It’s hard to ignore the celebrity surrounding the Dalai Lama. When His Holiness visited Bloomington last weekend to dedicate the Chamtse Ling temple at the Tibetan Cultural Center, retired prizefighter and now the Rev. Muhammad Ali took the hand of the spiritual leader as he approached the crowd of thousands after conducting his temple prayers. The crowd was palpably silent. As the two moved slowly towards the tent flanked by suited security guards in dark glasses, a light breeze lifted the dozens of colorful Tibetan prayer flags as if to usher them from the mouth of the temple to the tent’s entrance.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet and Muhammad Ali at the dedication of the Chamtse Ling Temple on the grounds of the Tibetan Cultural Center.
Representatives of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Native American and numerous other faith traditions presented prayers and offerings and participated in the cutting of the many ribbons symbolizing the opening of the temple. Dignitaries and political figures including Congresswoman Julia Carson also offered their blessings and gifts. A youth choir sang. A cellist performed a composition he said was conceived for the event in “the heart of the earth,” at Mammoth Cave. Teen-agers spoke about the effects of violence and the value of nonviolence. Poems were read. And on it went. The event was a gesture of interfaith harmony, dedicated to perpetuate the symbolic peace that the temple is intended to represent. The Dalai Lama’s brother and founder of the TCC, Thubten Norbu. is credited for the vision of building Chamtse Ling, translated from the Tibetan as “field of love and compassion.” The joining of hands of the Dalai Lama and Muhammad Ali, the one symbolizing love, compassion and nonviolence, and the other symbolizing a fighter’s glory, was an odd joining; and yet of all the day’s events, it was perhaps the most symbolic of the transformative powers of peace. In his characteristic manner, the saffron-robed Dalai Lama added levity to the occasion. “If I were to step into the ring,” he said to Ali, “I would be knocked down with the first punch.” While this comment drew hearty laughter from the audience, it also seemed unlikely: Ali is visibly ailing, his longtime struggle with a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s Disease causing his body to pulse with tremors. It is said the condition is the result of his boxing career. But Ali’s suffering is different from that of the Tibetan people. The boxing champion chose his career, while the Tibetans were forced to give their homeland over to the Chinese. To date, more than 1 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese since the occupation that saw its bloody beginnings in 1949. Its continuing ramifications include the systematic plundering of natural resources and destruction of cultural structures, including thousands of monasteries, and the imprisonment and torture of countless Tibetans. And yet, the rebellion of Tibetans waged from within its borders and by those in exile — including the Dalai Lama, who is the Tibetan people’s recognized leader — has been a largely nonviolent one. This approach, far more complex and inherently creative than a violent one, requires the discipline of extreme patience and endurance. But the results, most Tibetans believe, will be far less destructive than reacting with violence. And the Dalai Lama believes nonviolence is the only response. As the afternoon wanes into a hazy sky and the breeze begins to pick up, the voices of children are heard laughing and playing on the grounds. The presentations continue underneath the tent while the young ones continue to shout and jostle one another outside. Many of these children appear to be Tibetan, dressed in colorful, floor-length robes. As I sit and watch, a boy of about 1, dressed in a golden robe, toddles up to me and speaks, grinning. I don’t understand his words, but his broad, Buddha-like face conveys his greeting, and it is warm and trusting.