MEDFORD — Geshe Tenley, clad in the crimson and saffron robes of a Tibetan monk, paused for a moment in a quiet room of the Kurukulla Center for Buddhist Studies late Tuesday afternoon.
The crowd of nearly 2,000 had mostly dispersed. Sacred chanting still echoed though the building, and in the gompa, the teaching and meditation room, a few people stayed to pray near an ornate throne where the Dalai Lama had sat.
The Dalai Lama had returned to Medford, bestowing his blessings upon the Kurukulla Center and, in doing so, fulfilling the dying wish of the monk’s uncle, Geshe Tsulga, who preceded him as the center’s resident teacher and had hosted His Holiness here nine years earlier.
“I cannot say a word,” said Tenley, smiling beatifically. “No words to say.”
After months of planning and days of frantic preparation to accommodate a crowd of more than 1,800 in a 280-foot tent set up across six backyards in a residential neighborhood, the day had come at last.
It was a sparkling morning, sunny, crisp, and windy. The Kurukulla Center, housed in a yellow Victorian house on Magoun Street, fairly exploded with colorful decorations. A tall, emerald-green arch, meant to echo the entrance of a Buddhist monastery, had been erected over the walkway; prayer flags fluttered from the porch to the old oak tree out front.
The air smelled of incense. Tibetans in traditional garb mixed with neighbors in parkas, and a troupe of masked Tibetan dancers practiced the Tashi Sholpa dance of good luck to welcome His Holiness.
The group’s leader, Ngodup Paljor, was educated at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which was founded by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Paljor has never seen his parents’ native country, but in the two decades he spent painstakingly learning to re-create the traditional dances of Tibet, he came to see his life’s mission as preserving the culture of his homeland, which since the 1950s has been suppressed by the Chinese government.
Paljor said he was honored to help welcome the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and for a half-century until 2011 was also the poltical leader of the Tibetan people in exile. A teaching from His Holiness, Paljor said, “is just like guidance from Mom and Dad,” he said.
Inside the giant tent out back, Gyaltsen Wongmo kept watch over a flock of young children from her Tibetan Sunday school class, who kept popping out of their seats to pet the police dogs. Wongmo, who fled Tibet in 1985, was so excited to see the Dalai Lama she could not sleep the night before.
Wongmo, a home care worker, said she meditates each morning on the Dalai Lama’s teachings about kindness and compassion, and it helps protect her when one of her clients, a perpetually angry man, lashes out.
“I get there, I’m strong,” she said. The Dalai Lama “gives me so much.”
When he first came to the Kurukulla Center in 2003, the Dalai Lama stopped his motorcade halfway down the block to greet the neighbors.
As morning gave way to the afternoon Tuesday, hundreds lined Magoun Street as they waited for him to arrive, hoping to catch a glimpse of His Holiness.
“He brings a calmness to people,” said Carol McKnight of Medford, bundled in a yellow jacket.
“We need a little of that in the world,” said her friend, Donna Alibrandi of Malden.
Many who came were not particularly religious. Joan Fontaine, 51, who lives a couple of streets over, was raised Roman Catholic, but she took her first step away from the church as a schoolgirl, when one of the nuns who taught her told her that dogs don’t go to heaven.
“I put my pencil down and said, ‘If dogs aren’t going, I’m not going, either,’ ” she said.
Fontaine never found a religion that encompasses her beliefs, but she developed an interest in the cultures of the Himalayas through rock climbing. But she admires the Dalai Lama’s is the reincarnation of the Buddha, but she admires his peacefulness and compassion.
“Seeing someone who has attained that state is very rare,” she said.
The motorcade finally arrived, and the 77-year-old leader emerged from his black car, leaning heavily on the arms of aides and smiling bemusedly from behind thick glasses. From across the street, neighbors strained to see, but it was difficult with the crowd of photographers and adoring Buddhists in the way.
His Holiness made his way inside, surrounded by monks, elders, and leaders of the center, who clasped their hands and bowed as he moved past to show respect.
In the tent out back, he blessed the center’s Kalachakra Stupa for Peace, a colorful sacred monument.
“I am very happy to be here,” he told the crowd. “One sad thing – Geshe-la,” he said, referring to Geshe Tsulga, a close follower, “is no longer with us. But his presence is very much alive here.”
The Dalai Lama spoke first in English, about his efforts to help people cultivate inner peace and to promote harmony among religions, which he said offered different approaches to the same spiritual goals of compassion and kindness.
He noted that he had stepped aside from his role as political leader of the Tibetan diaspora. In 2011, Tibetans in exile elected Lobsang Sangay, a resident of Medford who earned an advanced degree from Harvard Law School, to represent them. The Dalai Lama joked that Sangay “can proudly say I was educated at Harvard University” and suggested he wear “a T-shirt that advertises Harvard.”
“I think as far as the work of democracy is concerned, we outside Tibet are more advanced than Beijing,” he said. “Hopefully, some reasonable Chinese leaders there may follow our practice.”
He then spoke at length in his native language, addressing the several hundred Tibetans in the crowd. Translators later said his message was focused on the importance of formally studying Buddhist scripture.
He smiled broadly as he left, waving the Medford hat given to him by Mayor Michael McGlynn.
“See you again!” the Dalai Lama said.
And he was gone.