Prepping for the Dalai Lama

The exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism returns to Tucson

"I am a simple monk."--His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Whether you can feel it or not, Tucson is one of the spiritual centers of the world this week.

For some time, there have been scattered signs. The Loft showed five films about Tibet last week; the Barnes and Noble on Broadway Boulevard set up a table of books and recordings about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. A fragment of a remarkable robe worn by the ninth Panchen Lama, the second-highest religious leader of Tibet, is on display at the Arizona State Museum. (The full robe is made of approximately 20,000 pieces of fur from an estimated 5,000 foxes, sewn together by virgins. You don't see that every day.)

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is here giving a three-day teaching Sept. 16-18 at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass and a public talk at the Tucson Convention Center Arena on Monday, Sept. 19.

This opportunity to see and hear the "Ocean of Wisdom," the incarnate Bodhisattva of compassion, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and religious and political leader of 6 million Tibetans, has drawn of Buddhists and spiritual seekers from all over the country. The more than 2,000 seats for the extended teaching, which is sponsored by Arizona Teachings, sold out last winter. That's right, last winter. Arizona Friends of Tibet, sponsors of the community talk, put more tickets up for sale for that event a couple of weeks ago, because the first 7,000, priced from $10 to $100, were gone. (AFOT is furnishing free front-row tickets to ordained sangha--Buddhist monks and nuns--and other free tickets to students and clients of local nonprofits CODAC and PHASE.)

Along with the pilgrims, a number of well-known Western writers and dharma teachers are also in town: Sharon Salzberg (see sidebar), Yvonne Rand, Lama Surya Das, Lama Palden Drolma, Ajahn Amaro and Norman Fischer will all appear along with former Tucsonan, Venerable Claude d'Estrée, in a panel after the teachings and the public talk.

Local organizations such as the Tucson Community Meditation Center are sponsoring satellite events. D'Estrée, formerly Buddhist chaplain at the UA, has been giving preparatory teachings. (These are available as audio files on the Arizona Teachings Web site,

Longtime Tucsonans may remember that the Dalai Lama has visited Tucson before. The word around town has been that when he came here in 1993--invited by some of the same people who are responsible for this visit--he liked the place and wanted to come back. It's been a point of local pride.

Ken Bacher, vice president and a co-founder of Arizona Teachings, which was formed expressly to handle the first visit, confirmed that he enjoyed his stay, although it's not possible to backtrack to direct quotations from the man himself. The Dalai Lama, rather like the president, or the pope, moves at the center of a crowd of colleagues, friends, assistants and guards, and his true thoughts tend to filter out through them.

The organizers heard that the Dalai Lama found the students well-prepared and appreciated the intimate, campus-like atmosphere created by housing him and as many students as possible in the hotel where the teachings were given. Arizona Teachings has set up this visit the same way.

"Usually, when he does these things, he'll give a talk, and then he and everyone else leaves and comes back the next day. Here, the students stayed together and were able to keep talking in the halls and the restaurants and lobby," said Greg Bender, treasurer of Arizona Teachings.

Said Bacher: "We also heard that while he was here, he felt rested, and his meditation was good. We've worked hard to make it restful for him again this time. And this type of arrangement is also beneficial for the students."

Peggy Hitchcock, co-founder of AFOT and the great lady of Southern Arizona Buddhism, said that many people think the 1993 teachings are the best that he has ever given.

"Because the whole thing was tailored for him. Just like this time--everyone comes to him instead of him having to go to them," she said.

The thoughtfulness of the setup was due, in large part, to the fact that several of the Dalai Lama's longtime students--including Bacher and d'Estrée, plus Howard Cutler, a Phoenix psychiatrist with whom he wrote the bestselling The Art of Happiness--helped make arrangements.

Hitchcock helped make his visit comfortable.

"Most places he goes, his schedule is exhausting. When he was at UCLA a few years back, he flew in, I believe from Dharamsala (his headquarters in India), arrived at the airport and went straight to the Hollywood Bowl to speak. That's typical. And the next year, he was sick. He's in wonderful health for a man his age--all that meditation--but he is 70."

Tucsonans also say that on that earlier visit, our bare, craggy mountains and dry landscape reminded him of Tibet, which he has not been able to enter since he fled in 1959 after a failed rebellion against the Chinese. (The Chinese government just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the "Tibet Autonomous Region." China has suppressed religion and traditional ways in Tibet and moved millions of ethnic Chinese settlers into the country. The Chinese government is currently building a train line from Beijing to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.)

This local urban legend is true, Bacher said. By the time he left town, there was a tacit understanding that he would return. It's been quite a wait.

"For 12 years, we've been trying to get him back," says Jacki Elder, an AFOT board member who's been working on the preparations. She laughed. "It was good that his teaching last time was on patience."

It has taken some doing to bring this transcendently famous, completely singular being back to Tucson, which is, after all, an obscure, medium-sized city in an odd little corner of the United States. The local Buddhist community extended a formal invitation every year, but it was always declined. Last year, they decided to try a different tack, and asked people to write individual letters of invitation.

Elder was one of the letter writers. She attended the 1993 teachings, and in the interim has become an AFOT board member.

"There were, oh, dozens and dozens of letters. We heard the day the bundle was delivered--and it may even have been before they were delivered to the Office of Tibet in New York--that he would come," Elder said.

"My religion is Kindness." --The Dalai Lama

Uncountable hours have gone into preparations for the visit, the arrangements for which are complex and extremely detailed. The other day, the seven-person board of Arizona Teachings met for three hours to go over what would be happening at any given time in every public room at the Marriott. They have registered the 2,000-plus students attending the teachings, arranged for housing and transportation and answered tens of thousands of questions from attendees. They've had to find free housing for the monks and nuns, who have taken a vow of poverty and have no money to pay for a hotel room or meals. Working with AFOT, they've wrangled food, transportation and logistics.

The security alone, according to Elder, has been a nightmare: The Dalai Lama travels with a staff of 14, and since he is a head of state, all arrangements have to be approved by the U.S. State Department. Everyone who enters a room the Dalai Lama is in has to go through a metal detector--and that includes the thousands coming to the public talk. (AFOT suggests that attendees arrive at least an hour before the 3 p.m. talk begins) The sponsoring organizations have had to rent security gates and wands and hire off-duty policemen.

Bender, a former professional artist and builder, has been working full-time on the event for a year. Elder, a mother and a registered dietician with a consulting business, has been putting in at least 10 unpaid hours a week for several months. And Bacher, whose cell phone number was on the first announcement of the visit, and who acts as liaison for the many people and organizations involved, has temporarily gone to part-time in his position as director of the UA's scholarship development office. Hundreds of volunteers have addressed envelopes, answered phones and run errands. More than 40 will work an interfaith luncheon on Saturday alone.

Bacher plans to go to the teachings but sit behind a door.

"I'm also the liaison with the hotel. If someone has a problem with the buffet, I have to go deal with it."

Why work so hard?

The idea, Bacher said, is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to receive the type of traditional oral teaching that Buddhist monks experience in a monastery. The Dalai Lama will explicate and comment on a chapter on meditation in classic Buddhist scripture.

"You must understand," Bacher said, "these are the most valuable teachings a Tibetan Buddhist can receive. The Dalai Lama has the equivalent of the highest possible Ph.D., if you want to put it that way. For one thing, he's been studying since he was 3 years old."

As Elder explained, this could be the last chance for students to receive his teachings in a setting this intimate.

"He's more famous and more in demand every year."

And the man isn't getting any younger. Plus, if Tibet is still under repressive rule by the Chinese when he dies, it is likely that no successor will be found.

His clarity as a teacher is unsurpassed, according to Bender. Although the public talk on Saturday will be in English, the Dalai Lama will do the extended teachings in Tibetan through a translator.

"Tibetan has a much larger spiritual vocabulary than English, and there are many nuances that are difficult to get into English. His English is very good, but not good enough for the precision required for this type of commentary. Another reason is tradition. He is extremely traditional--you might say he's a Buddhist fundamentalist, if there were such a thing. What he gives is the deepest, purest transmission of dharma teachings."

When the Dalai Lama has been asked whether homosexuality is a sin, for instance, he has explained that according to the holy writings, it is. He doesn't go for revisionism. But then he is likely to add that we all have sins, and in the eyes of Buddhism, all sins are equal.

What about the criticism made by some adherents that he dumbs down and flattens Buddhist doctrine when he says, famously, "Kindness is my religion?"

"Look," said Bender, "his work, as he has said many times, is creating peace. In reality, if people are kind, they embody the very essence of what Buddhism stands for. These criticisms come from people who can't see past their own agendas."

When asked the same question, Bacher, who has been a student of the Dalai Lama's since 1984, laughed and said, "Basically, I tend not to judge him."

"I am no one special."--The Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

The Dalai Lama's goal in coming to Tucson? As always, says Bacher, it is to create peace on Earth "one heart at a time." The title of the Dalai Lama's talk at the convention center is "Creating Peace in a Violent World."

"Everything he does truly is for that purpose," he said.

Bacher went on to say that while he was last here, in 1993, Israel and the PLO made a diplomatic breakthrough, and the Dalai Lama sat down and wrote a letter to

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, congratulating them and urging them to continue to negotiate. "This is a beginning," he told them.

"I got to fax it," Bacher laughed. "My little moment in history."

The Dalai Lama believes that violence is a sickness--that when people act violently, they're not well.

"He's coming from that place. He really is."

He literally comes from a place just as hard to reach--a village in eastern Tibet, "the roof of the world." There, in near-isolation beyond the highest mountains on Earth, Buddhist teachings from India fused with local animistic traditions to create a populous, sophisticated and highly ritualized expression of Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, the spirit world fuses with the natural one to create an exotic and fascinating hybrid that's known in the West largely due to the current Dalai Lama's exile and character. (Approximately 40,000 Tibetans followed him into exile. The more than 6,000 monasteries and convents have been largely destroyed, and tens of thousands of Tibetans have died for political reasons under Chinese rule. The Chinese government says that it has brought democracy to the Tibetan people.)

He has not tried to spread his particular faith, however, but has worked to preserve the culture of his country and to create international pressure on China to free Tibet, or at least respect human rights there. His larger mission of fostering peace throughout the world is both an extension of his political aims and an expression of his religion.

He is regarded by Tibetan Buddhists as the actual reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, the divine ancestor of the Tibetan people. According to the account on the official Government of Tibet in Exile Web site, when the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1935, the regent went to a sacred lake where true visions of the future had been seen. (Divination is an important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism.) In the waters, he saw a monastery with a roof of green and gold and a house with turquoise tiles. In 1937, parties of lamas and dignitaries were sent out from the capital, Lhasa, to secretly search the kingdom for such a house near such a monastery. The party that went east found a village and a house that fit the vision and went to the house disguised as servants. The chief lama carried prayer beads that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. Seeing the beads, the 2- (or 3-) year-old son of the family demanded them, saying they were his. He also correctly named the emissaries. After passing these and other tests, he was declared to be the incarnation of the dead man, and was taken to live in the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

No matter what you believe, the Dalai Lama is a singular person. People who have met him describe him as ineffably trustworthy, loving and attentive. He is also said to be lively and curious. Peggy Hitchcock, for example, has criticized his portrayal as a young man in Martin Scorsese's film Kundun as too passive and monotone.

"He gives the impression of tranquility, yes," said Bender. "But there's a great depth of personality there, and a sort of fatherliness. You definitely feel that you ought to take his advice."

There are many stories about the effect he has on people, and he moves through a world that seems hungry for his presence. (The Dalai Lama is not called that by Tibetans; they usually refer to him simply as Kundun, "The Presence.") One account is of a teaching he gave in New York some years ago, where after a day or two, the NYPD cops standing guard in the halls were hugging each other.

"He has that effect even if you don't buy into any of it," Bender said.

Bacher is confident that it will come across even in the community center. "It's a big presence," he said.

When Elder attended his teachings in 1993, she took her child to be blessed by him in a special ceremony he gives wherever he goes:

"I just stood there crying. There was so much love in the room--it was overwhelming. And I sort of turned away, because I didn't want my husband to see that I was crying, but then I looked at him, and tears were running down his face, too."

Bender encountered him much earlier in life:

"My parents were living in India in 1953 when he came through on pilgrimage. No one really knew who he was then, but for some reason, my mother took me to see him. I was 3. That day is so vivid, so detailed in my mind. And I have this wonderful photograph of me in his arms."

Many Tucsonans who don't consider themselves to be Buddhists are excited about his coming. Debra Raeburn, an active member of the Tucson Community Meditation Center, is taking three days off work.

"I wouldn't say I'm Buddhist, although I'm real involved with meditation and Buddhist psychology. It's not a woo-woo religious kind of thing for me. One thing I admire about him is that he can see the validity of both religion and science, that they're two ways of looking at the same thing. I just finished reading his book, Reading the Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. I loved it.

"I still can't imagine actually being in his presence."

Della Estrada, a local acupuncturist and another TCMC member, is also taking off work to go to the teachings.

"It's great to hear philosophical teachings about human kindness. What do I hope for? Inspiration. And you know, I don't have to go to India to see him."

Last week, Hitchcock was looking forward to the visit, too, but was also thinking about the rest of his trip.

"His first stop in the U.S. this time was Alaska, and he was really excited about seeing the mountains and wildlife--especially the grizzly bears." She sighed. "I really hope he got to take half a day off and see some bears."