Dalai Lama unperturbed by heckler during first speech of Cambridge visit

Freddie Green 19 April 2013

The Dalai Lama opened his tour of Cambridge today with a speech at the Global Scholars Symposium press conference, continuing his tradition of visiting the town every twenty years. Addressing international media at the Divinity School at St. Johns, The Dalai Lama touched on both political and religious issues in a calmly delivered 45-minute speech, before taking questions. The proceedings were, however, brought to an unfortunate end by an impassioned reporter (pictured above) who heckled and demanded answers from the spiritual leader on a somewhat sensitive topic.

Indeed, following the last question by members of the press, a reporter from the Chinese language newspaper, The Epoch Times, stood up and questioned why the Dalai Lama was not offering more support to Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline in China declared as “heretical” by the Chinese Communist Party. The newspaper (affiliated with Falun Gong according to a 2006 US Congressional Research report) is often explicit in its support of the spiritual group. The religious discipline (featuring elements of Buddhist and Taoist traditions) is banned and persecuted in China, but can often be seen practiced in the streets of Cambridge.

The reporter ignored protestations from stewards and security staff, shouting: “There are 900 labour camps in China, these people need your help”, referring to the fate to which many Falun Gong practitioners are submitted. The Dalai Lama did not produce a lengthy reply as he did with previous questions, and the conference was brought to an abrupt close.

This was, however, a minor disturbance in an otherwise smooth event. The Dalai Lama’s speech initially focused on differences between material and spiritual wealth, detailing how “everyone has the right to a happy life.” However, he also countered “people often feel the source of happiness is money. I feel this is not adequate.” Quick to highlight the similarity in values between different religions, he stated: “All world religions have the same potential to produce good human beings. My commitment is trying to promote real harmony.”

Prompted by political questions from members of the press, the head of the Gelug school of Buddhism turned to more sensitive topics such as Sino-Tibetan relations. Of Chinese censorship, he suggested: “The 1.3 Billion Chinese people have every right to know reality. Censorship is immoral. The Chinese government cannot censor the rest of the world, only its own country, this is fooling its own people.”

Yet he appeared largely at ease, even offering the occasional jest. When emphasising the importance of looking beyond appearances, he gestured towards Cambridge Gates and Global Scholar representative Brianne Kent, saying: “You have a very nice front, but we must look to the back”, much to the amusement of the audience. He was, however, left puzzled by a Cam FM reporter, who asked: “which song most sums up your life?, as he failed to come up with an adequate answer.

Unperturbed by the heckling in the latter stages of the conference, his experience in the media spotlight was apparent as he offered warm greetings to members of the press, shaking their hands before leaving with the Master of St Johns.

Speaking to The Cambridge Student, Oxford Rhodes scholar Hong Sheng Lim said: “I think the conference went really well. His holiness answered questions very wisely, and there’s a lot to pick up from there, a lot to digest.”

Speaking of the Dalai Lama, he said, “He is an inspiration, he is a beacon of light to millions of people.” Accompanied by esteemed guests and world leaders, including Nobel prize winners, all of whom will be speaking on the theme of “Bringing Ideas to Action”, Hong was hopeful that, “within the next three days, something meaningful, something productive will come out.”

On the subject of the heckler, he explained that, “Unfortunately we do have to cut off at 11 o’clock. All of the student representatives have to run off to the union to run the conference so we had to cut her off.”

As part of his two-day visit in Cambridge, the Dalai Lama will further be speaking at the Global Scholars Symposium tomorrow on “Non-violence for Conflict Resolution”. He will also be giving an exclusive speech to members of St John’s College and the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Faculty at St Johns Chapel, entitled “The Path to Peace and Happiness in a Global Society.”

Freddie Green