The Dalai Lama returns Tibetan Buddhist center, U-M team up for event

BY GEOFF LARCOM, The Ann Arbor News, April 13, 2008

Ann Arbor, MI (USA) -- Gelek Rimpoche first posed the question in 1994, when His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama last spoke in Ann Arbor.

<< Ngawang Gehlek Rimpoche

"Would you come back?'' Rimpoche asked.

"Oh, sure, talk to my office,'' the Dalai Lama replied. It was a standing invitation that stood for nearly 14 years.

Rimpoche, a Tibetan master who had studied under the same renowned teachers who trained the Dalai Lama, is founder of Jewel Heart, an Ann Arbor Tibetan Buddhist center.

Rimpoche would see the Dalai Lama at various conferences and remind him, but would never push.

Finally, last November, came a call from The Office of Tibet, the official agency of the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India. His Holiness has several days available in April. Would you like to pick up that standing invitation?

"Oh, fine,'' Rimpoche recalls saying in understated excitement.

With that began plans for next weekend's visit by one of the world's foremost religious figures, a man revered and admired by millions for his spiritual teachings emphasizing kindness, peace and understanding.

Area Buddhists and others interested in hearing his presentations quickly snapped up tickets to his appearances at Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan campus. He arrives in Ann Arbor from Seattle, the previous stop on this U.S. tour, his first since the recent uprisings in Tibet.

"It's very exciting, like a blue moon,'' Rimpoche says.

Long road to Ann Arbor

Rimpoche had been determined to bring the Dalai Lama to the economically depressed Midwest, because he says the Buddhist leader, by his nature, provides an emotional boost and uplifting effect for those he meets and teaches.

Rimpoche considered Chicago and Cleveland along with Ann Arbor. Then Rimpoche heard that officials at the University of Michigan were hoping to invite the Dalai Lama, who often speaks on environmental concerns, for the annual Wege lecture.

A collaboration between U-M and Jewel Heart was born, and the formal dual invitation from U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and Jewel Heart was hand-delivered by Rimpoche.

The shared connections of the two Buddhist masters dates back many decades.

Rimpoche was born in 1939 in Lhasa, Tibet, and studied under many of same renowned masters as the Dalai Lama. The two came to know each other, working together in Tibet and then India. These days, Rimpoche is called upon frequently to help the Dalai Lama at various events around the country.

Followers say Rimpoche himself is a unique asset to Ann Arbor's Buddhist community, an internationally recognized teacher versed in traditional Tibetan ways who lives a modern life.

He came to Ann Arbor at the request of two area women, Aura Glaser and Sandra Finkel, who met him on their trip to India during the mid-1980s.

Rimpoche visited Ann Arbor to teach in 1985, and grew determined to return after enjoying the town's open attitude and hospitality.

He worked two years in Cleveland, helping a Case Western Reserve professor write a book on Tibetan history, then he moved to Ann Arbor.

Along with Glaser and Finkel, he helped found Jewel Heart in 1988 with the goal of teaching Tibetan Buddhism in an authentic and accessible way that helps people live productive, peaceful and compassionate lives. Or, as Rimpoche puts it, to take 2,600 years of Buddhist wisdom and apply it to modern life.

Jewel Heart now has chapters in Chicago, Cleveland, Lincoln, Neb., Malaysia and The Netherlands, with about 10,000 people involved around the United States, Rimpoche says.

The Ann Arbor chapter, which recently moved into modern, new headquarters on Oak Valley Drive in Pittsfield Township, has about 700 on its e-mail list, says program coordinator Kathy Laritz.

Rimpoche says he doesn't seek to convert people, promote Buddhism or lure new members. "I'm here to improve people's lives,'' he says.

A collaboration

The logistics of staging such a unique event, with different lectures sponsored by Jewel Heart and U-M, proved both challenging and exciting, organizers say.

"I'm up to my eyeballs,'' says Nancy Jeffries, a Jewel Heart board member who works for a music publishing company in New York City.

Jeffries has operated out of her Manhattan office in dealing with issues such as tickets and travel, and has visited Ann Arbor several times to discuss issues such as stage location, sound and lighting. She draws on advice from concert professionals she's met in the music business.

"We had to create an environment,'' she says, praising Crisler Arena's size and intimacy for such an event. "It's going to look nice when we get through with it.''

Jeffries helps oversee a variety of committees in Ann Arbor that tackle tasks such as promotion, lodging and staging.

Other concerns include a Saturday night reception, lunches for ordained monks who attend the sessions and transportation from various residences. "In a funny way, it's fun,'' Jeffries says of all the planning. "It's like a giant puzzle.''

Crisler Arena will be specially configured to accommodate the Dalai Lama's talks, with the stage set at one end of the floor, surrounded by a semicircle of about 8,000 seats.

Rimpoche himself ordered the proper chair for the Dalai Lama to sit in during his lectures. It needed to be the right height, as well as functional, but convey a sense of dignity, Laritz says.

Jewel Heart has divided expenses with U-M, a separate but equal arrangement for aspects as public safety and security. For its three teaching sessions, Jewel Heart is renting Crisler Arena for $4,000, according to U-M spokesperson Kelly Cunningham.

The Dalai Lama's security will be handled by the U.S. State Department, with arrangements similar to the visit of a vice president, given how the Dalai Lama represents the hopes of so many people, Rimpoche says.

So tight are the conditions that cell phones will not be allowed in Crisler Arena for the talks. U-M argued for their admission, but the federal officials were adamant, Rimpoche said of the discussions.

The event is designed to roughly break even, a goal so central that expenses and revenues are to be publicly read on Sunday, Jeffries said.

"You're not supposed to make money, and don't worry, we're not going to,'' she said.

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