The Dalai Lama is admired around the world but he’s a particularly big hit in this slice of America’s Dairyland.
The Tibetan political and spiritual leader has developed a tight relationship with Madison over the last 30 years and it will be on full display when he visits the city for the seventh time later this month.
The six-day visit concludes with a July 24 ceremony in which Tibetans will wish the 73-year-old a long life in a series of prayers and gift offerings. Organizers say the ceremony known as the tenshug – an elaborate Buddhist ritual – has never been performed in the West.
The visit comes as the Dalai Lama’s dispute with China over his Tibetan homeland is in the spotlight ahead of next month’s Olympics in Beijing. China claims Tibetan forces allied with the Dalai Lama are seeking to torpedo the games with violent plots; he calls those claims false.
The Dalai Lama will find considerable support in Madison, where 12,000 people filled a University of Wisconsin-Madison sports stadium to hear his message of peace and understanding last year. Its growing Tibetan community of 500 residents see the Dalai Lama as their only hope to return to a free homeland, which is ruled by the Communist Chinese government.
Even Gov. Jim Doyle, who displays a picture of himself and the Dalai Lama in his office, counts himself a supporter.
“He’s a very important figure around the globe and we’re fortunate enough to have been visited by him a number of times,” said state Rep. Joe Parisi, who met him last year and has been outspoken in favor of a free Tibet. “And for the Tibetans who live here, he’s a ray of hope.”
The area’s close ties with him can mostly be traced to one Buddhist monk: Geshe Sopa.
Sopa was on the panel of scholars that questioned the Dalai Lama before awarding him his highest degree in Buddhist philosophy in 1959. They both fled to India that year after the Chinese used force to quell a popular uprising.
In the early 1960s, the Dalai Lama sent Sopa to mentor three young monks chosen to study in the U.S. and gave him the task of spreading his vision here.
Sopa spent a few years at a monastery in New Jersey before being hired to teach at UW-Madison, where he became the first Tibetan tenured professor in the U.S. During three decades on campus, he helped build the Buddhist studies program and taught Tibetan history and language.
He founded the Deer Park Buddhist Center in 1975 in a rural area about 10 miles south of Madison. It is the only full-scale Buddhist monastery and teaching center in the Midwest. The Dalai Lama performed a special religious ceremony for world peace there in 1981 for the first time in the West.
Sopa, 84, said the long-life ceremony later this month will be just as special. He said the Dalai Lama will sit on a throne as a line of supporters offer prayers and symbolic offerings. “This kind of thing is rarely done,” he said.
Tashi Namgyal of Seattle, who is coordinating the event for the North American Tibetan Association, said such an elaborate long-life ceremony had never been performed outside India and Tibet.
He said the Tibetan people will promise the Dalai Lama they will work to sustain their culture in North America. The occasion is expected to be the biggest gathering of Tibetans in the U.S. with up to 5,000 in attendance, he said.
The Dalai Lama’s visit will help open a glistening new $6 million temple at Deer Park. He plans to give public talks and teachings for several days before the ceremony.
China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese Communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951 and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.
The Dalai Lama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for advocating nonviolence, has often found time to speak at UW-Madison, which gave him an honorary degree in 1998. He has taken an interest in some of its programs, including research into the effects of meditation on health.
Joe Elder, a UW-Madison professor who is an expert on Asia, said Sopa’s hiring made the university a pioneer in the field of Buddhist studies and facilitated its unique relationship with the Dalai Lama.
“Here’s a person who is in huge demand all over the world and he chooses to come to Madison, Wisconsin,” Elder said. “That indicates how strong the tie is between himself and Geshe Sopa and now all the community of people who are sympathetic.”