LUKE BURBANK, host:
Well, back in 1935 when Tenzin Gyatso was born into a Tibetan farming family, you probably wouldn't have figured that 71 years later, he'd be in Washington D.C. getting the Congressional Gold Medal. However, that's just what's happening today, when Tenzin Gyatso - these days better known as his holiness, the Dalai Lama - received the highest honor the U.S. Congress can bestow on a civilian. The move is not going over well in China, the country that has controlled Tibet since 1959. According to its foreign minister, the award, quote, "seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people."
ALISON STEWART, host:
I wonder if that's a direct translation.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BURBANK: That seems like a very personal hurt upon the Chinese people. President Bush, members of Congress and over a dozen rinpoches - or living spiritual teachers - will be present. So how does one exactly become the 14th Dalai Lama? And how big of a deal is today's award to Buddhists living in America?
Well, we've brought Adam Lobel on the show. He is a master teacher in a branch of Tibetan and Buddhism known as Shambhala. He is an acharya, or master teacher, and he's based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Acharya ADAM LOBEL (Shambhala Buddhist Teacher): Good morning.
BURBANK: Thanks for coming on. So just - for people who kind of only know the Dalai Lama from his associations with Richard Gere, what exactly does he do these days and who does he represent?
Acharya LOBEL: Well, today he travels the world spreading the message of peace and compassion and representing Buddhism in general - and Tibetan Buddhism - to many people outside of Tibet and India. He also is the political and spiritual head of the Tibetan government in exile. So this is the center of organization for the Tibetan people who live outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or the area that really is Tibet in China.
BURBANK: Let's just maybe back it up for a minute, and I just have a practical question about Tenzin Gyatso. How did he get decided that he was the 14th edition of a Dalai Lama?
Acharya LOBEL: That's a long, wonderful story. There's a long tradition in Tibet of recognizing a reincarnate Lama. So there is wonderful stories of monks - after the previous Dalai Lama died, monks went out to a lake and - a sacred lake - and did a series of rituals looking for signs, visions and various ways to find the new Dalai Lama, his new birth as a young child - and received visions and different symbols and hence and where to go. And then monks and great teachers were sent out in all directions across Tibet to eventually discover this young boy in a small village. And he was then put through a series of tests and selected as the true Dalai Lama. And then he spends a life of training and preparing to really embody that role.
BURBANK: And he's been living in India since 1959, when China sort of fully took over Tibet. And the Dalai Lama has kind of advocated for this middle-way idea of allowing China to officially control Tibet, but having Tibetans really do the work of governing Tibet within Tibet.
I just want to ask you, Adam, do you agree with that idea? I guess you have to, right? He's the Dalai Lama. But maybe more importantly, do you get concerned that when he gets awards like this that makes China as unhappy as it seems, that it ruins the chances of something like that ever happening?
Acharya LOBEL: Well, I don't think that it's through support of the Dalai Lama and his ideas that massive change will come in Tibet. That, right now, at this moment in politics, that doesn't seem to be the likely direction, some way for the Chinese government to feel that honoring those wishes is really coming from them - in other words, that giving some respect to local Tibetan people and views is coming from them. That's…
BURBANK: That seems actually very Buddhist…
Acharya LOBEL: Yeah, that…
BURBANK: …in its approach.
Acharia LOBEL: …I think, is the Dalai Lama's approach, is let's give them space and room to find, you know, find it in themselves to realize this is in their benefit to allow the Tibetan people some freedom.
BURBANK: Do you think that's something special that he brings to the table? Because you have political leaders and then you have religious leaders, and he's one of these few guys who sort of does both.
Acharya LOBEL: Absolutely. You know, that seems to be something unique about the Dalai Lama in terms of world politics. But there are others, of course, wonderful women and men throughout history who have really taken a spiritual and political way of life as a unity. And so their message is one that spirituality and religion can take a form in politics, that those two are not separate. And that's a - you know, that's a dangerous path, but there's no other way. And that's what the great leaders have shown us.
BURBANK: Adam, based on your last name - Lobel - I'm imagining you're not of Tibetan extraction.
Acharya LOBEL: No, I'm a nice Jewish boy from Connecticut.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BURBANK: Do you wear the robe and the sandals? Does that even matter in terms of dogma?
Acharya LOBEL: No, in my tradition in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, the vast majority of us are lay people with families and careers and wearing normal clothes. I have certain vestments that I wear for ritual occasions, but walking down the street, I would just look like anyone else.
BURBANK: Are you going to watch this on TV today, try to follow the news to see this happen? Is this a big deal to you?
Acharya LOBEL: I probably won't. I'll probably follow it on the Web afterwards. My teacher, Sakyong Mipham Ripoche, will actually be there in attendance in Washington to celebrate the medal and he will - there will also be the president of our organization, President Richard Reoch, and he will be there as well. So I feel like, you know, our lineage is there to support this and to, you know, to take the wisdom of the Dalai Lama further in our own actions.
BURBANK: Well, Adam Lobel, an Acharya, a master teacher in the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, thank you very much for coming on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.
Acharya LOBEL: Absolutely. Best to you all.
STEWART: I interviewed the Dalai Lama once.
STEWART: I had 10 minutes with the Dalai Lama at a motel is Fishkill, New York, where I'm interviewing the Dalai Lama in the courtyard and there's two guys in Speedos on lounge chairs 10 feet away.
BURBANK: Why was that not the entire segment? That story. Alison Stewart, you never cease to amaze. You know what else is amazing? Cupcakes.
STEWART: Love them.
BURBANK: They're delicious. They're portable. They're tasty.
STEWART: Some people hate them.
BURBANK: Yeah. They're being banned from schools. We're going to find out more about that coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.
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