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Wisdom, Compassion, Peace: The Dalai Lama Comes to Smith

By Amy Mayer

For Smith College Professor Jay Garfield, the upcoming visit of the Dalai Lama is the culmination of eight years of effort. For the offices of the presidents of Smith and Hampshire colleges, it brings to fruition a formal invitation extended in 2004.

For everyone in the Smith and Hampshire college communities as well as the local Tibetan community in western Massachusetts, his visit to campus on May 9 offers the rare chance to hear a Nobel laureate and a major religious, political and literary figure with a contemporary message.

The daylong event—“Wisdom, Compassion and Peace: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso at Smith College”—will reflect his belief in the value of education and the power of science to pose questions about the nature of reality and to try to ameliorate suffering in the world.

Sidebar: Ways to View the Dalai Lama’s Address

Sidebar: Life After Buddhist Studies

Sidebar: Tibetan Students Call Visit “One of the Greatest Things”

Sidebar: Managing the Details

“Through education, through training the mind and using intelligence, we can see the value of compassion and the harmfulness of anger and hatred,” the Dalai Lama has said.

The official word went out in January that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, would come to Smith this spring. His visit involves three events. The primary event, to be held in Smith’s Indoor Track and Tennis facility, is for 5,000 members of the Smith and Hampshire campus communities (students, faculty and staff) and local Tibetans. Later in the afternoon, about 25 students and faculty from the new Five College Buddhist Studies Certificate Program will have a seminar with the Dalai Lama on the role of academic Buddhist studies in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. On May 10, the Tibetan Association of Western Massachusetts, joined by members of other nearby Tibetan communities, will have an audience with him.

Spirituality, politics, religion and inspiration are among the reasons people are drawn to the Dalai Lama, says Garfield, who is the Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith. “His Holiness has really made a mark as a modernist,” Garfield explains. He doesn’t treat Buddhism as insular or closed; rather, he recognizes that it doesn’t have the answers to everything. When new ideas conflict with tradition, Garfield says, the Dalai Lama’s attitude is that “it’s reason and science that trump tradition.”

While in Sarnath, India, recently, Smith professor Jay Garfield, left, and the ven. Professor Geshe Ngawang Samten, director and vice chancellor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, presented their 2006 English translation of 14th-century Tibetan philosopher Lama Tsong khapa’s text Ocean of Reasoning to the Dalai Lama. The translation project was a joint research effort and is considered a landmark contribution to the scholarship of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Photo courtesy Jay Garfield.

Garfield, who also directs the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program and formerly taught at Hampshire College, says he first saw the Dalai Lama at a large event in 1990. The following year, after another group seminar with him, Garfield had his first private meeting.

“And it was at that audience that he asked for this exchange program,” Garfield says. “And when His Holiness says ‘jump,’ I jump, and on the way up I say, ‘how high?’”

The exchange program began at Hampshire; expanded to include the University of Tasmania (on the island of Tasmania southeast of mainland Australia) when Garfield moved there; and then found a permanent administrative home at Smith when Garfield joined the faculty in 1999.

In addition to the annual program that takes Five College and Australian students to Sarnath, India, site of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Garfield explains that the exchange includes Tibetan students traveling to the United States and Australia and faculty exchanges between the Tibetan academic community and the West. Hundreds of students and faculty have participated.

“The fact that this is a two-way street is really important to us,” says Garfield. For years, he and the Dalai Lama have been discussing a visit to western Massachusetts.

“He’s wanted to come for a long time,” Garfield says. The motivation is twofold: to celebrate the success of the academic exchange and to connect with the Tibetan exile community in this area. Making the visit happen has proved challenging, from confirming a date to raising the money to putting all the pieces in place.

Ruth Simmons, former Smith College president who is now president at Brown University, and Gregory Prince Jr., who retired as Hampshire College president in 2005, extended the formal written invitation to the Dalai Lama in 2004, several years after Garfield says that talks about a visit began. Scheduling conflicts prevented setting a date, but, Garfield says, at an audience with the Dalai Lama last year “we finally fixed it.”

Community Anticipates the Dalai Lama’s Visit

For students, the prospect of hearing one of the world’s leading advocates for nonviolence, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the political head of an occupied country stirs vigorous enthusiasm.

Laurel Golio ’07 of Ossining, New York, has Buddhist relatives and says her parents have seen the Dalai Lama speak.

When she learned in January that he was coming to Smith, she says, “I was really excited. I’ve always wanted to see him.” But there’s no one thing she’ll be listening for. “I’m kind of going with no specific expectations.”

The news of a visit from the Dalai Lama surprised Rita Iyer ’10, of Long Island, New York.

“I think we’re really lucky,” she says. She’s Hindu but is familiar with Buddhism and the Dalai Lama’s importance as a religious figure.

And it’s no less exciting for some students who say they have no connection to the Dalai Lama or Buddhism. Sophia Elson ’10, from Berkeley, California, thinks the audience presents a “fascinating” opportunity. “I’m not a very religious or spiritual person, but I have a lot of respect for him.”

Smith President Carol T. Christ recognizes the universality of his insights. “The Dalai Lama is an inspiring teacher whose message of compassion is something we can all learn from,” says Christ. “His visit offers us the opportunity to contemplate ways that we, both individually and collectively, can contribute to the welfare of others.”

In the Presence of Someone With Greatness

Garfield says that many want to see the enlightened world leader out of a simple desire to be in the presence of someone of such greatness. Garfield’s experiences with the Dalai Lama range from private audiences with small groups of Five College students to massive celebrations with 400,000 attendees. Always, he says, the encounters are rewarding.

“He’s a very, very good speaker, a dynamic, charismatic speaker,” Garfield says. Still, the Dalai Lama’s stature can intimidate some, especially in small audiences.

“When I first met with His Holiness, I must say I was shaking beforehand,” Garfield says. But he found the Dalai Lama—whose religious followers consider to be more than mere human—to be warm and friendly. “It becomes a very natural conversation very quickly.”

Garfield says the Dalai Lama often speaks on something related to contemporary events and caters his speech to his audience. At Smith, he will speak on “Education for Transformation” and respond to audience questions submitted in advance. His seminar with the Five College Buddhist studies group on the role of academic Buddhist studies is particularly relevant, given that the Five College area boasts “one of the largest and best concentrations of Buddhist studies scholars in the West,” says Garfield.

And, he adds, the Dalai Lama is actively engaged with Western scholars both in Buddhist studies and in general. He’s committed to the preservation of Tibetan religion and culture but recognizes that the path to longevity requires flexibility and must incorporate new ideas and respond to advances in science and technology.

In addition, Garfield says, the Dalai Lama wants to lead Tibetans in such a way that rather than freezing their culture in time, they allow it to grow and change “in dialogue with the other cultures of the world.”

The Desire to Learn More about Tibet and Buddhism

That desire for integration between the scholarship, religion and culture of Tibetans and those of the West helps the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program succeed. Tibetan students can earn scholarships to Smith or Hampshire, which is often “the only real opportunity they would have to leave South Asia,” Garfield says.

The Five College students who spend January in India, Garfield explains, often fall into one of two categories. For some, it’s their first contact with South Asia and Buddhist studies and they find their lives “completely transformed” by the trip. Others choose to make the journey because of their commitment to scholarship in the fields of Tibetan and Buddhist studies. For them, Garfield says, the exchange moves them “into the orbit of serious scholars.”

Smith alumna Connie Kassor ’05 (left) and student Jo Leach ’07 walk with the Dalai Lama after their private audience with him at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in Sarnath, India, in 2006. After graduating from Smith with departmental honors in philosophy, Kassor spent a year of postgraduate study at CIHTS and is currently in a doctoral program in Buddhist studies at Emory University. Leach is now completing her Smith honors thesis in Tibetan studies, including her own translations from medieval Tibetan texts.

But for the many on the Smith and Hampshire campuses who recognize the importance of the Dalai Lama and plan to attend the event but don’t know much about Tibet or Buddhism, a spring lecture series offers an introduction. Divided between the two campuses, the 13 events have been exploring Tibetan culture and religion, the institution of the Dalai Lama, the connections between Buddhism and Western science, and the lives of Tibetan exiles. Among other offerings are a discussion about the Dalai Lama’s books Ethics for the New Millennium and Kindness, Clarity and Insight, an interfaith dialogue about Buddhism and Christianity and a screening and discussion about the film Kundun. For times and locations visit www.smith.edu/dalailama/events.php.

Discussion leaders include Lobsang Norbu Shastri, the faculty member from the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies who is visiting at Smith and Hampshire this year, Tibetan students, members of the Tibetan Association of Western Massachusetts and Smith faculty and staff. An exhibit at the Neilson Library will present Tibetan Literary Arts with an emphasis on poetry. It will be open for viewing on the day of the visit.

On May 9, prayer flags and the national flag of Tibet will welcome the Dalai Lama. Garfield says when the Dalai Lama visits the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India, people line up to greet him with ritual traditions that include burning incense and blowing trumpets and conch shells.

Here, he says, “The Tibetan community will certainly organize a traditional Tibetan welcome.”

Inside the Indoor Track and Tennis Facility, the stage will be lined with risers for the Smith College Glee Club and the Hampshire College Chorus who will perform for the Dalai Lama. Student leaders will offer him gifts from the college, and President Christ and Smith Trustee Judith Bronstein Milestone ’66 will present him with an honorary degree.

In the meantime, as plans for an official welcoming of the Dalai Lama are determined, arrangements for hosting his visit continue to unfold. Says Pitzer, “We are prepared for everything.”

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