The Dalai Lama in Seattle
Tibetan's appeal transcends politics, religion
Compassion is the focus of a free, 5-day event where more than 153,000 are expected to attend. The Tibetan spiritual leader's appeal transcends politics and religion.
Seattle Times religion reporter
If you go
Seeds of Compassion
The Seeds of Compassion gathering is a free, five-day event focused on the importance of nurturing compassion. Workshops, discussions and panels will focus on scientific research in social and emotional development in young children, and how people can act on that research to develop a more compassionate society.
Events run April 11-15. All events are full, except for workshops at the Seattle Center on April 13 and 14, which will be on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets for events featuring the Dalai Lama are gone; those without tickets will not be admitted.
How to watch
Events will be streamed live over the Seeds Web site. Most events will also be televised on UWTV or Seattle Channel. KING-TV will broadcast live on KONG-TV the Dalai Lama's speech at Qwest Field on April 12.
On his first visit to Seattle 30 years ago, the Dalai Lama drew a couple of thousand people. On his second, the crowds totaled more than 10,000.
When the leader of the world's Tibetan Buddhists again visits Seattle for a gathering next month on compassion, more than 153,000 people are expected at speeches and workshops to be held over five days at some of the city's largest venues.
The Dalai Lama's popularity — here and worldwide — reflects his rise during the past half century from a relatively obscure spiritual and political leader to a prominent global figure with transcendent star power.
His five-day visit, scheduled to begin April 11, is part of a series of events and workshops being organized by Bellevue-based Seeds of Compassion, which is dedicated to nurturing compassion, especially in children.
The visit comes against the backdrop of recent volatile protests against Chinese rule over Tibet. The Dalai Lamai, who leads the movement to preserve Tibetan culture and push for greater autonomy, has condemned violence on both sides.
But his appeal, for many who hope to see him in Seattle, goes far beyond the Tibetan cause.
"Just the name, Dalai Lama, alone, made me curious," said Sam Sussman, 18, a Mercer Island High School senior who plans to hear him speak. "I've heard so much about the name."
Organizers emphasize that the Seattle event is neither religious nor political in nature, and that despite the unrest in his homeland, he is committed to attending.
The Dalai Lama's increased prominence in recent decades can be attributed to several factors — including the spread of Buddhism worldwide, his Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the many books written by or about him, movies and stories on Tibet, and his own charisma.
"His thought has reached far and wide, and deep into the culture," said Anne Carolyn Klein, professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston.
In the Pacific Northwest, where many people do not have formal religious ties, the Dalai Lama can be particularly appealing.
He draws people as an ethical leader rather than strictly as a religious leader, said Paul Ingram, professor emeritus of the history of religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. "They see him as a very gentle spirit whose values don't contradict their own."
With his emphasis on compassion and interest in science, the Dalai Lama was a natural fit to headline the Seattle event, organizers said.
He will be speaking at some of the biggest venues in town, including Qwest Field and KeyArena. About 10 million people worldwide are expected to watch his speeches and other Seeds events — translated into 28 languages — streamed on the organization's Web site.
Already, hundreds of schools and community groups are involved, more than a thousand volunteers have been mobilized and tens of thousands of tickets allocated.
"The appeal is beyond my wildest expectations," said Dan Kranzler, Seeds co-founder.
A complex relationship
The current — 14th — Dalai Lama, named Tenzin Gyatso, was born in Tibet in 1935 and, according to Tibetan tradition, was recognized at age 2 as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama.
He is considered to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who chooses to remain in this world to serve others.
For centuries, Tibet and China have had a complex relationship. Many times in history, Tibetans have acknowledged the Chinese emperor as a kind of overlord, while administering their own affairs with almost no interference, said Stevan Harrell, a University of Washington anthropology professor specializing in China and ethnic relations.
Their language, culture, religion and political systems were completely separate from those of China, Harrell said.
The Chinese government declared Tibet as its territory around 1911, but Tibet unilaterally declared independence shortly afterward and functioned without Chinese interference for nearly four decades.
In 1950, Chinese Communist troops invaded Tibet and established direct control but allowed the Dalai Lama to remain as spiritual leader.
In 1959, after an unsuccessful Tibetan revolt and subsequent crackdown by the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet with about 85,000 followers. They eventually established the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India.
While the Chinese government has improved schooling, health care and infrastructure in Tibet, Harrell said, it has also placed enormous restrictions on the practice of religion, which is immensely important to most Tibetans.
Perhaps causing the most resentment over the past decade, he said, is the Chinese government's requirement that monks undergo "political education," which includes renouncing the Dalai Lama.
The current uproar in Tibet — the largest in nearly 20 years — is the result of that oppression, said Robert Thurman, professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. "You can't just destroy people, their culture, and crush their sense of Tibetan-ness."
The Dalai Lama has characterized what is happening as cultural genocide. But he did not call for the protests, Thurman said, and he remains open to talking with Chinese leaders.
Some Tibetan exiles — particularly younger ones — favor a more aggressive stance and a call for outright independence, not just greater autonomy. They are frustrated, saying the Dalai Lama's approach is too conciliatory.
Tenzin Wangyal, a lab assistant in Seattle who is Tibetan, says he disapproves of violent protests and that the Dalai Lama's approach is noble. But "we're also tired of not seeing any results from this" — especially from the Chinese side, he said.
Still, many local Tibetans revere him.
"The Dalai Lama is my religious teacher and also my political leader," said Tashi Namgyal, president of the Tibetan Association of Washington. "He's everything."
Tibet won't be the focus
The Dalai Lama's main focus when he comes to Seattle, though, will not be on Tibet but on compassion.
He considers it to be "at the core of all the religions, all our humanities, all our existence," said Lama Tenzin Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's personal emissary for peace and a co-founder of Seeds.
The idea for the Seeds event started several years ago when Dhonden met Kranzler, president of the Bellevue-based Kirlin Charitable Foundation, which focuses on early childhood development. Seeds is an initiative of the Kirlin Foundation.
The Dalai Lama was immediately interested, Dhonden said. His last visit to Seattle was in 1993.
Originally, organizers thought the events could attract 80,000 people, but they soon realized they should expect twice that number.
Area leaders involved
Part of the Dalai Lama's appeal, said Klein, the Rice University professor, is that he doesn't try to convert people, instead encouraging them to practice their own faith. And his Nobel Prize confirmed his status as a world leader with moral authority.
"But none of that would be significant if he, himself, wasn't compelling as a human being," Klein said. "He's so real that he somehow helps you get in touch with something real in yourself."
Seeds organizers have been working for months to involve a variety of community groups and leaders in the events.
Raj Manhas, former Seattle Schools superintendent who is now Seeds' executive director, and other organizers have met with leaders in cities from Seattle to Spokane, Yakima to Bellingham.
Gov. Christine Gregoire, former Gov. Gary Locke and Roberto Maestas with El Centro De La Raza are involved.
Organizers have distributed tickets — which are free — to hundreds of community groups. And 14,300 students from 433 classrooms in 25 counties will be coming.
"The Dalai Lama is an extraordinary example" of peace and harmony, said Maestas, who will be attending Seeds events along with 1,000 other El Centro staffers and friends. "Everyone who struggles for peace inspires us."
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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