Heavy-set Tibetans with ear pieces are milling around the entrance of Newton Prep School in South London. Every so often, they stand aside to allow a small child to pass. A succession of 4x4 vehicles pull up, one by one, and maroon-robed monks emerge.
The monks and security men are at the school because His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has decided it is time he heard what schoolchildren have to say about the world.
“Young children have pureness, honesty,” the 80-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader says to the assembled children. “The problem is keeping these good qualities in human nature. Education should allow that. There’s not much talk about inner values at school. It’s external, material values.
“So this whole generation that came through that education doesn’t have much talk about these things: being honest, truthful, compassionate.”
The school visit was a key part of the Dalai Lama’s nine-day trip to Britain this month.
“Obviously, the new generation are the stewards of the planet,” says Cameron Taylor, Inspire Dialogue Foundation organiser, who arranged the day. “Young people have opinions and deserve to be listened to, as well.”
Meeting of minds
The Dalai Lama, as twinkly as his reputation suggests, sits in Newton Prep’s hall while groups of pupils from around London present what headteacher Alison Fleming calls “offerings”. Children from a church group in Essex recite a poem. “Children are the joy of the world. Children are the mirror of God,” they say.
A boy called Darius, wearing a straw hat, plays a jaunty tune on the saxophone. Then the children join the Dalai Lama for a brief chat. “If you had authority over the whole world, what would you do?” one asks.
“Before I answer,” His Holiness replies, “lend me your hat.” He takes Darius’ hat and puts it on his own head. The audience cheers. “I think this is not a question for one person,” he continues. “Each of us is master or owner of this planet.”
Another group of children take the stage. Their performance is about whether it is justifiable to sacrifice one person for the good of many. “Which one would you sacrifice?” they ask. “The Muslim one? The migrant one? The deaf one? The blind one?”
Afterwards, they gather at the Dalai Lama’s feet and he matches them, homily for homily.
“My garden has different flowers,” he says. “Different colours, different size, different blossoms. Different individuals, different profession, different fields – it’s good to have. When it all comes together, it becomes more attractive.”
Among the audience are pupils from St George’s Primary, which serves an estate near Newton Prep. “I hadn’t heard of the Dalai Lama before,” says 10-year-old Joice. “He looked like someone I would know, probably on television.”
But St George’s headteacher Sarah Collymore believes that his words are relevant to her pupils. “We talk a lot about integrity at school,” she says. “I don’t think there could be any better example of character education than the Dalai Lama.”
Next is a presentation from an East London literacy group, followed by a South London play club. “We are social animals,” the Dalai Lama says. He picks up a child’s bare foot and, with a grin, tickles it. “We need friendship. We need trust. So education must include our basic human values.”
Joice’s classmate, 10-year-old Rashaun, is impressed. “He thinks about others before himself,” Rashaun says. “He’s selfless. If somebody comes up to him and is rude, he would probably just ignore them and be nice.”
Ms Fleming refers to this as a “spiritual connection”. She smiles. “It was a connection between the children and the child in him,” she says. “When you meet someone like the Dalai Lama and he’s just a giggly man, it lifts the lid on your own aspirations. It throws open possibilities.”
As the Dalai Lama leaves the stage, a boy approaches him, holding out some Tibetan khata scarves. “Please do me the honour of blessing these scarves,” he says.
The Dalai Lama smiles, but demurs. “Blessing is not from outside,” he says. “Things entirely depend on our own action. That positive action is the real source of blessing.”
Then he retreats off stage. For a long time, all that remains visible of him is a bare arm, waving from the wings.
What the Dalai Lama told the children
“There’s one word: peace. World peace must develop, must come from inner peace.”
“Individual future depends on the rest of the world. If the rest of the world has happy peace, the individual gets the benefit.”
“Trust is the basis of friendship. Believer or non-believer, that doesn’t matter. Basically, we are human beings.”
“When I was very young, sometimes I tried to cheat my teachers. Actually, I am very lazy. But, in the eyes of my teacher, I’m very serious.”
“Young people: in your mind, your emotions are very fresh. Really, really pure humans. You don’t care what’s someone’s colour, what’s their religion, what’s their nationality.”