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Path to enlightenment leads to Stabler Arena

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama reads from own personal book of Lam Rim Chen Mo.

When His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama talked during his opening teaching session Thursday about how important religious harmony and understanding are “since the September 11th event,” many in the Stabler Arena crowd nodded their heads in agreement.

But his words had a more profound meaning for Sonia Tita Puopolo, who came to Lehigh from Miami to attend the six days of teachings.

“My mom was on American Airlines Flight 11,” she said Friday, referring to one of the two hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on that horrific day. “I’m in complete alignment with what the Dalai Lama was talking about … replacing insanity with humanity.”

While Puopolo’s story is especially poignant, the crowds that have flocked to Stabler Arena the past two days consist of thousands who are in alignment with what the Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual and state leader of Tibet is teaching. They have come from all across the U.S. and around the world for a variety of reasons.

Some are, as the Dalai Lama described himself, “staunch Buddhists.” Others admire the Dalai Lama, his efforts for peace and reconciliation, and believe the opportunity to learn from him over the course of six days is a rare and treasured opportunity.

Puopolo’s mother, Sonia Mercedes Morales Puopolo, was a former ballet dancer and a prominent philanthropist who was eulogized by U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the memorial service in Boston following her death.

Hearing the Dalai Lama talk about the need for healing and reconciliation in the wake of 9-11 “was very special,” Puopolo said.

In 2006, Puopolo took the extraordinary step of being one of the first 9-11 family members to go to Saudi Arabia, where she was asked to speak at the Jeddah Economic Forum during a session on terrorism. The forum also featured former Vice President Al Gore.

Puopolo is not a Buddhist; she is attending the teachings because it is an historic event, and she feels she can learn a lot by studying under the Dalai Lama.

“I believe that all religions aim for the same thing: peace,” Puopolo said.

"It strengthens my faith and resolve"

Christen Villamor has driven down from Manhattan the past two mornings—along with a friend, a Tibetan nun from Fort Lee, N.J.—to attend the teachings and will continue to do so through Tuesday. Villamor isn’t fazed in the least by the $4 per gallon gas prices. In her mind, it’s a small price for her to pay to strengthen her Tibetan Buddhist beliefs.

“The drive each morning is well worth it,” Villamor said. “The opportunity to listen and learn from a living Buddha master like the Dalai Lama is an awesome experience. It’s helped to deepen my commitment to stay on the Path to Enlightenment. Today’s world is filled with messages that run counter to the simple, but powerful messages that the Dalai Lama is preaching. It strengthens my faith and my resolve to hear this great man speak.”

"An amazing experience"

A Seattle native, Jennifer Lovejoy has flown across country to work as a volunteer at the teachings, along with her mother-in-law.

“I’m not a Buddhist, but I looked at this as a chance for me to deepen my understanding of the Dalai Lama and Buddhism,” Lovejoy said about why she is volunteering. “It’s fascinating to sit and listen to one of the world’s most recognized figures discuss an ancient text all the while applying it to things that affect the world today such as war and suffering. It’s been an amazing experience and it’s only just begun, really.”

"A great learning experience"

People from all over the world have descended upon Stabler Arena to hear the Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual and state leader of Tibet teach.

Ori Karin, an artist from New York City, is also working as a volunteer this week—helping the lines into Stabler Arena move more quickly by giving out large plastic bags for people to put their belongings into, a move that helps speed up security checks. Once his work outside the arena is complete, Karin settles into a seat in the grandstands and listens to His Holiness teach—feverishly taking notes into a copybook.

Much like an 11-year-old boy attending a major league baseball game involving his favorite team and being able to rattle off battings averages and ERAs of his favorite players, Karin, a devout Buddhist, recognizes many of the monks on stage with the Dalai Lama and can tell you what abbeys they study at and what their primary academic pursuits are.

“This is amazing. When I heard that the Dalai Lama was coming to Lehigh University to give his largest teaching in North America, I jumped at the chance to volunteer,” said Karin, as he ate lunch under a tree during the lunch break between the Friday sessions. “And the teachings have been remarkable thus far. In Day One, they laid the groundwork, discussing the lineage and the collection of books in the Great Treatise. And today, they are delving into the text. It’s a great learning experience.”

"The juice in the house"

The line for Tibetan specialties such as curry vegetables with rice noodles and ginger-scented jasmine rice snaked around the second-floor concourse of the arena, yet the hungry diners patiently waited, eagerly reflecting on the morning’s lessons and chatting with others in line.

James Reedy and Rochelle Gracilla, from Meadville, Pa. said they were not discouraged by the line. They were there to learn patience.

Reedy said he was excited by “the juice in the house. This is a real coming together as a community,” he said. “We felt like we were presented with such an opportunity that the university has invited him to be here right in our backyard.”

Outside, Buff and Johnnie Chase sat eating a boxed lunch under a shaded tree. They arrived from Providence, R.I., meeting their 25-year-old son, Ben, who is volunteering for the duration of the teachings. Their other son will join the family this weekend. All are practicing Buddhists and are associated with the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center of New Jersey , which is sponsoring the teachings.

A view from the back of the stage as the Dalai Lama continued his historic teachings at Lehigh Friday.

The Dalai Lama is teaching on Tsong-kha-pa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: The Lamrim Chenmo. Their understanding of the text is coming in pieces, the Chases said. They’ve traveled to New York and India to see His Holiness, each time hoping to distill the essence of his teachings.

“I think you just get started and keep asking questions. There’s something wonderful just being in his presence,” Buff Chase said. “It doesn’t have to be something you ‘understand.’ There’s an experiential experience of just being here that can be profound in a nonverbal way.”

If Lehigh’s bookstore sales are any indication, many practitioners are navigating their own personal journey with the Eastern religion. Buddhism for Beginners sold out on the first day, quickly followed by Buddhism for Busy People . The three volumes of the Lam Rim Chen Mo were hot sellers, as were books on dreams and emptiness, and CDs of chants, said Mark Ironside, executive director of business services.

“We’re carrying over 200 titles this week,” said Ironside, who has 15 staff on hand to help sell the texts and commemorative items.

"I broke into tears"

Stephanie Ford of Lancaster, Pa. is attending the teachings to feed her “yearning for a deeper spiritual understanding” and because she has a huge amount of respect for the Dalai Lama. This is the second time that Ford, who is attending all of the Dalia Lama’s sessions, has seen the Dalai Lama speak (the other time was last year in Madison, Wisc.) and both times her reaction when His Holiness first appeared on stage was the same.

“When he bowed to the audience, I broke into tears,” said Ford. “I can’t even totally explain why. It’s an amazing experience to be in his presence and to be taught by him.”

***

Single day tickets are still available for the teachings, with the exception of the Sunday, July 13 morning session, which has been filled. Tickets are $45-$60 per day, with each single-day ticket covering both the morning and afternoon sessions. Tickets can be ordered from Ticketmaster online at: Ticketmaster.com, by phone at (215) 336-2000, (570) 693-4100 or (610) 233-0006, and in person at any Ticketmaster outlet and at the Stabler Arena box office.

He also will present a sold out public lecture Sunday afternoon titled, “Generating a Good Heart.”


--Jack Croft, Tricia Long and Bill Doherty

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Friday, July 11, 2008

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