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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2008

Ann Arbor braces for overflow of pilgrims

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader has avoided commenting directly on the Chinese controversies during his tour. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader has avoided commenting directly on the Chinese controversies during his tour.
CARLOS OSORIO / AP Enlarge

ANN ARBOR - Tickets have been sold out for weeks. Hollywood star Richard Gere and Grammy-winning singer Bobby "Don't Worry Be Happy" McFerrin are in town. A group of Chinese students is planning a protest. Scores of people from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, both Buddhist and otherwise, are making the pilgrimage to Crisler Arena.

The buzz is all about the Dalai Lama.

The 72-year-old Dalai Lama, whose closest stop to Toledo besides several previous trips to Ann Arbor was Findlay in March, 1991, will give four lectures this weekend at the arena on the University of Michigan campus.

"I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Dalai Lama. I've always said that if he came anywhere near here that I would make sure to go," said Paula Massey, 46, of Toledo, who converted to Buddhism in 2001.

"I was diagnosed with cancer a year ago next month and have been focusing all my energy on getting well. For me, this will be part of my healing process."

Her husband, Stan Massey, 50, is looking forward to seeing the exiled Tibetan leader for different reasons.

"I'm very much in the Christian camp. Maybe why I'm attracted to him is what he says, what he stands for - personal responsibility, universal harmony, balance among all sentient beings including animals. I think there's something attractive about all of that," Mr. Massey said.

The Dalai Lama will speak on "Engaging Wisdom and Compassion" at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today and 10 a.m. tomorrow, and "Sustainability" at 2 p.m. tomorrow.

Josh Perry, Hillary Folk, and Shane Mendez, juniors at Bedford High School, won a poetry contest and will present their verse to the Dalai Lama during his visit to Ann Arbor. Josh Perry, Hillary Folk, and Shane Mendez, juniors at Bedford High School, won a poetry contest and will present their verse to the Dalai Lama during his visit to Ann Arbor.
Enlarge

All 17,000 tickets for the first three lectures sold out quickly through Ticketmaster at prices ranging from $20 for upper-level seats to $1,000 for two-day VIP passes.

His talk on the environment is a free event; he is delivering the university's annual Peter M. Wege Lecture.

But many students resold the free tickets for $100 or more, said Rimpoche Nawang Gelek, a Buddhist teacher and founder of the Jewel Heart Buddhist center who invited the Dalai Lama to town.

"We are delighted to welcome His Holiness," Gelek Rimpoche said. "His visit will uplift us during difficult times and be like the great fortune of a blue moon for spiritual practitioners of all disciplines."

The Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibet and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, fled Tibet in 1959 after a clampdown by Chinese Communists.

His native land has been in the news lately for violent clashes between Tibetan Buddhist monks and Chinese military in March, and more recently for protests disrupting Olympic torch relays over China's hosting of the Olympic Games this summer.

Some of the violence was sparked by young Buddhist monks who are frustrated that Tibet has been under China's control for more than 50 years.

The Dalai Lama has avoided commenting directly on the controversies during his U.S. tour, which began in Seattle April 10, but he issued a statement in support of China's right to host the Olympic Games.

"I have from the very beginning supported the holding of these games in Beijing," he said. "I feel the Tibetans should not cause any hindrance to the games. It is the legitimate right of every Tibetan to struggle for their freedoms and rights.

"On the other hand, it will be futile and not helpful to anyone if we do something that will create hatred in the minds of the Chinese people."

Gelek Rimpoche said Chinese students at the university who requested a permit to protest should be allowed to demonstrate peacefully.

"We support all nonviolent expression of free speech and expect anyone attending the teaching to respect that right of expression without confrontation," he said.

Jay "Chikyo" Weik, a Toledo-area Zen Buddhist teacher, is going to the Dalai Lama's talk tomorrow afternoon.

"In general, I think he's really doing an excellent job in an impossible situation," Mr. Weik said. "He is trying to lead in a middle way. He's got one group of folks saying we should just rebel and be completely autonomous, and he's got the Chinese on the other side."

Mr. Weik compared the Dalai Lama's broad popularity to that of the late Pope John Paul II.

"I think everybody really loves him. Just like Pope John Paul II was loved and respected by almost all the Christian world and had cross-denominational appeal, in a certain way the Dalai Lama is like that today," he said.

Mr. Weik pointed out that the Buddhist religion, with 370 million adherents worldwide, is diverse in its practices and demographics.

And while not all Buddhist groups believe the Dalai Lama has divine lineage, "everybody recognizes him as special."

A group of about 25 from Toledo that is planning to attend a lecture tomorrow gathered recently at the Sylvania home of Monica Pritchard to discuss the significance of the Dalai Lama and his lectures.

"Most of us inside this group are practicing Christians who embrace and appreciate other religious viewpoints," Ms. Pritchard said.

Last night, Gelek Rimpoche hosted a program on Buddhism and art at Hill Auditorium on the UM campus. The tickets, priced at $5, sold out even before the special guests were announced: Mr. Gere, Mr. McFerrin, and composer and organist Philip Glass.

It was creative talent that opened the door for a Bedford High School student to get a chance to meet the Dalai Lama tomorrow afternoon.

Josh Perry, a 16-year-old Bedford junior, won first prize in a Dalai Lama Poetry Project sponsored by the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District. The winner will present the Dalai Lama with a book of the best student poems, said Zoe Starkweather, one of the contest organizers.

"I'm kind of excited to meet him," young Perry said. "I'm just finding out about him right now."

The student's poem, "House of Peace," will be in the book along with poetry by fellow Bedford High juniors Shane Mendez and Hillary Folk.

"If the way of life of Buddhism is correct, then the Dalai Lama is a pretty important person," young Mendez said. "He's already reached enlightenment and came back to enlighten the rest of the world."

Gelek Rimpoche, who studied with some of the same Buddhist teachers as the Dalai Lama, plans to capitalize on the wave of interest in Tibetan Buddhism he's generated by giving a series of lectures next month on the same topic, "Engaging Wisdom and Compassion."

He will speak in Toledo at 7 p.m. May 10 at Toledo Botanical Garden.

More information is available online at www.dalailama.com and www.jewelheart.org.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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