As the moderator of the panel discussion “Turning Swords into Ploughshares: The Many Paths of Nonviolence” put it, we have a monk, a nun, and a college professor with us today and we are bearing witness to a historic conversation.
The panel discussion held today at the University of Arkansas was sponsored by the university’s student-funded Distinguished Lecture Series. The iconic figures participating in the discussion were His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sister Helen Prejean, best-known for her book Dead Man Walking, and civil rights activist and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., Vincent Harding.
The event was held at Bud Walton Arena on the UA campus. As crowds made their way through security and into the arena, I heard one attendee say, “There is electricity in the air.” That statement truly captured the feeling in the “Home of Razorback Basketball” as hundreds took their seats in anxious anticipation of seeing, and hearing from, three truly distinguished individuals.
Shortly after 9:30a.m., University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart ushered the guests to the stage and welcomed everyone to the event. Thunderous applause broke out as attendees rose to their feet and gave the panel a standing ovation.
Panel discussion "Turning Swords into Plowshares: The Many Paths to Nonviolence." UA Chancellor David Gearhart, Vincent Harding, Sister Helen Prejean, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, interpreter, and UA Prof. Sidney Burris. Fayetteville, Ark. May 11, 2011
UA English Professor Sidney Burris introduced the panel members and served as the moderator. Burris shared that he “first saw His Holiness in 1979” when he was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. Burris worked tirelessly to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the University of Arkansas.
The Dalai Lama put his microphone on and donned a red visor and the panel discussion was underway. Burris asked each panelist to recount their “personal path to nonviolence.”
Rather than going into his extensive biography, the Dalai Lama said, “Indeed, I am very happy,” noting that this was his “first time to come to this city.” He went on to discuss how “aggression is a part of our life because of greed and other emotions” and how there is “constant anger and fear.” To counter that, His Holiness said we need to focus on compassion and warm-heartedness.” “Positive minds and constructive emotions are good for our health,” he said with a grin on his face and a hearty, warm chuckle.
“A compassionate mind is good for society,” he said. “Jealously, suspicion are bad emotions and bad for society.”
Sister Helen Prejean spoke of growing up in Louisiana and having a “spiritual awakening through coming to understand who Jesus was.” She briefly described what led to writing to convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier in prison. “Two and a half years later I was in the killing chamber with him.”
There, according to Prejean, Sonnier told her, “Sister, you can’t be here at the end ‘cause it’ll scar you.” Prejean’s response to Sonnier was “You are not going to die without a loving face. I will be the face of Christ,” she said.
“My mission was built at that moment,” said Prejean.
Vincent Harding, Sister Helen Prejean, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark. May 11, 2011
Professor Vincent Harding said, “In my early 20s, I was drafted into the Army of the United States of America.” Simultaneously, “I got in touch with this magnificent person, Jesus Christ,” said Harding.
Harding spoke of how much he “enjoyed basic training” at Fort Dix, New Jersey; yet, he was being taught to shoot a rifle and use a bayonet.
“I was taught how to slash out another human beings’ bowels,” said Harding. “I kept hearing the song ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children, all the children of the world.’ You are going to cut their guts out because that is what your government tells you to do. At that point, essentially I became a conscientious objector.”
The latter statement by Harding received a loud round of applause by the crowd.
The panel continued until just after 11:00a.m. and covered a number of topics including how engagement with the enemy can strengthen the practice of nonviolence and a debate on efficacy of violence surrounding killing of Osama bin Laden.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama encouraged everyone to practice forgiveness and tolerance and “exercise compassion.” He acknowledged that “it takes effort to show compassion” to your enemy, but you “have to make effort to stop their wrongdoing.”
Later in the afternoon, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a keynote address titled “Nonviolence in the New Century: The Way Forward” and a “Conferring of Honorary Degree” ceremony was held at which His Holiness received an honorary degree from the University of Arkansas.