A Minneapolis sports center was transformed into the epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism on Sunday, when the Dalai Lama participated in his first Tibetan New Year's celebration in the western hemisphere.

About 3,000 Tibetan-Americans from across the country packed a sport facility at Augsburg College, which became something of a Buddhist temple for the day, decked in the maroon and saffron colors traditionally worn by Tibetan Buddhists.

The Twin Cities celebration, which also included a visit to Macalester College, marks the first time since the Dalai Lama went into exile more than 50 years ago that he has celebrated Tibet's most important spiritual holiday outside of India, where he now lives.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for Tibetans," said Phuntsok Tsawog, a spokesman for the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, which co-sponsored the event. "There is no greater honor than to be blessed by him on this historic event."

The Dalai Lama's followers, many in traditional dress, sat elbow-to-elbow on the floors and bleachers and spilled out into the hallways. For Tibetans in exile, seeing the Dalai Lama is akin to Christians getting to meet Jesus, said Ngawang Tara of Richfield, one of the well-wishers in the crowd.

"Any time you see him [the Dalai Lama] is amazing, but it's very symbolic for our culture to have him here on the Tibetan New Year," added Yangsi Rinpoche, a professor of Buddhist studies who was among a group from Portland, Ore.

The Tibetan spiritual leader is currently on a speaking tour in the United States, which included a meeting with President Obama last month. He arrived in the Twin Cities on Friday for a series of events, including the Nobel Peace Prize Forum on Saturday.

But Sunday morning was devoted to a celebration with fellow Tibetans, a morning of traditional ceremony, cultural performances, and words of hope and inspiration.

Seated on a throne in the center of an ornately decorated stage, the Dalai Lama encouraged his followers to uphold their honor and integrity, and to keep alive their language and culture. He spoke in Tibetan.

"His message is about love and compassion and helping out others," said Tsewang Chokden, a Tibetan American foundation volunteer, offering a translation. "He emphasized the Buddhist teaching of interdependency, that everything exists in interdependence. Nothing exists on its own."

50 years in exile

The Dalai Lama has been the glue holding together Tibet's community in exile for more than 50 years. Thousands of Tibetans fled their homeland after the Chinese government occupied Tibet in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, bringing with him an entourage that eventually grew to more than 100,000 and became the base of his government in exile. He has since relinquished his role as a political leader, focusing on work as a spiritual leader and guardian of Tibetan culture.

"When I found out he was coming, there were tears in my eyes," said Tara. "He is like a living Buddha for us. He is our leader."

Minnesota is home to an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Tibetans, the second-largest Tibetan group outside Greater New York City. Minnesota families found themselves hosting family and friends from across the country.

"I have 12 guests," laughed Dawa Tsering, of Columbia Heights, "some from Wisconsin, New York and Toronto."

The New Year's celebration included original song and dance composed by students at the Tibetan Culture School in St. Paul, and a tea ceremony that brought fresh cups of tea and little boxes of rice to the entire crowd in the auditorium.

Eight-year-old Tenzin Tara sang a rousing "Star Spangled Banner" early on. The precocious singer said she'll never forget the day "I got to sing in front of the Dalai Lama."

Tara said she turns to the Dalai Lama when she is feeling down. Her Richfield home has a prayer room, with a photo of him, "and it calms me down when I go in and look at his face," she said.

Political dignitaries were also on hand. The prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, the Harvard-educated Lobsang Sangay, addressed the crowd, as did U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges read a proclamation marking Sunday as a "Dalai Lama Day of Peace and Compassion."

After the Dalai Lama made his way out the door, his followers lined up next to the stage to leave a white scarf on the throne on which he had sat, a ritual meant to bring good luck to their spiritual leader in the year ahead.

Others rolled out rugs on the floor of the sport center, and opened up coolers packed with Tibetan dumplings and other treats. Warm food was also served in the hallway. Children played with old friends and new. And grown-ups were left to reflect on the remarkable day.

"I was so overjoyed when he came in, that when he left it was like feeling empty," said Chokden. "But we hope to see him again."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511