Hundreds of Tibetans and more than a few curious Richmond residents gathered along Huntington Ave. early Sunday morning to see the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, as he began a day of speeches and blessings in the East Bay. Incense smoke wafted through the air, and many congregants held out white scarves called khatak.
“It symbolizes purity of your heart, offering to Dalai Lama,” an onlooker explained. Men and women, young and old were dressed in beautiful silks and traditional dress. A young girl dressed in braids and brocade bounced in her mother’s lap.
The tradition of recognizing the Dalai Lama as spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism began more than six centuries ago in Tibet, according to the official website of the Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama is understood by Tibetans to be the 14th incarnation or physical manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. “Bodhisattvas are believed to be enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity,” the website reads. When the Dalai Lama dies, Tibetans believe that he reincarnates in a new body to carry on this service.
“For the world he is a superstar, or an icon,” said local resident Tenzin Thuchen. “But for us he is a living God.”
The Dalai Lama was in Richmond to bless the Tibetan Association of Northern California’s offices and community center, where participants hope Tibetan cultural life can be sustained and passed on to the next generation. Many of those in attendance said this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“It’s all about the kids, about preserving our culture,” said Tsering Gompo, a carpenter and Richmond resident who spent many late nights renovating the building in preparation for Sunday’s event, which included an address in Berkeley on the theme of attaining happiness.
Escorted by police in SUVs, the Dalai Lama arrived at the Richmond center around 8:45 a.m. But rather than being deposited at the front entrance to the center, he stepped out of the car at the end of the street and walked up the line, greeting his followers. The Dalai Lama reached out to touch individuals on the hand or the head, and occasionally stopped to speak to them in Tibetan. Many bowed their heads and pressed kisses into his hands.
As he got closer, the sound of a drum beat louder and faster. Four boys in traditional white headdresses and masks danced in the courtyard. They danced to welcome the Dalai Lama and purify the space, said Thuchen, the boys’ instructor.
Reporters and security pressed around the Dalai Lama as he walked through the gate and under a welcome banner. Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin greeted His Holiness and presented him with a white scarf.
Disabled and ailing Tibetan community members were lined up to his left, and the Dalai Lama touched each of them, stroking a baby on the cheek, and laying his forehead against the forehead of an old woman in a wheelchair.
Inside the center, a large ceremonial hall had been constructed out of what used to be ten office rooms. The smells of wood, glue and paint mingled with incense in the air. The Dalai Lama ascended five wooden steps to a dais adorned with gold leaf embossed wood carvings and fresh flowers at the far end of the room. He indicated that tea should be served to Mayor McLaughlin and about twenty other guests who sat in two rows of chairs along either side of a center aisle. Then he began to speak.
“Right from the beginning, we become refugee. Our main concern is preservation of our identity. As far as identity is concerned, culture, language very, very important,” said the Dalai Lama.
Discussing the diaspora of the Tibetan community across the globe, he said, “Tibetan culture, Buddhist culture, is a culture of peace, culture of compassion. That kind of culture is really worthwhile to preserve.” He said that the Richmond community center was an important way of helping to pass on and maintain it.
After blessing statues in the hall and viewing long-term plans for the center, the Dalai Lama led the group back outside where volunteers had created a makeshift stage and large outdoor seating area. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the light breeze.
McLaughlin presented the Dalai Lama with a proclamation from the city of Richmond expressing solidarity for the struggle of the Tibetan people and commitment to the principles of human rights.
“On this auspicious occasion we are graced with the presence of an extraordinary man, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, a great man who humbly considers himself a simple Buddhist monk,” McLaughlin said. She went on to proclaim February 23, 2014 as “the Dalai Lama day of peace and compassion in the city of Richmond.”
Following the mayor’s remarks, the Dalai Lama addressed the crowd of around 250 people, speaking in Tibetan. Ngodup Tsering, a Richmond painter who worked extensively on the building, paraphrased his remarks.
“Most of his focus was saying, so far as Tibetan all over the world, people have the image, if you are Tibetan, you must be really kind and honest. That image we have built up over thousands of years. That’s really important to maintain that standard, but sometimes there are a few here and there [who are not kind and honest], but so far we are doing good,” Tsering said.
Some people wept as he spoke. Most held their hands in the prayer position, smiling as if with disbelief at their good fortune.
“It’s a dream come true, to hold his hand for a few seconds, Tsering later said, adding that he could die happily after this experience. “This was a real dream, to serve your teacher,” he said.
The motorcade pulled away from the curb, and the congregation rushed to follow the Dalai Lama to his next appointment, speaking at the Berkeley Community Theater on “How to Achieve Happiness.”
Before the Dalai Lama arrived at the theater on Allston Way, preparations had been under way for hours. An Oakland resident, Sonam Tseten, starting working as a volunteer at 5:30 a.m., ushering people into the area and checking tickets. Tseten grew up in India where he used to get to see the Dalai Lama every year when he would visit the Tibetan Children’s Village School. At 6 a.m., press were allowed to enter the site to set up their equipment before the building was swept by detection dogs to prevent any breaches in security.
“I feel lucky to be able to see and get blessed by him. It’s really a rare occasion. He is like a father to all Tibetans,” said Tseten.
Many who arrived to listen to the speech were Tibetan, but many, like Kersten Amchek from El Cerrito, just came for some good advice. “He gives advice about living life. His words are so universal; they can apply to any religion, any sect, not just Tibetan people,” Amchek said.
Around 10 a.m., ten Tibetan monks dressed in red and orange robes and wearing tall orange hats took the stage to chant and pray aloud.
When the Dalai Lama arrived at the theater, Tibetan children greeted him, performing the national anthems of both Tibet and America, followed by more traditional Tibetan songs.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced him to the crowd of around 3,000 people. “This is truly the heart and soul of the peace movement in America. We’re honored to have you here,” she said.
The Dalai Lama spoke for more than an hour, beginning with the statement that people have too much emphasis on “I” or “me,” and that the secret of achieving happiness lies in shifting this kind of thinking.
Speaking of humanity’s interconnectedness, he said, “Our future are interdependent. Obviously, East needs West. West needs East. North needs South. South needs North.”
At the conclusion of the speech, the Dalai Lama answered three questions, which had been submitted by the audience. The last question produced some smiles among the audience.
“What do you do for fun?”
“I think, like all seven billion people, eating,” the Dalai Lama said, drawing knowing laughter from the crowd.
However, the Dalai Lama’s visit to the East Bay was not without controversy. Outside the theater, a group of about 20 to 30 protestors gathered holding signs, which read “Hypocrisy,” and “Ostracism,” protesting what they said was his ban on their spiritual practice called Dorje Shugden, or Shugden Buddhism.
“We’re here to expose human rights violations and also religion discrimination imposed by the Dalai Lama,” said Len Foley the spokesperson for the group, and a 14-year practitioner of Shugden Buddhism.
He said the primary difference between Shugden Buddhism and mainstream Tibetan Buddhism is worship of Dorje Shugden, one of the deities who populates Buddhist tradition.
The Dalai Lama banned the practice in 1996, according to Foley, and this has resulted in ostracism and religious persecution for many Shugden practitioners in India and “wherever the Tibetan exile government is in effect.”
Tibetan writer and filmmaker Topden Tsering, who was born in Dharamsala and now lives in Richmond, said it’s a complicated controversy, but noted that among the protesters, “There was not one single Tibetan.” He said many Tibetans suspect that the Chinese government is funding the group as a way to damage the Dalai Lama’s reputation.
“It’s soft power they are using,” he said, appealing to Americans’ fascination with alternative religions.
Tsering said that the Dalai Lama has not asked anyone to stop worshipping, but he has said the spirit of Shugden is harmful to the Tibetan cause because it causes rancor and conflict and undermines the unity of Tibetan Buddhism’s four schools of thought. “Shugden tries to make themselves the most prominent voice,” Tsering said.
As the Dalai Lama pulled away from the Berkeley Community Center a Berkeley resident waved a large Tibetan flag over Allston Way. Curious onlookers and supporters strained for a last glimpse.