Some in the College Park crowd said they were drawn by the chance to see a renowned international figure.
Sophomore Tomas Breach, a member of the university debate team, expected little in the way of political controversy but figured he would connect with the holy man's larger message. "Spiritually, I think he'll give us something to think about when we go to bed tonight," Breach said, adding that most of what he knew about the Dalai Lama came from the 1997 movie "Seven Years in Tibet."
Once the doors opened at 7 a.m., the arena filled slowly, a sense of reverence quietly building. Classical Tibetan music sounded over the public-address system, strains of the traditional Tibetan guitar mingling with the sprightly tones of a bamboo flute.
On the stage, set up below six championship basketball banners that hang from the ceiling, images of the Dalai Lama flashed on two giant screens.
"It does seem a little strange" to be waiting to see a holy man in an arena where Terps fans often treat opponents with much less restraint, said Sebastian Roa of Rockville, who arrived early with his friend LelandTran, a senior majoring in marketing.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this man speak at Maryland," said Roa, an international development major.
Tran said his mother, a devout Buddhist who has seen the Dalai Lama before, gave her ticket to him after he couldn't get on the website. Buddhism's moral imperative to "do good and be good" has rubbed off on his own life, Tran said, though he hasn't committed himself to any particular religion.
A group near the stage felt no such ambiguity.
Kalsang Dolma and her husband, Pemba Jigtak, Tibetan Buddhists who live in Falls Church, Va., arrived shortly after 7 a.m. to find that they'd be sitting in the front row.
"We've been sitting here saying we can't believe our luck," said Dolma, who said she received a blessing from the Dalai Lama in India 20 years ago. "Westerners seem attracted to his sense of humor, but to us, he's a kind of god — a father, a mother. Just having a glimpse of him is a blessing."
Higher up in the building, Christina Wynkoop and Leona Mynes said they came because the Dalai Lama's spiritual teachings inspire them.
Along with his lifelong mission to alert the world to Communist China's oppression of Tibet, he has always reached out to practitioners of other faiths, from the late Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton to the modern-day Catholic priest in Australia who recently called the Dalai Lama "a good Christian."
Wynkoop and Mynes, practicing Catholics from New Jersey, were feeling the interfaith spirit. They'd visited a Catholic shrine in Washington on Monday before making it to Comcast Center.
"We're getting just the right balance on this trip. Our priest will be happy," Wynkoop said, laughing.
After speaking and taking a few audience questions, the Dalai Lama received a doctorate of humane letters from the university, complete with an academician's collar and framed certificate, an honor that seemed to delight him.
As Loh presided over the ceremony, the Dalai Lama bounced up and down on his feet, smiling. He gave thanks for the honor, then concluded with remarks that, in their simple way, offered a formula for lasting peace.
All people, he observed, want peace and happiness, a fact that makes us all the same.
"We spend too much emphasis on differences between us, and we forget the oneness of humanity," he said. "If we think more about that oneness, [our] secondary differences will be easier to resolve."