News and Tribune

February 5, 2013

BEAM: An opportunity that’s come full circle

By AMANDA BEAM
Local columnist

— Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a Buddhist monk by his orange robes. 

When I first met Professor Thubten Norbu in Bloomington back in the 1990s, few would have suspected him by looks alone of being the former abbot of one of the largest monasteries in Tibet. When he entered the shoe store where I worked, he resembled all the other customers, a man wearing slacks and white tennis shoes. No traditional ceremonial dress. No shaved head. 

Yet, even without his sacred robes, Norbu radiated kindness and compassion. After meeting him only once, you knew he was special regardless of what he wore. Maybe all the trials and tribulations of escaping his Tibetan homeland were etched into his weathered hands. Or perhaps it was his decades of Buddhist training that were reflected in his gentle smile.

More than five years ago, Norbu died at the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, the Bloomington institution he helped found. While he no longer strolls the center’s grounds, his mission of preserving and promoting Tibetan culture still thrives in its hallowed halls today.

Did I mention Professor Norbu had a younger brother? You’ve probably seen him once or twice sitting cross legged in his bright Buddhist robes and black framed glasses. Norbu’s sibling, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will arrive in Louisville for a much-heralded three day visit this May. Like his brother in Bloomington, His Holiness has a similar mission of promoting Tibetan culture, compassion and interfaith dialogue throughout the world. 

In anticipation of this event, I’ll be writing a series of stories chronicling the different ways Hoosiers will be preparing for the arrival of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as the state of Tibet today. Even though the Dalai Lama will present his multicultural teachings in Louisville, the spirit of the occasion will surely travel across the river to our Indiana shores. 

Last Thursday, I underwent a small pilgrimage of my own when I traveled around the southern part of the state in search of more knowledge about the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan homeland. My journey first took me to Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., where I met with Dr. David Carlson, professor of philosophy and religion, Rev. David Weatherspoon, the campus minister and Lisa Morrison, the Director of Media and Public Relations for the Dalai Lama Louisville. 

Franklin College is a small school with a big vision. Under the guidance of Carlson and Weatherspoon, the students and staff at Franklin hope to promote a better understanding between people of different cultures and faiths. 

In 2011, the college hosted a group of Buddhist monks who painstakingly constructed an intricate sand mandala. Carlson described how the students’ interest and attitudes changed during the short time it took to construct the circle. 

Learning about other religions doesn’t make you less of a Christian, he said. It only serves to reinforce the reasons you believe the way you do to begin with. As the Dalai Lama’s visit grows nearer, we’ll explore some of these interfaith initiatives both at Franklin and throughout Indiana in more detail.

After spending the afternoon in Franklin, I followed Morrison to Bloomington for a tour of the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, one of the most influential monasteries in America. While she’s normally promoting the center to the press, Morrison’s life and involvement with Buddhism is a story in and of itself. 

How did a Christian girl living in the Hoosier heartland end up as the event PR person for one of the most recognizable religious leaders in the world? Good question. More intriguing still is why she refuses to be paid for all her hard work and insists on volunteering all those countless hours. We’ll learn all about Morrison in a later writing.

And then there are the Buddhist practitioners and other Tibetans exiles who have escaped the repressive Chinese regime that has taken over their country. Even today, Buddhist monks and nuns burn themselves in the streets of their towns to protest the repression and attempted eradication of their religion and culture. 

While dining at the restaurant Anyetsang’s Little Tibet that night, Morrison introduced me to its namesake and owner Thupten Anyetsang. Anyetsang grew up in Tibet and experienced firsthand the aftermath of the occupation. He lost his father, a Khampa warrior, to this struggle for Tibetan independence.

Firsthand accounts like Anyetsangs must be told so future generations of all nationalities can understand the true history of the Tibetan people. I hope, in upcoming accounts, to do justice to their plight.

Buddhists believe life is cyclical, like a turning wheel or the never-ending phases of the moon. Somehow, even as a Christian, I feel I’ve been riding a Tibetan carousel throughout my own life. 

In 1996, I had that chance encounter with Professor Norbu. Two years later in Beijing, I witnessed an older man wearing a paper hat unroll a long scroll in Tiananmen Square. His protest was a silent one, but it stays with me loud and clear even today. 

I don’t know what happened to that man after the Chinese security hauled him away for opposing their Tibetan rule. But with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Louisville, I’m reminded of the protester I observed so long ago. 

Even though he wore no orange robes nor had a shaved head, he spoke to me without speaking. Like any book, words, not the cover, tell the story. Someone just needs to pay attention and read.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville Native. Contact her by e-mail at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com