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Dalai Lama inspires Buddhists, curious alike
Des Moines Register[Monday, May 17, 2010 12:15]
By MIKE KILEN • mkilen@dmreg.com

Many people have only the simplest vision of Buddhism, the one they'll see at the University of Northern Iowa's sold-out arena Tuesday: a smiling, good-natured 74-year-old Tibetan who wears a robe and implores you to live in the moment.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama listens as cellist Michael Fitzpatrick plays as he enters the stage to speak at the Canseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Friday, May 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama listens as cellist Michael Fitzpatrick plays as he enters the stage to speak at the Canseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Friday, May 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
But the Dalai Lama's first visit to Iowa may spark a deeper interest in Buddhism and in the spiritual leader's common-sense ideas on how to live one's life.

Buddhism in Iowa takes many forms, in many cultural traditions. It is practiced in venues varying from a nature lodge in West Des Moines to home basements or temples in Des Moines or meeting rooms at Iowa State University in Ames.

In ISU's Memorial Union on a recent Sunday, a group of seven people in the Ames Karma Kagyu Study Group, which practices one form of Tibetan Buddhism, ended an hourlong chant - slow, tonal and rhythmic - with the ringing of a metal bowl-shaped gong.

"I hope," leader Tim Mullaney said afterward, "you see something other than a New Age chill-out. It's about finding the nature of your mind. It's about finding unconditional love and compassion for everyone else. Even in mental health, your well-being is inseparable from wanting the well-being of everyone else."

Julia Gentlemen of Urbandale has practiced Buddhism for seven years after seeing the Dalai Lama in New York City.

"I didn't understand a word he was saying," she said. "Now I do. It's really a fascinating philosophy."

She was asked to boil the philosophy down, to make it understandable.

"I suppose it is how to live one's life to the benefit of others."

The group in Ames is neither worshiping a supreme being, nor Buddha, nor the Dalai Lama. Yet the man considered to be the face of Buddhism worldwide - but not every Buddhist's spiritual leader - is very special, "a beacon to all who have audience with him," said Mullaney, a psychotherapist from Gilbert.

"In 1989 I saw him in Orange County, California. He entered a room with a panel of psychologists and you could feel a wave of happiness. The air just seemed to crackle. A sense of love filled the room and I'd never sensed anything like it before.

"I don't think there has ever been a being of his attainment, his wisdom, on Iowa soil before."

Buddhists are often a silent population, meeting in small groups, typically tucked quietly in Iowa's largest cities or isolated in rural areas such as near Decorah, where Ryumonji Zen Monastery is one of the few in the Midwest.

Yet the number of Buddhists has nearly tripled nationally since 1990, to 1,189,000, according to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's survey shows that a good part of the growth is from the 23 percent who have switched from another religion.

"People want to believe that such a thing as wisdom, unconditional love and compassion exists," Mullaney said. "They want to be uplifted and attain something higher in life."

Buddhists aren't the only reason that tickets for the Dalai Lama's lecture sold out in one hour.

His books and messages during his travels to 62 countries have struck a chord with people of all faiths, as well as agnostics.

Kristi Marchesani, an international recruiter at the University of Northern Iowa, knew of his wide appeal when she asked members of the Tibet Fund if an Iowa visit was possible.

She thought it was a long shot, and it took two years, but when UNI got the answer last spring, it launched extensive preparations that include detailed security measures.

It also launched community events centered on Buddhism in Cedar Falls, packed with many non-Buddhists.

Jeff Kurtz of Waterloo, an agnostic, said he wanted to learn more about the Dalai Lama because "the world needs more peacemakers."

"I like his message of non-attachment," Kurtz said. "We can't get too wrapped up in our possessions or even our ideas. That sense of right and wrong can lead to unnecessary conflict."

Many of the 80 people who will travel to the Dalai Lama lecture on two buses arranged by Christine McNunn of the Fair World Gallery in West Des Moines aren't Buddhists, either.

Joie Hand, 53, of Urbandale is a Presbyterian. But she has traveled the world with her parents to study holy places and holy people. They listened to the pope at the Vatican, the call to Muslim prayer in Istanbul, Turkey, and the mystics in Sedona, Ariz.

Al and Joie Hand will travel from Florida to join the bus ride and see a humble man who describes himself as a "simple Buddhist monk - no more, no less."

Also on the bus will be Dwight Lykins, 18, a senior at Johnston High School, who read the Dalai Lama's "The Art of Happiness" four years ago and was drawn to the message that the power to accomplish is within him and it is his responsibility to find it.

"When I was 16, the first thing I did was drive to a Buddhist temple," he said.

It helped him through his uncle's death, because "in Buddhist teaching you don't fear death." And meditation helped him stay calm while he coped with stress from school and a job.

"I have a Buddhist mantra tattooed on my back in Tibet script," he said. "I say it every day to center myself - Om Mani Padme Hum."

The chants and terminology might confuse others.

There are numerous branches and teachers of Buddhism, many originating from Asian cultures. All look to the teachings of Buddha, however. He was a man who found enlightenment nearly 2,600 years ago and described the way toward it.

Buddhists believe it is achieved through "the four noble truths," said James Robinson, a UNI associate professor of religion: "that all life will involve suffering; that the cause of our suffering is our desires; that there is a way out; and the way to achieve that is through the eightfold path."

The eightfold path involves morality, meditation and insight. On that path, "you don't avoid your desires, you dissolve them and start growing in wisdom and insight."

"Basic Buddhism can be seen as basic psychology," Robinson continued. "The Dalai Lama is responding to a very human need - to try to gain some peace and calmness and express some compassion to one another."

Modern self-help gurus who write best-sellers about recognizing the damage of negative thoughts and so-called positive psychology mirror Buddhist philosophies. Academics say new treatment models for mental health issues also match Buddhist philosophies.

Educational psychologist Suzanne Freedman was surprised after studying the Dalai Lama's writings. The UNI professor found they matched up almost identically to the model of forgiveness she teaches.

"I see his message is that just because someone acts in a way toward you doesn't mean you have to act the same," she said.

The Dalai Lama's appeal for many emanates from those ideas of forgiveness. Here is a man exiled from Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese took over, yet he has rarely spoken ill of them.

"He has taught me so much in life about tolerance and being compassionate," said Yeshi Lama, a UNI graduate student from Tibet who met the Dalai Lama while teaching in Tibetan schools in India.

"When I get angry and develop hatred, before I go to sleep I make myself calm down," she said. "Even when I meet Chinese students and I know they are my enemies, I click on a YouTube (video) of His Holiness and I feel better."

Today, her best friend is a Chinese student.

It may sound heartwarming and gooey feel-good. But those who practice Buddhism in Iowa say it's hard work.

"We all come seeking some dramatic change in our lives," said Bruce Espe, who leads a group of Zen Buddhists who gather in Des Moines every Sunday.

"In our culture, we are geared toward instant gratification and immediate fixes. That's not there in Buddhism. So a lot of people come and go; for every 100 interested only one sticks."

The practice typically involves meditation to reach an awareness of emotions and thoughts so as not to let them rule the moment.

"As a young man who had to flee the country where he was the spiritual leader, he had a lot to deal with. How would we handle that kind of stress?" Espe asked. "His message is slowing down and looking at your life, exploring our clinging and delusions and recognizing them, and deciding to love."

You can read all the books you want, but at some point "it becomes eating the menu," Espe said. "Buddhist practice is getting down to ground level and examining what is going on in your life - and that's what meditation is about."

For Deborah Guthrie, whose Soka Gokki Buddhist group meets at the Raccoon River Park Nature Lodge in West Des Moines, it starts with an inner transformation in meditation, which eventually flows to home and community.

"We all have Buddha nature in the depths of our lives," she said. "Great teachers come along to be exemplars of that. The Dalai Lama is one."

Dalai Lama events

• Panel Discussion: "A Conversation with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet: Educating for a Non-Violent World."

When: Tuesday, 9:30-11 a.m., McLeod Center. Doors open at 8:15 a.m. and close at 9:15 a.m.

Tickets: $15 (plus $2 handling). Available at all UNItix locations, by phone at (319) 273-4849, or online at www.unitix.uni.edu.

• 2009 Joy Cole Corning Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series Keynote Address: "The Power of Education" by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

When: Tuesday, 2-3:30 p.m., McLeod Center. Doors open at 12:30 p.m. and close at 1:45 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out.

• Art-in-progress on display

What: A Yamantaka mandala will be constructed in the lobby of the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center at UNI through Wednesday.

Mandalas are geometric patterns laid out with compasses and chalk lines and then filled in with colored sand. The artwork will depict the palace of the Buddhist deity Yamantaka, conqueror of death.

Two Tibetan monks, Gedun Kalsang and Jampa Thuten, from the Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery in Minneapolis, will construct the mandala. Geshe Thupten Dorjee, from the Tibetan Cultural Institute at the University of Arkansas and a visiting scholar at UNI this spring, will preside over the opening and closing ceremonies.

See the Dalai Lama on Tuesday

IN CEDAR FALLS: Get tickets for a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama on Tuesday morning. Tickets for the afternoon keynote address are already sold out.

FROM YOUR DESK: Tuesday's events will be livestreamed at live.uni.edu.
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