Dalai Lama visit: The politics of spirituality

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2011 - 11:11 PM
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The Dalai Lama

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The Dalai Lama's visit to Minnesota next week is taking on growing political importance in the wake of Wednesday's announcement that Tibetans worldwide elected a new head of their government-in-exile. He's Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard scholar.

The government has been based in the northern India city of Dharamsala ever since China invaded Tibet in the 1950s. Since the 17th century, the Dalai Lama has maintained roles as Tibet's top spiritual and political leader.

But last November the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, said he was giving up the political role. Although some speculated that was due to age, others say the 75-year-old leader's decision was politically strategic.

China's leaders insist that when this Dalai Lama dies, they will name his successor -- a move Tibetans will likely never accept. During his U.S. visits, the Dalai Lama frequently criticizes China's policies toward Tibet.

But he also tries to build bridges with the Chinese people, in keeping with his spiritual values. During his May 6-9 Twin Cities visit, organizers hope to attract dozens of area Chinese students to one of the events.

The Dalai Lama often meets with governors on state visits, but it's uncertain whether he'll visit with Gov. Mark Dayton. Organizers say that the governor has declined invitations to attend local gatherings with the Dalai Lama, but Dayton's staff said his plans aren't final.

The Dalai Lama's visit is cosponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing and the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota. His time here includes public talks at the U as well as private events.

He'll be staying at the Marquette Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where security will be tight. Even media are being screened by the State Department.

Gyatso became the 14th Dalai Lama at age 15 in 1950 as the Chinese attacked Tibet. He fled to India nine years later. Much to China's chagrin, he's spent his life promoting Buddhist spiritual values and Tibetan autonomy, earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1989.

Many Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama, who trained in a Buddhist monastery, to be the reincarnation of the deity of compassion. His talks to U.S. audiences are typically casual and friendly, conveying his values of tolerance, nonviolence and mindfulness.

A bestselling author of books about happiness, the Dalai Lama also giggles a lot -- so much so that during his 2007 Chicago visit, some affectionately dubbed him "gigglepuss."

Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She covered the Dalai Lama during his 2007 Chicago visit.

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