Excitement building for Dalai Lama visit

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH and ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune Staff Writers
  • Updated: May 5, 2011 - 3:01 PM

Members of Minnesota's large Tibetan community await the Dalai Lama's return to Minnesota at a time of historic change.

Thousands of Tibetans will descend on the Twin Cities this weekend to witness the return of the Dalai Lama.

It's been 10 years since his last major visit to Minnesota, which boasts the second largest Tibetan community in the country after New York.

His return comes at a time when the 75-year-old leader-in-exile is preparing his followers for his passing.

Last month, the Dalai Lama announced that he will relinquish his role as the Tibetan exiled nation's political leader, handing over power to a newly elected prime minister. Last week, Tibetans worldwide elected Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard legal scholar, to become the next prime minister.

The Dalai Lama will remain the exiled nation's spiritual leader.

His reduced political role doesn't curtail the enthusiasm of Minnesota Tibetans for his visit.

"He is still going to be the reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion," said Namgyal Dorjee, who is on the board of directors of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota. "So our belief and our faith in him will remain the same."

TAFM is co-hosting the Dalai Lama's visit, along with the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing.

Dubbed "One Heart, One Mind, One Universe," the event coincides with the official launch of the Tibetan Healing Initiative at the U, said Tony Baisley, communications director for the center.

For the past eight years, the center has offered graduate courses in traditional Tibetan medicine, which bring students to India annually to visit practitioners.

The initiative will include research on the benefits of blending Tibetan healing with conventional health practices and integrating Tibetan practices into regional clinic and hospital settings.

'Everybody's excited'

Among those looking forward to being in the Dalai Lama's presence is Thupten Dadak, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk who is considered the patriarch of the local Tibetan community.

He arrived in Minnesota in 1986, and was one of just two Tibetans living here at the time.

In 1990, after federal lawmakers passed a resolution authorizing 1,000 immigration visas for Tibetans in India and Nepal to come to the United States, Dadak worked to make sure that Minnesota would become one of seven designated resettlement sites.

The first wave began arriving in the Twin Cities in 1992. Today, there are an estimated 8,500 Tibetans living in the U.S., including between 2,500 and 3,000 in Minnesota.

As the day draws closer to the Dalai Lama's arrival, local Tibetans have been practicing day and night the songs and dances they will perform when they see him, Dorjee said.

"Everybody's excited," he said. "We've had a lot of phone calls from people from Madison, Chicago, Indiana. They ask about tickets. It's also a family gathering time for them as well."

Minneapolis theater producer Markell Kiefer and her company TigerLion Arts and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts will present the world premiere of "KIPO!" a circus of spirit, song and dance from Tibet.

The performance, which opens Friday and runs through May 22 at the university's Rarig Center, features a 20-person ensemble from the India-based performing arts institute founded by the Dalai Lama.

Kiefer, 37, a lifelong Tibetan Buddhist, said she's been working on KIPO! since 2007 and has tried for years to get the Tibetan performers to Minneapolis.

"It's kind of a hard to believe ... because we've been dreaming about it happening for so long," Kiefer said. "But the opportunity to perform alongside and in concert with his holiness' visit is just an incredible honor."

Kiefer briefly met the Dalai Lama during his visit 10 years ago.

"I was lucky enough to have him grab my hand for an extended period of time," she said. "As he was walking, he continued to hold it for a while, and then I finally had to let go. It felt like a huge, warm rush of love through my whole body."

Tibet's future?

The 14th Dalai Lama was recognized at the age of 2, continuing a line of political and spiritual leaders spanning six centuries. He has lived in exile in India since 1959, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his campaign to end Chinese rule in his homeland.

Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, notes that a Dalai Lama has never died in exile, and there will likely be anxiety at his passing.

"There will be consensus among the Tibetans that the person who is chosen by the party that goes out to search for the new child from the exiled community will find the next Dalai Lama," he said. "The big question is whether that person will be accepted by China as the next Dalai Lama, and it will probably will not be."

That will likely set up a scenario of rival Dalai Lamas -- one recognized by China and the other, by Tibetans.

In shedding his political role, the Dalai Lama is trying to prepare for his passing, though Lopez said such a move would have little immediate effect.

"His counsel will be sought in all matters of state and religion and anything having to do with the Tibetan cause," Lopez said of the Dalai Lama. "His voice will remain very powerful within the community."

The writers are at ashah@startribune.com and rose.french@startribune.com

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