LOUISVILLE — Exiled Tibetan leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama came to Louisville on Sunday for the first time since 1994, bringing his distinctive message of compassion not just for all humans but for other species.
He blessed a Buddhist community center and then spoke to about 15,000 people at the Yum Center. The Dalai Lama was introduced by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who praised his moral clarity and trademark raucous laugh, which were in evidence often during the speech and question-and-answer session that followed.
The Dalai Lama called for a "century of compassion," and said Americans, because they live under a system that gives them more political autonomy, have a greater responsibility to push for peace.
"Try to maintain a more peaceful mind," the spiritual leader told the crowd.
He urged his audience to respect other religions, then added, as a joke, "Everybody knows I'm Buddhist.
"Nobody really wants more trouble," he said. "... I think we can learn from experience, from past mistakes."
He also reminded the crowd of his affection and respect for the late Kentucky monk Thomas Merton, whom he credited with being an example of Christianity.
The Dalai Lama donned a maroon visor to speak. He was preceded on stage by a musical program that included Lexington cellist and songwriter Ben Sollee, who sang A Change Is Gonna Come.
The Dalai Lama was asked pointed questions by the crowd, including how to forgive the Boston Marathon bombers.
While the killings are difficult to forgive, he said, the death penalty would be too extreme a punishment. Nonetheless, he said, justice must be done.
In his 1989 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Dalai Lama attributed all suffering to ignorance.
Asked why putting profit before people is wrong, he said profit that hurts the populace was "too much exploitation."
A market-oriented economy has some good points, he said, but strays when it becomes exclusively about profit.
Responding to a young man who was working on a documentary about chemical abuses by companies in India, the Dalai Lama responded, "Tell people. Educate them."
Afterward, Lydia Kowalski of Louisville said the speech was "an extraordinary opportunity to hear someone who is so thoughtful and down to earth, philosophical and funny. He wasn't pretentious. He spoke as he felt."
Security for the event was tight, and the Yum Center was slow to fill, as many stood on an outside bridge for extended periods awaiting security clearance.
In the morning, a woman circled the building, taping up pink paper flowers. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol, and pink ones represent the history of Buddha and the historical legends of the Buddha, according to Buddhists.org.
Speaking after the Dalai Lama, Dr. James Doty, founder and director for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, said that survival of the fittest was a myth.
"It is survival of the kindest and most cooperative if the species is going to survive in the long term," he said.
The Dalai Lama will be in Louisville through Tuesday. He will conduct a public Buddhist teaching, also at the Yum Center, on Monday. On Tuesday, he will meet with a selected group of students.
In November 2011, Louisville made a commitment to the Compassionate Cities Campaign to address the unmet needs of citizens and to engage in positive change.
Fischer on Sunday called becoming more a compassionate city one of Louisville's guiding values. He noted that last week more than 107,000 residents performed volunteer services.
Nonetheless, he said, "This is not the end zone."
The city's work will be ongoing, Fischer said.
Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman