NORTHAMPTON — Against a backdrop of vibrant Tibetan prayer flags, Rinzin Wangyal, 70, bowed deeply to a white Katak prayer scarf resting on the pavement in front of him, offering thanks for the Dalai Lama’s 83rd birthday during an interfaith service outside the First Churches of Northampton.
Then, as Geshe Ngawang Singey, director of the Jampel Nyingpo Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in Amherst, led a chanting prayer, Wangyal laid his scarf on an altar dominated by a large portrait of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Wangyal, who moved to Amherst last year from Tibet, practised his faith Sunday with about 45 other immigrants from the area’s Tibetan community. The service, held in collaboration with Cathedral in the Night, a local outdoor Christian community, featured traditional Tibetan music, prayers, a chance for reflection, and a free hot meal of savoury chicken curry, steamed vegetables, fried noodles, bok choy cabbage, and rice.
“We, as Tibetan refugees, have received so much support. Now, it’s our responsibility to help others less fortunate,” said Thondup Tsering, who helped organize the annual event, which was first held in 2015.
Through kindness, Tsering said, the community “wants to elevate his Holiness in a way that’s symbolic and meaningful.”
Three years ago, he said, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, requested that his followers celebrate his 80th birthday on July 6 by showing kindness to others.
In response to that call, the Tibetan community collaborated with the center for Buddhist studies and Cathedral in the Night, a Christian-themed outdoor worship service that meets downtown every Sunday, to host a special interfaith service, Tsering explained. Cathedral in the Night was founded in 2011 as a way to reach people who might not enter a church building, and partners with area churches and businesses to serve a free meal afterwards.
“It was a natural progression for us to join with the Tibetan community,” said Stephanie Smith, the Northampton faith community’s director. “Both traditions come from a place of love.”
Carrying on the teachings
More than just a chance to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Nancy Braxton of Williamsburg, a member of the Amherst Buddhist community, said Sunday’s event was a chance for people in Northampton to meet the area’s Tibetan community. Tsering noted those in the Pioneer Valley have warmly welcomed Tibetan refugees for decades, and more than 100 people showed up for Sunday’s event.
Braxton, 77, met the Dalai Lama in person during the 1960s in India while helping Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution following communist China’s takeover of the region in 1951. Tibetans were forced to leave their homeland, with 80,000 following the Dalai Lama to India. There are now more than 150,000 Tibetan refugees around the world, according to the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government in exile in India.
Braxton fondly remembered her interactions with the Dalai Lama.
“I fell in love with the Dalai Lama and their culture. I was impressed that he was approachable, and human, and kind,” Braxton said.
Not far away in the church’s courtyard, Jhamba Sherpa, of Easthampton, a Tibetan refugee who immigrated from India 25 years ago, said she thinks about the Dalai Lama’s teachings often while caring for patients as a nurse at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
“He’s everything to us. He’s the spiritual leader, like the pope,” Sherpa said. “As a nurse, whenever I face a challenging patient, I think of the Dalai Lama’s advice to be patient and kind.”
While she spoke, Sherpa helped a group of 10 children, dressed in colourful Tibetan clothing, prepare to sing a musical tribute to the Dalai Lama. Sherpa meets with the children every other Sunday to teach them the Tibetan language, meditations, traditional dance steps, and songs, as a way to keep her culture alive while in exile.
Speaking from her own experiences as an immigrant, Sherpa says it’s important to remember the Dalai Lama’s teachings, especially in today’s social and political climates.
“People are so ready to fight, argue, and kill,” Sherpa said. “It’s really important, what his Holiness teaches — to be nice to each other — and to spread that to our community.”
Following Sunday’s service, those in the Tibetan community served dinner to a line of people that stretched down the sidewalk. Among those eating in a small plaza in front of the church, Angel Pagan of Northampton emphasized the food was “delicious and healthy.”
The Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration comes a few days after a visit to the Pioneer Valley by Home Minister Sonam Topgyal of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tsering said. Topgyal came to the United States earlier this month to meet with Tibetan refugees. On Thursday, Topgyal held a public event at the Jones Library in Amherst, during which he called for unity, Tsering said.
Looking to the future, Tsering wished the Dalai Lama health, success, and love, “so he can live long, and contribute to humanity.”
“May his dream of returning to a free Tibet come true, soon,” Tsering said.
Correction: A previous version misstated the age of Jhamba Sherpa.