News that the Dalai Lama canceled his United States tour after being admitted to the Mayo Clinic for evaluation is stoking disappointment for those who had hoped to meet with the spiritual leader. But more so there are concerns about his long-term health. The canceled trip wouldn’t have been the Dalai Lama’s first to the United States—as James Nashold recalls, he first came to the U.S. on a seven-week tour in 1979.
At the time, writes Nashold, it was “the most successful and significant pilgrimage undertaken in the West” by a major Buddhist leader. As the Dalai Lama traveled around the country, Nashold notes, he focused on three themes: seeing the U.S. and meeting with Americans; demystifying Buddhism; and raising awareness of the political situation in Tibet.
The visit included some unprecedented components: the first-ever interfaith service featuring a Buddhist held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first TV appearance of a Dalai Lama, and huge public exposure for Buddhism. But Nashold also writes that it presented the Dalai Lama with a number of tough challenges: Aside from the grueling schedule, he also had to field hard questions about his exile from Tibet and the viability of the line of Dalai Lamas (he is the 14th and has held the name since 1950).
But perhaps most challenging of all was the opportunity to explain how Buddhism might fit into Christianity, writes Nashold. Unfamiliar with Buddhist traditions and still relatively new to Eastern spiritual concepts, Americans confronted the Dalai Lama with questions about things like whether he believed a single world religion could ever be achieved. Nashold writes that the Dalai Lama elided those questions by focusing on his personal experiences instead. By using his personal experience as an exile from Tibet, he “surprised many Westerners” by focusing on forgiveness, simplicity and open encounters as ways of bringing East and West together.
Since his first visit to the United States, the Dalai Lama has visited more than a dozen more times. But the first time was the most memorable, says Nashold: Paired as it was with Pope John Paul II’s first tour, it “focused attention on the bright rebirth of a deep-seated interest in religion that has always been one of the mainstays in American life.” It seems as though we’re going to have to wait a little bit longer to see His Holiness tour the U.S. again.