CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Northeastern Iowa has embraced all things Dalai Lama for the past several months.
Meditation workshops, chats with Buddhist monks and film screenings have introduced University of Northern Iowa students and community members to the Tibetan spiritual leader's philosophies and faith. That preparation will pay off Tuesday when the 74-year-old spiritual leader speaks on campus about the importance of education.
Tickets for his keynote address were snatched up within hours of going on sale in January. Additional seats made available this spring sold out in minutes.
“We were anticipating a demand, but I think the quickness with which the tickets were sold was a surprise,” said Jan Hanish, assistant vice president for outreach and special programs.
“The majority of people are from the Cedar Valley, but we also got calls from people in Boston; Monterey, Calif.; New Jersey; Arizona. … People from all over are coming to hear his holiness speak.”
For several attendees, the visit represents much more than an opportunity to snap a photo with an international figure. Though only 1 percent of Americans practice Buddhism, the Dalai Lama -- who preaches love and empathy for all living beings -- has developed a rock star following among Westerners.
“To have his holiness come here is just phenomenal,” said Jeannie Steele, a professor of curriculum and instruction who led a spring semester course examining Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
“It's an enormous honor. It's impossible, I think, to explain exactly how strongly I and so many others feel. It will be an honor to be in his presence,” Steele said.
Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara: the bodhisattva, or “enlightened being,” of compassion. However, the spiritual leader, while accepting the title, prefers to refer to himself as “a simple monk.”
The Tibetan was born Lhamo Thondup and, as a toddler, was recognized as the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In 1950, at age 15, he assumed spiritual and political leadership of his homeland when the mountainous region was invaded by neighboring China. He fled to India nine years later during a period of unrest.
Since then, the Dalai Lama's legacy has been defined by his life in exile. He developed a school system to preserve Tibetan culture and religion in diaspora and has crossed the globe promoting autonomy for his people.
“He travels around the world, making the case the best he can for those Tibetans who remain behind in Tibet and those who are living in exile,” Sidney Burris, a visiting UNI professor and Dalai Lama expert, said in an online seminar earlier this month.
“The strategies he employed during that time mark him as being one of the most skillful and adroit statesmen certainly the 20th century, and now the 21st century, has ever seen.”
Although the Chinese government disputes the claim, Amnesty International reports that Tibetans today suffer a variety of human rights abuses, including torture, prolonged detention and imprisonment. Press access to the region is restricted by the Chinese government, and several hundred people who rallied for independence in the run-up to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 remain unaccounted for, according to a January report from Human Rights Watch.
Yet the Dalai Lama's political philosophies, derived from Buddhist teachings and his experiences as a refugee, are in the vein of those preached by nonviolent activists Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
While other diplomats hammer out detailed peace provisions, the Dalai Lama calls for a worldwide revolution of love and compassion. If all humans learn to respect and practice benevolence toward one another, matters such as the human rights abuses documented in his homeland would cease to exist, he says.
Secular values, including forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline, have the power to change the world, he preaches.
“Today we are so interdependent, so closely interconnected with each other, that without a sense of universal responsibility, a feeling of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, we cannot hope to overcome the dangers to our own existence, let alone bring about peace and happiness,” the Dalai Lama wrote in 1984. Five years later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“His message is very universal,” said Tselha Williams, a Tibetan who was born in India and now lives in Waterloo, Iowa, with her husband, Mike. “You don't have to be a Buddhist to understand his message of peace and love and compassion. It's very practical.”
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to be in Cedar Falls for several days and will address more than 4,000 people Tuesday during a morning panel discussion titled “Educating for a Nonviolent World” at the McLeod Center on the UNI campus. A sellout crowd of roughly 5,400 will be on hand for his afternoon keynote address: “The Power of Education.”
UNI President Benjamin Allen extended a speaking invitation to the Dalai Lama two years ago when the spiritual leader visited Madison, Wis. The Cedar Valley institution was likely selected for a visit because of its strong teacher training program and in recognition of the handful of Tibetan students who study at the university each year, he said.
“Those are things that are important to us and they're important to him,” Allen said.
“His main message, more than anything else, is education,” Steele said. “He says the delusions that grow out of ignorance are the cause of our unhappiness. Without knowledge, how can you understand the world around you?”
The Dalai Lama's own education came at a cost. For centuries, his people remained isolated in the Himalayan mountains. When the Chinese government took control of the region more than 50 years ago, the teenage Dalai Lama was thrust onto the world stage.
Through observation and experience he learned the art of diplomacy, becoming a voice not only for his people but for all those suffering across the globe.
“He lost his home but has been embraced by a much larger community,” said Mike Williams, Tselha's husband, who visited Tibet in the 1990s.
“He speaks to the commonalities of humanity. “He gives people hope for a better world.”