Tibetans in Iowa Eager for Dalai Lama Visit

The Dalai Lama gestures as he talks with University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson on Sunday, May 16, 2010. The Dalai Lama is visiting to mark the opening of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which is directed by Davidson. (AP Photo/Ryan J. Foley)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY (AP) — Tenzin Dhargyal struggled to express the meaning of the Dalai Lama's visit to Cedar Falls on Tuesday. He said it's hard to explain to outsiders how the refugee community of Tibetans regard the man who they believe has postponed his own nirvana to serve humanity.

"The moment (Tibetans) came into exile, when we were nothing, the only people we knew on this earth were the sky and the earth." Dhargyal said. "He led us out. Whenever we feel sad, when we feel depressed, we just listen to his speeches, look on his face and all of your problems, all your sorrows disappear."

"There is some kind of power that we cannot explain. We are nothing without him."

Dhargyal, a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa, said the Dalai Lama's visit is an unexpected and welcome reminder of the place and people Dhargyal left when he arrived in Cedar Falls in January. It's also a rare opportunity to meet face-to-face with the man he believes is the reincarnation of the patron saint of Tibet.

"I won't have the opportunity to see him in my country," Dhargyal said. "We don't expect to see His Holiness in person, we don't even dream of that."

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader will focus on education during events at UNI, including a panel discussion and an afternoon speech.

Tuesday's visit will be the 74-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate's first to Iowa, part of a six-day trip through Midwestern states — he has already given two speeches in Indiana, and was scheduled to give a talk in Madison, Wis., on Sunday. He will stay overnight in an undisclosed location in Cedar Falls, then travel to New York.

The Dalai Lama has led a self-declared government-in-exile in India since 1959, when he fled Tibet. China sent occupying forces to the region in 1949, and peace talks in 1954 between Tibet and China failed.

He has visited the U.S. dozens of times, and has been to nearby Indiana six times, where his brother founded the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington.

But why Cedar Falls, a small college town little known outside Iowa?

"We asked ourselves that same question," said Rebecca Schultze of UNI's marketing department.

Northern Iowa has had a relationship with Tibet since 1994, one of about a dozen universities that participate in the Tibet Fund, which brings in three or four Tibetan students each year. Northern Iowa has hosted about 30 students total, and most of them, like Dhargyal, study education.

The school originally extended an invitation to the Dalai Lama in September 2007. Representatives from Northern Iowa traveled to India in 2008, were granted an audience and worked with the Dalai Lama's office to bring him to Iowa.

The Dalai Lama faces calls within the Tibetan exile community to take a harder stance against China and push for full independence. Yeshi Lama, president of the Northern Iowa Tibetan Students Organization, said she understands that harder political line, but thinks the Dalai Lama's push for education of Tibetan students and autonomy for Tibet will win out in the end.

"His agenda has always made education a priority," Lama said. "He emphasizes that Tibetan students have to be educated, to use it as a tool to make things better. Violence and things like it are not going to lead to any permanent solutions."

Lama is studying education as a graduate student at Northern Iowa, and was pleased when told that the subject of the Dalai Lama's speech in Cedar Falls is "The Power of Education."

"It's like, as a Tibetan, we have an extra responsibility compared to any other child who was blessed with a country of their own," Lama said. "As refugees, we have to work extra hard."

Both Dhargyal and Lama hope to return to schools in India, where they taught children of Tibetan descent before coming to Iowa. Lama said many students at her school in India made the harsh monthlong journey across parts of the Himalayas to reach India, and arrived lacking basic writing and math skills.

She hopes that she will be able to teach English, "the universal language," to those students. She wants them to be exposed to opportunities that a generation of Tibetan exiles never got.

Dhargyal appreciates the significance of the moment and said he's having a difficult time waiting for Tuesday's visit.

"We are just waiting anxiously," Dhargyal said. "We are in the University of Northern Iowa, we don't have anybody here, we are just brought to a place where we don't have any familiar faces.

"This news about His Holiness coming here, it's like our own parents."

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