Meet the man who got the Dalai Lama to Orange County for his 80th birthday

Lama Tenzin Dhonden, personal emissary of peace for the Dalai Lama, was responsible for choosing the location of the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday celebration.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As Tibetans around the world celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday Sunday, the wide-eyed monk in saffron and burgundy robes will be in Anaheim, kicking off a three-day Global Compassion Summit.

What draws Tenzin Gyatso — revered as a living Buddha — to the U.S. and, specifically, Orange County, for his special day?

The answer rests with a bald, soft-spoken monk whose assignment for the last decade has been to serve as the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary for peace.


Lama Tenzin Dhonden, who lives in Lake Elsinore, is part attache, part advance man. Among his duties: organizing lectures and national tours, vetting speakers and finding partners that, he says, “do a great job for humanity.” When not assisting the Dalai Lama, the 50-year-old Dhonden lectures in San Diego twice a week on consciousness and near-death experiences.

Dhonden hatched the idea for a jubilee-style 80th birthday, and the task of finding the right space fell on his shoulders.

“[In] New York, life is very busy. People walk fast. Not enough time to think,” Dhonden said recently as he sipped tea in an El Segundo coffee shop. “In California, people like to take time and have more time. People like to find out what really happens in the world, what is the truth about.”

Such seekers have helped elevate the profile of the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 and settled among the Himalayan foothills.

But rather than stay in his refuge, he has traveled — meeting with heads of state, lecturing at universities — and written dozens of books. During eight decades of public life, he’s dispensed simple teachings tailored to glide across national and ideological boundaries.

He preaches what he calls a “religion of kindness,” amassing acolytes and friends eager to pay tribute to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, even as he minimizes his work.


“My small contribution, insignificantly small contribution, [is] promotion of human value,” he said during an interview via satellite from his compound in Dharamsala, India. “I cannot say some … great thing achieved.”

Dhonden, who takes that humility in stride, said his goal was to craft a three-day celebration worthy of the man he so admires.

It was the Million Acts of Kindness campaign in Anaheim’s public school system that caught Dhonden’s eye when he began searching for the right location, he said. The program tabulates caring deeds, like saying “please” or planting a garden on school grounds.

“If you really want to change the city, it has to do with the culture, healing the city from within,” Mayor Tom Tait said.

Dalai Lama’s emissary arranged for the mayor and his wife, Julie, to travel to Dharamsala this spring for a three-day visit. There, Tait gave the Dalai Lama a token that bears the city’s motto: “Anaheim — City of Kindness.” The Dalai Lama frequently removed it from his pocket to show it off, Tait said.

The Southern California summit will open with the Dalai Lama’s address on “the transformative power of creativity and art” at the Honda Center. On Monday, his actual birthday, he will lead two discussions at UC Irvine about climate change and wisdom, which Tibetan Buddhists believe accumulate with time.

The university, which has hosted the Dalai Lama twice before, has an endowed scholarship program in his name that centers on ethics and public affairs. Half of the 10-person organizing committee for the Global Compassion Summit are UC Irvine administrators.

Thomas A. Parham, UC Irvine’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said the topic of sustainability suits the campus. UC Irvine has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for its food waste recycling and recently added a zero-emission bus to its fleet.

“The world is in desperate need of more love, compassion and empathy,” Parham said. “If you look at the Dalai Lama’s values and virtues, there’s a high degree of congruence with our campus.”

The summit is scheduled to close Tuesday morning, with the Dalai Lama leading a 90-minute dialogue on values-based education, a session that likely will include Anaheim’s kindness campaign.

“If you really want to change this world,” Tait said recently as he and Dhonden met students in the library at Gauer Elementary School, “start with education, start with the kids.”

The focus of the Dalai Lama’s visit is his message, Dhonden said, because Tibetan tradition places scant value on birthday celebrations. Rather, elders are accorded respect and aging is honored. Death is inevitable and contemplated daily.

Just don’t think it’s coming soon for the Dalai Lama, Dhonden said: “He will live 114 years.”
Twitter: @MattHjourno