"We think happiness is what we get when attachment gets what it wants. Buddha says happiness is what we get when we give up attachment."
November 23–26, 2008, the first event in the name of Sherab Plaza: the 2008 San Francisco Happiness & Its Causes conference, was held at The Westin Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
Sherab Plaza’s first major commercial endeavor – the conference was part of ongoing efforts by Ven. Robina, who was running Liberation Prison Project at the time, and Michelle Stewart, then director of San Francisco center Tse Chen Ling and a Sherab Plaza founding trustee, to bring in funds to support the two centers.
“We were really impressed by the work Tony Steel was doing in Sydney,” Michelle said. “Ven. Robina had been invited to speak at one of the conferences he and his team run to support Vajrayana Institute, our Sydney center, in 2005, and she was blown away by the whole thing – the speakers, the conference, the money they were bringing in. I remember when she came back to San Francisco and was telling me about it. And so we talked to Tony and Beth Phelan, who helps run the conferences for him, looked at their numbers, did our research and decided they would the perfect event to bring to San Francisco. And a way for us to bring in funds to support our centers, which were really struggling financially.”
“The Sydney conferences are remarkable,” says Ven. Robina. Nearly 3,500 people attended the sold-out 2005 conference where His Holiness the Dalai Lama was a special guest speaker. “People so clearly enjoy the talks from a whole spectrum of experts – scientists, philosophers, psychologists, educators, artists. I thought to myself, we must do these in San Francisco.”
Sherab Plaza Trust was appointed the official California franchise for the conference, and Ven. Robina and Michelle and their team, composed primarily of 12 staff members of Liberation Prison Project and Tse Chen Ling, hoped to do the conferences annually.
And all indications were that the 2008 conference would attract thousands of attendees: San Francisco ranks among the top 10 North American destinations for conventions and conferences; the conference team had 40 excellent speakers lined up, all experts in their fields, and were able to offer California State Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) to all California MFTs, LCSWs and RNs who attended the conference; the marketing campaign reached 1 million people; and, of course, the Sydney conferences, the San Francisco team's model, had been hugely successful with thousands of people attending each year.
The Sydney conference team offered their expertise and advice. Ven. Thubten Chokyi, one of the main organizers of the VI conferences came to San Francisco to work with Ven. Robina and Michelle's team, living at Tse Chen Ling for three months, helping organize the event and being the main person on the floor the day-of. And Lana Popovic, a New York designer, who came to San Francisco for MONTHs to do the stage design.
But in spite of a year of non-stop hard work, an amazing marketing campaign, help from 150 volunteers, and the support of Liberation Prison Project students in prison, who did prayers and practices for its success, not enough tickets were sold.
It was a huge success. . . “in every way but financial!” said Ven. Robina.
The conference, planned before the 2008 financial crisis, took place at the end of November when the effects of the housing-boom were coming into full swing: people around the country were being laid off and losing their homes, the stock market was crashing.
“The timing was devastating,” said Ven. Robina. And of course the effects were devastating for Liberation Prison Project and Tse Chen Ling, which were forced to cut staff and costs and ended up with debt. (Ven. Robina’s Bodhichitta Trust has since taken on the debt incurred by both centers.)
“Lama Yeshe coined the phrase ‘universal education’ for a secular way of presenting the fundamentals of morality and reality that are at the core of Buddha’s view,” said Ven. Robina. “And he would always exhort us to ‘Think big!’ and ‘Be professional!’
“When you think small, it means you don’t think you can do it, you’re afraid. And doing it ‘professionally’ just means doing it really well.
“Tony Steele’s Happiness conferences embody these three ideas, and we tried to accomplish just that in San Francisco. We lost money, but we touched millions of people through our marketing and the conference itself. And we can be encouraged by Lama Zopa Rinpoche's words to someone else who started a business to raise funds for a Dharma project: ‘As long as the motivation was positive, you receive great benefit.’”
And the conference certainly succeeded in bringing an incredible, beneficial event to its 300 attendees.
Beth, the Sydney conference organizer, as well as in London and Singapore (which also lost money in 2008), said the San Francisco event was “the best Happiness conference yet.”
The two-day conference November 24–25 was bookended by two days of pre- and post-conference workshops November 23 and 26. Over four days attendees got to hear 40 speakers – some of the world's most renowned psychologists, philosophers, scientists, people from the world of arts, athletes – talk about happiness and the well-being of human beings from various perspectives.
"You walked away not just intellectually stimulated, but with tools you could actually apply to your life, your relationships," said one attendee. "I learned so much."
“I have seen hundreds of events/conferences,” said another. “Without a doubt this was the most incredible, empowering I have ever experienced.”