In the heat of the morning, his words stirred their passions and their tears — as well as their desire to Facebook the moment.
As the Dalai Lama stepped onstage Saturday, a sea of hands whipped out smartphones, cameras and tablets to capture the scene in Little Saigon. Vietnamese-language media broadcast the event live. Camera operators confronted police, refusing to budge when authorities tried to clear a fire lane.
Snap. Snap. Click. Spectators, in search of the best angle, shouted at one another to move aside. "Uncle, I'm asking again. I can't see when you're blocking the view," one youngster said to an elder who kept taking selfies with his wife to send back to Saigon.
The 14th Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet, remains a hero to generations of Vietnamese Americans. And an estimated 6,000-plus turned out for his first appearance on their turf — the largest Vietnamese district outside their cultural homeland.
"I can't believe how modest he is," said Long Bui, a junior from Marina High School in Huntington Beach. His voice rose in excitement as he stood inside the soaring Chua Dieu Ngu Buddhist temple in Westminster. Its abbot, Thich Vien Ly, had traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama last year, inviting him to Little Saigon to help christen the temple when it officially opens Sunday.
Outside, worshipers lined up as early as 3 a.m. Admission was free, and security had trouble controlling the eager crowd.
Bui arrived with his mother but went off on his own to chase a closer spot.
"I just want to experience it in real time," he said, observing: "Wow. It's like an electronics village in here. Looks like everyone prefers to watch him on their screens rather than staring straight ahead."
When the Dalai Lama opened his sermon, a calm came over his audience. "We are the same human beings — mentally, emotionally, physically," he said, sprinkling advice in English and Tibetan, urging listeners to be kind and compassionate "starting today." He stopped his address to allow a man with a walker and a child in a wheelchair to come forward, blessing them.
Tuy Suong Nguyen held back a sob, saying she was grateful to be a part of the audience, even if the guest of honor spoke for twice as long as scheduled. "I read his books but I understand better in person," said the woman whose family runs Linh's Pharmacy in Westminster. "What he says soaks into my soul."
Uyen Thy Nguyen, who owns Corner View Bakery on Bolsa Avenue, Little Saigon's main street, said she felt lucky, tapped to bake for His Holiness. "This is my offering. In this life, it's not easy to have an opportunity to make something for him."
Nguyen and her pastry team created a towering lotus cake, enough for 500 portions to share with guests invited to lunch with the Dalai Lama. After his address, Nguyen said, she would return to her shop to finish a temple-shaped, mocha masterpiece for Sunday — complete with ornate gates — that would serve 700.
"Little Saigon streets are empty today because everyone's here," Nguyen said.
"I would not ever miss this," said Garden Grove resident Phuong Dung. She touched a rosary on her wrist, which she said was a gift from the Dalai Lama after she and her husband helped to organize two of his earlier visits to Southern California.
"We feel so blessed that he is here. How can we forget this day?" she said. The Dalai Lama, she said, believes people should “be kind whenever possible, knowing it is always possible.
"That allows us to find peace — and when we find peace, we find ourselves."
Then she moved aside as a group of monks strolled by, pausing for spectators wanting to take pictures.