The Dalai Lama received the gift of a koa paddle not once but twice on Sunday, but in very different arenas.

The first was at an invite-only talk titled “Native Intelligence in Modern Times,” held at the East-West Center. The second came at the Dalai Lama’s only public talk, called “Advancing Peace Through The Power of Aloha,” held at the Stan Sheriff Center.

The public talk was much like Saturday’s before an audience of high school students, held at the same center, with the Dalai Lama sharing much the same message — i.e., “compassion, compassion, compassion,” as he described it himself in a gently mocking fashion.

The Dalai Lama was far more animated than the day before, however, using many hand and arm gestures to emphasize his points. He even removed his visor to point to his bald head to underscore a message.

The talk also included easily the funniest moment of his Hawaii trip. Asked if there ever was a time when he didn’t smile, he mentioned using the bathroom. That prompted a big laugh.

It was the Dalai Lama at his best.

By contrast, the private talk with two prominent Native Hawaiian community leaders didn’t live up to its billing.

The goal of the panel was to have a dialogue, but instead the talk turned into a series of monologues that, while often moving and enlightening, did not seem to meet the bar that moderator John DeFries set out at the beginning: to help ease tension in the community but also to feel a little discomfort in order to “reframe” how we look at our island home.

Tibet and Hawaii, 1959

To do that — to feel a little discomfort — was to dig deep into what Hawaiians have lost as a result of the overthrow of their kingdom, and to talk about what to do about it.

I don’t think it coincidental that the Israel Kamakawiwoole’s “Hawaii ’78” — the mournful song that imagines how a Hawaiian king and queen of a century ago would react to the Hawaii of today — was played several times over the East-West Center sound system, including immediately before the panel began.

The historical connections between Tibet and Hawaii are worth exploring.

As Pierre Omidyar noted in his opening remarks at the public talk later that day, 1959 was the year that the Dalai Lama was forced into exile by the Communist Chinese and also the year that Hawaii became a state — something that not all Hawaiian accept even a half century later.

The loss for Hawaiians was eloquently expressed in the panel talk by Nainoa Thompson, the Hokulea navigator.

“We were very close to cultural extinction,” he said, noting how the Hokulea’s 1976 voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti helped instill cultural pride and regrowth.

Listening to Pualani Kanahele, the kumu hula and scholar, share her experience growing up on Hawaiian land — where they knew the hundreds of Hawaiian words used just to describe the rain and clouds — was a window into a Hawaii that is largely gone yet still within living memory.

The most moving moment was when Kekuhi Kanahele welcomed the Dalai lama with a stunning mele. Barefoot and gesturing to the sky and the land and elsewhere, she slowly and gracefully undulated across Keoni Auditorium to greet him. He was clearly moved by the power of it all.

But the panel didn’t go much further than that.

Select Invites

When I interviewed DeFries several days prior to the talk, he explained how he hoped the panel would serve as an exchange to help younger Hawaiians reconnect with their elders.

But the interview was limited to just 15 minutes, I was not permitted to quote him and I was not able to ask him about what I had been told by others that the panel was actually trying to accomplish: to somehow begin to address the painful history and lingering results of Hawaii’s overthrow.

That would fit exactly with the purpose of the Pillars of Peace program, whose goal is to have global peace leaders come to Hawaii to share their manao and for the leaders to also learn from Hawaii and take those experiences with them when they leave.

It was also curious who was invited to the panel and who was not there. Attendees included two island mayors, several top legislators, esteemed educators and influential businessmen.

What I didn’t see were many Hawaiian leaders with strong views like the Trask sisters, Jonathan Osorio, Bumpy Kanahele, Leon Siu, Poka Laenui and Kekuni Blaisdell.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, or maybe I misunderstood the panel’s purpose. I certainly believe spending an hour or so with people as amazing as Thompson, Kanahele and the Dalai Lama is invaluable.

But I also sensed the Dalai Lama himself was open to a more compelling exchange. In his opening remarks he said that he welcomed argument. But there was no argument.

The Dalai Lama’s visit has been centered on Hawaii’s indigenous people — language immersion students, the Kamehameha School Childrens Choir, visits to Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace. He has talked about wanting to eat poi, and he says he now understands the true meaning of the word “aloha.”

On Monday, his visit will end with the blessing of the Hokulea, which will embark on a global voyage next year. (The news had been embargoed until Gov. Neil Abercrombie let it slip at Stan Sheriff Sunday.)

Which brings me back to those koa paddles. They symbolize not only the Hokulea’s voyage but also, as the governor pointed out to the Dalai Lama, one of his favorite metaphors: that of a people in a canoe paddling together for the shore.

How to bring them all together, though? One talk by the Dalai Lama on Sunday moved closer to possible answers, one less so.

One paddle, two paddle.

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