He pulled on a Terps visor, to the crowd's delight. He rubbed noses with Gov. Martin O'Malley. And the Dalai Lama was met Tuesday with rounds of applause from a crowd of 15,000 at the University of Maryland, College Park's Comcast Center.
"Sit down," the 78-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader said in a firm but friendly voice when he approached the podium and the crowd rose to its feet. "No formality! We are [the] same. … The way we are born, the way we die: no formality."
Clad in red robes and his trademark spectacles, the Dalai Lama appeared at the university to give an address on peace, compassion and fellowship as part of the Anwar Sadat Lecture Series.
It was the largest crowd in the 16-year history of the program, as the Dalai Lama outdrew former South African President Nelson Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and longtime United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Shibley Telhami, who founded the program and is the school's Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, said Carter and Mandela drew the previously biggest crowds — about 10,000 each to Cole Field House.
But ticket interest for the Dalai Lama, who is believed to be a manifestation of the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion and is seen as Tibet's patron saint, was even stronger, Telhami said. "If we had a venue for 30,000 people, we would have filled that."
His 45-minute talk, delivered in accented English and without notes, focused on something the man who calls himself "a simple monk" has investigated around the world for four decades: how individuals, communities and nations can establish connections that lead to fruitful dialogue — and, by extension, happiness and peace — in an often hostile world.
"When I look at you, if I think, 'I am Tibetan,' or, 'I am a Buddhist,' or, 'I am Dalai Lama' … nonsense! That kind of thing leads to problems," the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner said before recommending that individuals strive to learn compassion, forgiveness and tolerance before expecting to reach across thorny cultural and political divides.
Hunched slightly while speaking, he chuckled frequently, eliciting laughter from the likes of O'Malley, University President Wallace Loh and Dr. Jehan Sadat, widow of the late Egyptian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat. The crowd also included professors, students in Terps red, and a smattering of fellow Tibetan exiles in traditional silks and linens.
"I look at you as human beings. No differences," said the Dalai Lama, who had arranged with organizers in advance to have the arena lit so he could see the audience. He said he normally wears a small maroon visor to protect his eyes from stage lights.
On Tuesday, he tossed it aside in favor of a Terps visor, which he wore as a complement to his robes during the second part of his talk.
"Since my childhood, I always loved new things. Now I have this new hat," he said, his dark eyes twinkling, to laughter from the crowd.
Born Tenzin Gyatso in rural Tibet in 1935 and recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama at age 2, he made the characteristically homespun gesture during an address titled "Peace Through Compassion: Connecting in a Multi-Faith World."
Students who lined up in a drizzling rain hours before the event said that once the university made the free tickets available online last month, they had to scramble.
"I got them [on my laptop] during my Arabic class," freshman Maya Hardemon said. "I had to try about eight times."
Telhami pointed to two reasons for the frenzy.
"First, he comes across as speaking not to Buddhists, to Asians, to Africans, or to whites — not to professors or engineers, to the poor or workers or the rich, but to humankind," he said.
The professor added that while the Dalai Lama's message has political implications, it's essentially spiritual in nature.
"Politics matters, but in his case, it's something bigger than politics. His very presence is spiritual," said Telhami, adding that the university was fortunate to schedule an appearance by the Dalai Lama, who leaves his adopted home in India to travel internationally only about once a year.
He was to appear in a panel discussion on campus later in the day, before leaving Wednesday for appearances in other parts of the U.S. Among the other cities he is scheduled to visit are Portland, Ore., Louisville, Ky., and New Orleans.
Some in the College Park crowd said they were drawn by the chance to see a renowned international figure.
Sophomore Tomas Breach, a member of the university debate team, expected little in the way of political controversy but figured he would connect with the holy man's larger message. "Spiritually, I think he'll give us something to think about when we go to bed tonight," Breach said, adding that most of what he knew about the Dalai Lama came from the 1997 movie "Seven Years in Tibet."
Once the doors opened at 7 a.m., the arena filled slowly, a sense of reverence quietly building. Classical Tibetan music sounded over the public-address system, strains of the traditional Tibetan guitar mingling with the sprightly tones of a bamboo flute.
On the stage, set up below six championship basketball banners that hang from the ceiling, images of the Dalai Lama flashed on two giant screens.
"It does seem a little strange" to be waiting to see a holy man in an arena where Terps fans often treat opponents with much less restraint, said Sebastian Roa of Rockville, who arrived early with his friend LelandTran, a senior majoring in marketing.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this man speak at Maryland," said Roa, an international development major.
Tran said his mother, a devout Buddhist who has seen the Dalai Lama before, gave her ticket to him after he couldn't get on the website. Buddhism's moral imperative to "do good and be good" has rubbed off on his own life, Tran said, though he hasn't committed himself to any particular religion.
A group near the stage felt no such ambiguity.
Kalsang Dolma and her husband, Pemba Jigtak, Tibetan Buddhists who live in Falls Church, Va., arrived shortly after 7 a.m. to find that they'd be sitting in the front row.
"We've been sitting here saying we can't believe our luck," said Dolma, who said she received a blessing from the Dalai Lama in India 20 years ago. "Westerners seem attracted to his sense of humor, but to us, he's a kind of god — a father, a mother. Just having a glimpse of him is a blessing."
Higher up in the building, Christina Wynkoop and Leona Mynes said they came because the Dalai Lama's spiritual teachings inspire them.
Along with his lifelong mission to alert the world to Communist China's oppression of Tibet, he has always reached out to practitioners of other faiths, from the late Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton to the modern-day Catholic priest in Australia who recently called the Dalai Lama "a good Christian."
Wynkoop and Mynes, practicing Catholics from New Jersey, were feeling the interfaith spirit. They'd visited a Catholic shrine in Washington on Monday before making it to Comcast Center.
"We're getting just the right balance on this trip. Our priest will be happy," Wynkoop said, laughing.
After speaking and taking a few audience questions, the Dalai Lama received a doctorate of humane letters from the university, complete with an academician's collar and framed certificate, an honor that seemed to delight him.
As Loh presided over the ceremony, the Dalai Lama bounced up and down on his feet, smiling. He gave thanks for the honor, then concluded with remarks that, in their simple way, offered a formula for lasting peace.
All people, he observed, want peace and happiness, a fact that makes us all the same.
"We spend too much emphasis on differences between us, and we forget the oneness of humanity," he said. "If we think more about that oneness, [our] secondary differences will be easier to resolve."