Emily Yaerwood-Lee, C-News, Canada: His Toronto event will be held at SkyDome and in Vancouver, tickets for two spiritual teaching events held in a 4,000-seat auditorium were snapped up in 20 minutes.
A fight reportedly broke out when a man who’d stood in line for tickets found out the appearance was sold out after the Vancouver event was moved to a 15,000-seat venue, the extra tickets were sold out within days. It was a different story when the Dalai Lama last visited Canada in 1993. About 4,000 turned out to see him in Vancouver.
Victor Chan, an organizer of the upcoming Vancouver visit who is also co-authoring a book with the Dalai Lama, suggested the Dalai Lama’s message of peace and compassion is one people are craving in a time of post Sept. 11 uncertainty.
He said the demand for spiritual teaching events is unprecedented.
“This is something I have not come across,” says Chan, who has travelled extensively with the Buddhist leader.
The Dalai Lama, whose celebrity supporters include actors Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, speaks of common secular ethics and said spiritual growth does not need to come from religious faith.
His mantra of non-violence has been his calling card since he and thousands of his countrymen fled their Himalayan homes in Tibet in 1959 and set up a government-in-exile in India.
The Chinese government claims Tibet as part of its territory and refuses to negotiate even limited autonomy with the Dalai Lama – who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for promoting human rights in his homeland – unless he acknowledges that authority.
Former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien both failed to meet the Dalai Lama during previous visits and it’s not known yet whether Paul Martin will see him.
But Thubten Samdup, national president of the Canada Tibet Committee, says one of the reasons for the Ottawa visit is to thank more than 100 MPs who he says have supported a campaign to have Canada facilitate negotiations between the Dalai Lama and China.
There is a bit of vindication in having his visit to Canada receive more attention this time around, agrees Samdup, who attributes the added interest to the Dalai Lama’s international profile.
“His name has become synonymous with non-violence and peace.”
It’s not just interest in the Dalai Lama that’s on the rise.
The 2001 census found the number of Buddhists in Canada increased 84 per cent over 10 years, representing about 300,000 people or roughly one per cent of the population.
The religion, with its many branches and spinoffs including various types of Tibetan Buddhism, has become attractive in the mainstream, says Suwanda Sugunasiri, founder of Toronto’s Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies and a former president of the Buddhist Council of Canada.
But he doubts the Tibetan style of Buddhism is responsible for much of the increase reflected in the census, attributing it instead to an increase in immigrants from other Buddhist countries.
Some of the religion’s popularity among North Americans could come from its hold on the media, says Frances Garrett, a Tibetan religion scholar at the University of Toronto.
“Probably because it’s kind of more picturesque,” says Garrett. “It films better.
“There are these highly exotic-looking rituals that are fascinating to people. Other forms of Buddhism … are more oriented to meditation and who wants to look at someone sitting on a meditation cushion?”
Its teachers may also seem more glamorous because of “their being exiled from Tibet and everyone’s very interested that they’ve been imprisoned,” says Garrett.
But for all of that interest, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism have often been misunderstood in the West, says Tsewang Thethong, a former minister from the government-in-exile who now lives in Victoria.
“The Dalai Lama was called the god-king, which he simply detests,” says Thethong. “Even we don’t use that word.”
The Dalai Lama, born in 1935, is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama and the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion.
He is viewed as an enlightened spiritual master.
But he “works very hard to make sure people do not cling to this idea that he is some kind of a supernatural being with some remarkable powers,” says Chan, who was in Prague with the Dalai Lama when a journalist insisted on asking about the holy man’s telepathic abilities.
“Her question to him was, ‘These days, do you tend to use more e-mail rather than telepathy, or do you use telepathy more?”
The reporter wouldn’t let up, “even after the Dalai Lama said he didn’t know anything about telepathy,” says Chan.
Samdup acknowledges Tibetans of his father’s generation would have viewed the Dalai Lama as a god-king.
“Those Tibetans who believe in him as the ultimate saviour, slowly that generation is dying,” he says.
“In my father’s time, Tibet was very isolated so religion played a very important role. In my life it doesn’t play that big a role.”
Samdup, who counts himself a Buddhist, says he appreciates the Dalai Lama’s humility.
He’s seen the teacher tell crowds they will be disappointed if they’ve come to see him perform a miracle.
“He really doesn’t want people to have this notion that all Buddhists are enlightened and Tibetans are super human beings. People tend to have these preconceived notions that they are all monks and nuns and elevate and fly around.”
For his part, Chan doesn’t expect many of the people who snapped up tickets to see the Dalai Lama are even that interested in his brand of Buddhism or want to become practitioners.
“For me, anyway, what the Dalai Lama represents are very universal, secular values,” says Chan. “He talks a lot about the warm heart. This is something universal that all the religions are advocating.
“It’s not Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism per say that attracts people. I think people are attracted to him because he transcends that.”
The Dalai Lama will be in Vancouver April 17-20, Ottawa April 21-24, and Toronto April 25-May 5.[Original article no longer available]