The wall-to-wall coverage of the Dalai Lama's visit to Seattle is unprecedented. The Seattle Times has covered and blogged his every move and utterance around town, even to the point of highlighting stories on the Web in colors – gold and red – that pick up the hues of his familiar monk's robe.
It wasn't so during his visit in 1993, even though his message was pretty much the same. Under the headline "Dalai Lama arrives here calling for compassion," a short piece on his arrival in town described his welcome:The Dalai Lama flew into Boeing Field last night to a modest, low-key welcome befitting a simple Buddhist monk, as Tibet's spiritual leader likes to call himself.
His visit then received modest notice. This time the simple Buddhist monk has had motorcades and security, a talk at Qwest Field, a rock concert, an honorary degree, hugs from the governor ...
Part of it is timing: Tibet's protests, China's crackdown, and the coming Olympics have all raised the profile of the visit. But it is interesting that here in secular Seattle, a religious figure like the Dalai Lama has been getting so much ink, attention, and good press.
Seattle is capital of the "None Zone," the area of the country that hosts the largest percentage of Americans who list "none of the above" when asked their religious preference. That doesn't mean we aren't spiritual folk: We've got lots of believers in God who don't belong to a church, many pagans and nature worshipers, and secular humanists who don't hold to any particular faith but are moved by ideas and a desire to live more morally in the world.
That, I think, is one reason the Dalai Lama is making such a splash this time around: We're a country that's been embroiled in global conflicts from which there seems no extraction, we've set the planet's climate controls on self-destruct, and more generally, I think, many liberals, conservatives, and people in between agree that we live in a bankrupt (literally and morally) commercial culture that seems to be eating our young. We're being American Idolized.
Perhaps people are hungry for someone to restore faith in compassion, which has been so ill-used by politicians like George W. Bush, who once promised a brand of "compassionate conservatism" that turned out in our Darwinian society to be a contradiction in terms.
The Dalai Lama, too, is fair game for criticism as a both a political figure and spiritual leader of a culture where there is no separation of church and state. Yet at the same time, he has parlayed his exile status into a platform – call it a bully pulpit, even – to speak on matters beyond politics, to religions and peoples other than his own. This refugee knows pain and loss, and that gives him credibility when he speaks about seeking to embrace one's enemies and to recognize our role in the dynamics of conflict.
The local coverage of the Dalai Lama's visit also reminds me of reading newspapers in India, where amongst the reports of two-faced babies and cricket scores you are likely to find spiritual commentary unlike anything in American papers. Not just "prayer of the day" filler, but longer essays and meditations, often trying to bridge the spiritual interests of a county with large, varied religious populations, including Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others. I came across a commentary in a Mumbai paper, called "Path to Samsara and Nirvana", that is typical of the genre:Look about and contemplate life! Everything is transient and nothing endures. There is birth and death, growth and decay; there is combination and separation. The glory of the world is like a flower: it stands in full bloom in the morning and fades in the heat of the day. Wherever you look, there is a rushing and struggling, and an eager pursuit of pleasure.
It's hard to imagine that lead paragraph surviving any editor's pen at any mainstream paper here, on or off the editorial page.
In India, spiritual quest and contemplation are a part of daily life, not simply left to Sunday sermons or the weekly religion page. Rather than being intrusive, it is pervasive and sends a message that our inner lives are at least as important as news, stock quotes, and ad inserts.
Our own newspapers are quickly cutting back on everything: shrinking pages, dumping sections, closing bureaus, laying off staff. They're constantly trying to woo people with new gimmicks, fancy Web features, colorful graphics, or content aimed at young clubgoers.
But in a city of Nones like Seattle, perhaps the Dalai Lama's visit could reinvigorate us with coverage and commentary that you truly can't get anywhere else. Call it the Inner Beat.
Could our papers find new life by addressing the spiritual yearnings and needs of a community hungry for messages of meaning? It would be tough to add this when the news hole is shrinking. But Seattle's religious non-attachments might be less a sign of cynicism than indicative of openness, of a cosmopolitan population looking for recipes in how to live meaningfully in a troubled time.
Such reporting could be part of something bigger than a newspaper turnaround.