The secret service has to wait for the ducks at the Peabody Hotel to make their grand red carpet entrance to the lobby fountain before they can do one more security check on the Dalai Lama's floor. Once secure - half the agents headed to the airport, while the others joined the Memphis police at the Tom Lee Park overlooking the Mississippi River.
The river is Memphis. It's the river that made Memphis one of the largest port towns and brought together music styles upstream and down stream to birth the Blues and the Memphis sound. The river was also an escape route and spelled freedom for many slaves. The river is the first place the 14th Dalai Lama went after arriving in Blues City to receive 2009 International Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.
On hand to welcome him were Memphis Mayor Myron Lowery and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, Jr. They awkwardly held Tibetan scarves to present to His Holiness. The 74-year-old Dalai Lama is spry like a young man. He has a mischievous smile, bright eyes, and an infamous sense of humor. His robes marked a sharp contrast to the many suited federal agents surrounding him (as a high profile religious leader in exile, when the Dalai Lama visits the United States, it is the government's responsibility to ensure his safety). He immediately put the two mayors and onlookers at ease with his smile. Mayor Lowery fist bumped the Dalai Lama in a casual, good-natured greeting. After receiving the key to the city and a proclamation making him an official citizen of Memphis for his devotion to civil rights, the Dalai Lama bowed and smiled. In broken English he expressed his belief in "human value" and "human affection," stating that affection and compassion can reach beyond issues of race, economic status, or any other dividers. "Compassions change our perception," he said.
The National Civil Rights Museum is housed at the Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At the mention of Dr. King's name, the Dalai Lama gets very quiet and pensive. It is to pay homage to Dr. King that he made his long journey to Memphis. "I never met him, but I admire him very much," he said. His Holiness shares a key value with Dr. King in his civil rights movement to free Tibet - non-violence.
2009 marks the 50th anniversary since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet and form a government in exile in India. Controversy follows him - especially now that China has emerged as a superpower and is a vital trade partner, many U.S. businesses are afraid to align with the most famous Buddhist for fear that China will retaliate.
Beijing condemns the Dalai Lama for promoting autonomy in Tibet, which China took over in 1950. In fact, U.S. presidents have been cautious when dealing with the Dalai Lama. President Obama has yet to meet with him, and to date has only sent an advisor to discuss the U.S. policy on Tibet.
During his stay, the Dalai Lama will give a public speech on "Developing Peace and Harmony." In addition a concert will be held in his honor, presented by The Missing Piece Project, featuring Tibetan musicians, singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson, country artist Joe Nicols and headliner Natalie Cole with the Memphis Symphony.
Before leaving the Mississippi, he bestowed a special blessing on the river with two Tibetan scarves. He smiled and looked at his fellow monks and said, "This is how we bless our rivers in Tibet. This is our river too."