That Time the Dalai Lama Came to Town

Jason Lee Miller3 Comments

President Stephens walks through campus with Dalai Lama in 1994

For three days in 1988, a woman quietly toured the Berea College campus, chatting with students about their school and observing life in town. She remained anonymous until, on the third day, she appeared in President John B. Stephenson’s office asking to meet with him. There, she announced herself as the niece of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, of Tibet, the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion in the Flesh.

“Of course, he welcomed her,” recalled Jane Stephenson, widow of Berea College President John Stephenson. The Dalai Lama’s niece had been visiting American colleges to find a place for exiled Tibetan students to attend. “She said of all the colleges she had visited, Berea College was the most ideal place for them. The impression they had was that Berea was accepting of all faiths. They also liked that the students would be required to work. He didn’t hesitate or think about how we were going to pay for this. He just said yes.”

Dalai Lama at Abbey of Gethsemani

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, places a khata, a traditional Tibetan silk scarf symbolizing purity and compassion, on the grave marker of Trappist monk Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Ky. (Photo: David Stephenson)

The funding he needed would eventually come from Corella and Bertram Bonner, originators of the Bonner Scholars Program. President Stephenson led two delegations to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans were living in exile. Ultimately, nine students were chosen to enroll. They began their Berea education in 1991.

The Dalai Lama was first scheduled to visit them in 1992, but the trip was cancelled and rescheduled two years later, an event for which the folks back in Berea spent a year preparing. The preparation included security planning with the state and city police and frequent correspondence with Dharamsala to ascertain Gyatso’s needs.

“There were things we all had to learn,” recalls Jane. “One was dietary needs, so there had to be certain foods on the menu at Boone Tavern. My understanding is that he had to sleep on the top floor of the hotel because no one was supposed to sleep higher than the Dalai Lama.”

Dalai Lama with Jack Buchanan

The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, tugs on the ear of Jack Buchanan ’46, a former Berea College trustee, during his campus visit in 1994. After pulling on Buchanan’s ear, Gyatso said, “Buddha ears!” in an admiring tone. Buchanan, who died in 2013, was fond of this memory and proud of this picture.

Among the activities for the Dalai Lama’s three-day visit were a press conference, attendance at Union Church’s Sunday service, two special convocations, and a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Ky., where Trappist monk Thomas Merton was buried.

“At Union Church that Sunday morning,” said Rod Bussey ’63, vice president of Alumni Relations and Development at the time, “President Stephenson and the Dalai Lama entered the church and walked down the aisle to the pulpit area. Both men had radiant smiles. Now I could see that aura that we had noticed around the Dalai Lama was around John. That was emotional to me because I could see how much this meant to John to be able to bring this event to our campus.”

Kentucky Governor Brereton Jones attended convocation and presented a handmade quilt from a local quilt shop to Gyatso before his remarks.

View the Dalai Lama’s 1994 convocation remarks

“The problem with giving anything to the Dalai Lama is that he doesn’t need anything,” Jane said. “It’s part of the culture, not wanting or needing anything. We thought a quilt might be something he would really keep and use.”

The title of his message was World Peace and the Kinship of All People, which Stephenson noted in his introduction was a fundamental concept shared between Buddhists and Christians, citing also the Berea College motto. His Holiness spoke about disarmament, the larger context of which referred to the arms race between nations, but also “internal disarmament,” which meant ridding the spirit of hatred, suspicion and fear to create
a genuine and lasting peace between human beings.

John and Jane’s son, David, was two years out of college in 1994, having just begun a career in photojournalism. He documented both John’s second trip to India and the Dalai Lama’s visit. The highlight of the event for David was visiting Gethsemani. John procured a helicopter to take them there.

View Stephenson’s diary writings from India

“That’s a story I tell my students in the classroom,” said David, now an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at University of Kentucky. “They ask me about the people I’ve met and I say, well, there was this one time I got to ride in a helicopter with the Dalai Lama. Their eyes get all big.”

President John Stephenson holds hands with Dalai Lama

President John Stephenson holds hands with the Dalai Lama, walking toward the Abbey of Gethsemani.

In Bardstown, David took one of his all-time favorite photos, his father and the Dalai Lama holding hands and walking from the helicopter to the abbey. That photo still hangs on David’s wall.

“You could see the look on my father’s face, how happy and excited he was. That brings me a lot of joy.”

Jane remembers, too, what it meant to John.

“This was all put together in the spring of 1994, and John died in December of that year,” Jane said. “It was one of the happiest moments of his life. I was so happy he could have that experience.”

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