Sun Valley's Buddhist Woodstock showcases U.S. interest in eastern religion


SUN VALLEY, Idaho (USA) -- It was a Buddhist Woodstock, Sun Valley-style.

More than 15,000 people, including business leaders, congressmen and former ambassadors, gathered in this mountain resort to listen to the Dalai Lama during a series of speaking engagements commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Celebrities came on million-dollar jets. Schoolchildren came by the busload.

On a high school football field where public events were held, Tibetan and Nepalese immigrants prostrated themselves on the grass to the man they consider the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha, next to Idaho natives just curious to hear what the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize had to say.

From the time Buddhism was formally introduced to the U.S. at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, this 2,500-year-old religion from the Indian subcontinent has been on the march in America. No man has been more important to this than the Dalai Lama, who since his 1959 exile from Chinese-occupied Tibet has transformed Buddhism's perception from an austere eastern religion into what many see as an antidote to 21st-century angst.

"He's shifted the focus, from Tibet, in particular, to worldwide secular issues such as peace and harmony and reconciliation," said Hiroshi Obayashi, chair of the religious studies department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where the Dalai Lama speaks Sept. 25. "He made worldwide travels, bringing this message. That's attracted sympathy and interest, particularly from the United States. Out of sympathy, gradually, it developed into a cult-like curiosity."

The Sun Valley visit ends Wednesday, with a meeting with 100 religious leaders.

Unlike Western religions, Buddhism doesn't have a monotheistic deity. Its adherents believe there's no such thing as a permanent identity; instead, the human personality and all of reality are constantly changing.

"Your friend, your enemy, your neutral - all are equal," the Dalai Lama said Monday morning to a private audience including U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., Alan Blinken, the former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. "Genuine compassion is unbiased."

Sun Valley - birthplace to the western ski resort in 1936, land of author Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper, vacation getaway to Arnold Schwarzenegger - is a long way from the Nepalese mountains where Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was born a prince around 500 B.C., only to eventually give up his wealth amid a search for a means to end life's universal suffering.

Still, Kiril Sokoloff, the financial adviser and Buddhist who spent $1 million to lure the Dalai Lama here for 5 days, said the valley's elevation at 5,800 feet above sea-level was the perfect platform to disseminate positive vibrations.

"There are a million people you want to bring happiness to," Sokoloff said of the event, portions of which were televised on CNN. "The Dalai Lama's way to find happiness is to control your mind and not allow negative thoughts to come in."

There were Catholics, Protestants and atheists in the crowds this week, each of whom was given a "Khata," or traditional Tibetan shawl, on their way into the Wood River High School football stadium. Volunteers wore T-shirts bearing the image of the Dalai Lama. Mary Gin Barron, a teacher from Hailey, hoped to incorporate his message of compassion into a lesson for her 5th graders.

Some in Idaho protested Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's advocacy of the Sun Valley event as a violation of church and state, and at least one Rutgers' alumnus in New Jersey has lambasted that state-supported school's decision to hold the event on a Sunday morning, when he'll be competing with Christian church services.

Still, the spiritual leader to the world's 20 million Tibetan Buddhists remains a figure whose message of nonviolence, reconciliation and moderation appears to reach beyond traditional sectarian frontiers - much the same as the late Pope John Paul II, the Polish Catholic leader who died April 2.

"They straddle two worlds. Pope John Paul II often traveled around the world, urging ends to conflicts, or speaking on other topics that were ostensibly secular. So does the Dalai Lama," said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based group that fights government promotion of events linked to religious leaders - but generally lays off criticizing Dalai Lama appearances. "Certainly there are a lot of people who are interested in the Dalai Lama's message who aren't Buddhists."