PeaceJam founders on the time they helped Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys get an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the '90s

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While we've been mourning the untimely passing of Adam Yauch (aka MCA) of the Beastie Boys last week and reminiscing about the act's shows in Denver, we've learned that the musician/activist had pretty interesting ties to our city beyond playing here nearly a dozen times over the past two decades. Before organizing his own Tibetan Freedom concerts, Yauch worked with PeaceJam co-founders Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff on the nascent version of their organization in the mid-'90s, and the pair helped arrange for Yauch to get an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama an event that had a profound impact on the musician. Yesterday, the couple took some time away from their latest film project, Mayan Renaissance (slated to premiere next week in New York), to talk about their time working with Yauch.

Ivan Suvanjieff recalls his first meeting with Adam Yauch

This was around the time that we came up with the idea of PeaceJam. I was with Dawn Gifford Engle, my wife and co-founder. We were thinking, yeah, this could easily have a music component to it. Peace and Jam, right? So I read somewhere in some magazine, maybe Spin or something -- this was back in '94 -- that [Adam] Yauch had done some Buddhist research and all the rest of it. So I thought, "Well, I'll go to this guy first."

So I called Gold Mountain [Entertainment] and got ahold of John Cutcliffe, a guy they called JC; I don't know if he works there anymore. But he invited us out to San Diego for a Lollapalooza, and we met Yauch backstage there, and talked to him about it. He had just jumped out of the swimming pool. He had just gotten off stage and went directly to the swimming pool that was attached to the gymnasium. So he came out in some sort of weird pair of underwear, soaking wet, and Billy Corgan was there playing basketball, shooting hoops. So that was the setup. We talked to him, and he sounded interested. So we got together and talked some more.

Dawn Engle picks up the story from here:We worked together over a year, actually. We were going to do PeaceJam. I don't know if you know about PeaceJam at all, but PeaceJam, when we first had the idea, was just going to be a five-year project, and we were doing it jointly with Adam Yauch, and the Gold Mountain people were helping us. The idea was that it was going to be an annual music concert and there was going to be an education component, too, that went year-round.

So we talked to all the Nobel laureates, who had agreed to be part of PeaceJam. We had eight, including the Dalai Lama, and they were excited about it. We asked the Dalai Lama if he would take a meeting with Adam Yauch, because Adam Yauch really wanted to meet him. So we set that up, and it was pretty funny. He was so excited about meeting the Dalai Lama that he rushed to a plane and jumped on it and flew to India. When he got off the plane, he didn't have a visa, so they wouldn't let him in.

We were actually at Erin Potts's house, who founded Milarepa with him, his foundation. We were staying at her house, doing all this planning to get everything going, and it was very funny when we got the call from him. It was around dinnertime, and we got this call that he was stranded at the New Delhi airport in India, and that they wouldn't let him into the country, and what could we do? So I had to get on the phone and call up to Dharmasthala and get the Dalai Lama's office to call down to New Delhi, to the airport, and we had to, like, organize a visa over the phone, long distance.

But anyway, he went up and met with the Dalai Lama, and it made a big difference in his life -- you know, he ended up marrying a Tibetan girl [Dechen Wangdu], and so much ended up coming out of that meeting. After working together for about a year, by the fall of 1995, it was clear that he really wanted to focus just on Tibet, and we wanted to work with all the Nobel laureates, so he went off and took the music part of it, and that became the Tibetan Freedom Concert, and we took the education part of it, and that became the PeaceJam program. It was a really wonderful collaboration, and those ideas coming together, us coming together with Adam Yauch, two really fabulous things came out of it.

Dawn Engle explains the couple's relationship with the Dalai Lama, and how they were able to arrange for an audience for Yauch in the first place:

The reason we were able to talk to the Dalai Lama: In a previous life, I worked for the U.S. Congress. I helped as a volunteer when they were starting the international campaign for Tibet, and I had gone to Dharmasthala with a small group of about fifty people for the very first meeting of International Campaign for Tibet -- and that's before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. So I was known. I started Colorado Friends of Tibet when I moved to Colorado. So I was able to call his people and ask for an audience with the Dalai Lama.

Ivan was funny. When I told him we had the meeting with the Dalai Lama, he said, "Great," you know. "Where do we meet him?" I said, "Dharmasthala, India." He said, "I have $1.57 in my checking account," right? Ivan went to a lot of his friends and said, "Can I borrow some money? I have this meeting with the Dalai Lama in India." Nobody believed him. But we were able to raise the money. We met with the Dalai Lama. He loved the idea [of PeaceJam]. You know, he talks to people all the time, but he wanted to reach out more to youth, but he doesn't have the time to develop a whole international youth education outreach program, so this served that purpose, and he thought it was a great idea.

And then he gave us a list of seven other Nobel laureates whom he thought we should ask -- they had all gone together, eight of them, had all gone together to the Thai/Burma border to get in to see Aung Sun Suu Kyi. So we got eight Nobel laureates to say yes to us before we had any funding, before we had an organization, before we had anything. We did everything backwards, but we were just really enthusiastic.

And I think that's the same thing that came across when we met Adam Yauch, who was such a good guy. Really sincere, really funny, very cool, with a real heart. And he was really moved -- you know, he was becoming a Buddhist and traveled to Tibet, and he really cared. He had done some things where he had set up a booth at Lollapalooza, and he was trying to raise awareness about the issue of Tibet -- that's before we met him. He was a really good guy, and he really had his heart in the right place. But then when we got together, we provided an impetus to really move it to a whole new level.

I didn't talk to the Dalai Lama about him directly [after Yauch's audience with him], but I talked to his people, and they were impressed with him. He [Yauch] was a hip-hop musician, and I don't think he [the Dalai Lama] had met up with a hip-hop musician before. He [Yauch] seemed like a really, really sincere guy. We had told him [the Dalai Lama] that we had been working with him for quite a few months, and we thought he was really a good man and that he was really going to follow through, and so they took us at our word and scheduled an audience, and they were impressed, too, at his sincerity.

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