Episode 181- What I Learned From Meeting The Dalai Lama

I remember the day clearly I was inside of the offices for the Associated Press in the heart of New York City at Rockefeller Center, and as I was leaving the office to go home, I was giving my photo assignment for the next day and my editors said to me, you better buckle up. This is going to be a big one. It turned out that the Dalai Lama was in New York and I would be spending the day with him and the next day he’d be teaching 100 Buddhist monks at the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Now at that point, I didn’t know nearly as much about the Dalai Lama and his history as I probably should have in 1998 the internet was just starting to boom. So I got home, I got to do a little bit of research and learn about this incredible man and then I got the rare opportunity to listen to him speak and watch the faces of these monks as they were mesmerized by his words and his message.

And then the madness of leaving the ballroom and then him walking through the New York city streets and me backpedaling with my camera navigating the bustling streets of Manhattan while trying to make great images of the Dalai Lama. And as I thought about recording this podcast, I haven’t seen any of the pictures that I shot since 1998 unfortunately, so much of my work has been archived in the AP directory and I really need to get ahold of them so I can have so many of these pictures that I shot. The upside of photographing these assignments is you get to be there as history is happening around some of the most influential and famous people in the world. But the downside is you don’t get to listen as intently as you wish you could because you’re working. But it was fascinating to listen to the spiritual leader of the Tibetans as he led the strategy of the peaceful resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

But one thing he said that I remember that I took note and I stored it away for future use as he talked about what was going on in China and in Tibet and what their struggles were and what they were learning and he said this, the enemy is a very good teacher. I can tell you this at 26 or whatever age I was when I heard that I did not understand it. Like I understand it today and what’s funny is I’ve had that written my notes for years suddenly do eventually look back on, maybe write about, and now I’m doing a podcast about it. But what I didn’t know when I started doing a little bit of research is that that quote by him is all over the internet in terms of inspirational quotes. So I guess I wrote down a good one. But I think as a culture we need to start embracing this mindset.

I think the worst thing that you can do is to block out the words of people who disagree with you. Now, I’m not saying you have to have them in your life and be friends with them, but you’ve gotta be able to hear it. One example of this is politics and buckle up because this next year is going to be a doozy, but another one is race and race relations. And judging by the little bit of news that I consume, it seems to be dying down just a little bit in terms of so much of the toxic race relations we’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years. But when that was red hot in the news, you saw a lot of people blaming each other and pointing fingers at each other and a whole lot of people talking, but not very many people listening. That’s what I want to talk about.

A guy named Daryl Davis. Davis is a black man, a musician who plays the blues and one night when he was, he was at a bar called the silver dollar lounge when he was approached by a white man who told him how much he enjoyed his music and they start talking together about the origins of blues music. And this guy says the Davis, you know, there’s the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man. So Davis asked him why, and the guy said that he was a member of the KU Klux Klan. And Davis started laughing because he didn’t believe it. And lo and behold, this guy pulled out his wallet and pulled out his Klan card. And when the guy went to leave, he gave Davis his number. He said, call me when you guys are back in town playing.

And Davis had an idea. He saw that a seed was planted and right then and there he decided to write a book and he was Davis’s crazy idea. He was going to meet and sit down and talk with Klan members throughout the country and ask them in person and face to face in real conversations, how can you hate me if you don’t even know me? So the Klan at this point was his enemy. It was an enemy of his culture. But Davis didn’t go in with hate. He went in with knowledge, he studied as much as he possibly could. And his first impression on the Klansman was that he was knowledgeable, that he had done his research and they appreciated that they might not have liked them immediately, but they had respect for him because he learned about their belief system and their organization. And once the enemies got talking, he used that knowledge to get them to start thinking a little differently because it turned out with all the studying that he did, he learned a lot more about the clan.

And even the Klansmen did. And what he learned, which is so great, is that if you spend five minutes with your worst enemy, you will find that you both have something in common. And through these conversations they had deep, meaningful, and often testy exchanges, but he used his wit and his knowledge and his heart to try to understand the way that they felt. He said clearly that he didn’t try to convert them at all. He just wanted to learn. And he learned that as they started having these conversations and they started resonate a lot more in common than they thought. They began starting a friendship. And there’s a lot of talk about Davis and about how he converted 200 members away from the clan, but he says he didn’t convert them. He said that they saw the light and converted themselves. So I want you to think about this, whether it’s race or politics or your family, screaming at people and calling them names and being righteous will never make somebody change their mind for your benefit.

In fact, it will probably push them further the other way, and trust me, I’ve done this enough times in my life to see that righteousness does not work, but being that politics is going to be such a hot button issue this year. If you’re a staunch conservative or died in the wool liberal instead of blocking, mocking and degrading people that don’t think like you, maybe you can try doing what Davis did. Sit down and talk to them. Listen, ask them questions. Let them ask you questions and see what happens. See if you don’t get somebody to understand your side a little bit more, maybe you don’t convert them, but what you might see is that they’re really not much different than you anyway, and even though your enemy could be your best teacher, they might not even be your enemy. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

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