshed. The world did not become a better place as a result of that violence. Those of you who are less than 30 years old, who truly belong to the twenty-first century, please think on a more global level. Try to create a more peaceful, more compassionate world by taking into account the welfare of others.”

His Holiness talked about the affection we receive at the beginning of our lives, which equips us to show affection too. Education can help us foster our inner values; it can help us develop our natural compassion and keep warm-heartedness to the fore.

“Please pay attention to securing your own sense of inner peace. Our hopes for the future rest on your shoulders. Please think about how to make this a more peaceful, compassionate century. Others have looked after you and helped you reach where you are; don’t let small things obstruct or deflect you now from helping others in your turn. Let me congratulate you all on your graduation.”

The ceremony came to an end with a spectacular firework display and an unexpected performance from the two honoured musicians, Allen Toussaint and Dr John, as His Holiness left the stage.

In the afternoon, His Holiness drove to the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena in a part of the city inundated by flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was received by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who introduced him to the 8000 strong audience. After explaining that strong light is uncomfortable for his eyes, particularly after cataract surgery last year, His Holiness donned a blue UNO visor to rousing cheers and began his talk.

“Brothers and sisters, I always make clear that we are all the same as human beings, physically, mentally and emotionally. You have the same potential to develop negative emotions like anger as I have, but we also have seeds of compassion, discipline and forgiveness. If you think of me as a stranger or as something special, you might not pay attention to what I have to say. We are the same.”

His Holiness spoke about how little he likes formality, keeping in mind that there is no formality around the two most important events in our lives, when we are born and when we die. Global climate change and the ups and downs of the global economy are problems that affect us all. They are not confined to state of national boundaries. Focussing on secondary differences between us like race, religion, nationality and gender, he said, stokes our inclination to divide people into ‘them’ and ‘us.’ This easily becomes the basis for violence, the basis for war. We need to think of each other as brothers and sisters in order to eliminate that potential for violence.

He declared that we can make this a century of peace if we try, but that peace won’t come about just as the result of prayers or the release of white doves.

“It’s not as if it’s our job to disturb the peace and then it’s God’s job to restore it. Violence isn’t created by God or the Buddha; it’s created by human beings. So, logically the responsibility to eliminate it belongs to us too. Here in America there’s been a lot of discussion of gun control, but the real source of control is here in our hearts.

“We need to begin to see other human beings as part of ‘us’ not ‘them’ and this planet as our home, because we depend on each other and we’re connected to each other. We can no longer think only in terms of our territory or our nation; we have to think on a global level.”

He said that some people may feel that cultivating a compassionate heart benefits others more than us or that it is a sign of weakness. This is a mistake. Concern for others is the basis of inner peace. Thinking ‘we are part of them’ and ‘they are part of us’ strengthens our self-confidence. Fear, anger and hatred on the other hand have the effect of eating into our immune system. Nowadays, scientists are finding evidence that a healthy mind is important for a healthy body.

We all inherit seeds of compassion and affection from our mothers. What we have to do is to nurture them through education and training. The warm-heartedness that results brings with it inner strength, self-confidence and a sense of trust. Trust is the foundation of friendship, the kind of sound friendship that lends support in the face of difficulties.

When His Holiness was asked today what makes him happy, he replied:

“A good night’s sound sleep - and meetings like this during which I can share my thoughts with people like you. You seem to be taking an interest and paying attention, otherwise, if you were dozing off, I might be less happy. Part of my practice is to dedicate my body, speech and mind to the welfare of others, so, at the end of the day I may feel physically tired, but mentally I feel satisfied.”

Questioned about how abused children can learn compassion, His Holiness suggested that we show them sincere affection over a long and sustained period of time. Finally, he was asked, “How do you not let things get you down?”

“I remember the advice of the 8th century Indian Buddhist master Shantideva that if a problem can be solved there’s no need to worry and if it can’t be solved then worrying is of no use. I also advise people facing difficulties to reflect that they are not the only ones to face such trouble; many other people have gone through what they’re going through too. Worrying about it only adds to the burden.

“Let me give you a personal example. When my senior tutor, the rock on whom I leant for support, the monk who gave me ordination, passed away, I felt a tremendous loss. But then it occurred to me that instead of wallowing in misery what I needed to do was to work to fulfil his wishes, which, of course, is what he would have wanted me to do.