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[whitespace] Dalai Lama
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Hello Dalai: The Fairmount Hotel in downtown San Jose was abuzz with the visit of the Dalai Lama of Tibet, who came to honor "The Unsung Heroes of Compassion." Honorees included Ted Smith, Reza Odabaee, and Sister Marilyn Lacey.

Holy Thrill

The Dalai Lama turns the spotlight on a few dazzled, unsung local heroes


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THE DALAI LAMA IS COMING! The Dalai Lama is coming! It's 7:30am, Wednesday morning, May 16. You've had this day on your calendars for three whole months now. And in five short hours, he'll be here. Four and a half hours. Four. Now it's three hours. In just three hours, the Dalai Lama will be walking through those doors. Because the Dalai Lama just can't wait--to finally meet--you.

Though technically unspoken, this is the loud, clear message that is carried on the tongues and lips and breathless voices of a small, crack team of eager volunteers and outwardly cool, inwardly beaming publicists, as 51 hand-chosen individuals from around the world--now nervously assembling on the second floor of the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose--are carefully prepared for their personal introduction to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet. In a ceremony titled "The Unsung Heroes of Compassion," sponsored by Wisdom in Action--a Marin County-based organization promoting compassionate activity around the globe, the 51 formerly anonymous humanitarians will be honored by His Holiness at a noontime luncheon attended by hundreds of onlookers, friends, family, influential Buddhist leaders, renowned political activists--and Sharon Stone. She'll be the master of ceremonies. To say the air fairly pulses with anticipation is to attempt subtlety when hyperbole would be closer to the truth. Security, to put it mildly, is tight. As the hours inch closer toward noon and the arrival of the Dalai Lama, a rapidly increasing number of dark-suited, sunglasses-wearing, Secret Service-style agents begin to appear all through the building, making the place look like the National Convention of Men in Black. In the park across the street, a number of mounted policemen stand ready as a small crowd of onlookers--Dalai Lama groupies?--assembles in anticipation of his arrival. Though subdued in comparison to the rock & roll-style hysteria that will greet His Holiness during his three days of teachings at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, today's event still bears the conspicuous marks of a superstar's arrival at a post-Oscar banquet.

And why not?

Who deserves superstar status more than the Dalai Lama, arguably the most tolerant and compassionate, least divisive religious figure in recent memory? Though it does seem a bit paradoxical for a selfless monk from Tibet--an exile from his own land, an ambassador for understanding and nonviolence--to achieve such fame that tens of thousands would pack themselves into tiny plastic seats at an outdoor amphitheater just to hear his words, who could say he shouldn't take advantage of the opportunity such fame affords him? Though clearly the crowds at such events are a mix of serious truth-seekers and well-meaning celebrity magnets, a blend of the truly faithful and the merely curious--with a sprinkling of persons who were suitably impressed by last month's Dalai Lama interview in Rolling Stone--it is still impressive that so many would come together to hear a message that is essentially this: "Love one another. Forgive one another. Help one another."

Today, that is exactly the message that is being promoted, as the Dalai Lama comes not to receive praise and honor and respect, but to turn the spotlight on those who've committed their lives to compassionate action--but did so below the radar of the world's attention. In the event that is about to take place, it is compassion itself that is the real superstar. The Dalai Lama's involvement is just icing on the cake.

Through an open door, the 50 honorees can be seen inside a waiting room, milling about with cups of coffee, clutching plates of barely eaten croissants. They are visibly nervous, excited, overwhelmed--many in the throes of a nonfatal overdose of awe--receiving final instructions on what will be expected of them: how to interact with His Holiness, what will be expected of them throughout the ceremony, how to behave when the press is let in later for a 90-minute session of photos and interviews.

Says Kevin Elliot, of Hill & Knowlton Public Relations, warning some reporters to be gentle just before they're let inside to chat with the honorees, "Go easy. They're more nervous about meeting you guys than they are about meeting the Dalai Lama."

Lloyd Marbet, of Boring, Ore., stands by the wall clutching a sheaf of poems he had printed up for the occasion. Honored for his 32 years of volunteer efforts working to stop the dumping of nuclear waste and to protect the rivers of Oregon, Marbet is clearly moved by the experience already--and he's still hours away from meeting the Dalai Lama.

"I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed," he admits softly. "It's not often I get to be in a room filled with so much kindness. I'm frankly having trouble coming to terms with how I even deserve to be here."

It's a common theme. Nearly every honoree in the room professes a degree of unworthiness, an authentic sense of humility--not unlike that of the Dalai Lama.

Magala Sharma, of Bhutan, the founder of BRAVVE, which provides help to a community of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees now living in camps in Nepal, says, "There are so many others who deserve to be here. I feel so lucky." And she doesn't mean she feels lucky to have been chosen for the honor. "I am lucky to have been given the chance to do something in my world. Many people never have the chance to help others as I have. I am very lucky."

The honorees run the gamut: Tibetan monks, Catholic nuns, Presbyterian ministers, Islamic mystics, Hawaiian naturalists, Jewish pediatricians and northwest coast environmentalists. Some work with the homeless, the mentally ill, the abused, the abandoned; others help the world's refugees, the starving, the tortured, the sick; many strive to heal the environment through political action or to heal the heart with performance art and meditation. They come from across the country and around the planet.

Three work in San Jose.

Reza Odabaee holds a chair on the Refugee and Immigrant Forum of Santa Clara County and is the director of employment at Catholic Charities in San Jose. Born in Iran, he's worked for the last nine years to help resettle refugees from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. A refugee himself, Odabaee found himself living in Europe after Iran's political revolution in 1979. Moved by the plight of homeless Iranian boys living on the streets or in train depots, he devoted his life to helping refugees, a choice he often explains with a quote from Rumi: "Let the beauty we love be what we do."

Sister Marilyn Lacey also works with refugees. The director of Immigration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities in San Jose, she's spent 20 years aiding thousands seeking an escape from poverty and torture. A former schoolteacher, Lacey says she made the move from teaching to refugee work--first in Southeast Asia and later in Africa--after having a dream in which a refugee child appeared in her arms, whispering, "We're here to teach you a new way of loving." She now manages a staff of 42 co-workers, many former refugees, aiding nearly 3,000 immigrants and refugees a year.

Ted Smith, an environmental lawyer, is the founder and director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an organization that explores the impact the high-tech industry has on community, worker and environmental health. He walked here today, an act that allowed him to avoid spewing extra pollutants into the air, while giving him a chance for some casual walking meditation on the way over.

"One thing that I thought of," Smith says with an soft laugh, "was that while I walked eight minutes to get here, His Holiness has traveled 8,000 miles to be here--8,000 miles to thank these 50 people." He shakes his head. Recalling the moment he learned of the award--he was notified by email--he says, "Frankly, I felt disbelief and amazement, a feeling of intense unworthiness, a feeling of 'why me?' I suppose I'm mainly just moved that the values I stand for and work on every day have been recognized."

One of the few people in the room who doesn't look at least partly terrified, Smith says he's looking forward to meeting His Holiness.

"One thing that impresses me about the Dalai Lama is his commitment to peace and to the environment. Part of me wishes our other leaders of that stature could be as brave, as articulate. I'm thrilled to be meeting him.

"I also hear," he adds," that he has a wonderful sense of humor. I know he has a wonderful laugh."

Ted Smith
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Fit to Be Ted: Among the 51 individuals honored by the Dalai Lama during his recent visit was Ted Smith, environmental lawyer and director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Spiritual Secret Service

THE DALAI LAMA will be here in one hour. The honorees are told that lunch is ready, where His Holiness' arrival will be preceded by speeches from a variety of guests, including author Jack Kornfield and Tibet House founder and author of the Rolling Stone Dalai Lama interview Robert Thurman. Sharon Stone, glowing with excitement, warms the crowd by giggling as she calls the Dalai Lama "the hardest-working man in spirituality," and admits, "I can hardly wait! I'm like a little puppy!"

Outside, near the front entrance, the press is being confined to a small pen about 150 feet from where the Dalai Lama's car will stop to let him out. Weapon-sniffing dogs have been through to smell the camera equipment. The number of police cars and motorcycles surrounding the building has roughly tripled. A few of the honorees have drifted outside to watch the arrival. They cluster off to one side, talking in low voices. One woman leans against a pillar, eyes closed, apparently in meditation. Even among the press, slightly miffed at their working conditions, the anticipation is remarkable.

Then the Dalai Lama arrives.

Escorted by flashing squad cars, the limousine pulls up and coasts to a stop. His Holiness steps out, bowing to those nearby, shaking hands, smiling and nodding. When he notices the press, quarantined across the driveway, he turns to face them, standing up tall, grinning in what could be called sheepish semiembarrassment. He shrugs, clasps his hands together and bows deeply. Seconds later he's been whisked inside.

"I am extraordinarily humbled and honored to ask the honorees to come forward," says Stone, speaking from a stage festooned with Tibetan ceremonial finery, "and get ready to have your photo taken with His Holiness." Having already rehearsed this part earlier in the day, the honorees take their places beside the stage.

The room falls silent as the Dalai Lama enters. Standing, the entire room seems to hold its breath as His Holiness takes a seat among the honorees, clasping hands, exchanging greetings. After a moment, someone behind him says something the rest of the room cannot hear. It makes him laugh.

So there it is: that deep, throaty rumble that is simultaneously giddy and childlike. The entire room, unable to resist, erupts into laughter at the very sound of it.

As icebreakers go, this one wasn't bad.

Tiny Follower

'BROTHERS AND SISTERS, I am happy to meet you," the Dalai Lama begins, sitting on a padded chair onstage after being treated to a Tibetan opera and children's dance performance.

"Today's gathering is a very unique one," he continues. "I always express the practicing of compassion. I myself, a tiny follower of Buddha, practice compassion." He nods to the honorees, now returned to their tables near the stage. "But when I see these people, my talk of compassion is just lip service. These are my gurus." With a laugh, he adds, "Who knows? If I had to do more than just talk, I might lose interest." The assembly joins him again in laughter; they know he's joking.

Addressing the honorees again, he says, "To you I say only, please continue. Humanity needs your compassion."

The ceremony that follows is deceptively simple. As Stone reads each name, the recipient steps forward to receive a khata, a shiny, white ceremonial scarf that the Dalai Lama places around their neck. He takes each person's hand. He leans forward, smiling and interested, exchanging words with each honoree. Some give him gifts of their own: Lloyd Marbet presents one of his poems; Nainoa Thompson, of Hawaii, offers his own colorful lei-like khata, made of woven Hawaiian flowers.

And that's about it.

But the combined effect of hearing each name, and each act of unconditional love and compassion, is a surprisingly powerful one, quickly building intensity and emotion.

There is Amad Aljanabi, who has formed educational centers for Iraqi refugees.

And Elizabeth Case, a cancer survivor who now works with children battling cancer.

And William Schwartz, founder of the San Mateo's Samaritan House Free Medical Clinic for the homeless and destitute.

And Deborah Covington, a volunteer nurse who travels the world to help perform corrective surgery on deformed children.

And Elizabeth Napper, helping tortured Tibetan nuns to escape their country, finding them a safe place to live in exile.

By the time Stone names the 10th or 11th honoree, a kind of empathetic critical mass has been reached and most of the people in the room are now openly crying.

What's notable is that this amazing rush of emotion no longer has much to do with the Dalai Lama at all. It's all about the honorees. He's just a monk handing out scarves to those who've followed their hearts into the world's darkest places in search of lost souls to bring into the light.

Thirty minutes later, the Dalai Lama has gone, walking a spontaneous reception line on his way out the door, once more reaching out to take every offered hand, smiling and nodding to every face. And Jack Kornfield takes the stage to offer a final admonition: "Keep the spirit that was touched in you today alive," he says. "Go plant the seeds of compassion in the gardens of your own communities." With that, it's over.

Ted Smith, lingering near the door to wish his fellow honorees well, is asked what he said to the Dalai Lama, who, from the floor, appeared to enjoy his little chat with Smith.

"I thanked him for coming to Silicon Valley," Smith says. "I told him how much we needed his message. I said, 'We know how to make technology, but compassion and spirituality are in shorter supply.'"

And what did His Holiness reply?

"Well," says Smith, "he just laughed."

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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