The intersection of Thirty-first Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan seems an unlikely place to find spiritual refuge. And yet here in the shadow of the Empire State Building, tucked amid towering office buildings on a bustling midtown morning, stands a curious pair: the New York branch of Jews for Jesus, and a few doors down, the Tibet Center. On signage alone, the evangelicals appear to be winning the battle for business, with large lettering plastered across the building’s facade. They’ve got a nice big wooden plaque, etched in boldface. Tibet Center, on the fifth floor of an unremarkable redbrick building, has a quieter presence; but for the small metal sign hanging above its front door, you wouldn’t know it was there at all.
Nicholas Vreeland, Tibetan monk and grandson of the late style icon Diana Vreeland, has been director of the Center since 1998; prior to that he studied for fourteen years at Rato Dratsang, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Karnataka, India. Along with Richard Gere’s Initiatives Foundation, Vreeland is leading Tibet Center’s efforts to organize the Dalai Lama’s visit to New York in September. As on previous visits, His Holiness will give teachings to the public in Central Park, and at the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Wearing the maroon robes of a monk, sporting Birkenstocks and wool socks (cold-weather concessions his grandmother might have objected to), Vreeland spoke recently of the challenge of hosting the world’s most recognizable Buddhist.
“When we were organizing His Holiness’s last visit, in 1999, the Parks Commissioner told us that on a Sunday morning at 11 o’clock we were not likely to get an audience of more than twenty thousand people. ‘Well,’ we thought, ‘twenty thousand people, that’s a lot of people!’ But when vast crowds began to arrive early on that Sunday morning, we realized we had a major event on our hands. The official State Department number was two hundred thousand. Many people were so far away they couldn’t see the jumbo screen, they could only hear His Holiness’s voice over the speakers we set up throughout the area.”
Although the mood of the country has changed since September 11, 2001, and some have grown skeptical of the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, Vreeland is optimistic. “I think that people are more receptive now than ever,” he says. “We expect there to be a far greater turnout in Central Park than in 1999. His Holiness is very interested in teaching the logical basis of Buddhist philosophy—something Westerners are apt to be open to—and this will be the focus of his teachings at the Beacon Theater.”
Will the crowds show this year? Out on a rain-swept Thirty-first Street, marketing efforts don’t seem to rank highly on Tibet Center’s list of priorities, but when you’re hosting the Dalai Lama, word gets around.
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