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The Derby City Embraces 'Compassion' With Dalai Lama's Teaching

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America's largest "Compassionate City" received instructions on Sunday from the Tibetan holy man who may be the world's living symbol of hope and forgiveness. The Dalai Lama spoke to more than 14,000 people in Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, a recently built arena on the Ohio River that, on other occasions, hosts rock concerts and University of Louisville Cards basketball games.

"Concern with others' well being: that is compassion," the 77-year-old Buddhist spiritual leader declared. "Compassion must come from there," he added, pointing toward his heart.

The Dalai Lama's visit came at the conclusion of a weeklong series of events in Louisville during the Center for Interfaith Relations' annual Festival of Faiths, "Sacred Silence: Pathway to Compassion." This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's famous visit with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk from the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, who became one of the first modern advocates of interfaith dialogue. The meeting occurred only a short time before Merton's accidental death by electrocution in Bangkok in December 1968.

Ticket holders for this week's event, where seats sold for as much as $100 each, formed long lines several hours before the Dalai Lama went onstage. One line snaked well across the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge to Indiana, a distance of over one mile. Clearly someone had been instructing security workers and others staffing the arena in the fine art of compassion; greetings and smiles were everywhere -- even among the thousands waiting in line. All day long, the activity outside the Yum Center resembled a street fair. Built on Louisville's historic West Main Street, the arena is flanked by the largest collection of 19th century cast-iron front buildings outside of New York City. One block, immediately east of the arena, is currently being renovated as "Whiskey Row," a salute to the distillers who once had their headquarters in that block. The project is an example of how historic preservation is valued in Louisville, which boasts many National Register sites.

Inside the arena, local television personality Dawne Gee was host of a warmup concert in which she encouraged members of the audience to introduce themselves to the people sitting to their right and left, front and back.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, signed a resolution in November 2011 that committed his city (pop. 750,000) to compliance with the list of principles developed by British writer Karen Armstrong, who issued the Charter for Compassion (charterforcompassion.org) in a TED talk six years ago. It was Fischer who urged the interfaith organization to reschedule its annual Festival of Faiths to May as a prelude to the Dalai Lama's visit (normally the event is held in November).

Although the big service at the arena was the centerpiece of the week's activities, a much smaller ceremony was the original reason for the Dalai Lama's journey to Kentucky. Upon arriving in the city from New Orleans, where he spoke last week, he was taken to the Drepung Gomang Institute, Louisville's Tibetan Buddhist Center in suburban St. Matthews, where he spoke to 100 members and offered blessings. He urged the institute, which is an affiliate of the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India, to be a house of education, not simply one of worship.

There have been political as well as spiritual ramifications in the effort to make Louisville a "compassionate" city. The effort has been led by Mayor Greg Fischer, who has been surprising political observers since he made his first race for public office in 2008. That year he sought the Democratic Senate nomination in an effort to unseat Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. Fischer bucked the establishment to run a strong race against Bruce Lunsford, another successful businessman, who went on to lose to McConnell in the fall. Regrouping after the loss, Fischer set this eye on City Hall, where five-term incumbent Jerry Abramson was leaving to become Kentucky's lieutenant governor.

A narrow victory over Republican Hal Heiner in the 2010 mayor's race was built in large measure on Fischer's strong turnout among African-American voters in the city's predominately black west end. From the start, Fischer's efforts to strengthen his position as a healer and a frugal manager have broadened his base of support, and he seems poised to make another federal race, either to run one day for Rep. John Yarmuth's Third District congressional seat, or for Rand Paul's Senate seat in 2016. But for now, Fischer, who plans to seek a second term as mayor in 2014, is minding the store back home. So far, he has no opposition on the horizon.

The Dalai Lama's Louisville visit continues today (May 20) and tomorrow. This evening a Tibetan Freedom concert featuring cellist Ben Sollee and flutist Nawang Khechog, will be on stage at the Brown Theater. And tomorrow, the Dalai Lama will meet with children from Louisville's public and private schools.