Dalai Lama Faces Tough Questions on Women, Gays at A-List Hollywood Gathering

Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

Jim Carrey gets into a playful brawl with the Tibetan spiritual leader as stars Lupita Nyong'o, Naomi Watts and Jeremy Renner gather for a rare audience with the Nobel Peace Prize-winner.

Beneath the hulking fuselage of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama imparted hope, wisdom and humor at a luncheon event held Wednesday at the California Science Center.

Lupita Nyong'o, Naomi Watts and Jeremy Renner were among the crowd of several hundred who had gathered for some afternoon enlightenment, hanging on to the Tibetan spiritual leader's every word as he responded to questions lobbed at him by moderator Ann Curry. Also seated nearby was Sharon Stone, who had introduced the Dalai Lama, saying, "We have such incredible gratitude for all the goodness that you do."

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In traditional saffron robes and matching visor -- colors that corresponded nicely with the nearby University of Southern California -- the Dalai Lama offered ruminations on a number of serious topics, including his thoughts on materialism, faith, same-sex relationships and a woman's place in the Buddhist clergy. On the latter point, he stressed that Buddhism has a long tradition of female monks and saw no reason why one couldn't eventually take his place.

This isn't to say there were no laughs. The impish humor of the man born Tenzin Gyatso in 1935 kept escaping throughout the hourlong conversation. He was escorted onstage by Larry King and insisted the former CNN host take the chair of honor, explaining, "I'm younger." Later, obliging the wish of an audience member to learn the contents of his bag, he revealed that it contained two mini Toblerones, a toothbrush, a thermometer, two pairs of glasses and a wrapped sculpture of the Buddha dating to the 11th Century.

"Can we see it?" Stone asked. "No," he deadpanned.

Humor came from the audience as well. After a lengthy response in which he defined the true nature of human aggression ("90 percent mental projection") and implored humanity to forego self-absorption in favor of adopting "a sense of oneness among seven billion human beings," the Dalai Lama playfully dared anyone to say otherwise. Jim Carrey was game, hamming it up from his table with a contentious, "Well, I know a guy…" With the audience in hysterics, the mock-confrontation built to the point where Carrey stood up and put up his dukes.

Later, the Dalai Lama looked directly at the Oscar-nominated Nyong'o, who until then had been sitting perfectly still in rapt fascination, stunning as always in an orange-and-blue sun dress. "Where are you from?" he asked, and she responded, "Kenya." That led him to speak fondly of South African bishop Desmond Tutu, whom he called "a wonderful person," adding that since Tutu's 2011 retirement, "we always feel something missing."

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The introduction of Tutu -- who recently condemned Uganda's proposed laws against homosexuality as being comparable to Nazi policies -- served as a segue for Curry to ask the Tibetan leader where his own beliefs land on the subject of gay rights. The Dalai Lama responded that for those with religious beliefs that do not condone same-sex love -- which he says Buddhism views as "sexual misconduct" -- it is best to "follow one's own teachings." For secular and nonbelievers, he continued, he saw no reason to reject homosexuality. The final line drew applause, and Curry asked no follow-up.

Now 78 years old, the Dalai Lama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, spoke proudly of a fellow Nobel laureate "who will go unnamed" who insisted the Buddhist leader couldn't be any older than his early 60s. "Do you like being thought of as younger?" Curry asked, and he responded, "It won't change my age. It's all an illusion." The line drew laughs from the likes of Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, Amber Heard and Rosario Dawson.

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The event, which kicked off with David Foster and Eric Benet leading the crowd in a sing-along version of the Burt Bacharach standard "What the World Needs Now Is Love," was mounted by the Lourdes Foundation, a relatively new nonprofit with a mission to enact positive social change. His Holiness' L.A. appearances concluded later Wednesday evening with the second of two lectures given at The Forum in Inglewood. Other public talks on his weeklong visit to California included those given in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Said Watts of the experience as she made her way backstage for a private audience with the charismatic leader, "It was an exceptional afternoon."

Some memorable quotes from the Dalai Lama during his Los Angeles luncheon:

On the merits of confrontation:

"Buddha himself expressed it: 'All my monks and scholars should not accept my teaching out of devotion but out of tireless investigation."

On the responsibilities of religious leaders:

"If I try to manipulate my followers, I can easily manipulate. … Nonsense. That's exploitation."

On ego:

"For the practice of genuine compassion, you need a sense of strong self."

On the nature of the mind:

"The endeavor looks like a solid entity, but its functioning depends on many, many small screws. The mind is like that."

On being a space tourist in the industry's nascency:

"I do not want to go as an experiment."

On the responsibility of women in society:

"Females should take a more active role regarding the promotion of human compassion."

On his own loquaciousness:

"When I open my mouth, the [words come] ceaselessly."

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch