Infinite compassion: The Dalai Lama visits Indiana 

click to enlarge Elaine Mellencamp and His Holiness. Submitted photo
  • Elaine Mellencamp and His Holiness. Submitted photo

As long as space endures/As long as sentient beings remain/May I, too, prevail/To dispel the misery of the world

--Prayer of a Bodhisattva (a person who has compassion for others). Known as the favorite prayer of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, has spent a lifetime — or lifetimes, according to Tibetan Buddhists — cultivating a practice of compassion. Through and beyond the guise of Buddhism, it's a stance that recognizes happiness as a direct descendent of loving kindness, for the giver as well as the recipient. While it may seem simplistic to distill the human condition into such a simple balance sheet between caring and non-caring, the Dalai Lama lives that notion: and all over the globe, secular and non-secular alike follow him in droves.

This week the Dalai Lama will extend his inclusive embrace to Indianapolis and Bloomington, returning to Indiana for his sixth visit since 1987. After delivering a two-day teaching on The Heart Sutra at IU Auditorium in Bloomington on May 12 and 13, His Holiness will deliver the public talk "Facing Today's Challenges with Wisdom and Compassion" at Conseco Field House on Friday, May 14, at 9:30 a.m.

The public talk is sponsored by three host institutions: the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC) in Bloomington, the Interfaith Hunger Initiative (IHI) and the Indiana Buddhist Center, both based in Indianapolis. The talk is expected to draw a global audience, testament to the continued relevance of the Dalai Lama's message, even as his homeland of Tibet, from which he has been exiled for more than 50 years, continues to struggle against the Chinese occupation.

The April 14 earthquake in the Tibetan autonomous region of Kham (renamed Qinghai Province by the Chinese government) brought renewed attention to the plight of Tibet and Tibetans who desire to retain their way of life and preserve their culture and religion in the face of China's assimilation policies. The Tibetan landscape is also severely threatened. Tibet is said to have more uranium than any country, and China has been known to exploit it and sell it to Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Despite these stresses and more, Tibet persists as a model of non-violence and compassion, and the Dalai Lama continues to espouse this approach.

While the purpose of the Dalai Lama's visit here is not necessarily to focus on the issue of Tibetan autonomy, that issue remains an important one: indigenous peoples throughout history have succumbed to similar threats in the form of military and cultural repression, and yet despite such overwhelming odds, His Holiness remains a living example of hope in action.

The Dalai Lama's Indianapolis talk is intended to reach across boundaries of faith as well as skepticism. When it comes to compassionate works, feeding the hungry may be the single issue upon which practitioners from all faiths, as well as most everyone else, can agree. As His Holiness has said publicly on many occasions, "All human beings are the same. We all want happiness and do not want suffering."

click to enlarge Photo by Katie Murphy
  • Photo by Katie Murphy

Beauty for hunger

Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, board member of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC) in Bloomington, Indiana, is one of the key players in bringing His Holiness to Indiana. Mellencamp, best known as a super model who married super rocker (and Indiana icon) John Mellencamp 17 years ago, became enamored with the Dalai Lama during his 2000 visit to Bloomington.

Mellencamp describes driving past the TMBCC grounds with her two small sons and being intrigued enough by what was happening there to stop and see what was going on. "It was a fascinating sight... I thought, look at all the people there; people from all over the world."

She felt compelled to find out more. Fast forward a few years, and Mellencamp was invited to get involved in 2004 with the building of an interfaith temple at the TMBCC. "It was my first participation and I was so proud to be a part of it," Mellencamp recalls.

Mellencamp does not consider herself a Buddhist, although she says she has incorporated many Buddhist teachings into her own life. Nevertheless, she believes the Dalai Lama has something to offer people across all faiths. "I think there are a few people in history whose actions speak louder than words," she told me in a telephone interview from her home in Bloomington. "I think he has a way of reaching people and speaking to people that is so simple and so kind and clear and unfettered by anything. He's really appealing to your heart."

His Holiness is not out to convert anyone to any particular religion: The Dalai Lama wishes for Catholics, Muslims and Jews to continue to be Catholics Muslims, and Jews.For those who don't practice a particular religion, His Holiness' advice is simple: show compassion towards others and work to end suffering.

Mellencamp is less sure, though, when it comes to the issue of Tibetan autonomy or independence. "It's not necessarily a personal mission but I think it's conscientiously important; and all you can do, I suppose, is advocate," she says. One of the Dalai Lama's three professed commitments, as stated on his official website (www.dalailama.com), is "to act as the free spokesperson of the Tibetans in their struggle for justice. As far as this third commitment is concerned, it will cease to exist once a mutually beneficial solution is reached between the Tibetans and Chinese."

The Tibet issue is the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to the Dalai Lama. There are those who follow His Holiness as Catholics follow the Pope, but there are also those who work for the cause of freeing Tibet from Chinese occupation who don't necessarily agree with the Dalai Lama's unwaveringly nonviolent approach, or his goal to see autonomy for Tibet within China rather than re-establish political sovereignty.

"I'm not really sure if there's real clarity on that issue for me personally and for a lot of people," Mellencamp admits.

But the issue of interfaith dialogue is one that Mellencamp easily stands behind. At the TMBCC, the interfaith Kumbum Chamtse Ling Monastery (for which the Dalai Lama laid the cornerstone in 1996, returning to consecrate the completed temple in 2003) is intended to foster the kind of dialogue that would bring divergent perspectives together. This is one of the goals shared by the three host institutions bringing the Dalai Lama back to Indiana. The Dalai Lama earned a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his advocacy of interfaith dialogue.

The TMBCC, located in a bucolic setting of 108 acres in southeast Bloomington, is at the nexus of the Dalai Lama's connection to Indiana. Thubten Jigme Norbu (Tagtser Rinpoche), the Dalai Lama's late older brother, founded the TMBCC as the Tibetan Cultural Center in 1979 (in 2007, His Holiness expanded the mission to include Mongolian Buddhists and the center's name changed accordingly). After Norbu suffered a series of incapacitating strokes in 2002, the directorship of the center was passed to Arjia Rinpoche, who continues to serve in that role. The Dalai Lama's visit this week marks his first return to Bloomington since his brother Norbu passed away in 2007.

click to enlarge Dave Miner is volunteer executive director of the IHI. Photo by Robert Warren
  • Dave Miner is volunteer executive director of the IHI. Photo by Robert Warren

Filling the plate

When it comes to feeding the hungry, most religious traditions share common ground — that is, it's the right thing to do. Enter the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, one of the three host organizations, with the TMBCC in Bloomington and Indiana Buddhist Center in Indianapolis, sponsoring the Dalai Lama's public talk at Conseco Fieldhouse on May 14.

IHI's connection to the Dalai Lama came about through board president Kent Millard, senior pastor at St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Millard had met His Holiness on a previous visit to Bloomington, and wanted to bring him to Indianapolis. Since the TMBCC had close ties with His Holiness and the Indiana Buddhist Center had connections as well, the collaboration was a natural one.

Dave Miner, a retired Eli Lilly director now serving as volunteer executive director of the IHI, believes there is great potential in working across faith lines. "Through my own faith tradition, I've come to understand better and better that there's a very clear call to respond to the needs of the hungry," Miner says. "The Bible has 2000 passages that speak to poverty and justice and that's clearly something that's important to God. The church argues over lots of topics the Bible has little to say about. But hunger is everywhere: throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament."

Miner was already involved with Bread for the World when he was challenged to make a deeper commitment to the cause of hunger. The Indiana Pacers' Jim Morris called a meeting of hunger relief advocates and, as Miner recalls, said, "I know you're all doing things about hunger but you're not doing enough." Miner took that call seriously and decided to retire from Lilly and take on a management role as a volunteer for IHI. His wife is also a fulltime hunger volunteer.

IHI, founded in 2007, attempts to accomplish several goals under the umbrella of feeding the hungry. While a number of organizations work on interfaith initiatives, Miner distinguishes IHI by this hunger focus: "A lot of interfaith organizations are focused on dialogue and getting to know other traditions, which is healthy; we're getting some of that but our focus is working to end world hunger."

Current IHI partner institutions include representatives from Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist traditions. Miner hopes to bring even more faiths to the table — Hindu, Mennonite Quakers, Unitarians, and others. "We're hoping more people will learn about us from [the Dalai Lama's visit]," Miner says.

IHI divides its efforts 50-50 between addressing hunger in Indianapolis and in Kenya, where it provides daily school lunch through monetary donations for children attending the Umoja School in a particularly impoverished area of the country. In 2009, Miner says, daily lunch was provided to 2700 students, many who would not be in school at all if it weren't for the food program. "And it's more than just a good story of kids getting lunch; many of these kids have really understood what it's like to try to support themselves as children, so they are really motivated." Miner hopes to help these schools become self-sustaining through agricultural development, at which point IHI can move on to work with other schools in other regions of the country.

Locally, Miner believes that what IHI is doing is truly unique: "We're not doing food collection, we're not doing fund drives to buy food per se; we're trying to focus on doing things together that we couldn't do individually as congregations. We're trying to change the system to help the hungry in Indianapolis." The biggest component of that is trying to change the food pantry system.

Access to pantries around the city — and there are hundreds of them, Miner points out — is limited: and the coordination among them is, as he says, "a patchwork." The goal is "to build a network of stronger pantries." While retaining the large number of pantries, Miner says, "there will be a handful that will have more hours and be open every week, and over time, provide additional services. We're calling them pantry partners. They're setting themselves aside for this level of service."

As of this writing, two of these "super pantries" are in place. Miner hopes to have one pantry partner in each Marion County township, as well as surrounding townships. IHI will facilitate the development of these flagship pantries through subsidizing fees to Gleaner's Food Bank, for instance, or providing grant money to help them evolve to that increased level of service.

"The pantry system itself," Miner explains, "is designed as an emergency system for people who are not yet on food stamps... but it's also important to connect pantry patrons to the national safety net programs such as WIC and school lunch and breakfast programs." As it stands now, not all food pantries are alike: there's no "one size fits all" model. Some pantries require patrons to have a referral; some have residential requirements. The homeless are a different subset altogether. If you're homeless, Miner points out, "a food pantry is not going to do you any good...you need a shelter and you need a soup kitchen." Pantries, on the other hand, "respond to folks that still have a place to live of whatever sort."

IHI has a number of other initiatives in the works. One of these is working with food providers in the city through the Mayor's Office's "Front Porch Alliance" to see how all the big players — St. Vincent de Paul, Second Helpings, Meals on Wheels, Midwest Food bank, etc. — can come together and see where they overlap. "We're sort of the honest broker," Miner says, "an interested party, but we don't have a stake in the ground. We don't feed people ourselves. A lot of these folks didn't even know each other before. With so many players, there's got to be huge opportunities for doing things better."

IHI and its partner congregations continue to be involved with Bread for the World, Miner says, "to make sure that those national safety net programs work as well." This includes much-needed reforms of foreign assistance. Two years ago, Miner recalls, "We were a co-host of a congressional candidates forum on hunger. It was the only time that Carson and Campo were on the podium at the same time." The bottom line is that hunger, as Miner puts it, "can bring people together across political lines, like it can bring people together across religious lines."

click to enlarge Geshe Jinpa Sonam and Larry Gerstein, of the Indiana Buddhist Center. Photo by Mark Lee
  • Geshe Jinpa Sonam and Larry Gerstein, of the Indiana Buddhist Center. Photo by Mark Lee

Nonprofit motive

The political line is how I first came to know Larry Gerstein, who represents the Indiana Buddhist Center, along with its resident teacher, Geshe Jinpa Sonam, on the host committee for the Dalai Lama's 2010 visit. Gerstein, whom I met more than a decade ago as the president of the International Tibet Independence Movement, first enlightened me about the plight of Tibet and, by extension, introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama phenomenon. (Gerstein, I should also point out, has a day job: he's the director of the Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology and Professor of Psychology at Ball State University in Muncie, and also serves as director of Ball State's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.)

Gerstein is the driving force behind Indianapolis' engagement with the cause of Tibet, and a prime mover when it comes to bringing Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama here. Gerstein has been connected to Tibet and the Tibetans since the 1980s, initially through his close association with His Holiness's oldest brother, the aforementioned Thubten Norbu (Tagtser Rinpoche), the late director of the TMBCC. Norbu mentored and encouraged Gerstein to become what he is today, which is, as he puts it, a "socially engaged Buddhist."

Gerstein's reasons for continuing to be involved would seem to be many layered. When it comes to the Dalai Lama, Gerstein told me via email, "I have greatly admired His Holiness for His firm and genuine commitment to resolving the Tibet-China dispute nonviolently, and to promoting nonviolence as a solution to all the world's problems. His Holiness has the remarkable and unusual ability to respect everyone and demonstrate an unwavering, strong, and infinite degree of compassion for people regardless of their circumstances. In the presence of His Holiness, people of all faiths and backgrounds recognize His wisdom, sense of justice, and compassion, and they embrace His message. As a result, these individuals are enriched and empowered to help effectively address the challenges in their communities, their relationships with others, and in their environment." Further, Gerstein believes, "Ultimately, this outcome will contribute, in part, to improving the quality of life in Central Indiana."

Geshe Jinpa Sonam, resident teacher of the Indiana Buddhist Center, serves with Gerstein as the second representative of IBC on the host committee to bring His Holiness to Indianapolis.Geshe-la, as he is known by his students, is a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy scholar from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in south India who found his way to Indiana through a number of circuitous connections, including the TMBCC in Bloomington, where he used to teach.

I met with Gerstein and Geshe to talk about the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit on the evening of a special prayer session for the victims of the April 14 earthquake in Tibet.

Because Tibetan Buddhists believe that death is the ultimate meditation (for this reason, Geshe believes IBC's location across from a cemetery is perfect — it's an ongoing reminder of impermanence), it is part of their imperative to assist those who are in the process of making or who have made that transition. When the earthquake hit, monks flocked to the scene to help the wounded and care for the dead, but were thwarted at first by the Chinese authorities. Monks were finally allowed to assist with relief efforts, revealing the true numbers of dead as upwards of 2,000 rather than the few hundred reported initially by the mainstream press.

When I ask Geshe why so many people are interested in and involved with the Dalai Lama's visit, he says, with Gerstein's help in translation, that people see that "His Holiness' teaching benefits their minds and helps to relieve suffering," Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. "He's saying the basic philosophy or principle of all religions is the same. I think what we're caring about is trying to feed these hungry people in central Indiana and Kenya. And you probably heard it from Dave [Miner, from the Interfaith Hunger Initiative]; probably 18,000 children go hungry in Indianapolis every day. It's an outrageous number. There are many empty plates for children that need to be filled."

Geshe was born into a very poor family in Ladakh, near the India-Tibet border, which is why, Gerstein explains, "he knows first hand what it's like to be hungry and doesn't want to see anybody suffer like that, and he doesn't want to take a penny [of the proceeds from the Dalai Lama's public talk], because he wants to relieve their suffering. That's the basic premise of Buddhism; do whatever you can to relieve suffering."

Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, Gerstein says, basically say that to benefit monetarily from the dharma corrupts the teachings.The IBC, which is a not-for-profit organization, accepts cash and in-kind donations for operational support, but does not accept any profit from teachings. "Now what the groups have decided," Gerstein explains, "is that if there is a profit, they're going to ask His Holiness that half of the profit go to the Bloomington Center, and half of the profit go to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative...Geshe feels very strongly that he doesn't want to take one penny. And as you can see, he needs the money."

Gerstein is right: it's clear the Indiana Buddhist Center could use some help. The building itself has seen better days. The red paint is peeling, and the rooms inside, which are also dated, are clearly not large enough to comfortably accommodate the number of people who participate in teachings and prayer sessions on a regular basis. When you approach the center from West 10th Street, it's easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. Since the neighbors won't allow IBC to put up signage, the only clue that you've arrived (other than the house number) are the faded Tibetan prayer flags hanging outside. But no one present on the day I visit seems bothered by the condition of the property. Especially Geshe Jinpa Sonam.

"He doesn't have much money, he has a small place, but the basic premise of Buddhism is that when you take refuge you're taking the refuge and practicing to relieve everyone's suffering — all suffering. So you can't say I'm going to help relieve Christian suffering, or Jewish suffering; it's my responsibility to deal with all of them," Gerstein says.

What about those who might not perceive the issue so equitably? I ask Geshe-la how the Dalai Lama can reach those who are not so tolerant of others. "Oh that!" he exclaims, gesturing enthusiastically. "You just directly see that His Holiness's presence totally mind changing! Totally mind changing!" He points out that His Holiness has practiced kindness over many lifetimes — and that kindness is infectious. Geshe-la tells the story of a Muslim imam who, he says, is "really mean [to] Buddhists. Really mean." But when the imam had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama, he was transformed.

"If you truly believe in Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness," Gerstein offers, "then from a different perspective, His Holiness's spirit is connected to yours, so it's sort of like you ran out of some air in your tires and your tires get filled up a little bit. His Holiness's spirit has a chance to get infiltrated into your consciousness somehow. Even if you're maybe not even open to it. I mean, if you really believe in it, he can be in many places at the same time or different times, so if you embrace this then yeah, there's a greater chance that that energy has a chance to embrace how you do things. But if you don't embrace that, how do you block it out?"

Gerstein adds, "You don't have to believe in religion to see it that way. I mean, he's in human form, but if you look at the image of Chenrizig, with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes, it's sort of a symbolic representation of that." Chenrizig, or Lord Avalokiteshvara, is the Tibetan Buddhist Buddha of Compassion, or bodhisattva — an enlightened being. Chenrizig is said to incarnate into the Dalai Lama so he can embrace thousands with his compassion. The Dalai Lama seems to be doing just that.

If you go:

Teaching of "The Heart Sutra," hosted by the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington, May 12 and 13. Ticket information: 812-855-1103; tickets@indiana.edu

The Dalai Lama Public Talk, Conseco Fieldhouse, Friday, May 14, 9:30 a.m. Tickets are $20; $15 for students, available at the Conseco Fieldhouse and IU Auditorium box offices or through Ticketmaster (for an additional fee). For ticket information, call 317-917-2727 or visit www.consecofieldhouse.com or www.tmbcc.net.

For more information about all of the events, visit co-sponsors' websites at www.tmbcc.net, www.interfaithhungerinitiative.org, and www.indianabuddhist.org.

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