Madison, WI. USA, 19 July 2008 (By Tom Heinen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) - Seated cross-legged onstage in a large upholstered chair, one of the world's best-known religious leaders delivered his trademark messages of compassion, peace and unity with typical humor, verve and humility Saturday afternoon.
In response to a written question from the audience about Tibetan culture being strong enough to still mount widespread demonstrations against Chinese rule this year, he also ventured into the political arena.
"I want to make clear. We always respect the Chinese people, not the Chinese government," he said, to loud applause, adding that the uprisings were pro-freedom, not anti-Chinese.
For the more than 7,000 people in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum who gave him standing ovations, he was, of course, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet.
He also was the same man Chinese authorities have labeled a wolf in monk's clothing, accusing him, among other things, of having a hand earlier this year in the strongest uprisings against Chinese rule in Tibet in decades. And then there were attempts by demonstrators to disrupt the Olympic torch run in Europe and the United States as China prepared to host the Summer Olympics next month.
The Dalai Lama has disavowed having anything to do with the uprisings and protests.
In his response to questions Saturday, he stressed that Tibetan culture is stronger than Chinese culture. He jested at one point that some Chinese have taken to the Western practice of dyeing their hair. But he also praised the Chinese for their food, their work ethic and other qualities.
Introduced by Gov. Jim Doyle and Wisconsin Public Radio show host and physician Zorba Paster, the Dalai Lama was making his seventh visit to Madison. The Buddhist leader told the crowd he had a genuine feeling of friendship in Madison, and well he might.
Madison has been a seat of Buddhist learning since Tibetan monk Geshe Sopa came here in 1967 to teach Buddhist studies and became the first Tibetan tenured professor in the U.S. Under Sopa’s guidance, the Deer Park Buddhist Center south of Madison, near Oregon, grew into a major Buddhist teaching center, monastery and repository for sacred Tibetan texts.
On Saturday morning, the Dalai Lama consecrated the center's new $6.1 million Tibetan-style temple.
Four upcoming days of public teachings by the 73-year-old Dalai Lama at the Coliseum, and other activities, will culminate on Thursday with an elaborate ceremony in which Tibetans will wish him a long life. This will be the first time that the ritual, called a tenshug, has been performed in the West.
Sometimes difficult to understand because of his accent and lilting tones, he and his persona are as much of the appeal at general public talks as his words. Maybe more so.
"Im actually kind of glad that his English is not as polished because I think that the message then is more easily understood by more people," said Kat Lui, 49, of Elk Mound, who acknowledged that she couldn't catch all of the talk. "And so, when he says things like good sleep and good food (are the source of his strength), we understand that."
Seated next to her, Michelle Hamilton, 52, of Menomonie added, "he brings the concepts down to a more rudimentary level."
For Lobsang Khechok, 41, an electrical engineer from Calgary, Alberta, the medium was the message.
"It's my third time seeing him (this year)," said Khechok, who heard him speak earlier in London and Seattle. "And every time I see him, to be honest, the public talks are almost all similar messages. But the main reason we come here is to be in his presence and to feel a part of his blessing. We consider him the political head and the spiritual leader."
There also are strong cultural reasons why Khechok flew to Madison with his mother, his wife, their son, 8, daughter, 12, and extended family members.
Tibetans have a long history and a deep spiritual tradition, and they want to protect them, especially with "the onslaught of the Chinese government," Khechok said.
"Tibetans would consider the Dalai Lama a living god, although he would definitely shy away from that. But Tibetans love him.
"That relationship is in a way passed down through my generation. And that's why I bring my kids, even though I was born in exile and grew up and was educated in the West," he said. "I still want to keep that cultural identity in the Tibetan diaspora, so that, whether Tibet becomes free or not, at least within my family, Tibetanness stays strong."