On April 20, while Mayor Mitch Landrieu was a few miles away launching his NOLA for Life nonviolence event in Algiers, the French Market filled with colorful Tibetan prayer flags — symbols of peace and compassion — to mark Prayer Flag Day in New Orleans. That two events, coordinated separately and coincidentally, called for peace at the same hour had underscored the message relayed by political and religious leaders in preparation for the Dalai Lama's first-ever visit to New Orleans this week.
At the market, a few dozen people gathered as Tibetan Buddhist monks, business leaders, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and New Orleans first lady Cheryl Landrieu announced Prayer Flag Day as the beginning of a symbolic red carpet of peace messages a few weeks before the arrival of the Dalai Lama, who visits New Orleans this week.
"The Dalai Lama's message is one of peace and reconciliation and consolation," Aymond said. "As you and I know, closer to home, daily we have murder and violence and the effects of racism. We believe the message of His Holiness is an important one, not just for the world but for us as a city."
The 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists exiled in Dharamsala, India, will address the public in two sold-out talks at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and UNO Lakefront Arena. He also will address students during the 2013 Tulane University commencement ceremony and the "Resilience: Strength Through Compassion and Connection" academic conference.
"Many cities can speak about resilience, but New Orleans has been through so much in the past few years, it really knows what it means to be a resilient city and stand back up after adversity," Landrieu said. "Individuals and communities can be resilient, and we have both here."
The Dalai Lama's visit was coordinated via Tulane University's School of Social Work. For more than a decade, professor Ron Marks has arranged annual visits to Dharamsala with his graduate students. Marks partnered with alumnus Neil Guidry, who established the Louisiana Himalaya Connection, to organize a student trip "to allow students to be deeply immersed into a community, develop social programs, and equally as important, to really confront a different ways of organizing communities, different ways of being, and different orientations in the world," Marks says.
The first group of students traveled to Dharamsala in September 2002. The four-week service-learning program makes its 12th trip this year.
"Over these years I've established this connection with the community," Marks says. "We've just become deeply connected to the community. ... When it came time to think, 'What's the next step?' we thought it's time to invite the Dalai Lama to New Orleans and recognize the connection."
Marks hand-delivered the invitation (of which the Dalai Lama receives thousands each year), and four months later, the Dalai Lama's office accepted. (Marks received confirmation via email while driving back from weekend camping in the swamps. "I hadn't had email in two days," he says. "I turned my cellphone and email on. Fortunately I wasn't driving. I jumped up and down.")
"His visit more than anything is going to be an opportunity for us in the West, in New Orleans, to realize that so much of the emphasis is on developing the mind," Marks says. "What I believe he'll want to manifest in New Orleans is to develop a heart. That speaks to his essence of compassionate behavior."
Students at the School of Social Work provide service through more than 75 local organizations, including schools, hospitals, post-Katrina assistance programs, and in Plaquemines Parish following the BP oil disaster. Students also perform internships globally, serving in destinations as far flung as Rwanda, Jordan and the Middle East.
"Our curriculum is really relationship-centered," Marks says. "We really strongly believe in recognizing the value of relationships ... contextualized as part of a community."
With the annual trip to Dharamsala, Marks says students are encouraged to question Western paradigms and see how spirituality forms the fabric of a community, with "understanding" being a contributing factor to one's happiness.
"Students take that away, and sometimes they leave with a real profound understanding and sometimes they leave with a profound question," Marks says. "Of course they also take away a tremendous respect of Tibetan people for their resilience."
Nestled among the Himalayas, Tibet has remained under Chinese control since 1950, following generations of political turmoil. The Tibetan government in exile, established by the Dalai Lama in 1959, remains in Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his efforts to help liberate Tibet.
"Tibetans are essentially refugees with a tremendous capacity for resilience," Marks says. "How they work together as a community — whether or not driven by Buddhism — and their way of recognizing happiness can come from compassion. Our students embrace that."
Three of Marks' students created a curriculum for New Orleans schools that translates the Dalai Lama's messages on ethical behavior. The curriculum, used by the Youth Empowerment Project, is driven by the ideas of interdependence, nonviolence and compassion.
Tulane alum Laura Hasenstein, who joined the Dharamsala trip last year and is a member of the Dalai Lama Outreach Team in New Orleans, helped write the curriculum, which includes six 30-minute sessions for children, teens and adults. The first session provides some context and background on the Dalai Lama. "A lot of people don't really know who the Dalai Lama is," Hasenstein says. "Or maybe they do, but they don't understand why he's important."
The following sessions discuss compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, resilience and happiness, "all pulling from traditional Tibetan practices, so students learn about that area of the world," Hasenstein says.
Among the public events planned in recognition of the Dalai Lama's visit is a Tibetan bazaar opening May 14 at the Convention Center, where monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery will sell Tibetan crafts and goods. The monastery was founded in Tibet in 1416, and its monks moved to India following the closure and destruction of thousands of monasteries by Chinese authorities. In 1991, the monks established a nonprofit organization and monastery in Atlanta and incorporated with Emory University.
The monks also will create a sand mandala, a large colored-sand painting made over four days. On May 17, a procession will bring the mandala to the Mississippi River, where it will be ceremoniously dispersed. The convention center will be open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 14-17. The bazaar also will open at the Lakefront Arena from noon to 4:30 p.m. May 18.
A film series at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center screens several films exploring Tibet, Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, including live streams of his public talks — the Dalai Lama will address "strength through compassion" at the convention center on May 17 and "strength through connection" at the Lakefront Arena on May 18.
Swan River Yoga hosts meditations and discussions throughout the week, and a closing concert at the Old U.S. Mint at 8 p.m. May 18 features Tibetan singer-songwriter Techung and Lhasa Spirits with African drum and jazz outfit Africa Brass. Chua Bo De Buddhist Temple hosts two public talks at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. May 19.
Visit www.dalailamanola.com for more information and a full schedule of events.