Dalai Lama plans visit to promote Buddhism
The Wishfulfilling Gem is coming to Medford.
Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, more commonly known as the Dalai Lama, is planning a four-day visit to Greater Boston in September as part of his first trip to Massachusetts in five years.
The Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, is planning to bless a new temple in Medford that has become a religious center for Boston's small community of Tibetans, and will participate in a two-day conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with scientists who have been attempting to quantify the effects of meditation by monitoring Buddhists' brains. The Dalai Lama also plans to meet with students and faculty at Harvard, and to give a public talk to as many as 13,000 at the FleetCenter.
The Sept. 12-15 visit to Boston is part of a sweep through the United States that will also take the Dalai Lama to San Francisco, Bloomington, Ind., Washington, D.C., and New York City. Scholars say the Dalai Lama has maintained a heavy travel schedule in recent decades in an effort not only to teach Buddhism, but also to call attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, many of whom have been living in exile since an unsuccessful revolt against China in 1959.
The visit will highlight the Buddhist community in Boston and the growing role played by Tibetan Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that has become increasingly popular in the United States after decades in which Westerners were more focused on Zen Buddhism and Vipassana meditation, according to John Makransky, an associate professor of theology at Boston College.
There are now about 50 Buddhist communities in Greater Boston, many of them meeting in private homes, as well as a Buddhist publishing house, Wisdom Publications, and scholars of Buddhism at the city's major universities. The president of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, Janet B. Gyatso, was recently hired by Harvard Divinity School as its first chair of Buddhist studies. One of the nation's largest collections of Tibetan works, the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center, is located in North Cambridge.
"The Dalai Lama certainly is trying to represent the plight of the Tibetan people, and wants to keep that alive, but he also comes very much as a Buddhist teacher who quite enthusiastically wants to contribute to the larger conversation about ethics and religious values by contributing Buddhist perspectives and ideas," Gyatso said. "There is a great fascination with Tibet as an exotic and mysterious place, and Hollywood has exaggerated that, but his importance far precedes Hollywood's discovery of Tibet."
The Dalai Lama has visited Boston three times previously, in 1991, 1995, and 1998. On his most recent visit, he drew about 7,000 people at Brandeis University, and scalpers were offering tickets to a speech he gave at more than five times their face value. At his FleetCenter event, tickets will range in price from $18 for the balcony to $2,500 for priority seating there and at the MIT conference.
"He attracts sellout crowds regardless of where he goes because of his charisma - people like to see his smile and they just like being around him, because he exudes this aura of niceness," said Frank J. Korom, an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Boston University who has written on the plight of Tibetan refugees.
The centerpiece of the Dalai Lama's visit to Boston will be a two-day conference at MIT on the workings of the mind. This will be the 11th meeting between the Dalai Lama and scientists interested in the brain, and the first open to the public.
"The focus of this meeting is to explore avenues for collaborative research between science and Buddhism," said Adam Engle, the chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, which has sponsored each of the Dalai Lama's sessions with scientists. "There is a recognition that science is the dominant paradigm for understanding the nature of reality and bettering people's lives in the West, and Buddhism has 2,500 years of history investigating those things."
Engle said that scientists have become more interested in working with Buddhists since the advent of imaging technology, which has allowed neuroscientists to monitor the brains of meditators.
Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, the Nobel Prize-winning director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, said he has high hopes for the meeting, which he said will draw some "outstanding" scholars of cognitive science and psychology.
For local Buddhists, the more intriguing event is the Dalai Lama's plan for a brief swing through Medford to bless the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, which was established in 1989 but met for years in members' homes and in a Quaker meetinghouse before purchasing and converting a former nursing home two years ago. The Kurukulla Center was established by Western Buddhists, but has become increasingly popular as a place of worship for the small community of approximately 400 Tibetan exiles living in Boston.
"The Dalai Lama's visit is hugely significant for the growth of Buddhism in Boston and also extremely auspicious for local Tibetans," said Wendy Cook, the director of the Kurukulla Center. Cook, who said the Medford center has an e-mail membership of 750 people and draws 50 to 70 people a week, said she expects the Dalai Lama will bless Buddhist statues in the temple, and accept a traditional gift of sweet rice during his visit.
According to the Dalai Lama's representative in the United States, there are about 5,000 Tibetans living in this country. Scholars say they don't know how many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism live here, particularly because many Americans adopt practices of Buddhism but do not convert.
While in the United States, he will participate in an interfaith memorial service for the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and will try to meet with US political leaders in Washington. He will also conduct Buddhist teachings in Central Park. His aides are increasingly using the Internet to spread word about the Dalai Lama's thoughts - his Boston visit has its own website, www.dalailamaboston.org.
The Dalai Lama, 67, is believed by his followers to be a manifestation of the Buddha of compassion, and a reincarnation of 13 previous Dalai Lamas. His full name means "Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, and Ocean of Wisdom," and Tibetans refer to him as either the Wishfulfilling Gem or The Presence. In 1959, he led about 80,000 Tibetans into exile in India, where he now leads a government in exile in Dharmsala.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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