The 77-year-old religious figure took his seat at the front of the stage and paused for a few moments, catching his breath.
“These days, I have felt I am quite old,” declared the Dalai Lama. He looked around him at Friar Thomas Keating and Brother David Steindl-Rast, two Catholic priests also on the panel discussion.
“But with them—” he gestured at the priests — “I am young!”
The Dalai Lama’s first lecture during his three-day visit to Boston was filled with laughter and discussion on the meaning of interfaith harmony, as he spoke to a crowd of close to 2,000 in a packed ballroom at the Boston Marriott Copley Place hotel.
The talk was hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, a think tank established in 2009 that focuses on the development of ethics and moral purpose in research and education.
Musician James Taylor preambled the talk, strumming ballads about harmony and personal fulfillment. In the middle of one of his most beloved songs, crooning “shower the people you love with love,” the Dalai Lama walked into the front row to enjoy the end of the set and the audience burst into applause and jumped to their feet.
“Very strong light,” the religious figure declared as he settled into his seat, then plopped a burgundy visor on his head with his trademark unabashed nature. He also attempted to flick up the hood of Keating’s and Steindl-Rast’s robes to shield them from the strong light, prompting an outpouring of chuckles from the audience.
The theme of the talk was “Beyond Religion: Ethics, Values, and Wellbeing,” a discussion centered on the ethical and moral commonalities between religions and the overlap between science and human compassion.
In his conversation with the two priests, moderated by Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, the Dalai Lama explained that there are human truths that run deeper than differing religious ideologies.
“Secular means ‘respect all religions,’ also including no religions,” the Dalai Lama said.
He highlighted the ways in which science has provided evidence of the need for human compassion and an expulsion of negative emotions. Human immune systems prove less effective when people are racked with anxiety and negative thoughts. Infants who go without affection and physical contact struggle to survive. Kindness and interpersonal connection are important values, no matter what faith you adhere to, he said.
“I think hardly anyone who [is] against compassion, who [is] against extending human affection,” he said. “No — how can you? Even animals appreciate our affection.”
Keating and Steindl-Rast, both Catholic monks, agreed that religion and science have more in common than most people realize: Both are endeavors that elicit awe and appreciation for the natural world.
“Nature is not just looking at a sunset — it’s looking at the very sources of reality itself, the infinitesimal and the immense that is becoming immenser, the galaxies going in every direction,” Keating said.
He continued, “There are many ways that God draws people to himself. Religion is only one way.”
The Dalai Lama said every person has a responsibility to help protect the world for future generations.
“It’s not this nation facing global warming, or this nation or this nation,” the religious figure said. “No, entire humanity facing it.”
“Me — no children,” he said, citing the celibate lifestyle of Tibetan monks and eliciting a wave of giggles. “Have to think of others’ children and grandchildren.”
“I’m just, like, stunned,” Juliana Porto, a neurologist and visiting scholar at Harvard University in the field of education, declared after the talk. “It was a whole different way of approaching happiness and compassion.
Jessica Trainor, 22, and Holly Gibbons, 39, chattered on their way out of the ballroom about the lessons they learned from the talk.
“He said that you have to start with yourself,” said Trainor, a student living in Cambridge. “You can choose to be compassionate, you can choose to be happy, you can choose to be a source of love.”
And more than anything, audience members said, they loved that infectious Dalai Lama chuckle.
“He was just so jovial,” said Evelyn Splaine, 66, of Walpole. “He makes himself laugh.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.