In an hour-plus discussion in the Costano Elementary School gym in East Palo Alto, 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."
Asked what he would do if he were president of the United States, he laughed and said the country probably would "face bankruptcy" after a few weeks of his leadership.
Eleven of the students, from 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 in Menlo Park, 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.
Sitting in the rear of the gym were dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park.
Adagio Lopeti, 13, of Belle Haven School in Menlo Park, 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."
M-A student Leslie Cisneros asked the monk how he cheers himself up after a "sad day."
"In daily life there are a number of things that cause disappointment or sadness," he replied.
"I take a more holistic view. If you think negative, it brings sadness. 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 into laughter himself.