The Freedom Valley Chronicles: The Millennium Fire – Part Twelve Coping With Tragedy The Memories Of One Resident And The Teachings Of The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is not a resident of Conshohocken or the Freedom Valley. The native of Tibet makes his home in India and travels the world to encourage peace and kindness. For one resident who lived through the Millennium Fire in 2008, the teachings of the Dalai Lama provided comfort and understanding as she dealt with the inferno and its aftermath.

Pictured above are two buildings that were devastated by fire at Riverwalk At Millennium on August 13, 2008.

From July 9-14, 2008, about a month before the Millennium Fire in Conshohocken, the Dalai Lama visited Lehigh University. Thousands traveled from throughout the United States and from all corners of the world to come to Bethlehem to hear the spiritual leader teach.

Ms. Elise Gaul was one of those that traveled to Bethlehem to hear the Dalai Lama as he taught the teachings of Buddhism. Ms. Gaul, a grief counselor, journeyed only a short distance from Conshohocken to the Lehigh Valley to learn directly from this Noble Peace Prize recipient.

“The Dalai Lama teachings in July of 2008 revolved around practicing compassion (a ‘good heart’) and putting connection to others and the natural world above ego and material things,” stated Ms. Gaul. “This is the basis of the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. It is the understanding that all is temporary and clinging to things causes suffering.”

Dr. Alice Gast, then President of Lehigh University, and Mrs. Diana Cutler, Co-Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, are seen here “dressing” the Dalai Lama during a public talk at Lehigh University in July of 2008.

About four weeks later, Ms. Gaul was one of approximately 375 Conshohocken residents that became homeless because of the Millennium Fire. She lived in an apartment at Riverwalk At Millennium.

The “inspiring teaching” she witnessed in Bethlehem was not one that she intended “to actually experience it,” continued Ms. Gaul. “The fire and that kind of jarring loss made me really have to metabolize that lesson – to live it. I certainly didn’t wish to have the rug pulled out from under me, but it really taught me about loss and what it feels like to have your life suddenly upended and how disorienting that can be.”

Her mother had died the year before the fire. The day after the fire –while leaving a store where she had just purchased a toothbrush – another driver backed into her car.

“It is helpful to have gone through that for my work as a grief counselor,” stated Ms. Gaul. “There were moments where it felt awful, exhausting, and scary, but I also recall feeling kind of curious and free. I was lucky because, weeks later, I was offered the opportunity to go salvage some things from my unit. I got back some things, though much of it scarred. By then I was getting the message that I really didn’t need much and that worrying about my stuff just made me tired. It is really nice to know that and that I am resilient. When we really know that what we have is temporary and can be lost in a blink, feeling resilient is very reassuring and, perhaps, all a person can really keep in their back pocket in case of emergency.”

Mr. Joshua Cutler, Executive Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, New Jersey, provided a quote of the Dalai Lama that, according to Mr. Cutler, “was wonderfully presented a few years later in Professor Guy Newland’s book ‘From Here to Enlightenment.’”

“We all have to recognize the tremendous opportunity that we have. As humans we have this rare intelligence, but there is a real danger that we will waste it. Death is certain, but when we will die is totally unpredictable. We could lose our precious human existence at any moment. With such reflections, we must motivate ourselves to do something meaningful right now. The best way to make your human existence meaningful is to really engage in the practice of dharma. During formal sitting meditation and in between sessions, in different ways, be mindful and introspectively vigilant. Keep constant watch on your mind.”

-Dalai Lama

This book was written to highlight the teachings that took place as “His Holiness taught The Great Treatise so eloquently and profoundly to all of us 6,000 plus listeners four hours a day for six days at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena,” according to Mr. Cutler.

The Dalai Lama is seen here with the “translators” of the Great Treatise, the principal reason for the teachings at Lehigh University.

Ms. Gaul remembers the day of the fire at Riverwalk At Millennium. Almost everything she owned was damaged or destroyed during the fire and its aftermath.

“I was working at home that day,” stated Ms. Gaul. “I was looking out a window and saw a man laughing. Just a regular day. Then I heard the banging. A member of the apartment complex’s maintenance staff was banging on my door. He told me to get out of the building because there was a fire.”

“The heat was overwhelming,” Ms. Gaul continued. “The cinders were coming over the building. It was a terrible day.”

Ms. Gaul was able to stay with a family friend that night. “I did not want to watch the fire. I left the scene. A neighbor of where my mother used to live invited me to stay at her home in Berwyn. I then later stayed in a hotel in Plymouth Meeting. A couple weeks after the fire, I rented a house in Conshohocken.”

The damage after the fire at the home of Ms. Gaul at Riverwalk At Millennium. Mold can be seen growing throughout the apartment.
Books were among the items damaged by water that was used to fight the fire.
Ms. Gaul attempted to salvage some of her photos a few weeks after Millennium Fire.
Additional photos that Ms. Gaul attempted to salvage after the fire.

The first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth photographs are courtesy of Ms. Elise Gaul, August of 2008.

The second, third, and fourth photographs are courtesy of Mr. Joshua Cutler of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, July of 2008.

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