Upcoming Dalai Lama visit thrills City of Medford

Boston visit hosted by MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics & Transformative Values

MEDFORD — It is an ordinary working-class neighborhood: clapboard houses, chain-link fences. There is a statue of the Virgin Mary in one front yard; in another, a Halloween ghost waves in the wind.

But something extraordinary is happening here. Fences are coming down. Aluminum bleachers are going up. Thursday morning, a crew will begin erecting a 280-foot-long tent, large enough to fit more than 1,800 people.

The Dalai Lama is coming to Magoun Avenue. And — never mind the disruption, the noise, or that there aren’t many Buddhists in these parts — the neighbors are pretty much thrilled.

Jim McCormick, a former construction worker who has lived on the street for 20 years, said his sister-in-law is coming from North Carolina for the event. And his 86-year-old mother-in-law, an observant Roman Catholic, had been eagerly looking forward to it before her recent death. “She would have been right out there,” he said.

The mustard-colored house across the street from McCormick’s is the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, a homey dharma center where American Buddhist converts and many members of the small Tibetan refugee community in the area gather to pray and meditate.

His Holiness first visited the Kurukulla Center in 2003, welcomed there by the late Geshe Tsulga, who fled Tibet weeks after the Dalai Lama in 1959 following the uprising against the Chinese occupation, and who served as the Medford center’s resident teacher for 17 years. Before he died in 2010, Geshe Tsulga implored the Dalai Lama to return to Medford, said Wendy Cook, the former center director and now a yoga teacher there.

This visit “is a fulfillment of our teacher’s dying wish,” Cook said. It will come Tuesday at the end of a three-day trip to the Boston area hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, which includes a talk at the Marriott Copley Hotel in Boston on Sunday and panel discussions on global environmental, economic, ethical, and governmental issues at MIT on Monday.

When the New York office of the Dalai Lama notified the Kurukulla Center that he would make room in his schedule for a private event there this fall, the center’s leaders were overjoyed. In 2003, a couple hundred people attended. This time, they thought, perhaps they could invite a few more. Perhaps — oh — 1,800 or so?

The street closings, parking bans, and major construction that shoehorning an event of this size into a residential neighborhood — not to mention the intense security and the small Tibetan market to be set up for the day — are normally the sort of disruptions that set city officials’ teeth on edge and that test neighbors’ patience.

But many of the neighbors well remember the Dalai Lama’s last visit. And so does Mayor Michael McGlynn.

The Dalai Lama, as the mayor recalls it, captured the hearts of Medford residents from the moment he arrived.

“People were stunned that not only the Dalai Lama was here in Medford, but he jumped out of the car to say to all the neighbors, ‘How ya doin’!’ McGlynn said.

His Holiness, the mayor allowed, may not have used those exact words.

But when his motorcade turned up Magoun Avenue, it came to a halt long before it reached its destination. The Dalai Lama emerged from his car and, as the air reverberated with the chanting of monks broadcast over a loudspeaker, he made his way down the street, shaking hands and greeting Tibetans, neighbors, and others who had come to catch a glimpse.

McCormick fondly remembers the Dalai Lama greeting his elderly mother-in-law.

“He kissed her hand,” he said.

McGlynn himself was repeatedly sidelined by an officious member of the Secret Service, who kept advising him: “Do not approach the Dalai Lama.” But the Dalai Lama, as McGlynn recalls it, kept wanting to know where the mayor had gone, forcing the security officers to retrieve McGlynn.

“As I’ve said to may people since that day — I was only with him for 45 minutes to an hour, but I feel he’s one of my best friends in life,” McGlynn said. “Everybody pretty much felt the same way.”

When the center opened its doors last month to discuss the plan for the day with neighbors, organizers were prepared for the worst. They invited the mayor, a police lieutenant, a state representative, and even the Rev. Chip Hines, pastor of St. Joseph in Medford, to help them explain their plans and offer reassurance.

But nobody complained.

One neighbor offered use of her backyard. Another wanted to know whether there was anything they should or shouldn’t do to make the Dalai Lama feel welcome. Several others asked how they could get tickets.

Jonathan Walker, 35, who lives nearby and works at Staples, wanted to know whether he could help clean up.

“It’s your community,” he said afterward, with a slight shrug. “It’s what you’re supposed to do.”

May Marquebreuck, 82, said she was looking forward to the day: “His Holiness is a wonderful inspiration for the whole world, actually.”

Linda Brown, a neighbor who works for the school department’s food service, said she and her husband did not hesitate when the center asked, a bit audaciously, if they could please remove their two backyard fences to make way for the giant tent. She is not a Buddhist but likes to take yoga classes at the center, and likes “the flow” of energy she gets from next door.

“You just feel it,” she said.

Barbara Melanson, a Buddhist and the center’s volunteer landscaper, said three burly men came by the day before to let her know they were planning a backyard barbecue on the day of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and “if His Holiness would like to join them, they’d love it.”

At 7:30 Wednesday morning, a massive truck from a scaffolding company in South Boston squeezed a set of bleachers to seat 300 people into the backyard, beeping as it went. If any of the neighbors minded, they didn’t say so.

McGlynn said several Catholic priests have asked him for tickets. One, he recalled, said with a laugh: “Well, I’ll probably never see the pope, so why not see the pope of the Buddhists?”

“Throughout the world, I know there are deep religious divides,” the mayor said. “But you’re not going to find them in Medford.”