Trudging across unforgiving Himalayan passes and crossing ice-cold river currents, a 23-year-old Tibetan born as Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama XIV) began his legendary life in exile in March 1959 when he escaped from Lhasa as China invaded and conquered his nation. At the very same time, half a world away, a different overthrow of what had also been a sovereign nation was being finalized as another global power, the United States, completed its own takeover of the Hawaiian islands, paving the way for statehood later that year.
Five decades later, the Sinification of Tibet has been thoroughly executed, just as the United States absorbed Hawaii, transforming the once proudly independent Polynesian kingdom into a tropical holiday destination and, more importantly, the seat of American military power in the Pacific. To ask who has suffered greater oppression - Tibetans or Hawaiians - is only to jockey for who has spilt the most blood and tears.
This unlikely comparison between the "roof of the world" and the "islands of aloha" was recently invoked before a crowd of 9,000 at a sports arena on the campus of the University of Hawaii by philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, best known as the founder of eBay, the global, online auction web site.
Omidyar, who Forbes magazine ranked as America's 50th-wealthiest man, has amassed a fortune estimated between $4 billion to $6 billion, easily making him Hawaii's richest man. But what makes this 44-year-old French-born bespectacled publisher (two years ago, he founded the online, daily, public affairs news web site Honolulu Civil Beat) noteworthy is that he and his wife Pam are using their wealth to create a better, more positive world.
In his own words: "For a Democracy to work well, for people to have an impact and have a government that serves them well, you need informed citizens." Besides infusing new vigor into watchdog journalism in Hawaii, redefining how people around the world shop and trade, the Omidyars have aggressively pursued economic, social and political change.
To that end, the Omidyars formed an alliance with Hawaii Community Foundation (HCF), the state's leading philanthropic institution, to launch a new initiative called Pillars of Peace Hawaii, created to draw global leaders, including Nobel Peace laureates, to Hawaii with the goal of advancing peace.
Beginning with a bang, the Omidyars invited the Dalai Lama as their first guest speaker. The relationship they forged with the Dalai Lama while serving together on various panels allowed them to secure the most recognized Buddhist monk in the world to speak at the inaugural Pillars of Peace Hawaii event in mid-April.
Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of HCF and co-organizer of Pillars of Peace, explained how historical parallels between the overthrow of both Tibet and Hawaii made the Dalai Lama an obvious and compelling first choice. The prominence and face recognition of the man Chinese authorities have famously labeled a "splitist" and "demon" meant that, once the Dalai Lama's visit was announced, Pillars of Peace began garnering interest far beyond Hawaii.
"One of the ideas of Pillars of Peace is to empower and recognize local leaders working toward peace," Taketa said. Advancing the idea that everyone can actively work toward peace, he said, can receive greater attention by starting with a charismatic, powerful and respected leader like the Dalai Lama.
Spirit of Aloha
Pillars of Peace organizers wanted Hawaii residents, in particular its youth, to have personal interaction with the Dalai Lama in order to better understand and learn his message of peace, compassion and human unity, but also for him to learn and understand the history, culture and values of Hawaii and what is called (sometimes to the point of cliché) "the spirit of aloha."
At a cost of just over one million dollars, Pillars of Peace organized a four-day visit during which the Dalai Lama participated in ten public and private events that included visits to Hawaii's premier Pacific cultural and natural storehouse -the Bishop Museum - and Iholani Palace, where Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned two years after being overthrown by US forces in 1893, as well as two speaking events each before 9,000 people at the University of Hawaii, first before students, then the general public.
During his visit, the Dalai Lama participated in a panel discussion entitled "The Importance of Native Intelligence in Modern Times." Seated with native Hawaiian leaders, the not-so-obvious similarities between the hardships and struggles faced by both Tibetans and Hawaiians highlighted the commonality shared by humanity, especially among indigenous peoples.
Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, recalled the impact of the Hawaiian islands being "taken away by government and big money," resulting in a native population that has been marginalized as its people struggled to maintain their own cultural identity in the face of large-scale immigration and urbanization.
"The only island we have in the universe," the celebrated navigator said, "is the Earth. It has to be cared for ... these islands being pillars of peace for the Earth."
The Dalai Lama expressed a similar sentiment when, after a guided walk through the Bishop Museum, he said, "When I visit local indigenous people, everywhere [they're] determined to keep their own culture and own language. So you here are the same ... I think in ancient times our life very much depend on nature. So ancient people had a much closer relation with nature and respect nature.
"I feel it's important that people in technologically developed nation's people should respect nature, sometimes worship nature - it's good. Then you are taking special effort or interest to preserve your own language. That relationship is very essential to your culture."
On the final day of his Hawaii visit, the Dalai Lama spoke to students at Kailua High School on Oahu, a school chosen in part for its use of a philosophy for children (P4C) curriculum as well as special attention given to the study of peace, compassion, tolerance and the prevention of bullying. Students welcomed the Dalai Lama with hula and Hawaiian chants and presented him with gifts - including a peace quilt; a wooden paddle; and a length of kapa (cloth bark) dyed with olena (turmeric root), the yellow color symbolic of healing, the red color from Hawaii's red alaea (ocherous earth) representing the aina (land) and the water mark an allusion to his title "Dalai" (a Mongolian word for ocean) and his own given first name Gyatso (ocean in Tibetan) and the rather loose interpretation "Ocean of Wisdom."
Following the high school visit, the Dalai Lama blessed the Hokulea, a recreated Hawaiian open-ocean canoe that will embark on a round-the-world journey in 2013. At the ceremony, Cy Bridges, cultural director of the Polynesian Cultural Center said, "your bones are our bones and your blood is our blood, our stories are intertwined forever." The Dalai Lama later repeated the phrase saying "wonderful, wonderful! Because I'm fully committed - we must promote the concept the oneness of humanity. That's very important."
Eight-Hundred Pound Gorilla
For four days in Honolulu, people clamored to be near the Dalai Lama. They spoke of compassion, swooned at his statements and smiled at the mere mention of His Holiness. He was, it seemed, a rock star of the peace movement. Yet, almost nothing was said about Hawaii's own role in promoting and supporting war and militarism. Hawaii is the headquarters for the US Pacific Command, the military body that oversees the training, storage and dispatch of American military might around the world. From its headquarters near Pearl Harbor, the United States Pacific Command claims an "area of responsibility" that includes over half the world's population. Peace and aloha not withstanding, Hawaii is a highly militarized state. (Watch this reporter ask the Dalai Lama about US militarism.)
To launch a peace initiative and hold a major public event centered around the promotion of peace and nonviolence and not include or address the military reality of Hawaii is like holding a forum on alternative transportation in Detroit and not discussing or inviting Ford, Chrysler or General Motors.
When this reporter asked HCF's Taketa if the military had been invited to participate, he said there had been no outreach to Hawaii's military community. "Right now the focus has been on trying to ignite in each person a sense of manifestation of peace and aloha," Taketa said.
He called peace and aloha "precious," saying, "We are lucky enough to live in a place where people, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion seem to get along pretty well. I just really hope that people in Hawaii don't take that for granted and we recognize that we have to work hard to preserve it the same way we have to work hard to preserve clean water and clean air."
A Tough Act to Follow
By starting with the Dalai Lama, Pillars of Peace Hawaii has set a very high bar for future events. It's difficult to imagine another figure that would have the draw or elicit the same level of enthusiasm as the Dalai Lama, although Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu might come close.
Whatever comes next for Pillars of Peace, its organizers have achieved something significant and enduring. By planting the seeds of peace in the hearts and minds of the people of Hawaii - especially its students - Pillars of Peace has done something that cannot be undone. Those seeds it planted, potent seeds of peace, represent the Dalai Lama's core values of peace, compassion and the oneness of humanity - values compatible with the aloha spirit - which will grow and spread across this aina, this land.
Eventually, those seeds will spread and bear flowers and fruit, which produce their own seeds, rising as pillars of peace with the potential to lift human beings to great heights from where the people of Hawaii, indeed people everywhere, can gaze out at and marvel at the beauty and vastness of an ocean and a world where the distances between people can be bridged by the size of our hearts.
Read more about the Dalai Lama's message in Hawaii here.