Great Expectations

Dalai Lama’s visit a complex, much-anticipated event that brings together many cultures, viewpoints

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama met with UB officials in Toronto in 2004, when he formally accepted an invitation to visit the campus. His visit in September will take place over three days and will include multiple engagements.

Kunchok Youdon recalls how she once approached His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. She bowed her head and barely lifted tear-filled eyes to meet the gaze of a man she regards as the father of Tibet. “His Holiness is our leader, a man who is leading us to our goals, spiritually, and in the political aspects of our country,” she says today. Despite this and similar encounters in Dharamsala—where Youdon previously worked at the Central Tibetan Administration (i.e., the Tibetan government in exile)—she has never spoken directly to the revered world figure. Soon, however, thousands of miles from her home in Dharamsala, she hopes to utter a few shy words in a much-anticipated audience during the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit to UB. “He's coming to my school,” Youdon says proudly.

Active on a campus subcommittee to foster community involvement with the Dalai Lama's visit, Youdon, a master's candidate in political science in her final semester and one of eight Tibetan students at UB, wanted to do more. One afternoon, she walked over to the Student Union and conducted her own random survey, talking to about 100 students over a five-hour period. Most had heard about the Dalai Lama, she discovered, but only a few knew anything about Tibet.

“I was trying to explain to others what is our culture, what do Tibetans look like,” Youdon says of her work not only that afternoon but also continuously as a member of the Tibetan Student Association. “We're trying to show we're different from other Asian cultures.” Once apprised of some basic facts about Tibet, “most UB students showed a keen interest,” Youdon states. “They asked more and more questions; I was so glad afterward thinking about what had happened.”

Prayer Flags

Prayer Flags: These traditional Tibetan flags, here viewed from a “stupa,” or Buddhist shrine, are thought to bring good fortune and to dispel danger. The prayer flags will be adapted by Buffalo-area school children as part of welcoming the Dalai Lama to UB, September 18-20. (Photo by Richard Lee)

Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education and a key figure in bringing the Dalai Lama to UB, says the response on campus and in the community “has been really gratifying. After the announcement, we received literally hundreds of e-mails from all levels of the university, from those in humble positions to high-ranking people. A lot of them are American Buddhists. And we had no sense that they were out there. They came forward, saying, ‘We're thrilled, can we do something? Can we help?'”

With the collective theme, “Promoting Peace Across Borders Through Education,” His Holiness's visit will include a public lecture in UB Stadium on September 19, an interfaith service in Alumni Arena on September 18, a special meeting with a select group of UB students, and an international legal conference focusing on Tibetan and Buddhist law. On September 19, as part of his Distinguished Speakers Lecture in UB Stadium, the Dalai Lama will receive a SUNY honorary doctorate in humane letters, in recognition of his “powerful leadership and teachings as one of our time's most vocal and consequential advocates for world peace, religious tolerance and cultural understanding,” according to UB President John B. Simpson.

Also complementing the visit, UB professor of music David Felder is organizing “a rather unique concert” featuring composer Philip Glass on the evening of September 18 to launch the university's Center for 21st Century Music and also honor the Dalai Lama. Plans call for a screening of Martin Scorsese's 1998 movie, Kundun (which depicts the Dalai Lama's life from childhood to his arrival in India) to follow the concert. On September 19, Glass, who wrote the musical score for Kundun, will perform his own compositions in a program preceding the main address at UB Stadium, as will Nawang Khechog, the Tibetan flutist who frequently performs at events with the Dalai Lama.

THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR UB

“One really can't overstate the significance of the Dalai Lama's visit for UB,” says James V. (“Beau”) Willis, interim executive vice president for finance and operations, chief of staff for UB's president and cochair of the campus steering committee for the visit. “It certainly will be an exciting time to be on campus. But it's also a historic event for the university on many levels—academically, culturally and in terms of our engagement with the broader communities we serve.”

“For us, it's the most complex activity in the international area that we've ever undertaken,” says Dunnett, citing diplomatic concerns, security issues and the demands of responding to the record volume of requests for tickets, information or some form of personal involvement with the occasion. As of March, 3,500 e-mail queries had been received on the Dalai Lama visit Web site (www.buffalo.edu/dalai_lama) to register for electronic newsletters and early-bird ticket information.

And, though most of the planning is centered on three days in September, the campus is already abounding in preparatory cultural and scholarly events. In early March, for example, Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama's principal translator, president of the Institute of Tibetan Classics and editor-in-chief of The Library of Tibetan Classics, gave a thoughtful address at UB about the nuances of Tibetan to English translation, and the cultural and linguistic background needed to convey Tibetan classical scholarship to English-language audiences.

Kunchok Youdon

Kunchok Youdon has encountered the Dalai Lama in her native India, but relishes the opportunity to actually speak to him when he visits UB in September.

“We didn't want it just to be His Holiness comes to Buffalo for a couple of days and that's it,” continues Dunnett. “Instead, we want to prepare our students and the campus community for his visit—that was very important. Inasmuch as it's an academic visit—and the theme is an academic theme—we wanted to have a number of cultural activities before and after the visit. These will take place from now through the end of the year. Mostly, we wish to put the visit into context, so our students will be better prepared.”

As part of this ongoing preparation, Thomas Burkman, director of the UB Asian Studies Program, has been conducting an undergraduate course open to community members, too. Burkman speaks of the affinity many individuals have for the culture and history of Tibet, Buddhism and the story of the Dalai Lama. “What attracts most people to study Tibet is the way in which spirituality colors so many aspects of their society,” Burkman says. “Something in us yearns for a system that for much of the 20th-century was intent on producing more bodhisattvas [individuals destined to become buddhas], not more cars. The class inculcates an appreciation for the inherent value of faith.”

“The Tibetans would say so many Americans are turning to Buddhism because they were Buddhists in previous lives,” says UB law professor Rebecca French, who is organizing the “Law, Buddhism and Social Change” conference on September 20–22 in conjunction with the visit. “We in the West have spent the last 2,000 years working on technological advances—we have been working to create a better plow, a cotton gin, a light bulb or radio. Our entire lives and mental systems are based on hundreds of gadgets that work technologically to change and improve our environment. The Tibetans have spent those same 2,000 years concentrating on their minds, focusing on how to meditate and calm one's mind and how to have happiness in their mind and a sense of peace.”

Organizers are also at work to make the Alumni Arena interfaith service meaningful to the wide range of religious groups expected to participate—among them, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Christian and Native Peoples. “At this point, we're trying to go for an enormous visual that represents the notion of borders that have broken down or get divided,” says Jeannette Ludwig, UB associate professor of romance languages and literatures and cochair of the service. “The idea is that people will come away with not only the awareness that they have heard the Dalai Lama, but also that they have participated in creating—within themselves—a sense that peace is possible.” Ludwig is a practicing Buddhist who also teaches in the UB Asian Studies Program.

“We are dedicating ourselves to having something integral, and truly from each of our hearts beating together, to discern the right word, the right gesture, the right music, the right silence to celebrate the presence of the Dalai Lama in our community and in these times,” adds Rev. Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, head of the Catholic ministry on campus, director of the Office of Campus Ministries and cochair of the service with Ludwig. Rev. G. Stanford Bratton of the Network of Religious Communities, the largest interfaith organization in the community, adds, “We are delighted with the opportunity to share with His Holiness the Dalai Lama a glimpse of the history, character and religious diversity of Western New York.”

THE ROUTE TO AN INVITATION

The pathway to inviting the Dalai Lama—then joyfully receiving his acceptance—was intricate and studded with special moments. To begin with, UB's strength in Asian Studies and its long history in developing exchange agreements with Asian universities was a starting point. “Our name and reputation is very strong in Asia,” Dunnett explains. “And that attracted to UB a number of Tibetan students—Fulbright scholars, in particular. We gave scholarships to many of these Tibetan students because they had been refugees living in India. Among them were members of the Dalai Lama's staff. Then, in 2000, we received a very high Tibetan monk, Geshe Ngawang Jangchup. So we began to attract some Tibetan scholars and Tibetan students, and links were formed.”

Meanwhile, Richard V. Lee, professor of medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics in the UB medical school, was making his own mark. For the past 20 years, Lee has been taking students to northern India, where many Tibetan refugees live in exile. (See sidebar account.) “He has helped with their medical needs at the monasteries and nunneries that are along the border,” Dunnett says. “So UB gradually developed a reputation as an institution that cared about Tibet and was also a center of Asian studies and learning.”

In a parallel development, Shep Gordon, BA '68, president of Alive Enterprises in Kihei, Hawaii, and a member of the board of the Tibet Fund, a not-for-profit in New York City, began to notice posters for prestigious campus speakers while on annual visits to UB as part of the Alumni Visiting Scholar Seminar Series. “Through his teachings and speeches and the way he conducts himself every day, I could see that His Holiness likes to thank people and institutions that come to the aid of the Tibetan people—certainly UB qualifies in that regard,” Gordon says. “The journey began with a letter to the representative of His Holiness in America that was shepherded by Rinchen Dharlo, who is head of the Tibet Fund. Now a dream appears to be coming true.”

According to Dunnett, when Gordon recommended that UB officials formally invite the Dalai Lama for a visit, coincidentally a framework had already been established, increasing the likelihood that His Holiness would accept. “We were thinking along these lines, more that it would be good for our Asian Studies Program, if he were to come and lecture. So on parallel tracks, things began to happen,” Dunnett recalls. When invited for an audience in 2004 as part of the Dalai Lama's appearance at the University of Toronto, Dunnett, accompanied by Lee, presented a formal letter of invitation from Simpson. “I can't quite explain what it was like to be in his presence,” Dunnett recalls. “In my work, I've met kings, prime ministers and presidents. It was so different from what I expected, to be ushered into a very simple room containing a little couch and two chairs, well-used water mugs and a little [privacy] screen. Behind the screen was a modest cot with a Tibetan-type yak blanket on it, where His Holiness rests between audiences, and some fresh flowers. He popped out from behind the screen, and ran over and embraced us, then stood back and peered into my eyes. He's a very charismatic person.”

PREPARATIONS ARE UNDER WAY AT UB

To fully explore the intellectual potential of this visit, incoming UB freshmen will be assigned Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama as the 2006 “UB Reads” selection. In this frank and moving account published in 1990, the Dalai Lama records his life's journey with humility and frequent humor. In another development, a group of media study students directed by Sarah Elder, documentary film- and video-maker and professor of media study, are making plans to document the Dalai Lama's visit and surrounding events in September. “You will see a lot of students with cameras,” says Elder. “I will try for large coverage not just of the speeches, but also the crowds—I will have them shoot in cafés, in dorm rooms—trying to see how [the visit is] impacting the campus.”

As the visit nears, Dunnett frankly admits to some apprehension that everything will proceed smoothly for the Dalai Lama's visit. “We hope we have anticipated everything. We're nervous—I get an upset stomach sometimes. And yet when you're near him … There was all this frenzied activity when I went to Toronto, but it all melted away when I was in his presence. And the people around him were remarkably serene.”

Within his own staff of students and people from 10 countries, Dunnett also discerns excitement and pride, as within the university as a whole. “I think there's a sense of history that this remarkable person is going to come here and talk to us, and spend time with us.”

—Ann Whitcher

Related Reading: The Dalai Lama at a glance, An Inner View of Tibetan Life, Cultural and Academic Focus For His Holiness's Visit, Logistical Planning in Earnest