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Lehigh community listens to, learns from, and loves the Dalai Lama

Sunday's public lecture by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was well received.

Having worked at Stabler Arena since its doors opened in 1979, Rich Fritz has literally seen it all in his nearly three decades at Lehigh University —from Rod Stewart and Billy Joel to the WWE and “Sesame Street Live.” Or at least he thought he had until this week’s visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

The director of Stabler Arena, Fritz received his first phone call that the Dalai Lama might visit Lehigh’s arena way back in March 2006. A full year later, the contract was signed and the real work began.

“Even in Stabler Arena’s normal business, you’re not going to work on something for two years and four months. So the buildup for this visit has been absolutely extraordinary,” said Fritz, minutes after the completion of Sunday afternoon’s public lecture by the Dalai Lama entitled “Generating a Good Heart.”

“And despite all the buildup, this event has gone even better than we could have ever dreamed, thanks to the hours and hours that many people in tons of Lehigh committees have dedicated to this event. No event—none—has required this much collaborative effort from all across the university. It takes a lot of people to pull off a world-class event like this and today’s events—and the teachings thus far—have all gone very, very well.

“Lehigh University should be proud, the City of Bethlehem should be proud and the state of Pennsylvania should be proud of this historic event. Words can’t describe what his visit means to Lehigh.”

Deborah Zajac ’97, a member of the Lehigh University Board of Trustees, was among the many proud alumni who attended the lecture. “He (the Dalai Lama) is absolutely an inspiration,” Zajac said.

Zajac attended a luncheon in the Asa Packer Dining Room at the University Center before the lecture, and, while waiting for the Dalai Lama to appear, was struck by the portrait of Lehigh’s founder hanging on the wall over the entrance the Dalai Lama would use in just a few minutes. She found herself wondering if Packer could ever have imagined that the institution he founded in 1865 would one day be hosting an event such as this one.

Lewis Baer ’72, ’07P, was equally impressed. “It (Sunday’s lecture) was great on every level. Having him here adds a different element to what the university is all about,” he said. “It brings new light to the international approach the school is trying to promote. Everybody here was lucky to be here.”

"Lehigh has shown itself well"

U.S. Rep. Charles Dent, who represents Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district, was obviously thrilled that the Dalai Lama visited not only his district, but a place where he studied (Dent received a master's degree in public administration from Lehigh).

Earlier this year, Dent was in Washington D.C. when the Dalai Lama visited and even our nation’s capitol, a city that is used to receiving heads of state and other political leaders, was buzzing about His Holiness’ visit.

“So to have him visit us is an extraordinary occasion for the Lehigh Valley, particularly for Lehigh University,” Dent said. “People have come from all over the country and all over the world to attend the teachings and Lehigh has shown itself well.”

Sunday afternoon's crowd gave the Dalai Lama five separate standing ovations.

The Sunday afternoon event had a vastly different feel—more of a traditional university event—than the first three-and-half days of the Dalai Lama’s visit, which has been dedicated strictly to teachings on Tsong-kha-pa’s 600-year-old The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: The Lamrim Chenmo .

For example, instead of the ceremony beginning with monks chanting sutras, His Holiness processed into Stabler to the strains of the New York Philharmonic’s recording of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Instead of the audience bowing to His Holiness in rapt silence, Sunday afternoon’s crowd—which was made primarily of the Lehigh family (alumni, faculty, staff and some students)—gave him five separate standing ovations.

And unlike his teachings—when the Dalia Lama sits on a throne surrounded by Tibetan scholars in monks’ and nuns’ robes, the Dalai Lama found himself joined onstage by people in academic robes—including Lehigh President Alice P. Gast, Provost Mohamed El-Assser, Daniel E. Smith Jr. ’71, chairman of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees, and Lehigh’s college deans. Dignataries on the stage also included local government leaders such as Dent, current Bethlehem mayor John Callahan and former Bethlehem mayor Gordon Mowrer.

“This kind of thing certainly puts Lehigh on the map, not just locally, but beyond,” said Ollie Foucek '72, '05P, '09P. “I don’t think anybody came away from this disappointed.”

The event was especially meaningful for the students and community members who make up Lehigh University Choral Arts. Under the direction of Steven Sametz, professor and Ulrich Chair in Music, the choral group performed “Lo Koto Sutro (The Heart Sutra)” to close the event. For the students, it was a transformational experience.

“The second he walked on stage, it was surreal,” said Heidi Shonbeck ’09. “He’s a world leader, a world leader of peace, and he’s here.”

Chrissie Rapp ’09 said: “It was an honor to be able to sing here,” while Daveda Browne ’10 remarked: “I didn’t get to see much of his face (during the performance). I hope he enjoyed it.”

“When Alice Gast introduced us, I couldn’t stop smiling,” said Danielle Trause ’10.

As he sat on stage listening to them sing, neither could the Dalai Lama.

The love wasn’t entirely unanimous. Some 350 members of the Western Shugden Society gathered behind plastic orange fencing outside Stabler Arena on Saturday and Sunday, protesting His Holiness’ visit to Stabler by waving signs and chanting “Dalai Lama, Stop Lying.”

Buddhist nun Kelsang Perna, spokeswoman for the Western Shugden Society, believes the Dalai Lama oppresses a large section of mainstream Tibetan Buddhists who worship deity Dorje Shugden, a powerful 17th century monk who was murdered in his palace in Tibet. According to Perna, the Dalai Lama, in 1996, officially outlawed prayers to Shugden.

“The aim of these protests is to have this immoral ban lifted, so that millions of innocent people can continue their spiritual life without harassment of fear,” said Perna. “Should we expect any less from this supposed man of peace?”

On the world stage

While Perna and the protestors protested outside, those who attended the lecture were clearly thrilled to have the Dalai Lama visit Lehigh.

“This was one of the highlights, one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen during my life in Bethlehem,” said Mowrer, who attended the “Generating a Good Heart” talk with his wife, his daughter, his daughter-in-law and two of his grandchildren. “When you have someone of this magnitude come to this community, we all stop and take a second look. Having the Dalai Lama here puts Lehigh University on the international map and puts both this fine university and the City of Bethlehem on the world stage.”

Several times, during the Dalai Lama’s talk—which was followed by a question-and-answer session with Gast serving as the moderator—Mowrer found himself grabbing a pen to scrawl notes on his commemorative program, so as not to forget some of the simple, yet powerful messages delivered by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Tibetan Buddhist leader.

“One of things that really stuck with me about his teachings was when he talked about how we get consumed by hatred and anger. That’s what the problem is in this world, in my opinion, there’s a lot of hate and a lot of anger. And we’ll never have peace in this world, true peace, until we’re able to replace the hate that consumes us with compassion.”

Gene Vivino ’80 and his wife, Ellie, flew across country from California to attend the Sunday event. “I thought it was very insightful. The wonder to me is the simplicity of the message. The clarity and simplicity of the message makes it easier to go out and act on it.”

For complete coverage of the Dalai Lama's public lecture, please read Dalai Lama calls for century of dialogue.

--Bill Doherty and Jack Croft

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Sunday, July 13, 2008

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