Karmapa Visits America’s Second Largest Tibetan Community
(May 6, 2015 – Minneapolis, Minnesota) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa made a special stop on his tour in order to visit Minneapolis, home to the second largest community of Tibetans in the United States. Organized by theTibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, the gathering with Tibetans living in the area was the sole activity of his brief stay in this Midwest city.
His Holiness arrived in the area by car from Madison, a four-hour drive across the lush green American heartland. Well before the piercing notes of the long horns heralded the arrival of the Gyalwang Karmapa at the event, the Minnesota Convention Center was transformed into a bustling Tibetan setting, with masked figures arranging themselves in groups, other people rolling out carpets and yet others adjusting their traditional masks and costumes.
Welcoming the Karmapa as he approached, the haunting sound of Tibetan singing echoed off the cement sidewalk and stone walls of the tall building, as if off rocky mountain slopes.
Amidst the exuberant movement and sound, TAFM President Namgyal Dorjee escorted him along a line of leading members of the local Tibetan community, introducing them one by one as His Holiness accepted their outstretched khatas. Without missing a step, dancers peered out discretely from under their fringed hats to catch a close glimpse of the Gyalwang Karmapa on his first visit to Minneapolis.
With TAFM Secretary Phuntsok Tsawog serving as master of ceremonies, the evening’s program formally opened with the audience signing the Tibetan anthem together. When a nine-year-old Tibetan girl in a glistening brocade chuba next approached the microphone, out-of-town guests were amazed to hear a full-throated, jazz-inflected rendition of the national anthem of the United States, worthy of singers twice her size and three times her age.
The air resounded next with polyphonic chanting by monks from a nearby monastic branch affiliated with Gyuto Tantric College, which has long extended generous hospitality to His Holiness the Karmapa in India. After a mandala offering and supplication prayers for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, TAFM president Namgyal Dorjee presented a detailed introduction to the Minnesota community and the activities that the association carries out to preserve Tibetan language, culture and the arts.
In honor of his visit, the association presented the Gyalwang Karmapa with a special award. The next item on the program was the cultural shows, with one group after another of children filled the stage to joyfully offer song and dance from all three regions of Tibet.
Apart from the many young people taking the stage, the aisles in the auditorium were relatively empty of cavorting children, in comparison to the six other meetings with Tibetan communities on this trip thus far. This was not due to a paucity of the young, but rather was the result of a group of mothers and older siblings taking turns sacrificing their time inside the hall with the Karmapa to watch over the children as they played together in an adjacent area outside the hall.
Meanwhile, inside the 2,500-seat auditorium, the association requested that His Holiness the Karmapa offer words of advice to the community. He began by expressing his great delight at having been able to come to Minnesota. “Meeting and connecting with you was all that I wanted to do in coming here, and is the only activity on my schedule,” he told the rapt audience.
The Gyalwang Karmapa observed that the numbers of Tibetans escaping from Tibet to India has dwindled significantly in recent years, while those seeking to emigrate from India to the West has increased. At this rate, he told them, the Tibetan population in India could become depleted to the point that Tibetan schools and monasteries could be affected. Since the United States houses the largest population of Tibetans in diaspora outside India, this lends particular urgency to the need for Tibetans in the United States to work to preserve Tibetan culture and religion. Within that, he said, “the preservation of the Tibetan language, both written and spoken, is central and deserves the highest attention.
“We have a great responsibility to future generation to transmit and preserve this for them,” he said.
The Gyalwang Karmapa spoke movingly of the immense debt of gratitude Tibetans owe to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for shepherding them through this historical period. The unprecedented unity that Tibetans enjoy today, the Karmapa said, “has come about thanks to the great kindness, the skillful means and the vastness of vision of His Holiness.” History will surely record as one of his major deeds the unifying leadership His Holiness the Dalai Lama has provided to the Tibetan people, he said.
Reflecting on their experiences as a refugee community in today’s global society, the Karmapa commented, “The world has taken notice and come to appreciate Tibetan culture and religion. This, too, is a result of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s great skill and tireless efforts.”
In the past, geographic and religious differences loomed so large that the people of Tibet often lost sight of all they actually shared. Speaking of the sense of closeness and common identity that Tibetans experience today, the Karmapa stated, “I am not sure that we truly recognize the magnitude and exceptional value of what he has done for us.
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given us a priceless opportunity to work together,” he said.
Addressing the diversity of lineages in Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Karmapa expressed his conviction that the availability of varying presentations of the Dharma is positive and necessary, given the variety of people’s dispositions and orientations. Yet, he said, “we must not let these differences blind us to the great commonality of all the schools.” Echoing a point he has made in meetings with other communities, the Karmapa told his audience that Buddha Shakyamuni has foretold that disputes among the holders of his teachings would bring about the destruction of the Buddhadharma. “This is a terrifying prospect to contemplate, and we must each take great care to avoid this,” he said.
As the evening drew to a close, the Karmapa described his sensation during the long drive he had made earlier that day from Madison. “As I was riding in the car to come here, my mind and heart was filled with delight and joy to be able to meet with you,” he told them, adding that he hoped to return in the future. In fact, he added, he feels a “special connection” to Gyuto as his residence in India, and would have like also to have visited their local monastery, had there been time to do so. Finally, he expressed his sincere gratitude and appreciation to the American supporters of Tibet and Tibetans present in the audience as well.
He continued to comment that teaching children songs and dance, as the community here had done so well, was an excellent way to transmit language and culture.
“We need to work together, he said in conclusion, “to think together of ways to preserve our spiritual and cultural heritage.”
Before departing, the Karmapa conferred the oral transmission of Chenrezig and Padmasambhava that the association has requested of him. As he departed the stage after the vote of thanks that concluded the evening, His Holiness took time to greet individually many of those on stage. Among the eminent monks present was the youthful Taksham Tulku, the 8th reincarnation of the 17th-century Nyingma treasure revealer Taksham Nuden Dorje. The two dozen monastics including the abbot and other monks from the local Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery, as well as monastics from all major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, reflecting both the diversity of the Minnesota Tibetan community and its exceptional size.
Although Minneapolis barely makes it into the lost of top 50 cities in terms of its population, it is the number two city in terms of Tibetan population. When the United States Immigration Act of 1990 allocated 1,000 visas for Tibetans living in India and Nepal, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were selected as a site for settlement. At the time, just two Tibetan families were living in the city. As it did throughout the country, the Tibetan-US Resettlement Committee recruited local American host families to help each immigrating Tibetan find housing and employment. As part of that program, 160 Tibetans were directed to settle in Minnesota. That number has since swelled to nearly between 2,500 and 3,000, partly through family reunification, but also through relocation to the area from smaller Tibetan communities in St, Louis, Montana and Texas.
Leading members of the Tibetan community attending the event attribute the growth in size of the Minneapolis community to the city’s cold weather which they say Tibetan find amenable, along with its high level of education opportunities, low unemployment rates and the strength of the local Tibetan association, reflected in the vitality of this evening’s event.
Photography by Lama Sam. View a video documenting the visit here.