Community Projects: The Dalai Lama's Visit: Spirit of Tibet

A collaboration between Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, FORECAST Public Artworks and twelve diverse cultural, governmental and educational partners.

The Project
A series of public art and education events in association with the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Minnesota (estimated impact on 60,000 people).

My Role
I initiated the project and brought in core partners. Jack Becker, Executive Director of FORECAST, and I collaborated on project implementation.

The Inquiry
How to prepare Minnesotans for the first visit of the Dalai Lama, and raise visibility for the Minnesota's Tibetan community?

A Challenge: A story about moving beyond violence

On a shining May morning four thousand people converge on the University of Minnesota campus to hear the Dalai Lama speak for the first time in our region. They are greeted by sixty children dancing in life-sized yak puppets created in school residencies that I arranged with master Tibetan artisans. For the Dalai Lama's next speaking venue my team has already finished installing over 1000 hand painted flags representing dialogues about peace held throughout the state. After months of preparation I am free to simply enjoy the Dalai Lama's presence on this long awaited morning.

The Dalai Lama concludes his public address on compassion and the moment is celebratory. Hundreds of Tibetans dressed in festive traditional garb flow out of Northrop Auditorium and onto the plaza. As I am about to exit the building one of my team pulls me aside, "There's something ugly going on out there."

I step into the sunlight to the shrill voice of a street preacher taunting the crowd, "You're all going to hell! The Dalai Lama is Satan!" He carries a black bible with a huge, hand painted white cross on the cover, and he is surrounded by supporters thrusting evangelical comic book tracts into the Tibetan crowd. At first the Tibetans look confused and hurt. The crowd grows and the preacher blares louder. Voices cry back at him, "Why are you doing this?!" The preacher persists and hurt escalates to outrage. The crowd draws in, hurling coins at the preacher and shouting, "Is THIS what you want?!"

Suddenly there is violence in the spring air.

Intuition takes over. I watch myself walk directly into the heart of the conflict just as a Tibetan man raises his arm to strike the preacher. Immediately my perception of time slows down. Drawing upon years of mindfulness training and movement improvisation, I sense the trajectory of his violent arm in motion and I know exactly where the blow will land. In a timeless instant I glide between the two men and with calm authority say, "no" as I place my hands on the Tibetan man's shoulder and re-direct the momentum of his force into a graceful spiral away from the preacher. The man walks back to his people.

I pace beside the preacher as he continues to berate the crowd. I say to him quietly, "Thousands of people out here on this plaza are not listening to you and one person is. Which is more important?" My words are not a ploy or a manipulation. I am genuinely willing to hear what this man has to say because that is what is called for.

The preacher and his followers sit down with me at a nearby picnic table. I hear about the trauma in the preacher's life that has led him to this place. We talk about Jesus. We talk about the trauma in the life of the Tibetan community that has led them to this place, too.

And we talk about the impact on others when zeal is not balanced with compassion. The preacher turns to his followers, "I'm taking a teaching from this woman. I don't know if she's a witch or a homo, but I'm taking a teaching from her." We talk about what happened earlier on the plaza and a woman at the table weeps softly, "Jesus taught love and that wasn't love." For the remainder of the Dalai Lama's visit, they show a palpably respectful tone towards the Tibetan community.

This initiative achieved our goals of raising visibility for the local Tibetan community (the 2nd largest Tibetan community in the United States), and preparing state residents for the Dalai Lama's visit by engaging 60,000 Minnesotans in Tibet-related public art and education activities including:

May Day Parade
A Tibetan themed parade for 25,000 viewers in South Minneapolis created by:

  • In the Heart of the Beast Theater
  • Monks from the Gyuto Monastery
  • hundreds of community residents

Elementary and high school residencies

  • facilitated by Tibetan monks trained in traditional crafts
  • artists from In the Heart of the Beast Theater

Peace Flag Project
Over one thousand hand-made peace and prayer flags produced by

  • School children and educators statewide - illustrating dialogues about the Dalai Lama's message of peace and compassion
  • Students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design
  • Museum visitors at Minneapolis Institute of Arts (using traditional Tibetan printing blocks)
  • South Minneapolis neighborhood residents

Tibet, Spirit in Motion: Moments in Time
An art exhibit in a high traffic government building featuring five Minnesota photographers who engage with Tibetans at home and around the world entitled

Spirit of Tibet: ALIVE!
A festival of Tibetan arts and crafts featuring live demonstrations by traditional jewelers, woodworkers, painters, musicians and dancers at high traffic government building.

Television and radio
Media programs about Spirit of Tibet were broadcast regionally

Learnings for Leadership
A small action can have a large impact when the action is made with the big picture in mind. We can make the most of limited resources when we attend to the context of individual acts.
By always seeking patterns and points of intersection in the landscape surrounding the Dalai Lama's Visit I was able to act in ways that maximized our efforts. For example, seven months before the Dalai Lama's visit I scanned the Twin Cities arts and education horizon and compiled a unified calendar linking dozens of activities related to the Visit that would otherwise have remained isolated events. An educational agency distributed this calendar to educators throughout Minnesota along with curriculum guides about Tibetan history and culture.

Trusting relationships among highly diverse organizational partners can be developed through a paradoxical combination of dogged persistence and flexible willingness to let go.
Persistence: It took eight attempts before the Steering Committee for the Dalai Lama's Visit agreed to a meeting to discuss creating a public art and education program related to the visit. The Committee had been "burned" earlier by individuals trying to exploit the visit for their own purposes, so they were understandably wary.

Flexible willingness to let go: Although Jack and I came to the Steering Committee came with a vision and resources (from private donations), we also came genuinely ready to release the idea if the Committee did not embrace it. In our first meeting I helped the Committee identify their highest aspirations for the Visit and together we designed Spirit of Tibet to serve those goals.

Generosity begets generosity and kindness begets kindness.
Throughout this project a field of generosity was created at the mention of the Dalai Lama's name. We repeatedly heard people say, "please let me know if I can help in any way." Despite the large scale of this project, it had an effortless flow.

Matching people's desires to give with an appropriate pathway.
One of my most satisfying tasks was finding ways for people to contribute to Spirit of Tibet that felt appropriate to them. Government administrators, who wanted to support us directly, were worried about being perceived as violating the separation of church and state (because of the Dalai Lama's religious status), so I found indirect ways for them to help us instead (by sharing databases, donating materials rather than money...). Individual volunteers stepped up to help and my task was to create suitable roles.

Intergenerational involvement can bring playful energy to serious work.
My daughter, Izzy, was two years old at the time of the "Damma-Lala's" visit. Because of the Tibetan community's inclusive attitude towards children, it was relatively easy to blend my life as a cultural organizer with my life as a mother. Izzy was directly involved in many aspects of the project. When we finished hanging the peace flags, she proudly announced to no one in particular, "I got the newspapers!" (which we used to prepare the flags). Izzy's presence helped the team stay loose and relaxed.

How we treat people over time really counts.
In the spirit of stating the obvious, collaborations are based upon relationships. Jack and I each brought to the project a fluid base of personal connections in our communities. This rich network of relationships made it possible to successfully undertake this project with limited resources of time and money.

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Copyright © 2009, Wendy Morris