One of my favourite spots in town is the Sheldonian Theatre, built about 40 years after the Mayflower took the pilgrims overseas. It's quite dear to the university, being the place where we matriculate and graduate - but recently, it became just that bit more dear, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama honoured us with an address.
Like many Westerners, the only real exposure I have had to His Holiness' teachings are through the books attributed to him. His autobiography, Freedom in Exile (Harper Collins, New York, 1990) is particularly powerful. To hear him speak on the troubles of current times was a true education - but perhaps just to witness his character when speaking on the troubles of current times was the real education.
It is undoubtedly not easy, being the 14th Dalai Lama. The Mainland Chinese accuse him of inciting atrocities; most well-educated Chinese scholars that I meet (and my college is about 30% Chinese) believe him to be a dissembling fox at best and an lying terrorist at worst; factions within the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy address him with vitriol. It seems far from easy being the 14th Dalai Lama.
Yet, he speaks with a kindness towards all these attacks that is truly remarkable. His voice is filled with sincere warmth, he speaks with his whole person, as if describing with gentle humour the activities of a much-loved but errant child. His is not the position of aloof authority or condescension, but one of apparently great and honest compassion. I have seen nothing like it before, and I am sure that my clumsy words fall far short of being able to describe it properly.
His address was 30 minutes long, his admittedly broken English occasionally assisted by his translator (pictured above), followed by an hour of answering questions from the university's senior dons. Throughout, the distant chants of protestors outside nearby Hertford College could be heard. His Holiness' energetic but aged voice was often swallowed up by the sounds of protest.
Some weeks prior to the event, my college issued a warning that the university square should be avoided because of a "visiting dignitary" and the "expected protests". However, the scale of the protesting was surprising.
In the blue corner (pictured above-left), the pro-Tibetans, waving their made-in-China (amusing but true) Tibetan flags. In the red corner (pictured above-right), the Chinese and a faction of Tibetan Buddhists - the latter being very keen to distance themselves from the former.
My favourite placard was one held up by some Chinese undergraduates (wearing full sub-fusc), entitled "A Newlywed Tibetan Couple", picturing a happy Tibetan man and wife in Western wedding costume, against a background which was the PRC flag transposed onto a love-heart. You couldn't make it up.
Through it all, His Holiness seemed absolutely unperturbed, holding up his fingers over his head and chuckling that "they think I am a daemon". The sheer force of his endless humour seemed to have every member of the audience laughing alongside him - his giggling flowed naturally and ceaselessly.
After his address, His Holiness noticed that the Prof. Gombrich's DPhil robes were slipping down, and hoisted them back up around his shoulders with a mighty tug as he walked past. I don't suspect I will ever see the likes of that again...
Whisked away in a car alongside his security personnel, he waved energetically at the gathered crowds, smiling at supporters and protestors alike. The 14th Dalai Lama is a unique character indeed.