Flags fly in French Market to welcome Dalai Lama

Squares of blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth danced in the breezy sunshine along the awnings of French Market on Saturday morning.

Across the city, business owners and residents hung the brightly colored Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags over doors and on balconies as a welcoming gesture to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to celebrate his first visit to New Orleans May 16 to May 18.

According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the flags send prayers of love, compassion and happiness to all beings in the world through the wind.

Each colored flag has a different prayer, and each is connected to an element of the Earth. “May all beings be free of suffering and free of the causes of suffering — that’s the core of all the prayers,” Neil Guidry, Tulane University professor of Tibetan Studies in the School of Social Work, said of the symbols and mantras printed on the flags.

The nature of resilience is a focal point of the events surrounding the visit, and the Dalai Lama’s message, said Ronald Marks, dean of Tulane’s School of Social Work.

“Resilience speaks to these qualities that enable us to recover, even thrive, in the face of adversity,” Marks said at a Prayer Flag Day news conference on Saturday. “The people of New Orleans understand this well, and this week, the people of Boston understand this well.”

Marks said the Dalai Lama accepted the invitation to visit New Orleans to pay tribute to the resilience of the community and its residents over the past seven years.

It was Marks who issued the invitation to the Dalai Lama in India in September 2011, and it was Marks who in March 2012 opened the official letter of acceptance. For the past 12 years, Marks has taken a group of graduate students to Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile.

The Tulane program grew out of a connection Marks made with Guidry, who in 1997 started the Louisiana Himalaya Association, an organization created to “form a cultural and social service bridge between the Tibetan Refugees in Northern India and the people elsewhere that have so much to learn from their wisdom,” according to its website.

Prayer flags were handed out to a host of city, community and religious leaders at Saturday’s news conference, including New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. The Dalai Lama’s message of peace, reconciliation and conciliation is important not just for the world but “for us as a city,” Aymond said, specifically in the “battle against murder, violence and racism.”

Marks described over 60 events happening throughout the community in connection with the Dalai Lama’s historic visit. While the public talks are sold out, they will be livestreamed, and numerous other events are free and open to the public.

Robert Turner, owner of Silk Road Collection on Magazine Street, hung prayer flags in front of his Asian antique store Saturday. He said he plans to livestream the Dalai Lama’s public talks on a large screen in his store on May 17 and May 18.

“I’ve been a fan of the Dalai Lama forever,” Turner said. “He’s a great individual. I’m not particularly Buddhist per se, but he’s a great spiritual leader. He’s compassionate, loving, fun and funny.”

Not to be disrespectful, Turner said, but “He seems like someone who it would be a lot of fun to sit down and have a beer with.”

The message of peace, compassion and acceptance of everyone is “something the world could use more of,” Turner said.

There also is an extensive community outreach component, aimed at bringing the message of the Dalai Lama to those who might not otherwise have access to it.

“Whatever city you come from, whatever religion you believe in, love, compassion and understanding are the foundation of our lives,” said the Venerable Tich Thien Ngo. of Phuoc Nguyen Temple.

One of the events will feature a Tibetan Bazaar and the five-day-long creation of a sand mandala in the Ernest J. Morial Convention Center from May 14 to May 17.

The sand mandala is part of the “mystic art” of Tibet, Marks described, during which monks will create an elaborate painting using colored sand before whisking it away and carrying in a procession to the Mississippi River, allowing the river, the Gulf of Mexico, and the ocean to “further spread the message of peace and compassion.”

For more information about the events and where to purchase prayer flags, visit http://dalailamanola.com.