Early Sunday morning, a group of Howell residents gathered at the Aldrich Road Park and Ride for an experience they knew would leave a lasting impact on their lives.
The final destination was Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as he presented a teaching and life blessing to the sold out audience.
Sunday's event was presented by the Howell-based Kalmyk Three Jewels Foundation and the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey.
Maria Taunov, a Howell resident and co-founder of the foundation, said bringing the Dalai Lama to New York for the event was a process that took several years of hard work but was ultimately well worth it.
"It was really such an honor," she said of coordinating the event. "I'm really speechless when it comes to that. We made it happen."
That effort included flying out to Iowa two years ago for a private audience where she was able to present the Dalai Lama with the invitation to New York.
The goal of the foundation is to help keep the Kalmyk traditions and customs alive; the religious leader's visit was another part of that effort, according to Taunov.
"Seeing His Holiness a number of times, I finally decided to begin a Kalmyk Kids' Dharma class," she said. "I finally decided that our Kalmyk children, they needed to be aware of who they are and where they come from."
As part of Sunday's event, a group of 40 children was given the opportunity to go up on stage for a prayer with the Dalai Lama. Taunov said of that group, 20 had their roots in Howell, with many attending the Howell Public Schools.
"The kids were so delighted," she said.
The Dalai Lama's teaching itself was a mix of the history of Buddhism, what he sees as the future of the religion, and how Buddhism fits in with other cultures and religions in the 21st century. In an effort to reach everyone in the audience, which included many young children, the Dalai Lama spoke in English and Tibetan mixing serious discussions with humorous anecdotes and jokes that had those in attendance laughing along.
Organizers announced $137,000 had been raised on Sunday for various causes. Of the money raised, 40 percent was to go to the Dalai Lama Trust, 30 percent was to go to the organizers and 30 percent to other charities. Following that announcement the Dalai Lama asked that 40 percent be given to the organizers.
Along with his teaching inside the theater the Dalai Lama also addressed several hundred Tibetans who had gathered outside the theater hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Taunov said when he saw the gathering during the luncheon he asked if he could address them.
With a dedicated team working to put the day together Taunov said everything went as smoothly as possible.
"Sometimes things just click," she said. "The alter was beautiful, Lincoln Center was beautiful and the crowds outside gave it this excitment. All the love was just absolutely fabulous."
For some people it was their first time seeing the spiritual leader in person. Howell resident Bemba Balsirow said it was his sixth time seeing him. "Each time has always been unique and comforting," he said.
Like other older members of the Kalmyk population in town, Balsirow said he can remember back in 1979 when the Dalai Lama came for a special event. "I was fortunate enough to grow up with him from my college days to my AARP days," he added with a laugh.
Having seen him several times and having four private audiences Taunov said the experience is always a special one.
"When you meet him it's an unbelievable feeling," she said. "It's like you're floating."
Taunov said she still hopes to bring the Dalai Lama back to Howell at some point in the future.
"Logistically it was impossible," she said of this trip. Someday, she said, she would like to bring him back to New Jersey so more local people can have access to his teachings.
Even after 30 years, Balsirow said Sunday was still a life changing experience for him.
"It was inspirational. It was amazing," he said. For his involvement with the Tashi Lhunpo Temple in Howell, Balsirow was given the opportunity to be personally blessed by the Dalai Lama. "He grabbed my hand and I had chills. It was amazing. I was in awe. At the same time you were in awe but you also feel that you were a part of him."
Balsirow said he was glad people of all ages have been able to see the Dalai Lama in person and to learn from him. "We're on the path to maintaining our culture and this just reinforced that goal and the way the Three Jewels Foundation does that through soccer and customs and teachings. Our goal is to solidify and maintain our identity."
Taunov also thanked Howell Township for providing the busing that took the residents in to see the show.
To learn more about the Dalai Lama's teaching on Sunday check out this website.