At MIT today, the Dalai Lama spoke at an inaugural event for a new institute in his name, the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values. He tempered his provocative ideas about promoting ethics in a secular society with a stream of lively banter.

In the nearly full Kresge Auditorium, he kidded a Catholic monk in the front row about his less than perfectly shaved head, unlike the Buddhist monks in the hall. Sitting cross-legged on a sofa, he recalled that he had visited a homeless shelter in San Francisco the other day and told a man he met that he, too, had suffered the same fate after he went into exile in 1959. “I said, ‘me too. Homeless’.”

His talk centered on how to achieve genuine compassion — not the kind that people easily muster for friends who share their views, but compassion for those they don’t agree with.

The Dalai Lama also said the ethics center should search for ways to help secular people build ethical values, arguing that most of the world’s six billion people are non-believers who won’t get their ethics through their religious values.

He asked the Catholic monk whether secularism means rejection of religion, to which the monk replied, “that depends on your experience of secularism.”

“Very wise answer,” the Dalai Lama told him to laughter. “We need to promote secular ethics through education.”

The address took place in the same hall where the Dalai Lama held a remarkable five-hour debate in 2003 with several prominent scientists about Buddhism and the science of the mind. That public conference, “Investigating the Mind,” allowed scientists and the Dalai Lama to reflect on meditation and mental focus.

He said yesterday that scientists may be non-believers but they treat issues with honesty, the key to ethical behavior. “This honesty, truthfulness and calmness lead to compassion,” he said. “It also brings a calm mind.”

And then he stopped with a shrug, saying, “Anyhow, enough,” and asked for questions.

The Dalai Lama had some imaginative ideas for MIT scientists to work for peace.

“You could invent an injection for compassion,” he said. “I would want that.” And maybe commerce could contribute: “You could have shops selling compassion. In a supermarket, you could buy compassion.”

A student asked about ethics and the weapons industry. The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent campaign for Tibetan rights, said he hoped this would be the century for global demilitarization. But a good start, he said, would be for institutions like MIT to invent a bullet “that misses ordinary people but hits the decision makers,” waving his arm in the path of a wiggling bullet to laughter and applause. “That kind of bullet needs to be developed. Wonderful.”

(Correction: in the original version of this post, I called the event a fund-raiser. In fact, nearly all the tickets were given out free to MIT students.)

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