In a meandering, hour-plus discussion Wednesday afternoon in a school gym, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader responded to questions on topics ranging from his childhood memories to methods he uses to cheer himself up after a "sad day."
Eleven of the students, from East Palo Alto middle schools as well as Menlo-Atherton and Sequoia high schools, earned the chance to personally address the world-famous 75-year-old monk after submitting essays on what constitutes a "meaningful life."
"You belong to the new century," the Dalai Lama told Tatyana Spears, a 13-year-old McNair Middle School eighth-grader who asked how young people can find peace in their lives.
"You have nine decades to make it become peaceful, compassionate and friendly — or more destructive. It's entirely up to you," the Dalai Lama said.
"Education — development of the brain — is not sufficient. You must pay more attention to your own heart, to what we learn from our mothers at a very young age."
Vanessa Tostado, an eighth-grader at Willow Oaks School, asked about racism.
"We have different races, different faiths, nationalities, positions, rich families, poor families — sometimes in the past and even today, we have too much emphasis on race, nationality, and we sacrifice fundamental human values," the Dalai Lama responded.
"First we must realize nearly 7 billion human beings are the same. Everyone wants a happy life. Racism, discrimination based on faith or point of view is a total mistake — very backward thinking."
The Dalai Lama sat in an overstuffed chair on the gym stage and spoke in what he described as "broken English," frequently conferring with a translator sitting to his left.
Students from the independent Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto — who last year mounted a pageant about the Dalai Lama — recited poems and sayings and helped in Tibetan cultural performances before the monk's arrival, teaching the audience to sing the traditional Dalai Lama welcoming song, "Thamchey Khenpa."
Sitting in the rear of the gym were dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and donors to the Ravenswood Education Foundation, which raises funds for the Ravenswood City School District.
With Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega hospitalized after emergency surgery, foundation executive director Charley Scandlyn took over welcoming duties.
"The adults are here because they've been friends and supporters of your schools," Scandlyn told students, as they turned their heads to peer at the donor group.
"They are politicians, doctors, lawyers, business people, school board members, volunteers, community leaders, church members. They believe every child in the Ravenswood School District deserves a first-class education.
"You are worth that investment."
Adagio Lopeti, 13, of Belle Haven School said he won the essay contest by writing that "sometimes you have to suffer to get peace.
"Peace can be like an old married couple walking in a park," Adagio said he wrote. "They know how a relationship takes so long, they never break a promise, they stay married for a lot of years."
Adagio asked the Buddhist leader — who was plucked from a rural village and educated for future leadership from the age of 6 — if he ever wished to live like an "ordinary person," with a family and children of his own.
The monk recalled sitting with his tutor as a child and seeing local people returning their animals from pasture.
"They were ordinary boys and girls, singing, and sometimes I wished I were one of them, so occasionally I had such feelings," he said.
"But eventually I realized my own responsibility, and that was an opportunity to do something meaningful."
Sequoia High School student Sofia Duenas wondered whether the Dalai Lama has any regrets.
He answered that at times, during his teens, he had been a "lazy student," and urged students to take advantage of their school years.
"You must play for physical health and growth, but to study is very, very important," he said.
M-A student Leslie Cisneros asked the monk how he cheers himself up after a "sad day."
"If you think negative, it brings sadness," he replied. "But if you look for a wider perspective, there are some positive things.
"The same event — even something very unbearable — can be negative from one dimension, and from another dimension may be positive."
Sequoia High School student David Montenegro asked whether world peace is "ever really achievable."
The Dalai Lama launched into his view on the importance of maternal love early in a child's life. He said a combination of "human intellect and compassion" can bring about a more peaceful world.
"So we have to work for that," he said. "I myself have dedicated my life to bringing a more peaceful world, more compassionate world.
"In my case, just talk. In your case, action," the monk said, sparking laughter from the students, and breaking out into laughter himself.