Tibetan seminar strikes a chord

by David Frey, Aspen Daily News, July 24, 2008

Aspen, CO (USA) -- A chant rose up from 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks as the Aspen Institute opened its celebration of Tibetan art and culture on Wednesday. In red and orange robes and fringed crescent headwear, they stood behind a mandala sand painting taking shape grain by grain and intoned a deep and guttural sound that filled the room.

“Listen closely,” said Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, spiritual director of the monks’ Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta, Ga., as the crowd gathered around, sipping drinks and munching hors d’oeuvres.

If the sound was unusual, the Tibetan culture behind it is an increasingly familiar one, both throughout the Western world and in the Roaring Fork Valley. Prayer flags flutter from front porches here. “Free Tibet” bumper stickers proliferate. A Tibetan flag was recently planted on the top of Shadow Mountain. Tibetan Buddhist meditation groups gather in homes and churches throughout the valley. Across the country and much of the world, the Dalai Lama enjoys superstar status, selling out sports arenas when he talks about peace and love.

His appearances on Friday and Saturday at the Aspen Institute’s “His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Aspen: A Celebration of Tibetan Culture” symposium comes at a time when Tibet is at the forefront of world attention. Pro-Tibetan demonstrations have raged inside and outside China as the upcoming Beijing Olympics focus attention on the country that seized Tibet and sent the Dalai Lama, along with other key religious figures and thousands of Tibetans, across the Himalayas as refugees.

“It’s a very opportune moment,” said Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs at the Aspen Institute.

The institute had been working for about 1 1/2 years to bring the Tibetan spiritual leader to speak, Boone said. She noted that the Dalai Lama had visited the institute’s Washington offices, and institute representatives convinced him that they share common ideals such as dialogue and global citizenry.

“He is about, and will speak about, global values, global leadership, universal values,” Boone said.

The Dalai Lama’s visit is the focus of a three-day symposium that will examine a variety of aspects of Tibetan life, politics and culture. The event taps into a current of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the valley. Unrelated to the institute’s activities, the Roaring Fork Friends of Tibet are hosting a hospitality tent at Gondola Plaza and have brought the Gaden Shartse monks to perform a variety of religious rituals, including a blessing of Friday’s Carbondale Mountain Fair.

The Summit Dharma Center, a statewide Tibetan Buddhist group, hosted Buddhist author and teacher Sogyal Rinpoche on Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome. Organizers hoped the events would offer ways for the public to get a taste of Tibetan Buddhism, even if the institute’s events were sold out.

“Aspen’s going to be an epicenter for spirituality for this week,” said Erik Vienneau, spokesman for the Summit Dharma Center.

Colorado’s ties to Tibetan Buddhism can be traced to the early 1970s, when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Shambhala Mountain Center, and, later, Boulder’s Naropa University. Born in Tibet in 1940, he fled across the Himalayas to northern India in 1959 after the Chinese invasion. Trungpa turned Colorado spiritual seekers on to Tibetan Buddhism, and over the years its influence spread.

The valley’s mountaineering culture has turned many residents and visitors on to Himalayan cultures, too.

“Back in the old days, at least for me, you’d go to these places for the mountains,” said Glenwood Springs resident Andy Crisconi, owner of One World Trekking, which leads groups on Himalayan adventures. “The more you go, and maybe it’s the older you get, the cultural aspects of these trips is really more interesting and really what keeps people going back.”

The Aspen Institute events have sold out, including 4,000 people set to fill the Benedict Music Tent to hear the Dalai Lama speak. Interest was so strong that the institute even distributed tickets for free lawn seats, and people waited in line for hours to snatch them up.

The Roaring Fork Valley isn’t alone, though. Buddhism is flourishing in the Western world, even as its popularity wanes in parts of the East.

“You can say Buddhism is truly a practical wisdom for the modern world,” Sogyal Rinpoche said to hundreds who filled the Jerome ballroom to hear him. “Buddhism is a breath of fresh air,” Vienneau said. “It really helps you to calm down and remember that clarity in your life. You can do all the things you do as a crazy American, but you do them a little saner.”

The Dalai Lama’s message of compassion has resounded throughout the world, crossed religious boundaries and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

“He walks the walk and talks the talk,” Tensin said. “First and foremost, he is a practitioner. That becomes very obvious. People sense that sincerity and the message, and I think that’s what makes the message so powerful.”

There will be live coverage of the Dalai Lama’s talk on Saturday at 11 a.m. at www.aspeninstitute.org and www.grassrootstv.org. Additionally, GrassRoots will televise the 90-minute event live from the Benedict Music Tent on Comcast cable, and Free Speech TV will do the same for Dish Network viewers on Channel 9415.
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