By Alex Distefano
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The Dalai Lama's black-and-white likeness used to hang on a downtown building facade, encouraging consumers to "Think Different." In the recent American past, Buddhism, manifesting its signature go-with-the-flow malleability, has looked like a rock concert sponsored by a sneaker company; Hollywood actors and celebrity musicians are attracted to its contemplative allure. In the wake of 9-11, though, it seemed that sentiments of nonviolencea cornerstone of Buddhist practicehad fallen out of fashion. It's been over four years since Tenzin GyatsoHis Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, now 68, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet for most of his life and the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prizelast visited Manhattan.
In The New York Times18 months ago, it was suggested that the Dalai Lama's absence was evidence of declining interest in Buddhism, especially after he canceled a three-day scheduled appearance at Radio City Music Hall in April 2002 (due to a stomach virus, as it turned out). With all eyes still on the Middle East, many have lost track of the ongoing struggle for Tibetan independence, but has there really been a backlash against Buddhism?
(What is it about Hollywood stars and their fervor for religion? Tom Cruise and his chichi Scientology. Mel Gibson's ultra-conservative Holy Family Church in Malibu, and his upcoming film about Christ, which depicts Jews as bloodthirsty. Richard Gere's chumminess with the Dalai Lama. Getting access to religion has never felt so much like a velvet rope affair.)
The Dalai Lama comes back strong in September, with the hype of a concert tour. Earlier this month a brand-new 30-by-40-foot billboard was erected across from the Condé Nast building on Times Square, announcing the Tibetan leader's arrival for the largest coordinated series of Buddhist-related events ever to occur in the U.S.
New York is the last and longest stop on the Dalai Lama's five-city, 20-day U.S. trip, an itinerary that includes sold-out talks and appearances in San Francisco; Bloomington, Indiana; Washington, D.C.; and Boston. Sponsored in part by Tibet Center, the visit is being organized by the Initiatives Foundation, Richard Gere's public charity, which provides health and educational services to countries in need.
Gere, instrumental in bringing the Dalai Lama to town in 1999, was booed by Madison Square Garden audiences attending a 9-11 benefit concert for preaching compassion as a response to terrorism. This time he's making sure the message of peace and inter-religious harmony is heard well before the spiritual leader's arrival on September 16. Gere has attracted the donated aid of the Civic Entertainment Group and Lloyd and Company, along with hundreds of volunteers, to aggressively promote the event with a large radio and print advertising campaign. According to Lloyd managing director Jodi Sweetbaum, the Times Square billboard, which features a simple, iconic photo taken by American-born Tibetan monk Nicky Vreeland (the grandson of former Vogue fashion editor Diana Vreeland), "has a strong, visually arresting message that is not driven by conceptual copy." Kind of like the Nike swoosh.
The Dalai Lama's appearances include a four-day series of traditional Buddhist teachings to be held at the Beacon Theater and a free public ecumenical address in Central Park at noon on Sunday, September 21. In addition, he will be present at a Lincoln Center benefit performance co-sponsored by Gere and composer Philip Glass. Many of the events are already fully booked; it's evident that a lot of New Yorkers not only want peace of mind, but are willing to pay for it.
Single-day tickets for the 3,000-person-capacity Beacon event sold out by late July. (So did the 280 V.I.P. tickets costing $3,000.) Those who want to access the inner sanctum at the Beacon will have to spend as much as $400 for a four-day pass, of which only a few remain. If this sounds like a lot (compared to the $15 to $50 you would have paid to attend a one-day talk by Vietnamese monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hahn at the Beacon on August 17), consider that all proceeds from the event will be used to underwrite the free Central Park talk.
According to Jennifer Greenfield, executive director of Gere's foundation, the Beacon and the Central Park events are intended to function interdependentlya fundamental Buddhist tenet. "The one was meant to subsidize the other," she said.
What will ticket holders get? The Beacon discourses will be based on two philosophical Tibetan texts, somewhat technical in nature; they're geared toward students of Tibetan Buddhism primarily, though still accessible to practitioners of other Buddhist traditions. Central Park will likely attract more non-Buddhists or "Buddhist-friendlies," from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Josh Baran, media coordinator for the event, said the free talk was inspired by the Buddha's own 2,500-year-old example of teaching from beneath the shade of a tree. In the park there'll be an enormous stage instead, but the sentiment holdsyou'll just have to bring your own shade.
Those who were frustrated with the Dalai Lama's Central Park appearance in 1999when the crowds overflowed into the North Meadow, making it difficult to hear or seewill be happy that efforts are being made this time to let them catch more than a speck of saffron robe in the distance. Additional JumboTron television screens will be set up, as well as a substantially enhanced stereo broadcast system with more sound towers"equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Greenfield. Crowd control will be much improved.