As the Dalai Lama entered the room at the American Enterprise Institute, where he'd been invited to discuss the idea of "moral markets," the crowd stood and kept still, in reverential silence. Then, though, everyone he passed began to laugh. Not at the idea that unencumbered enterprise might be the path to peace, but because His Holiness is the Melissa McCarthy of religious leaders: You look at him and can't help it, before he even opens his mouth, and no matter what he says when he does.
"We're here," said Arthur Brooks, the president of the conservative think tank, "to talk about what matters to us the most." And although "as an economist it hurts me to tell you, money's not on the list."
The presence of a self-described socialist and "simple Buddhist monk" as an honored guest of the enthusiastic capitalists here — Grover Norquist was in the audience — suggested that even if it is on the list, we know it shouldn't be near the top.
That's why, as Brooks said, "the system we believe is most able" to make success most widely available "is under question today. Have we become too materialistic? Do we need to reorder our priorities?"
The Dalai Lama, who wore a visor to protect his eyes from the stage lights, at first laughed when asked to respond. The crowd leaned forward to hear. An interpreter whispering in his ear tried to help, but came out with something like "Being happy and well prove auspiciousness," to which Brooks could only answer, "This is such a good day!"
Mostly, though, the Tibetan spoke for himself, with nouns unadorned by articles and verbs that might not agree with their subjects but did locate points of agreement with his hosts: "To try to seek right method to bring happy life," he said, "where start? From government? No, from individual — then we can make little contribution. That I feel most important."
He also challenged the crowd, saying near the top of his remarks that global cooperation was more essential than ever as we face climate change in what he called a "turning-point century."
In two days of talks here, he seemed to have followed his own advice about keeping an open mind and heart. Before meeting Brooks, he said, laughing some more, he thought capitalists "only take money, then exploitation." Now, he added, "I develop more respect for capitalism."
When asked if he agreed it's the free-enterprise system that's most moral, he didn't say no, but did gently raise the gap between rich and poor. Others on the stage for two different panel discussions chimed in.
Hedge funder Daniel Loeb, founder of Third Point, told about how yoga had helped him as a businessman, particularly in decisionmaking and in developing the intuition that helps him as a trader. Some people are left behind by capitalism, he said, but the more we see ourselves as interconnected, the more we understand that failure hurts us all.
Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College, said she was not only "very happy to be here in this happy-fest" but, according to recent research that suggests women are happier, was also "so glad to be here as the lone representative of the happiest sex" among the day's nine speakers.
She asked whether we in the West have started treating self-improvement and even spirituality as any other competition. And she challenged conservatives to ask whether the weakening of labor unions hadn't worsened working conditions. "Now I know I won't get applause for that," she said, to the applause of a few contrarians.
Again asked to weigh in, the Dalai Lama observed that "we should be wise-selfish rather than foolish-selfish," understanding that the more we help others, the more content we ourselves will be. Happiness comes from self-confidence, he said.
In the crowd there were nothing but happy sounds: "He doesn't see sides," a young Indian woman said. Having "no agenda helps," her friend answered. He does have one, however, and Republicans are not immune to it.
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