NEW ORLEANS — He is the son of farmers from a small mountain village in the northeast corner of Tibet, revered from childhood as the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Buddhist god of compassion, and since 1959 the exiled keeper of all-but-extinguished hopes to loosen China’s hold on the Tibetan plateau.
To his followers, he is simply His Holiness. For heads of state such as Barack Obama, he is a recurring foreign policy conundrum, a choice between solidarity with the oppressed or diplomatic progress with a rising China. And to the Chinese Communist Party, he is a dangerous, rabble-rousing separatist.
But for Ronald Marks, the Tulane University professor whose hand-delivered invitation is responsible for bringing the Dalai Lama to New Orleans this week, he is something more profound: the bearer of a particularly timely message about “how we are all in fact deeply connected in a fundamental way, and how through that connection we can realize more compassionate behavior toward each other.”
It is that message, Marks said, that keeps thousands gravitating to the Dalai Lama’s public appearances when he visits the United States twice each year. The Dalai Lama serves as spiritual leader for the world’s Tibetan Buddhists, but propounds a philosophy that reaches beyond religious boundaries, elaborated on in dozens of books and speeches during his years as leader of an exiled community.
Though Marks extended his invitation long before last month’s bombings in Boston or Sunday’s mass shooting in the 7th Ward, he expects the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion to resonate all the more for its timing.
“It just takes one stupid, crazy person with a weapon to wreak havoc — someone who doesn’t care about themselves or others,” Marks said. The Dalai Lama’s philosophy is about “engendering a much more compassionate world. That’s the message.”
And many will hear it. Marks said the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the Convention Center on Friday in a room that accommodates more than 4,000 people sold out in less than two hours. Saturday afternoon he will be at the University of New Orleans in front of a sold-out crowd of 8,500. Both events will be simulcast online.
Events surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit began Tuesday with a chorus of chanting monks who began the intricate labor of layering colored sand into a large geometric pattern, a tradition known as a sand mandala. On Friday afternoon, they will let it slip into the Mississippi River.
The Dalai Lama himself will arrive on Friday after stops in Wisconsin and Oregon, then head on to Louisville. Organizers said it will be his first trip not only to New Orleans but the American South, a milestone for a figure who has been traveling the world for decades in the hopes of keeping Tibet’s story from slipping into history.
Nine years after China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama fled, establishing a government in exile in Dharamsala, India, from which he has attempted to chart a “middle way” between demanding outright independence for Tibetans and the continuation of complete Chinese control. It has been a balancing act between a longing for independence and a strict aversion to violence or confrontation.
He has managed by energetic diplomacy to keep the Tibetan cause in the public eye, enlisting Hollywood celebrities such as Richard Gere to campaign for greater awareness and pressure political figures. In 1990, he published a poignant memoir, describing a childhood split between intense religious tutelage and tinkering with the innards of watches and clocks in the grand Potala Palace in Lhasa before his dramatic flight to India.
His output since then has been prolific, with books whose titles belong almost as much to the self-help category as to the religious: “The Art of Happiness” and “The Way to a Meaningful Life.”
He has an active Twitter account with nearly seven million followers that dispenses the type of avuncular aphorisms that followers are used to hearing during public appearances: “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”
Because the Chinese still accuse the Dalai Lama of stoking an independence movement in Tibet — something he denies — his visits to foreign leaders typically draw controversy. Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in 2009 rather than risk derailing his first visit to China, then met with him in 2011 amid protests from Chinese diplomats.
Marks said he doesn’t expect to hear too much about politics during the Dalai Lama’s visit to New Orleans. “I don’t think he’s coming here to make a political statement or advance the cause,” he said. “He’s coming here to provide his message of human values and respect.”
Marks, who has been taking graduate students to Dharamsala for more than a decade, speaks in almost reverential terms about seeing the Dalai Lama speak in person, but said he doesn’t identify himself as religious.
“It’s the ideas and the philosophy that I find to be deeply satisfying,” Marks said. “I think most people understand what he stands for, and being in his presence is a huge deal. Being in his presence leaves you feeling elevated.”