Dalai Lama blesses family hit by tragedy

The Associated Press, Sept 13, 2005

HAILEY, Idaho (USA) -- Willow Jack, a dancer from Idaho's Lemhi Shoshone Indian tribe, lost her husband and 4-year-old daughter in an Aug. 12 car crash on a southern Montana highway.

On Monday, one month later, the Fort Hall woman was in this resort town south of Sun Valley, where she met the Dalai Lama at a ceremony attended by some 5,000 Idaho children and their families.

Though they practice different faiths, Jack, 24, said meeting the 70-year-old holy man to 20 million Tibetan Buddhists and having him bless her surviving son, Nakeezaka Jack, 6, helped ease her sadness.

She was injured in the crash and doctors have said her crushed pelvis will keep her from walking - and dancing - for at least another year.

"I think we ended up in the right place," Jack said from her wheelchair. "He (the Dalai Lama) put his arms around me and hugged me and said, 'Everything is going to be OK from now on.' "

The afternoon event at the Wood River High School football field was a ceremony that crossed the boundaries of religion, emphasizing the human qualities that earned the Dalai Lama the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for urging a nonviolent resolution to the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

He was invited to Idaho by financial adviser and Buddhist Kiril Sokoloff, who spent $1 million to organize the event, including an address to U.S. business and finance leaders at Sokoloff's Ketchum home and Sunday's speech to 10,000 people to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On Monday afternoon, the Dalai Lama arrived in a light rain, walking slowly beneath a white-and-blue umbrella near a row of children holding colorful banners. Once on stage, he honored 18 Idaho children who'd won essay contests about compassion.

One of them, Tsering Tsomo, 14, from the Boise suburb of Meridian, was a Tibetan immigrant whose mother in 1991 won one of 1,000 places in a U.S. immigration lottery allowing her to come to America. In her essay, Tsomo wrote that her mother had shown compassion by agreeing to leave her husband and two daughters behind for seven years, to establish a life in Idaho before they joined her there.

"The 20th century has been a century of bloodshed," the Dalai Lama told the kids. "The present century, because of our past experience, should be a century of peace. The new shapers of the planet are you, the young children."

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has endured some criticism for his advocacy of the visit, with complaints that the event crossed the line separating church and state in largely Mormon and Catholic Idaho. His aides rejected the barbs, saying the Dalai Lama's stature as the exiled leader of Tibet - he fled following a failed uprising against the Chinese in 1959 - transcends religion.

"There's been a lot of effort put into this to make sure the line wasn't crossed," said Mike Journee, Kempthorne's press secretary. "He's an international figure. That's what this was about."

For their part, the children in the audience - who came on buses from Pocatello, Boise, Idaho Falls and much of the southern part of the state - seemed genuinely tickled by the Dalai Lama.

"I mostly liked his facial expressions, the way he smiled," said Hans Howard, 17, who'd taken 11 a.m. release from Wood River High School to watch the man this valley has been talking about since his visit was first announced in January. "He was so happy. It just spread."

After it was over and the Dalai Lama had been whisked off to his next private meeting, 12 members of Willow Jack's extended family helped transfer her from her wheelchair to a waiting white minivan for the drive back to Fort Hall.

"Holy men, regardless of where they come from, are respected by Indians because we share the same spiritual depth," Jack said.

She said she learned something about caring following the death of her husband and daughter, and before she learned she'd walk again, when residents of Butte, Mont., donated food and visited her in the hospital to help keep her spirits up.

"If there's anything in the world this has taught me, it's that the most powerful thing in the world is compassion," she said.