To the casual rhythm of traditional jazz and under the sharp glare of roaming searchlights, the 2,800 members of the Tulane University class of 2013 walked across the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to take their seats Saturday morning (May 18). With their ears in many cases glued to cell phones, they looked up, smiling and waving to the audience composed of 36,000 family members and friends.
At the same moment, a small group of Buddhist monks with shaved heads and saffron-colored robes was escorted across the floor to seats reserved for them in the stands.
Wearing Tulane academic regalia over his own robes and a cap loaned to him by President Scott Cowen, the Dalai Lama addresses the class of 2013.
So began this year’s Commencement Ceremony
, one that cleaved to its tradition of celebrating both Tulane University graduates and the city that has been their home, but also was indelibly marked by the presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who received an honorary degree and gave the morning’s keynote address.
Referring to the graduating class as “my young brothers and sisters,” the Dalai Lama lauded them for their public service work during their time at Tulane, and suggested that education was most purposeful when it was combined with a sense of “warm-heartedness.”
“I think the very purpose of education is to have meaningful life. In order to have meaningful life, you should take care of others' well-being. Then you feel, 'Oh, my life is something meaningful.'"
On several occasions he encouraged the graduates to think globally.
“In order to create a sense of global responsibility, it is extremely important to develop the concept of the oneness of humanity. There are seven billion human beings. We are part of that.”
Noting that most of the graduates had “been taken care of” by others for most of their lives, the Dalai Lama said, “Now you start your real life. It could be more complicated. With difficulties. You should not become demoralized. Despite difficulties, you must keep optimism and self-confidence.
“Our existence,” he said, “is very much based on hope. Hope means something good, something better. There’s no guarantee of future, something good. But we simply exist on hope.”
Piano players rarely play together — but they did on Saturday as Allen Toussaint and Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack perform a number of songs during the commencement ceremony. (Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano)
Earlier in the ceremony, Tulane President Scott Cowen also spoke of hope, as well as his optimism for the future.
“In these challenging times,” President Cowen told the graduates, “people often ask me to explain how I can be so hopeful. The answer is because you are my hope.”
The two men shared a number of moments on stage. Among the most humorous and endearing was when the Dalai Lama, who was wearing Tulane academic regalia, returned to President Cowen the cap that the Tulane president had earlier loaned to him.
“This is not mine!” the Dalai Lama laughed as he handed the cap to President Cowen.
And while it is difficult to upstage the Dalai Lama, two of this year’s honorary degree recipients, iconic New Orleans musicians Allen Toussaint and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, tried their best, performing a short set of music accompanied by Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band. It’s said that piano players rarely play together, but the two did just that as they turned out rousing renditions of Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such A Night,” as well as Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”
In another notable moment, the Dalai Lama left his seat on the platform to closely watch Dr. John’s hands on the keyboard. Returning to his seat, His Holiness wiggled his fingers as if he were playing piano.
Joining the Dalai Lama, Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebennack in receiving an honorary degree from Tulane University was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate.