Our cover story this week recounts the metaphysical inquiries of the author, contributor Richard Ely, into the state of Buddhism in the state of Wisconsin. It also recounts his personal journey of discovery into the 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition, thus the title "Dairyland Dharma" - the word "dharma" conveying the idea of process or path. This is all occasioned by the imminent visit of Tenzin Gyato, the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the world's Tibetan Buddhists, to Madison on May 2.
Buddhism, in its varied forms, is the dominant religion of hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, predominantly in the Asian world. Awareness of it was near zero in this country until the post-World War II era, when that conflict resulted in widespread contact between Eastern and Western cultures. When practices such as meditation, martial arts and yoga began seeping into Western consciousness, they brought with them aspects of Buddhist philosophy.
Wisconsin became a factor in the cultural cross-pollination when its state university, under the stewardship of Richard Robinson, began what would become a preeminent Asian studies program in Madison. That in turn attracted Tibetan monks, displaced from their home country by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, to congregate here during the '60s and eventually led to the establishment of Deer Park, a Buddhist enclave near Madison, over 30 years ago.
As far as I can determine, this is the Dalai Lama's fourth visit to the Madison area, though there may have been other, less-noted trips here. His visit in July 1981 fired local interest and was treated as a historic event, which indeed it was. Encouraged by the success of Deer Park, emblematic of the taking root of an indigenous strain of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama came to celebrate a rare religious ceremony at Deer Park - the Kalachakra. At the time, it was only the seventh celebration of the rite in the 20th century and the first ever in America. It was a big event, capturing the imagination, and it spawned waggish humor of the "Hello Dalai" and "Chakra Cola" (water) variety.
Needless to say, Isthmus was on the story, with three pieces by Tom Kinney over a four-week period and Fred Milverstedt and myself chucking in a few extraneous comments. This time the anticipation is much more subdued, and the coverage is, appropriately, more introspective. It seems the concepts of Buddhism are not as exotic as they once seemed. Could this be a sign of spiritual growth?