People around the world view the Dalai Lama of Tibet as the embodiment of peace and nonviolence.
Forced to flee Tibet in 1959 in the aftermath of China’s invasion, the Dalai Lama took refuge in India. There, he became familiar with the work of Mahatma Gandhi, who espoused nonviolent civil disobedience.
“The Dalai Lama was convinced that the only real solution was to take a nonviolent approach. … The unusual and courageous stance of the 14th Dalai Lama is really unusual and historic for the Tibetan people,” says Judith Simmer-Brown, a Colorado professor who will give a lecture in Birmingham in advance of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the city in October.
She will speak at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at Hulsey Hall at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The event is free and open to the public.
“They [Tibetans] have a long history of warfare with the Chinese. The Tibetan people are a warrior people,” Simmer-Brown says. “Buddhism has always had a tempering effect on that, [but] the Dalai Lama has really insisted on nonviolence.”
Simmer-Brown notes that Gandhi had the same effect on Martin Luther King Jr., who espoused nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement.
Her lecture is entitled “Joining Power and Love: The Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Civil Rights Movement.” She says, “My desire is to really look at the Dalai Lama through the lens of the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail. There are so many similarities between the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King.”
Simmer-Brown will focus on a quote from King’s annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. He said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Simmer-Brown, a distinguished professor of contemplative and religious studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., grew up learning about King’s philosophy and actions. Her father was a Methodist minister who attended Boston College with King.
She says the King quote “is a great expression of what the Dalai Lama is about, too. It will be a great honor to come and talk about the Dalai Lama and Dr. King as well. Of course, there are some very big differences between them and I’m going to talk about those as well.”
Simmer-Brown says her talk “is really intended to give people a window to the international human rights work of the Dalai Lama. … It’s very much in alignment with Dr. King. It’s 51 years after the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ but there is so much in what they say and think about trying to bring unity to the human community.”
The Dalai Lama’s human rights activities have roots in trying to help the Tibetan people but, over the years, he has become very involved in other human rights work as well.
He speaks as a spiritual leader and cautions leaders as someone “who really feels deeply that warfare will not be the solution,” she says.
“He speaks of what he calls a policy of kindness. That’s really why he won the Nobel Prize in the 1980s,” Simmer-Brown says. “It’s a great opportunity for Birmingham to host the Dalai Lama. I know that his interest in Birmingham is in the transformation of Birmingham because of the Civil Rights Movement. I know this is a big deal for him.”
Simmer-Brown is an acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Her lecture is being sponsored by the UAB Honors Program and the Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center, which is tucked away at the back of an office building on Southside.
Janet Bronstein, the center’s director of practice and education, explains that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition includes several divisions. Shambhala’s leader is Chogyan Trungpa, who came to the United States in the 1970s and focused on teaching Buddhism to Westerners. There now are about 100 Shambhala centers now, including the one in Birmingham.
Bronstein, a professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, says the Dalai Lama is from the more scholarly Gelugpa school of Buddhism. Those who practice Shambhala regard him with great respect, although not as their direct teacher.
“The idea that the city of Birmingham had invited him in the vein of civil rights and human rights excited us,” Bronstein says. “The fact that it is the theme is very much in line with what we are interested in.”
Shambhala’s name refers to Shangri-La, an awakened, peaceful and prosperous place. Members and visitors at the Birmingham center study and contemplate what it would take for modern society to move toward Shangri-La, she says.
Bronstein also explains that Buddhism is not based on original texts like many other religions are. Instead, Buddhism looks at the present and future, and Shambhala practitioners meditate on how to change things in the future.
The Birmingham center began in 1997 by offering programs at different locations around the city. The current center, located at 714 37th St. South, opened about a dozen years ago.
Bronstein says the Birmingham center now has about 45 members, as well as about 30 additional participants who are involved but not actually members. She says members and participants do not have to be Buddhist, although she and some others are.
“Our members are people who meditate,” she says.
Bronstein adds, “To become Buddhist, you have to take the Refuge Vow, in which you say, ‘I am committed to living my life in a way that causes less suffering.’”
The Birmingham center offers meditation classes Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings and always has teachers available to give instruction. There are weekend programs about once a month.
Simmer-Brown’s lecture is part of a series of talks scheduled in September and early October in anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s visit Oct. 25 and 26.
Bronstein says interest in Shambhala is growing. “There’s more general interest in meditation today than there was 10 years ago,” she says.
Simmer-Brown, who has given lectures at the Birmingham center several times in the past, is excited about her upcoming visit. “I understand my job is to help prepare people for the Dalai Lama with the greatest information…just to give a sense of the background of this remarkable man.
“I’ve had a great opportunity to spend time with him. He absolutely charms and reaches people who don’t expect to be charmed or reached or touched.”
For more information about the Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center and the lecture series, visit its website.