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Dalai Lama brings a different kind of second line

To hear Sharon Litwin’s interview with Ronald Marks on WWNO radio, click here.

Dean Ronald Marks

Dean Ronald Marks

By now, most New Orleanians know that the Dalai Lama is in town this week. They may know that this Nobel Peace Prize Laureate will receive an honorary degree from Tulane University, and that he’s participating in a conference organized by the Tulane School of Social Work.

But they probably have no idea what it took to bring the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetan Buddhists to this city. That’s where Dr. Ronald Marks comes in.

A Pittsburgh native, Dr. Marks has lived in New Orleans for 28 years, every one of them spent on the Tulane faculty. Twelve years ago, he became Dean of the School of Social Work, and every year since then he has taken a group of his students across the world to Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lamai and the Tibetan government in exile.

It’s this long-time relationship between a scholar from New Orleans and this internationally-respected holy leader that led to the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of an invitation to visit New Orleans. Dr. Marks knows that some may ask why he takes his students halfway around the world to such a very foreign place.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama arrives in New Orleans this weekend.

“I do it because it enables them to move beyond the paradigm they see their world through,” he says. “In India, particularly, we have a way to break out of that paradigm, to understand the nature of community in a completely other way.”

The residents of Dharamsala indeed do hold an alternate view of community, Dr. Marks says, explaining that their ideal of others before self results in some very different ways of organizing communities. For the Tulane students, who, for the most part, have grown up in western cultures that cherish the steadfast protection of cultural assets — particularly those of bricks and mortar – it’s an eye-opener to encounter another culture, one with a completely different approach to permanence.

One example of that difference has been demonstrated daily for the past few days in the Morial Convention Center. There, a group of Tibetan monks has been creating a sand Mandela using five special colors of sand. It is painstaking work. But this is an intricate and beautiful creation of art that will not end up in a museum.

Prayer flags are going up around the city in anticipation of the Dalai Lama's visit.

Prayer flags are going up around the city in anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s visit.

Instead, around 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, the monks will sweep up the sands and, in a colorful parade, will walk to the Mississippi River to distribute them into the water so they can flow into the oceans of the world.

Dr. Marks says that the parade of monks in their traditional robes and headdresses will strike a note of familiarity for those in the Crescent City.

“New Orleans understands second lines,” he says, and he encourages everyone who can to join in this very special spiritual experience in our very New Orleans way.

For more information about the Dalai Lama’s visit and the schedule of events associated with it, go to

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.


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