November 26, 2010
An encounter with greatness
BERNIE M. FARBER
In 1969, my Tibetan friend, Shamar, told me about the mystique that is Tenzin Gyato, Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama. I was a young university student: impressionable, fearless and open-minded, probably to a fault. The world at the time was a “happening place”; Jewish students were at the centre of both Jewish and world politics, marching in the streets. Opposing the war in Vietnam or fighting for the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel made us feel empowered. Into all this stepped Shamar. He was quiet and dignified; he brought an interesting calm into my life at a time when the world seemed to be raging.
In university, I majored in world religions so, understandably, I found interesting commonalities in Judaism and Buddhism. More importantly, I came to see that the clear and humbling messages of the Dalai Lama mirrored many of Judaism’s messages. In Judaism, we are told that one of the greatest of mitzvot, or good deeds, is to perform acts of lovingkindness. One of the Dalai Lama’s main faith themes states: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Over the years, I gained a new understanding of patience from the manner in which the Dalai Lama has dealt with his forced exile from Tibet. The Chinese have occupied Tibet since 1950, arguably the longest occupation in modern history. While the Israeli/Palestinian issue preoccupies many, the Dalai Lama has been unwavering in his consistent attempts at finding a peaceful resolution with China. He has never given up hope that a resolution will come.
Recently, I received a call from Tenzin Khanzar, formerly chief of staff for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenny. On this call, he was acting as an emissary for the Dalai Lama’s upcoming trip to Canada. “We would like a delegation of Jewish leadership to attend a small luncheon in honor of the Dalai Lama,” he told me. “Interested?” he asked rhetorically. As a representative of CJC for more than 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many accomplished people, but the opportunity of being with the Dalai Lama would be a singular honor.
And so, on Oct. 24, I joined Elizabeth Wolfe, incoming chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and Canadian Jewish Congress national president Mark Freiman at a luncheon hosted by the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. As I approached the building, I noted the tight security; roads were cordoned off. There were, however, thousands of people on the grounds hoping for a glimpse of the man they hold in such reverence.
The small lunch included businessmen, like former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, and politicians, including senators Con Dinino, Vivienne Poy and Vim Kochar and MPs and MPPs Borys Wrzesnewskyj, Cheri Di Novo and Olivia Chow. At our table sat Cindy Chung and Tenzin Jigme, both representatives of the Tibetan/Chinese Youth Dialogue. We chatted about how Tibetan and Chinese students in Toronto have found a bridge of reconciliation. It gave me great hope for the future on many fronts.
As we were chatting, I noticed an excited gathering of the crowd by the door. As is his wont, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama entered the room unannounced. Dressed in his customary red and gold robes, he looked the same as the first picture I saw of him in 1969. He spoke briefly, his message almost seeming secondary to his presence. I was struck by the joy and heartiness of his laugh. It was absolutely infectious – the kind of laugh we could all recognize as coming from a trusted friend, a beloved uncle. We met him briefly, got a photo (that one goes on my wall), and it was over all too soon.
I left the centre knowing that I had been in the same room with a great man. I learned in the end that words are one thing, but the sense of calm and tolerance that can come from a person of greatness is so much more.
Bernie M. Farber is the chief executive officer of Canadian Jewish Congress.