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Monday, May 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Portland embraces Dalai Lama; each of us can improve world, exiled Tibetan leader tells crowd

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The bald, bespectacled Dalai Lama of Tibet came to Portland yesterday, offering himself to a crowd of some 25,000 as "nothing special," just a human being who - like all those in the crowd - has the potential to make people smile and make the world a better place.

In a brief, animated speech at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibetans spoke optimistically of the 21st century as a time when the human race can rise above the wars and destruction of the past 100 years to forge a new era of peace.

"This century can be a happy one - or a destructive one - it all depends on us," the Dalai Lama said.

Dressed in a simple red and saffron robe, the Dalai Lama spoke from a concrete platform topped with a white cupola. He was introduced by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Portland Mayor Vera Katz and a brass band that first played the Tibetan national anthem and then "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In Portland, excitement over this visit had been building for weeks.

Events included a choral concert by monks, an exhibit of Tibetan religious art at the Portland Art Museum, Tibetan films, a photo exhibit and lectures. Last week, 11 monks spent five days pouring millions of grains of sand to create an intricate, rainbow-hued sand mandala, said to bring purification, at the downtown library.

"Portland has been like little Tibet for the past month," said Tenzing Chungratsang, a board member of Pathways to Peace, the primary organizing group

The Dalai Lama's visit also drew hundreds of people from Seattle, including Adrienne Chan, executive director of the 100-member Sakya Monastery.

Chan was chairman of an organizing committee for the Dalai Lama's June 1993 visit to Seattle, where he consecrated the monastery. She cherishes the memory of a ride with the Dalai Lama up the Westin Hotel elevator.

"It was an indescribable experience," Chan said. "It was just like electricity. Really awe-inspiring."

Yesterday's visit began with a peace march that drew more than 5,000 people and continued throughout the afternoon as Brazilian and Japanese drummers, Tibetan horn- blowers and other groups played for the crowd building in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

"Sometimes downtown Portland can be pretty white. It's great to see all the different cultures," said Bob Czimbal, a former meditation teacher who now works as a laughter consultant for corporations.

Just before the Dalai Lama took to the stage, Jigme Topgyal, a Pacific Northwest Tibetan and event organizer, spoke of his 1959 flight from Tibet after the occupation by China. Many of his friends were shot by the Chinese, some wounded so badly they begged for mercy killing.

The Dalai Lama also fled Tibet that year to take up residence in India, separated from his homeland by the Himalayas. Topgyal said he met the Dalai Lama in a refugee camp and still recalls his words.

"You told us `Yesterday, the Chinese kill us.' You also told us, `It's not right that today we go kill Chinese.' "

Since then, the Dalai Lama has emerged as a leader of international renown, with a message of tolerance, compassion and nonviolent solutions to conflict that earned him the Nobel Prize for peace in 1989. Politically, the Dalai Lama is at odds with many Tibetans in exile who believe their homeland should be independent from China.

The Dalai Lama opposes the way China governs Tibet but says he favors more autonomy for the country as opposed to outright independence. During a recent visit to Salt Lake City, he said he would not oppose a bid by China to host the 2008 Olympic Games if it would improve human rights in China. "China should not be isolated," he said. "Friendship with China is essential."

In his speech yesterday in Portland, the Dalai Lama avoided any direct reference to China. Instead, he took aim at the distinctly American malaise of dissatisfaction amid riches.

Gesturing to downtown Portland, he said, "We see marvelous houses - very good. But if the people who live inside have a turbulent mind - if they are fearful - they won't be happy."

The Dalai Lama spends much of his time on the road, including frequent trips to the U.S. He stays in some of America's finest hotels - but lives simply. He eats two meals a day, preferring just tea and sometimes a few biscuits at dinnertime.

This spring's three-week, eight-city tour began in Minnesota earlier this week, where he met with Gov. Jesse Ventura. It will end later this month in Washington, D.C, where he is scheduled to meet with White House officials.

In Portland, many of the events will help raise funds for a North American first, a Tibetan Studies and World Peace Center in Portland that will help spread the Dalai Lama's teachings and also serve as a regional gathering point for Northwest Tibetans. About 300 Tibetans live in Portland and Southwest Washington, and another 110 in the Seattle area.

Chungratsang, the Pathways to Peace board member, who works as a technician in a computer-chip plant in a Portland suburb, took three weeks of vacation to help organize the Dalai Lama's visit.

Chungratsang came to Portland in 1993, part of a wave of immigration to the Northwest that year as Congress allowed 1,000 Tibetans to settle in the United States. His parents fled Tibet soon after the Dalai Lama; and Chungratsang, 28, was born India.

But Chungratsang still maintains a fierce sense of identity. "No matter where we were born or where we live, my home will always be Tibet," he said. "Even if I've never seen it, it will always be my home."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.

Hal Bernton can be reached at 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com.

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