Lama-palooza I: Rock star

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama arriving in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on May 17, 2010. Photo by Christy Pollock.

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — I got this close to the Dalai Lama (spread hands about four feet) last week. If you can get that close, he might bless you, shake your hand, lift your khata (ritual silk scarf) from your neck and replace it or some combination. In this surprisingly small band of about 18 — not a Clintonesque rope line of hundreds — only about four received such a greeting. Some of we 14 later expressed disappointment, but most were like me, just delighted by the proximity.

I gained no instant revelation from the “almost” and, being rational most of the time, I am confident none would have come from direct contact, any more than my writing improved after Salman Rushdie the other year signed my copy of The Satanic Verses, or how last month at the local library Mel Bartholomew shook my hand and signed his revised Square Foot Gardening for me. Yesterday I saw a rabbit eye the lettuce in my raised bed, because he can’t read.

Yet something electric began, outside the performance auditorium of the University of Northern Iowa, about 2:15 p.m. CDT Monday, May 17, 2010. The overall visit embedded something vital. This Brick, Lama-palooza I, along with Lama-palooza II and Lama-palooza III, will consider this roundabout couple of days only as straightforwardly as needed. [The running title refers to the Lollapalooza music fest, due to the celebrity aspects of His Holiness on a U.S. speaking tour.]

Plus, what am to do with the notes I took? The jottings could be fashioned into news articles. All would be better off reading the regional Des Moines Register’s accounts of the the Dalai Lama’s morning panel and afternoon speech or the robust coverage by the local Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, which even posted videos. [I’ll looked at them after posting my three columns.]

My Beloved and I drove from Arkansas, combining a hometown Iowa visit for MB with two hours further to UNI, also her alma mater. University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Adjunct Instructor Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan monk (“geshe” corresponds to Ph.D. in Tibetan education), and his sponsor, English Professor (also Fulbright Honors Program Director) Sidney Burris, every fortnight for months have traveled here to teach Buddhist religion and Tibetan culture, and advise administration and faculty on the pending holy visit. MB has gotten close to the two men and the spiritual group they lead; sometimes I tag along. Due to the duo, perhaps 20 other Northwest Arkansans carpooled to Cedar Falls as well. News that the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak at UA next May was confirmed only recently, after everyone’s travel plans were set.

Geshe advised us by phone to be outside the drama and music auditorium — the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, as the UNI Development Office fondly calls it, but signage and students call it the GB-PAC, catchy — at 2 o’clock. This, an invitation-only donors reception, was to be the first stop of His Holiness. One Arkie wagon had not yet arrived. I hoped my bow tie would help, but none of us got in. Security was Secret Service tight, standard in the U.S. for the Dalai Lama. The sand mandala was in the glass-walled lobby, near the string quartet and the canapes and beverages.

Geshe and Sidney were inside. At 2:15, area traffic signals were frozen. Police cars came out of nowhere to block side streets. Earlier, I walked around the building and saw that halfway around was where the main vehicles would stop. I could be wrong, but living in Little Rock in the ’90s, you get a sense, seeing how things looked when Bill Clinton was home. I ended up half-right.

We 18 jogged to follow the motorcade to the entrance, plainclothes state and uniformed local keeping an eye on us but not scarily so. They got more in-face on his exit (on the side we first were on), but never unkindly.

The Dalai Lama rode in a black sport utility vehicle, flanked by black Lincolns, all three with Illinois plates. Behind them were some five sedans of various colors, with Iowa plates. My guess is there’s a Secret Service regional office in Chicago and these main vehicles were sent from there.

This was over in a minute. We ended up in three little rows on the curb. The Dalai Lama left the SUV and came over. A little shorter than expected, yet not a small man. Someone later recalled hearing him say, “First-timers in front, please,” No one moved, there wasn’t time. He shook hands or touched the faces or khata scarves of about four in the front. None of us in the second and third rows thrust hands, aggressiveness so obviously inappropriate. A local woman brought her daughter of perhaps 9, and His Holiness focused on the girl, hugging her. One Fayetteville man, wearing a khata, was fortunate. The Dalai Lama grasped each side of it with a fist and looked straight in his eyes, smiling. I heard my friend say, “Thank you, Your Holiness.” We talked later. A first-timer, he said this was every bit as profound as the lifting and redraping of the khata would have been.

That little girl seemed to have gotten a blessing whispered just for her. Tibetan or English, who knows. But by her grin afterward, you could tell this was as good as a grandpa hug. And one that her mother will remind her of for decades.

Rock star — that was the feel, not politician or even religious leader. It could’ve been Bono showing up at a club to see a new act and we gathered outside to pay the cover.

After an hour the Dalai Lama left. As that time approached, various law enforcement folks approached and directed us out a good 75 yards, past turf, drives and parking lots, across the four-lane street. He walked out with his English translator and security detail, and all were driven away.

After a lobby straightening we could enter and see the mandala, its two creators, monks from Minneapolis, and the Fayetteville group’s two leaders.

That evening, with cookies and tea on a table in the lobby, itself an informal performance space, Geshe and Sidney were the principals in a panel discussion, “The Soul of Tibet.” They’ve nailed their routine like Abbot and Costello, though no pratfalls — Geshe explains the symbolism and Sidney provides a Western view to aid the audience. The third panelist was Jeannie Steele, a UNI education professor retiring this term; she co-taught the UA pair’s class here and obviously had a big hand in this week’s events. She kept her remarks brief, and as the local liaison elaboration¬† must’ve been tempting. Moderating the panel was her husband, Kurt Meredith, with UNI’s international programs.

The kindness and organizational savvy of Jeannie and Kurt were evident throughout the week. If their energy lagged, they hid it well.

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