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The Dalai Lama Vists Chicago

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The Dalai Lama Vists Chicago

Photo by David Phillips

Yeshy Dramagang is president of the Tibetan Alliance, the group that invited the spiritual leader to Chicago.

Ever since the Dalai Lama accepted the invitation Dramagang and other Tibetans have been preparing to to meet the man who represents both their spiritual and political homeland.

DRAMAGANG: The first thing I’m going to ask Dalai Lama is about his health. Make sure he’s healthy because we Tibetans pray for Dalai Lama to live for thousands and thousands but in one’s human life thousands of years is not possible. Very clear understanding. But we pray like that.

In Dramagang’s living room in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, there hangs a large photograph of the Dalai Lama. Along the top of the frame is a white silk scarf, known as a Kata, a sign of respect. And next to the picture, in a china cabinet...

DRAMAGANG: Actually the altar is right there, the statue of Buddha At the food of his Buddha statute there are some nuts and a coconut left as an offering.

Dramagang points to other figures representing various idols--to wealth and long life. This shrine also has some unexpected dieties.

BILL CLINTON As a community we loosely refer to the West as an idea. It has no fixed frontiers. It stretches as far as the frontiers of freedom can go.

Yes, that’s a talking Bill Clinton doll.

DRAMAGANG: You know we respect him. He’s a very good leader of the United States. (reporter:) Is that a picture of you with Richard Gere? Yes! Richard Gere and this is Richard Gere in Tibet Center in New York City.

A shrine that includes the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, the Buddha and Bill Clinton demonstrates the Tibetan community’s desire to hold on to the old ways along with an embracing of American culture. But that embrace can be awkward and even create inner turmoil, says 29-year old Tensin Choden Wangel. She came to the U-S in 1992 and now works at a private real estate equity firm.

WANGEL: In fact since I’ve immigrated here, I’ve realized how much I’ve changed. When I get in an elevator I’m pushing the buttons because no one else can stop me from getting up faster.

Wangel says this lack of serenity is something she first noticed after hearing the Dalai Lama speak in Chicago a few years ago.

WANGEL: So it’s almost as if he holds a mirror to my face and tells me we need to be more compassionate. See yourself and work on improving.

Wangel says the Dalai Lama is known for his teachings about compassion. But she believes many people don’t quite understand what he actually teaches about this ideal.

WANGEL: Compassion is not just compassion to others. It’s compassion to yourself also. If you are compassionate to yourself, there is more chances for your to find inner peace.

Wangel was born in India and now lives in Chicago. So she thinks of the Dalai Lama has her connection to a homeland she can’t visit because of the Chinese occupation. But for other Tibetan exiles, his appearance here is an emotional reunion.

SANFIL: That makes me remember my birthplace. You know I was born in Tibet. He represents Tibet as a whole.

Norbu Sanfil was one of the first Tibetan refugees resettled in the Chicago area. In the fifteen years since he arrived, he says he’s never seen so much anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s visit. And he was especially amused when he learned a group of evangelical Christians is planning to prostlytize the more than 11,000 people anticipated at the Dalai Lama’s appearance this Sunday. Sanfil smiles and says he finds this idea of conversion quite strange.

SANFIL: There is no history that Buddhist people went out to some other people and tried to convert them to Buddhism. So we have never tried.

The Dalai Lama may stir controversy when it comes to other religions and especially when it comes to raising awareness of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But Mayank Chhaya, writer of the authorized biography Dalai Lama: Man, Monk, Mystic, says the real challenge posed by the Tibetan spiritual leader is not political or religious, but much more intimate.

CHHAYA: A lot of people talk about external disarmament. He believes in internal disarmament. Unless you begin to disarm within your own mind, everything else you be becomes irrelevant.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s North American Tour concludes with this Sunday’s events in Millennium Park. Money raised from ticket sales will go toward building a Tibetan Cultural Center in Chicago. Such a place would allow the more than 300 Tibetan exiles who live in the area to feel connected to each other, to their religion and to their homeland. I’m Jason DeRose, Chicago Public Radio.

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