Dalai Lama to speak at Rutgers University

BY JEFF DIAMANT, Star-Ledger Staff, Sept 23, 2005

Rutgers students pose 300 questions for Buddhist leader

Rutgers, New Jersey (USA) -- Can Western notions of God survive critical thinking? How can people avoid everyday opportunities for evil? And what's the best way to stay spiritually mindful in upsetting places like, say, the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour?

These are among the 300 questions written by Rutgers students that will be given to the Dalai Lama, the congenial spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, before his visit to Rutgers Stadium on Sunday.

The 41,000-seat Rutgers Stadium in New Brunswick is expected to be filled for the Dalai Lama's 90-minute appearance where he will deliver a public lecture titled, "Peace, War and Reconciliation," and take questions. Today is the last day to buy remaining tickets that as of last night numbered 8,000, said Nicole Pride, a university spokeswoman.

After he speaks for the first half of his 10:30 a.m. presentation, the Dalai Lama will answer some of the students' questions, only a few of which are related to Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, just a minority of the crowd is expected to be Buddhist, as the Dalai Lama, viewed as a universal force for compassion, appeals to many Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

In 1989, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle against Chinese rule of Tibet. With his home base in Dharamsala, India, he has used trips abroad to lobby foreign leaders to pressure Chinese leadership to allow Tibetan autonomy.

"This man probably has more noncontroversial recognition and celebrity than anyone on the planet," said G. Howard Miller, a history professor at University of Texas at Austin who has taught about religion and popular culture. "In our culture we are so starved for celebrities ... whom we can unreservedly honor as men and women of integrity."

The world's most famous Buddhist is unlikely to speak much about Buddhism on Sunday, said Hiroshi Obayashi, a theology professor who is chairman of Rutgers' religion department.

"He's not bringing out Buddhist theological teachings, but he addresses common themes using Buddhist kind of flavor," Obayashi said. "If he talked about Buddhist doctrines, Buddhist concepts, he would lose the audience."

 But if he won't detail major tenets of Buddhism such as its Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, the Lama is likely to connect the religion's broad themes to everyday life, Obayashi said.

"His major point is, with Buddhist teaching there's no ego to really obsess about. ... If you realize that ego is not an important foundation of our lives, we can easily find the common ground. That's a Buddhist approach, but the real issue is the common universal theme of reconciliation."

This will be the Dalai Lama's fourth trip to New Jersey since 1979. Already this month, the saffron-robed monk has charmed adoring crowds in Arizona, Idaho and Texas. He speaks tomorrow in Manhattan, and will speak again in Manhattan right after his Rutgers address.

He has long been popular in the United States, for reasons spiritual and otherwise.

His book "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" was a best-seller in 1998, and new titles are published regularly. He has posed in widely seen Apple computer commercials.

And, less seriously, he was famously mentioned in a scene of the 1980 screwball comedy movie "Caddyshack," when a delusional greenskeeper played by Bill Murray told of a mystical encounter with the Lama during a supposed round of golf.

His fame is a draw for many people coming Sunday, several Rutgers students with tickets said this week. But for others, there is a sincere longing to hear something profound.

"My mom recently passed away from cancer," said Dana Wall, a sophomore who described herself as a nonpracticing Catholic. "I'm looking for something else to believe, something to give me personal comfort."

The Dalai Lama, born Lhamo Thondup to a farming family in 1935, was determined by a Tibetan government search party to be the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama -- the Buddha of Compassion -- when he was 3 years old, five years after his predecessor died.

He became the spiritual leader of Tibet at age 4, and soon afterwards became a monk. He has been exiled from Tibet since 1959, when he fled to India from Tibet during a failed uprising against Chinese Communist leadership, which conquered Tibet in 1951.