His Holiness The Dalai Lama 

Putting Buddhism and Tibet on the map 



Putting Buddhism, Tibet on the map

August 26, 1999 Chicago Sun Times (CST)

The Dalai Lama is on a roll. His book The Art of Happiness has spent 31 weeks on the best-seller list. This week, his new release, Ethics for the New Millennium, became his second title in the top 10.

Born Tenzin Gyatso, his epic life--from a 2-year-old Tibetan selected as the 14th reincarnation of a highly evolved holy figure to Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader-in-exile--has yielded two Hollywood movies and several television specials.

Followers of all stripes--beyond the estimated 130,000 displaced Tibetans and the high-profile devotees such as actor Richard Gere whose foundation helps the Tibetan cause--queue up for the 64-year-old teacher.

Hundreds of tickets for his holiness' Saturday visit to the Field Museum, costing up to $75 apiece, sold out within a day of going on sale earlier this month. In New York, where decades ago the Dalai Lama walked the streets unnoticed, a crowd estimated at 40,000 gathered on Aug. 15 in Central Park to hear him teach. Thousands paid $375 apiece to attend his 10-day blessing concluding Friday in Bloomington, Ind.

He is, some say, as universally recognized as Pope John Paul II or Michael Jordan. Why is this maroon-robed Buddhist monk who lives in India so popular?

He is clearly the most visible representative of Buddhism. Experts said it is difficult to peg the exact number of practitioners of about half a dozen strains of Buddhism begun about 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese nobleman who attained enlightenment before his death around 480 B.C. While historians disagree about all the facts of his life, he left behind an organization which thrives, and adapts, to the present.

Former Manchester University professor L. S. Cousins, writing in A New Handbook of Living Religions, estimated that there are about 125 million adherents of Southern Buddhism, another 10 million to 20 million of Northern (including Tibet) and a vast membership among the 1.5 billion population in a region including China (where religions have been repressed) and Japan. The exact number is hard to peg, because practitioners can overlap with Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or local cults.

"Buddhism has always coexisted with other religious practices," Cousins wrote.

The Dalai Lama frequently urges listeners, including those at Central Park, to practice their own faiths. He is not out to convert people.

In truth, there are probably less than 1 million Tibetan Buddhists outside of Tibet, "which is small for a denomination, but it has been growing," said Paul Griffiths, a professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Chicago.

Part of the Dalai Lama's appeal comes from his own personality, not just his message.

"He can speak as a prophetic voice for nonviolence . . . and he actually is an unusual human being and he is an unusually smart, clever person who is genuinely compassionate and sincere," Griffiths said. "He can meet people--intellectuals or common folks--on their own terms."

Humor, even playfulness, enhance his appearances. Brahma Das, the founder of World Tibet Day--an annual event to focus attention on the struggles of the mountain nation--said that during the lama's recent talk at Central Park, which took place under overcast yet pleasant skies, he looked upwards at one point, smiled, and said, "Even the clouds are well-disciplined."

Then, too, he exudes his own steadfast example of nonviolent resistance.

"There's a bit of the underdog about him which appeals to Americans," said Nina Schroeder of Glencoe, one of the founders here of the Tibetan Alliance, which is co-sponsoring his visit here.

The Dalai Lama has suffered through unhappiness, having fled Tibet in 1959 amid an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

He has not been back, yet has been active in trying to pursue a "middle route" with China that would grant Tibet autonomy, allowing him to return to his homeland.

Still, those who know him insist he bears no hostility toward the Chinese people.

"He does what he does in the name of preserving a culture. I've never met anyone who has said his message is wrong," said Schroeder, who along with her husband first met the Dalai Lama at a reception in New York in 1987.

The nonprofit Tibetan Alliance, which serves the Tibetan community, was key in participating in a resettlement of Tibetan refugees, bringing 100 exiles here in 1990. The small core in exile has grown to about 250. To them, the Dalai Lama exists at the center of their universe.

"He is our sun. When we see him, we get recharged," said Sherab Gyatso, a former member of the Tibetan government-in-exile who has lived in Chicago for 16 months. "Before him, nobody knew about Tibet.

"Now they know about us--and I feel eventually, communism will fall apart and democracy will return."


WTN-L World Tibet Network News 


Back to the Main page