The 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, spoke to a rapt crowd of 12,000 at San Diego State University on Thursday morning. He stressed the importance of compassion and the oneness of humanity.

We are the same family -- now 7 billion human beings, actually brothers and sisters, he said. Mentally, emotionally, physically, we are the same. Furthermore, our potential for good things, for constructive things -- the same. Also the potential for destructive things -- the same.

He told his listeners, many of them college students, that they should make good use of their time on earth. You have the opportunity to make a new world, a happy world. My generation, not.

The Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was given a key to the city of San Diego, a University of San Diego Medal of Peace, and three colorful visors.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders lauded the Dalai Lama's speech. Throughout his teachings, His Holiness encourages all of us to strive for a better future, through peace and compassion for others, he said.

After Thursday's event, the Dalai Lama  headed to Los Angeles.

The Dalai Lama's visit has heightened awareness of the struggles within Tibet, a Himalayan plateau that has sought greater autonomy since it was seized by China's military in 1951. In response to Chinese repression of Tibetan Buddhism and cultural traditions, many young Tibetans have protested recently by setting themselves on fire.

In recent months, those protests have intensified. More than 30 Tibetans have engaged in self-immolation so far this year; most have died.

The Dalai Lama fled to Dharmsala, India, in 1959 during a Tibetan uprising. He retired from politics last year, but remains a spiritual leader. Since the retirement, the Dalai Lama has focused on spiritual matters rather than political conflicts.

During an interview with BBC on Wednesday, he said that the Tibetan struggle is a very sensitive political issue. If I involve that, then retirement from political power is meaningless. Whatever I say, the Chinese government immediately manipulates... they do not understand what's the real Tibetan feeling.  

He set out from Dharmsala last week to begin his international tour, which includes visits to Hawaii, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and Ottawa, Canada. He will speak to various audiences over the next few days, but his central message is expected to remain the same.

The compassion emotion, he said Thursday, is the most important part of life.