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Tibetan Center blossoms in Hoosier countryside

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The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Culture Center is open to the public during daylight hours and at other times for guided tours.
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BLOOMINGTON, Indiana — A kind-faced woman smiles from a silver-framed photograph. Something about the happiness in her eyes looks familiar. A nearby picture of a young man shows a strong resemblance. He, too, radiates joy and seems almost on the verge of laughing out loud.

These are mother and son. Not strange at all for a home to have family photos. But this is the Dalai Lama's apartment in Bloomington, Ind., and these are photos of his mother and of himself when he was a young student.

"I did this for him so he will have a home," said the Venerable Arjia Rinpoche. "No one stays here but the Dalai Lama. We keep this ready for him."

A candy dish with paper-wrapped sweets sits on a dresser. The Dalai Lama has a sweet tooth and likes to share with guests. A brocaded plush chair offers an extra saffron cushion for the Dalai Lama's back. White scarves are draped across the chair as a reminder that this seat is reserved for a special person.

"No one sits in this chair but the Dalai Lama," says Lisa Morrison, director of media and public relations for the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. "We save it for him."

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An architect and artist as well as director of the center, Rinpoche designed and furnished the two-room apartment at the Bloomington center in 2007. The Dalai Lama stayed in the apartment on his 2007 visit to Bloomington and also on his May 2010 trip.

A holy, private life

Born to a peasant family on July 6, 1935, in a small village called Tagtser in northeastern Tibet, the Dalai Lama was the fifth of 16 children, only seven of whom lived past infancy. In accordance with Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama was recognized at age 2 as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama fled his homeland after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. He resides in India, where he has established the Tibetan Government in Exile.

The 80-year-old Dalai Lama has paid six visits to Bloomington. "No place else in America has he been that many times," Rinpoche said, adding that is why Rinpoche decided it was time His Holiness had a place of his own when he came to Bloomington. In front of the handcrafted walnut bed is a scattering of paper money, placed there as a symbol of generosity and considered good luck for the giver.

Although he is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and world traveler, the Dalai Lama follows the life of a Buddhist monk. He rises at 4 a.m. to meditate, then keeps a schedule of meetings, private audiences, religious teachings and ceremonies. He concludes each day with prayers before going to bed.

A piece of Tibet in Indiana

How did a small Hoosier city nestled between rolling hills and cornfields become home to the only Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in the United States?

The answer is simple, although a bit unusual. The Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, was a professor at Indiana University and lived at the Bloomington center until his death at age 87 in September 2008.

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When Red China invaded Tibet in 1950, Norbu was one of the first high-profile Tibetans to go into exile, and the first Tibetan to settle in the United States. After he fled Tibet in 1950, he worked to inform the world about the situation in Tibet and gather support for his occupied country.

Herman B Wells, president of Indiana University, heard Norbu speak about Tibet and invited him to teach at the university in Bloomington. That was in 1965. Norbu founded the Tibetan Cultural Center — later renamed the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center — in 1979. He retired from the university in 1987.

"The temple is open to people of all faiths," Rinpoche said, noting that the temple has a Bible, Torah and other assorted scriptures considered holy by other religions. "That is very important to us."

One-of-a-kind sights

Open to the public, the center is the only place in the United States where people can see traditional Tibetan Chortens, yak butter sculptures and a permanent sand mandala, as well as learn about Tibetan culture through teachings and special events. Located on 108 acres in the southeast corner of Bloomington, the center is open for self-guided tours during daylight hours. Guided tours also can be arranged.

The Kora Nature Meditation Path is located behind the center's flagpole and is an easy 1.5-mile walk. On the property are eight buildings, two stupas (hemispherical shaped structures used for meditation), a pagoda, huge prayer wheels, a temple, a teaching pavilion and a gift shop featuring items from around the globe. Deep in the woods are four retreat cottages fashioned after traditional Mongolian yurts but with modern amenities. The cottages can be rented for a nightly fee.

"It is very different here from Tibet," Rinpoche said. "But we like it here because in the winter we can see snow and it feels like home. In Tibet, we have a lot of snow. Summer is a little bit hot here but not too long, just a month or two. Spring and fall are awesome."

Although he hasn't seen his home country since 1998, Rinpoche says he prays that Tibet will one day regain its freedom. "In our lifetimes, we hope that Tibet will be free, that the day will come when His Holiness and other Tibetans can return to Tibet."

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