Seeing His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

Boys with HH

I mentioned in my last post that I didn’t come to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama, to learn about Tibetan Buddhism or the Tibetan people. Of course, if any of those things happened, it would be great. But I brought my family into the Himalayas so that their adjustment to India would not be made harder by the May and June heat of the South.

But India has a way of taking over your plans, orchestrating a couple of miracles, and before long you have an experience you never anticipated or dreamed of.

I wrote about how powerfully I have felt the presence of the Dalai Lama since coming here, both in the way his image fills my meditations, the way it fills my mind during my walks and prostrations, and the way my whole body has been filled with the most exquisite joy, a subtle powerful exaltation that seems to light up the atmosphere around me. And a sense of homecoming.

I wrote about how “That-Thing-Some-People-Call-God” is thought of and imagined in different contemplative traditions—from “the Beloved” and “Allah,” and “The Nothing” of Sufism to “The Tao” of Taoism, “Emptiness” in Buddhism, “The Divine Darkness” of St. John of the Cross, “The Cloud of Unknowing” in Christian mysticism, the “Formless Unmanifest Absolute” of Hindu Vedanta and the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism, any of which can serve as your own “Ishta Devatta”—your chosen image and channel to the Divine.

Karen Armstrong, the former nun, writer and theologian, wrote that “God”—(Whatever That Is)—manifests to a person in whatever form is most suitable for that person.   Jesus for Christians, Allah for Muslims, Krishna for Hindus, Emptiness for Buddhists.

So, this powerful, bright presence that is filling my life and mind and body these weeks in Dharamsala is not really so much the Dalai Lama, himself, but simply “That Thing, That Mystery”—simply mediated and channeled through the image and presence of the Dalai Lama.

Enlightened persons are empty vessels. The Divine pours through them.

The Dalai Lama is thought to be a living Buddha. This bliss is the same sweetness I felt in Avila at St. Teresa’s convent of St. Joseph, the same I felt in the presence of Amma, the Hindu guru whose darshan is hugging people, the same energy I feel at my guru’s ashram, who said, “All true gurus are one.”   Because they are empty, and thus full.


So, Jennifer, Aidan, Kellen, Jennifer’s parents and I were standing in line at the gate of the temple, waiting to go in and see this empty vessel.   What would it be like?  Would I feel disappointment?   Do I have too much anticipation?   When one goes to see a guru or enlightened person, the advice is always, “Try not to have any expectations.”

The slowly line inched forward.

We passed a wall just inside the gate with photos of the immolated Tibetans.   A great bronze statue of a monk with flames like wings stands like a walking angel.

Our ragtag band of hippies, misfits, New Agers, Buddhists, and yogis crawled forward until all the men were called forward to go through security.   Morris, Jennifer’s dad went ahead up a flight of stairs. Aidan, Kellen, and I followed.   I go through the security every morning. You walk through a metal detector and then get a pat-down.   All with great respect and care.

After we were cleared, we walked up the next flight of stairs into a great, wide courtyard that stretches around and below the inner temple. Above is a large pavilion-like roof of white canvas with pointed peaks, under which towering deodar firs and peepal trees spread their great limbs. Through the fabric of the roof we could see monkeys chasing each other across the top of it. A railing goes all the way around the courtyard. Beyond the railings, branches from the tops of cedars lift in the breeze and sway into the temple grounds. To the south and west the land falls steeply away. To the north and east, it rises precipitously towards the Himalayan peaks.   It’s breathtaking. A morning breeze cooled our bodies.

On the south end of the courtyard stood the gate to the Dalai Lama’s residence.   Toward the north, on the next level up you can see the balconies surrounding the inner temple.   The audience would take place on this level below the inner temple. A crowd had started gathering around a roped off area where many large mats were arranged before a chair and microphone, where it appeared His Holiness was going to sit.   Between there and His Holiness’s residence was a walkway flanked with railings. We waited by the railing.   Morris, Jennifer’s dad, was scouting out better spots.   A woman near us said the boys might go down to the end, close to his residence and when he came out the Dalai Lama might come over to them, as he loves children.   Jennifer took the boys down there.   Morris and Cynde and I would stay where we were, a place with a good view for his address.

After a while, I went down to where Jennifer and the boys were. I suggested that they come back to where we were. There was a place by the railing. Aidan did. But when we got back, the open place was gone.   Aidan and Kellen were having trouble, bickering.   Aidan felt confused. He seemed tired.   He didn’t know what to do.   We went back to where Jennifer and the boys were. We waited and waited and waited.   We had left the cottage at 6:30 and now it was 9:00. Between holding the boys and negotiating their squabbles, I looked around at the amazing people, monks of all ages, young monks on the other side of the rail.   Everyone excited, full of anticipation. Smiles, wide eyes were everywhere.

After a long time, a man at the microphone announced that we were to split up into groups according to nationalities.   The Dalai Lama would have photos taken with each group.   We crossed the courtyard to the other side, a park-like area, to join the other Americans.

The officials opened a walk way through the crowd.   We were across from the Canadians. Everyone was excited.   Everyone talking excitedly with big smiles.   We were in front of our group. We so wanted Aidan and Kellen to be close to him when the photo was taken.   But then some people came in front of them.   Tibetans, it seemed.   They must have been Tibetan-Americans.   We asked the older women if the boys could be in front. They were so happy to acquiesce. The boys went to the front. The old women held their shoulders, spoke sweetly to them. Jenifer and I and her parents were back a couple of rows.   At any moment he might come out! A woman behind me kept telling silly jokes to pass the time.   A man walks into a bar with a paper towel on his head. Bartender: “What’s with the paper towel?”   “Got a Bounty on my head.”   Morris and I traded jokes with her.

The sky was a brilliant blue. White clouds like giant fish floating by.   Peepal trees fluttering poplar leaves. The Buddha obtained enlightenment under a Peepal tree, later called the Bodhi (enlightenment) Tree. The deodar firs lifted their branches.   We were like one great family sharing a secret.

Then there was commotion at his residence.   “He’s coming!”   A hushed cry went up.   “There he is! There he is!”   We were behind the railing and he was there among the young monks at the entryway outside his residence. I caught sight of him, saw his smile. Saw him bowing and smiling as he moved among the young monks. Then, it was clear he was going to enter the courtyard on our side!   We’d be the first group he’d see!

He came in the gate. There he was! Not far from Aidan and Kellen! He turned to the Canadians.   How their faces lit up! The smiles! Laughter! The people were like children on a holiday morning. They were bowing and bending, swaying toward him.   He smiled his wonderful smile.   The people were in love with him. All around the courtyard the people were straining to see him.   His attendants took photos with the Canadians, and then he turned towards us!

He walked right over! He went right to our boys! He touched both of them on their arms. Everyone wanted to bust up to the front, but we didn’t. I wished Jennifer and I were with the boys.   He turned toward the camera and just as they started to shoot, someone behind me said, “I can’t see.” I moved my head over and knew that for the shots, I would be standing right behind him! Jennifer was blocked as well.   We would not be in the photos, but Aidan and Kellen would be right there with him.

And they would have these photos for the rest of their lives.   I thought: when they’re grown, long after he is gone and the plight of the Tibetans is worked out and is history, they will have these photos.   There they were at eight and ten beside the Dalai Lama, a living Buddha, one who crossed the Himalayas with his people.   Whose people have been imprisoned, tortured, brutalized, their monasteries destroyed, their land and homes confiscated, hundreds of whom have immolated themselves in desperate protest.   They stood beside the most influential voice of Buddhism in the world. I was ecstatic.

After His Holiness left our group, our family went over to a bench that Jennifer and her mom Cynde had found right at the outer edge of the courtyard. A wonderful breeze was blowing.   Blissed-out people sat on the ground on blankets or on the grass. One young woman dressed like a hippie or pagan had a little tiny laughing baby she kept lifting up and down.   Aidan and Kellen played with blades of grass, not having been able to bring any toys. I watched His Holiness moving from group to group, to the South Americans, the Israelis, the Indians, the foreign monks, the Europeans, the Australians, the Asians.   It was marvelous to watch.   So much joy. Sweet laughter.   We were all like children on Christmas day.

Then, before we realized it, we saw that the area where the cushions had been laid before his seat had filled up. I said that when he took his seat, I would go up and stand behind the railing. Jennifer was tired. She said she was staying put. She had done hard yoga the night before, had run that morning (up the mountains), had not eaten enough, as usual, and it was now 11:00.

His Holiness took his seat and I went up to the railing.   Then, someone took my hand. Aidan had joined me. We stood behind the railing until I saw an open place at the back of the sitting crowd.   No cushion.   I sat on the concrete, and Aidan sat in my lap.

His Holiness talked of traveling the around globe for years, seeing that people everywhere at the deepest level are the same. We all want happiness. We do not want to suffer.   So many people try to find happiness through material satisfactions, but these are fleeting. And they are limited. He talked about the need to find inner peace, happiness inside.   He said it requires discipline. Daily meditation practice. He talked about sex. About being a monk. He talked about the debt the Tibetans owe the Indians. That the tantric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism came from Indian teachers.   He talked about the legacy of the Indian idea of “ahimsa,” nonviolence, and how this has and must continue to change the world. He talked about how India has welcomed so many religions. About how important it is to have a secular state, as India does in its constitution, apparently in response to the recent election of Modi, a Hindu fundamentalist as Prime Minister.

He answered so many questions. About suffering, about altruism, about service. When one person asked how he could be happy when his people have suffered so much and what we could do to help the Tibetan people, he talked about the power of truth.  He said the power of the gun is effective in the short run, but the power of truth will be more effective in the long run. He said he is happy because dwelling in the truth gives one inner strength and confidence.   He talked much about the seven billion people of the planet being one family, that we need to think of ourselves as one family.   He kept saying, “one more question,” but then took another and another. He loved talking to the people.   Finally, his assistants had to take his microphone away.

Throughout the whole of the talk, which must have lasted an hour and a half, I felt I was suffused within an atmosphere of bright, clear joy.   It felt so much the way it felt when I was with my teachers back in the 1970s in a yoga order I was involved in where the teachers just electrified the air.

I had a wonderful feeling that I didn’t need any kind of “personal attention” from him.  So often in the past, in the presence of great teachers, I have always hankered after some kind personal attention, a smile, a glance, a nod. Some sense of recognition by the teacher.   But here, I didn’t’ need it. I already had it.   I was already complete, fulfilled. I didn’t need anything. I was one with that bright Presence.  I was home. One of my sons was in my lap. Aidan and I bobbed in our little boat on a bright sea of bliss. The rest of my family was safely gathered at the edge of the courtyard under the deodar cedars where the land fell away to India.

Boys with HH


Pilgrims On Our Way to the Dalai Lama


dalai_lamaI didn’t come to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama.   I didn’t come to study Buddhism.   I didn’t come to learn about Tibet or the Tibetan people. I walk an eclectic spiritual path, with an emphasis on devotional spirituality, inspired by bhakti yoga—I have a bhakti yoga guru.   I’m inspired by Sufism and Christian mysticism. Over the last years, I’ve been distancing myself from Buddhism, because it seems so intellectual, so often centered in the mind instead of the heart.

No, I brought my family here during the hot Indian months of May and June, so they might have a nicer introduction to the beauty and the natural world of India the colorful festival of India, while they were also getting adjusted to the rigors challenges of living in this great but difficult country.   The culture shock was going to be great enough that I didn’t want the heat of the south to make it worse.

India is said to be a place where you’ll experience your highest highs and your lowest lows.

It’s is a place where miracles happen every day.   We in the West call them “coincidences.”

But, then, upon arriving here, I fell in love with the Tibetan people.   The caretaker of our house, Sonam, told me about her escape across the Himalayas, traveling for six weeks, in December, only during nights. (I wrote about her escape in an earlier post.)   I encountered the plaza with the faces of the hundreds of Tibetans who have immolated themselves in desperate response to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I saw the hunched, wrinkled old men and women walking the temple trail, spinning the prayer wheels with their right hands, carrying their mala in the left hand to say their mantra.   Om Mani Padme Hum. The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. Their amazing faces and smiles that seemed to radiate an inner light, their eyes full of sweetness.

And, then, this morning, my family would get to attend a public audience with the Dalai Lama in his temple.

I heard about the audience about a week ago.   On Monday morning I went to an office in town to register and get our tickets. I went with six passports, Jennifer’s, Aidan’s, Kellen’s, Jennifer’s parents’, and mine.   The line went down the street, and turned between two buildings, went to the back and up some stairs, to a small hot office with two men at computers. There, I discovered that the family would all have to come personally.   So, I went to meet them, and we all went back. We squeezed passed all the people and went to the front of the line—which the man at the desk had told me to do.

We stood in front of the desks for a couple of minutes until a big dark-haired, goateed Tibetan behind a desk stood up and yelled:

“You people! Go back to the back of the line like everyone else!”

I was taken aback. The Tibetans are all so kind and welcoming!   I explained our situation and he sat down.   After a few minutes, Jennifer called us over to his desk and said he would register us.   We walked over. He seemed to be some kind of wild Genghis Khan nomad out of the steppes, a great warrior Bodhisattva who at any moment might take out his sword and slice our heads off.   He registered us one by one in what seemed like a quiet fury. I immediately loved the guy.

Working with the public is of course the worst kind of job. Especially bad, I’m sure, is working with a bunch of Western tourists with big egos, small patience, plenty of ignorance, and little respect for an ancient, sacred culture.

When my turn came, in a clear voice, I said, “Tashi Delek.”

This is the traditional Tibetan greeting, which means something like, “Auspicious meeting you and good fortune!”

He responded, “Tashi Delek.”

A chink in the armor.

After he registered us, he told us to show up at the temple between 7:00 and 7:30, a.m., and to bring nothing with us.

So Wednesday morning came.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I have been feeling very strongly the presence of the Dalai Lama since we got here. I can’t explain it. His presence fills my meditations, my morning hikes up to the temple trail and around the temple trail, and of course in my daily prostrations.   It’s not just that his image appears constantly before my mind, which it does.   But an indescribable sweetness, a bright, subtle, yet very powerful essence or electricity fills my body, the pores of my skin, my heart overflows. Tears often fill my eyes. It’s palpable. A pure quiet, subtle exaltation. A sense of homecoming.

For weeks I have been full of anticipation to see him.

So, Wednesday morning, Jennifer, Aidan, Kellen, Jennifer’s parents, and I left our cottage at 6:30.   We walked up to the temple trail and circumambulated the temple.   I carried my mala, repeating Om Mani Padme Hum, turning the prayer wheels, holding Aidan or Kellen’s hand as they turned the wheels. Aidan was counting them. On a previous day, I had counted 314 wheels.

At the plaza of immolated youth, monks and lay people were chanting. Prayer flags blowing everywhere. We continued up the trail.   I gave alms to the beggars, sadhus, and monks. It was a beautiful morning, the mountains and valleys clear of haze. As we came around to the gate, we could see a line going up the street into town, filled with Westerners.   This was the audience reserved for “Indians and foreigners.”

One of the joys of being here is seeing all the Westerners. We have seen more lately than we’ve seen in many weeks. They are mostly young, but not all. And this morning we were with an especially colorful crowd. So many dressed in wonderful clothes, mixtures of Tibetan dress, Indian salwar camises, hippie tie-dyes. There were dreadlocks, shaved heads, colorful vests, scarves around men’s necks as well as women’s, bearded men with their hair in makeshift buns, all kinds of beards and goatees, Fu Manchus, one guy with a clean-shaven face except for a single long strand of goatee, braided and hanging from his chin. Women in tank tops, paisley pants, tights and loose-fitting, yoga clothes, rainbow dresses, people wrapped in shawls, blankets, in robes. White clothed, long-haired men like self-proclaimed yoga masters.   Some seemed to be yogis, hippies, artists, punkers, post-apocalyptic runaways and gypsies, shaved-headed renunciates, pagan goddesses, waifs, and urchins.   All kinds of piercings, tattoos, and body paintings.   Older women who seem to have found yoga or Buddhism or Shirley McClain. But everyone (except, of course, for the uber-cool, sunglasses, black-clothed, whose studied poses would not be broken) had bright eyes, clear faces, and easy smiles. We were a caravan, a gathering of pilgrims, a sangha of devotees. I wondered how many were teachers, leaders of sanghas, yoga classes, meditation groups.

The line was moving, and we were about to go in!

Next post: Seeing the Dalai Lama.

Sentient Beings are Numberless

I am sitting outside at a table of the “One-Two Café,” just across from the gate to the Dalai Lama’s temple.

IMG_1804 IMG_1811 IMG_1803

Jennifer suggested that I treat myself to a cappuccino after my morning walk—my climb up the mountain trail, circumambulation of the temple, and 108 prostrations before visiting the inner temple. The inner temple is really two temple halls under one roof.  Until this week, only one has been open.   Now the other, the Kalachakra Temple, is open, perhaps in commemoration of His Holiness’s presence.   He has been here for a week. There will be a public audience with him for on May 28th.   Jennifer and I, the boys, and Jennifer’s parents, who are here for a visit, will be going to see him. For the past week, I have felt his presence very strongly. His face fills my meditations.

The Kalachakra Temple is astonishing to see.   (No photos allowed inside.)   I’ll describe it more fully in an upcoming post.   The walls are painted with giant mandalas and images of bodhisattvas, gods and goddesses.   Here are some webshots:

kalachakra temple kalachakra temple

The Tibetan tradition is a tantric tradition, in which many activities seen as afflictions in other traditions become spiritualized in certain tantric rituals.   On the walls of the Kalachakra Temple there are many, many images of a god or bodhisattva and his consort embracing in sexual union. The woman astride his lap, her legs flung wide.   Here is an image from the web.


One encounters the image of sexual union as a spiritual symbol in many mystical traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Christian mystical—to represent the ultimate union of the individual soul with the Divine, and often to represent the union of the created universe with the Infinite, Un-manifest Absolute—call it Emptiness, God, Satchidananda, the Tao. This union is the goal of all contemplative, mystical paths.

Here again is “St. Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy.”







The café is a convenient spot, across from the temple, just at the entrance to the town.   It’s a joy to sit here as the town is just waking up.

A group of monks in maroon robes and some lay men sit the next table. I am amazed at the smiles the monks give me, when I greet them, so bright and clear, open and fresh, full of light.   I feel blessed to be here.  I love the Tibetan people.   They are unique among all the people I have ever met.   I have so much to learn about them, about the Tibetan Buddhist path, about their history.   But they seem like a whole people, a whole culture, dedicated to the spiritual, mystical, contemplative way of life. And it shows in these faces.

The young sadhu with the fire-scarred body walks down the road below me. Perhaps one day I will ask him what happened to him.

At our cottage, we have no water. The day before that we had no electricity.   We were able to survive just fine without electricity. It’s not too hot or too cold here, so no need for heat or fans, really.  Our stove is propane.   We used candles for light at night. Of course, everything in the refrigerator was slowing going sour. But I survived three weeks in Pune with a barely running refrigerator.   The only real problem was that all our electronic devices were running out of juice.

Of course, in a kind of perfect storm, Jennifer’s parents were on their way here.   If all our devices ran out of power, we’d have no way to be in touch with them. We had learned that their flight to Dharamsala from Delhi had been canceled.  Canceled with no explanation.   Only in India.   They said the Indian passengers were “apoplectic.” After a night in a random hotel, they were being flown to another city and would be taking a four-hour van ride to Dharamsala.   We would need to be in touch with them as they got here, as our place is not easy to find.

Luckily, by last night, when they were due to arrive, our electricity had come back on.   My cheap little Indian phone was still working.  We had a Marx-brothers, carnivalesque time finding them.  We waited in the dark on the side of the road above our cottage for a long time for them until they called. After trying to communicate to their driver, who wasn’t local and spoke little English, where we were, we decided to take our own taxi up to McLeod Ganj Chouk—chouk means “square.”   It was Saturday night.

IMG_2126 IMG_2127 IMG_2124 IMG_2125As we got close to, it turned out that the roads were blocked with traffic.  Our driver just turned off his car. We finally got out and  walked. I paid the driver the full price. Jennifer thought we should have paid him less, as he didn’t take us all the way. I felt I should pay him more since we left him stuck in an unmoving line of taxis, trucks, motorcycles, for who knew how long.


We walked up to the loud, colorful, crazy carnival of Saturday night at the center of McLeod Ganj.   All the shops open, colored lights illuminating stores and rooftops, people shopping, hawking, eating, talking.

How would we find Jennifer’s parents in this crowd?   How would their taxi ever even get to the square from wherever they were? But then, out of the blue, someone in a white kurta bent down and surprised Aidan. It was Morris, Jennifer’s father!   And there was Cynde!  In the chaos, I never learned how they got there!  What a miracle.   We walked part way home, down the one open street. It seemed everyone was going to town, and no one but us leaving.   We found a tiny taxi, into which we squeezed six people, suitcases, and backpacks.   Aidan in my lap in the front seat, without a seatbelt, barreling down the dark, steep, winding road, where other cars squeezed by a great velocities.

Of course, we had wanted to make everything perfect for Jennifer’s parents’ arrival. Their cottage is beautiful. But we had no water.   I had talked to our caretaker, Sonam, and she told me all about how at this season, water can be difficult.   It’s weird. We’ve had a lot of rain.   Our gardeners seem to have plenty for the plants. But our own tank had run out.  Sonam said she thought a nearby hotel was paying off the water man and taking the water.   Typical.

So, after a difficult time cooking a meal for Jennifer’s parents and doing dishes with water from a bucket carted up several terraces of steps from their cottage (which still had water), and no shower, and unable to wash clothes, I was feeling pretty despondent the next morning.

I feel a great responsibility to make out trip a good one for Jennifer and the boys. I want them to like India, to have a rewarding experience. It’s my fellowship, my idea to come to India. India is not an easy country to visit on a physical, practical level. I do everything I can to make things good for them.  Hence, our two-month stay in the cool Himalayas, our expensive cottage, our Delhi stay in a five-star hotel with a pool.   I live in fear that something will go wrong, serious or seriously troublesome, and mar our trip.

But it was wearing on us: Not being able to take a shower or wash dishes properly, to drink only bottled water carted down the mountain, not being able to wash our clothes (we wash clothes every day by hand and lay them out on our balcony to dry—a surprisingly satisfying activity, the way doing simple chores when you’re backpacking takes on new and meaningful significance).

So, when I left the cottage this morning I was feeling pretty depressed about the situation.   But after my walking meditation around the temple and my prostrations, I felt refreshed, renewed, and the world seemed beautiful again, in spite of our troubles.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m taking a class at the Temple, at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics, a segment of a class that has been going on for six years, presently focused on the “Buddha Nature.”   One of the things the teacher said, was that as you move along the Buddhist path, as Great Compassion begins to open in your heart, you move from being “self cherishing” to being “others cherishing.”   I’d been thinking about this during my hike and prostrations.

I thought about those around us who have no running water, at all, ever.

On the hike we often take down to the Bhagsu River, we pass a family house that has a pipe inserted into the side of the mountain, among the flowering trees and bushes with honey bees.  Water runs out of the pipe. The beautiful women with their children sit or squat in their saris washing clothes or doing their dishes.   They smile at us as we pass in our strange shorts and caps and hiking gear.

IMG_1817At least they have a source close by their homes.   Many have less.


So, without a lot of self-judgment or hand-wringing, I just notice how my despondency and concern about water is about water for myself and for my own family. If there were some kind of God in Heaven fairly distributing water among his children, would I have more of a right to daily, indoor, running water, hot and cold, than the families around us?

In airplane emergency instructions, we are told put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we try to help others put on theirs.   That’s a good metaphor.  Our first responsibility is to care for ourselves.  If we don’t care for ourselves, we cannot be of any use to others.

I am one of the sentient beings I am here to care for.

Then, as parents, we have responsibilities toward our family.

But it is interesting to see how our attitudes and feelings, how our life and our choices change as we move from “self-cherishing” to more and more being “others-cherishing.”

Perhaps we will change our lives.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the goal is not merely enlightenment, but instead becoming a Bodhisattva–one dedicated to working for the liberation of all sentient beings, foregoing one’s own enlightenment as long as there remain others how have not yet reached it.   Even if this takes millions of lifetimes and we have to endure immense suffering.

One takes the Bodhisattva vow:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.

Afflictions and Delusions are endless; I vow to transcend them all.

The Gates of the Dharma are numberless; I vow to enter them all.

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to walk its way.





The Beggars

In my three visits to India, this is the first time that I’ve stayed in a place— Dharamsala—frequented by a lot of tourists and Westerners. Because of that, it’s the first time I’ve encountered a lot of people begging. I had heard about how difficult it can be. And compared to other places I’ve heard about, there’s not even a lot of begging here.

During our first days, when we walked up to the pilgrim trail that circles the Dalai Lama’s temple, we met three sadhus sitting in their orange and saffron robes, their silver begging pots in front of them. They wore turbans and long beards—holy men right out of story books and spiritual biographies of sacred India.


To look into their eyes is to look into an ancient past, as well as to look, in many instances, into eyes lit by enlightenment.


I always gave them some rupees. In return, they recited Sanskrit mantras to bless us.  Another day, Jennifer called me to the front door of our cottage because an old sadhu was standing in front of our house chanting. This was unusual, because we are about a five-minute walk down the side of the mountain from the road and no one comes down here who doesn’t live here. I went and got some rupees and gave them to him. He blessed us.


Some visitors to India may be inclined to think that these people are leaching off of society, able-bodied men not working, begging rupees to get by. But it’s an ancient and revered cultural tradition. The life of the wandering, mendicant sadhu goes back to the days before the Buddha. Buddha, himself, became one of them, and his system of monks and nuns depended on it. These “renouncers” are mentioned in the Vedas, the original scriptures of Hinduism. It’s a way of life open to anyone. All you have to do is give up parents, children, family, home, possessions, sex, career, security, health insurance, ambitions to “be somebody,” and adopt a life on penury, insecurity, and homelessness. But this is the way to God in India. In fact, even householders, after their children are raised are supposed to eventually adopt this way of life.

The three sadhus on the trail have now vanished.  It’s also an essential part of the life not to get settled into a comfortable place, where you can depend on a few people for support. They have to get up and move, seeing more of Mother India, meeting and blessing more people.  Wandering is an essential part of it.  Here’s a poem by Tukaram about this life:

Trees, creepers and the creatures of the forest
Are my kith and kin.
And birds that sweetly sing.

This is bliss! How I love being alone!
Here I am beyond good and evil;
Commit no sin.

The sky is my canopy, the earth my throne.
My mind is free to dwell wherever it will.

A piece of cloth, one all-purpose bowl
Take care of all my bodily needs.
The wind tells me the time.

I feast on the cuisine of Hari’s lore,
A delighted connoisseur.

Says Tuka: I talk to myself
For argument’s sake.

One of my favorite saints of India, Papa Ram Das, spent most of his life as a penniless begging monk–and writing two wonderful books about his travels. Everywhere he went, he just repeated the name, “Ram, Ram, Ram,” one of the names of God in India, and depended upon Ram to take care of him. He became one of the most beloved saints and gurus of the twentieth century. His book, In Quest of God, is a wonderful adventure and uplifting read.


Along the pilgrim trail these past weeks, a few other sadhus would come and stay for a while and then disappear. But one old man is there everyday. He is probably in his sixties and sits with a wooden prosthetic leg beside him. He is a very sweet man with a very dark face and a close-shaved gray beard. I try to spread out my allotment of alms , usually about 200 rupees a day, or about $ 3.40 at current exchange rates. So, I don’t give him something everyday, but we have developed a nice friendship, and I salute him with “Namaste” on the days I don’t give him anything.

Everything is more nuanced than you might at first think in India. For example, one morning, one of the maroon-robed Dalai Lama monks leaned over to give him some rupees as I was approaching. I watched, and the one-legged, begging sadhu pulled out a bundle of bills and made change for the monk!

There are a few regular beggars in town, as well. If you’ve read my wife Jennifer’s blog, you know about Gurdu, the man with legs that don’t work, that are like limp appendages that he drags along upon and down the steep streets as he crutches along on his bare hands. Jennifer sees him every day walking back down through town from her morning run. She doesn’t’ carry money on her run.  She often carries his backpack down the hill to town for him. The other day, he gaveIMG_1555 her a prayer-bead bracelet as a gift. He is such a sweet man. I give him rupees whenever I pass him. He has the sweetest smile and he puts his palms together at his forehead to say, “Namaste.” One day he got to see all of us together and the boys got to meet him. I think it is so beautiful of Jennifer to have established this friendship with him.

Farther up the street two old women sit folded in doorways about a block apart holding silver cans with bandaged hands that have no fingers. I imagine they suffer from leprosy. I always give them something. Often, there are young women of very dark skin and beautiful features in traditional in saris carrying little children or infants who come up begging as well.  They seem much like the gypsies of Europe.  I usually give them something.

So, this had been the general pattern, until one day last week. I don’t know if the day was a holiday or rumors were circulating that the Dalai Lama was coming to town, but on this morning the pilgrim trail was lined with beggars. Men and women of all ages, sadhus, families with little children, some naked, some in dirty rags, many crying. Old people, disabled people. Some deformed from leprosy. They lined the mile-long trail. I only had only ten rupees with me that morning.  Who was I to give them to?

And I felt, as I often do: “Here I am, a rich American, with nothing to put in these outstretched hands.”  If I had had had ten rupees for every one of those hands, I would have put ten rupees in each one.  And yet, how much good would even that have done? This is the dilemma of westerners traveling in developing countries. What can you do? What should you do? Do you have a right to be here? Is your purpose  here frivolous, trivial, when seen in the face of so much suffering?

Mother Teresa saw this as a young nun and chose to stay, to remain in Calcutta and serve the poorest of the poor and the dying. The lepers, the disabled, she said, have lived on the streets like animals, but we will let them die clean and fed and clothed in our arms, like angels.

I am a poet, writer and teacher. I am here seeking something like spiritual enlightenment.  What does my work mean, how much does it matter, before these faces, these dark-lit eyes and children’s cries, in the presence of this endless, unfathomable human want and need.

I am also a father and husband, with duties to my own family.  When I was nineteen, I wanted to serve these people the way Mother Teresa did, to become a monk and dedicate my life to serving. I didn’t follow that path for complicated reasons, but a part of me is stilled pulled towards it. As I noted, Lon Young, my friend and former grad student, a former Mormon bishop who has become a Buddhist, is taking his family of six to Chennai next year to live and work for a year with lepers there.

But this morning, I walk with the other pilgrims past these families, past the plaza of photos of immolated youth. Many of the monks and Tibetan people bend down and give something. I wish had gotten more change the day before.

The monks and Tibetan people here for the most part seem well-fed and healthy. Most of the monks walk through town carrying cell phones, talking on them in cafes and restaurants.

I wonder: what is the moral duty of the well-fed toward the homeless and hungry?   Some take the attitude that life is “every man for himself” and feel lucky you were born in America, pretend that what you have is the result of your “merit.”   But isn’t that a defensive stance, with fear beneath it?

Later that day, Jennifer tells me that she saw many of the poor people along the way eating chapatis, Indian flat bread.   So it seems that the monastery may give out food to them, the way most monasteries have done from time immemorial, in the European middle ages, as well as throughout Asia.

Later, we go to town to do some grocery shopping. I always feel glad that as we hike back down the mountain, I have most of the groceries in my backpack, so it’s not so obvious how much food we are bringing home. As we leave town, we come to the last stretch of road before our turn off for our trail, and encounter twenty of so families  lining the road, with lots of children. Many are sitting on paper advertising banners spread out as blankets.

I have a bunch of ten-rupee notes, maybe seven. Each ten-rupee note is worth about 17 cents. I decide to give them to as many of the mothers as I can. I give one to a young woman holding a baby who comes up to me. Then to another. Then suddenly I am surrounded.  More and more dark young women in saris holding out one of their hands, clutching to their body a dirty baby with the other. Touching their hand to their mouths to show they needed food. I give away all I have. But still there are more faces, more babies, more hands. More words I can not understand. I am surrounded, they are all reaching toward me, pawing at me. I feel a moment of panic. Then, I know I have to catch up with my family, who have stepped off the road and have stopped, looking up at me. I wave the women away, patting my pockets, trying to show that that is all the money I had. I get to my family and the crowd of women recedes like a wave of color behind me. I feel relief to be with Jennifer, Aidan and Kellen, off the road, on our trail.

But of course, that wasn’t all the rupees I had.  Just all the “17-cent notes” I had. I had bigger notes. I had several 1,000-rupee notes, each worth about 17 dollars. But I needed them for the next day’s groceries—for my own family.

What is the moral duty of the well-fed to the hungry? I frequently give away 100-rupee notes, 50-rupee notes. Ten percent of our daily allowance.  Still.

Eckhart Tolle says that true compassion must always have two aspects. First, we recognize the suffering of another person feeling with them our own common bond of suffering, which all human beings experience, poor or privileged. No one escapes suffering. The loss of loved ones, disappointment, injury, pain, sickness, old age, death. We feel compassion because of our common bond of suffering.

But Tolle says, we must also recognize in the other person, something else. That there is a part of them, of us, call it our Buddha nature, our soul, our higher self, our enlightened being, which remains untouched by physical suffering. John O’Donohue, the late, Irish poet, theologian and former priest, said it this way: there is a part of us that has never been wounded.

When I give Gurdu, Jennifer’s friend, 50 or 100 rupees, and he thanks me with “Namaste,” I see something in his face, in his smile, a deep brightness, and sweetness in his smile.  A smile I do not see in America.

But after the encounter with all the families along the pilgrim trail and the women on the road, I didn’t want to venture back out of our cottage. It felt too upsetting. But, I had made a commitment to visit the Dalai Lama’s temple and do my 108 prostrations every day, so I headed out anyway. When I got there, I discovered that all the families were gone.

Sometimes it feels like a heavy weight to encounter the beggars again and again and not be able to do much for them.  To have to say, “no,” or walk by ignoring them.   Don’t we feel this because what we really want is to be able to take care of them?  Isn’t this the core feeling?  What I really want is to take each of them in my arms and tell them that they are my people, my family. Come home with me. Everything will be all right. I’ll take care of you and your family.

This morning, I woke after not sleeping well. I didn’t want to climb to the temple. I didn’t want to do my prostrations. I didn’t want to see the sadhus and beggars along the trail, even if it wasn’t the multitudes of last week. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted to be alone. In India, it’s hard to be alone, at least in cities of any size. You can get out in the country, but even there, people are everywhere.

Jennifer encouraged me to go ahead and do my hike and visit the temple, as always. So, I decided to go, but I put in my iPhone ear buds, turned on my spiritual music, and resolved I would not look at anyone, the sadhus or beggars.  I’d look at the trail in front of me, do a walking meditation, stay in an inner world of solitude and peace. I did a pretty good job of it.

But a little before the temple gate, I saw a young sadhu I knew. The one whose torso is scarred as if from fire. I saluted him with “Namaste.” I’d given him money before. I didn’t have to give him money every day.

I entered the temple and did my prostrations and went into the inner temple and bowed before the Buddha and Padmasambhava and Avalokiteshvara and the Dalai Lama’s dais. On my way out, I decided that I’d give him a 50-rupee note that I had in my pocket.

But when I got to the gate, there was a boy standing outside, leaning against the gate, crying.  He was probably around the age of Kellen.  Just standing there crying. I didn’t know what was happening, why he was crying.  I saw his mother sitting before the gate holding an infant, who was also crying. I gave her the 50-rupee note. From under her veil, her shadowed face looked up at me, and the sweetest smile opened and her eyes shined with such light. I smiled back and said, “Namaste.” I knew it was a face and a moment I would never forget.   It’s not that me or my money did anything important.   There is just a mutual recognition of our common humanity, a small moment of connection, a sharing a smiles, across a great cultural, class, and geographical divide.

I remember when I was in law school in Seattle I was reading in the paper one morning a letter to the editor about environmental protestors being arrested.  The woman writing the letter mentioned that as she was being arrested and handcuffed the officer looked at her and smiled.  She said it was a revelation, a moment of epiphany for her.  It was as though the officer was saying, “Well, here we are.  Two human beings playing different roles, ending up here together in this particular moment.”  Namaste.

It’s easy to think, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to see these poor people.” To go home into the gated community of America and not think about it. But, these people will still be here, whether I can see them or not.

I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps, I should take my family and join Lon Young to work for a year with the lepers of Chennai. Perhaps I should work to be a better poet or teacher. Write better poems. Start an NGO. Give to an NGO. Volunteer at the Tibetan orphanage of Dharamsala. Give more rupees away.

But one thing I know, one thing that Jennifer and I have both experienced, she with Gurdu and me with these others, is that in the few, fleeting connections we have had with these poorest of the poor, they have given us more than we have ever given to them.


Our eight-year-old Kellen rebels at the mention of having an outing.   He likes to stay home all day and play with Aidan, or by himself, or with us.   He loves imaginative play.   We have had to institute a rule that we have some kind of outing everyday.   He can’t stand it!   He throws a fit.  Jennifer can’t stand to stay home very long.  On vacations, her family likes to get out and do things–every day.   Kellen can’t stand that!  Aidan and I fall somewhere in the middle.  

When the boys were little, I told them stories as they were going to sleep.   One series featured two chipmunks, one named “Chip” and the other named “Monk.”  Chip was adventurous.  He couldn’t wait to get up and get outside to see what the world had to offer that morning.  Monk wanted to stay home.  He preferred to be inside and make tea and cakes and then spend most of the day in bed by his window drinking tea and eating the cakes while reading his favorite books.  It took some sort of crisis to get him out of the house.   Of course, crises came regularly.   

Kellen has turned out to be our Monk, and Aidan our Chip.  

Yesterday, morning, Kellen threw a royal fit about having to leave the house.   We persuaded him by saying we would take a taxi up the steep hill to the town square where Jennifer’s running trail begins.   We’d take a walk on the trail and then go to Nick’s our favorite cafe and have a treat.   He agreed to that. 

Mostly Kellen doesn’t like transitions.  Once he’s out on an outing, he doesn’t want it to end.  Today, was a beautiful day.   Perfect weather.  Blue sky, towering peaks, a dense fir forest.  Aidan and Kellen got very involved in their imaginative play, that they ventured far ahead of us on the road, between us and two monks ahead of them.   They’ve gotten much more used to negotiating the occasional car or truck or tuk-tuk coming down the road.  And there was Kellen, skipping along with his arms in the air in a kind of dance.   Happy as a lark.  Free as a sparrow.  ImageImage

After lunch at Nick’s,


Jennifer took the boys home and I took care of some errands, getting our train tickets to Delhi for the end of June, printing Kellen’s birthday letter an an internet cafe  (I’m writing a letter to each of the boys each year on their birthdays), and buying some naan, Indian flat bread.  I’d found some pinto beans in a little grocery and planned to cook and mash and spice them and with the naan make some Indian burritos.ImageImageImage

Jennifer and I don’t usually drink caffeine, and there’s no decaf in Dharamsala, so I walked through town on a caffeine high reveling in the sites and sounds, joyful at being here, at being alive.   And giving away too much money to the beggars.  To a sweet old woman sitting on the curb who had no fingers–I imagine from leprosy–I gave four sweet rolls that my boys didn’t like; to a young woman with a baby I gave thirty rupees; and to a young emaciated sadhu whose upper body looked like it had scaring from being burned all over, I gave fifty rupees.



Tomorrow I’m gong to write about the beggars, whose plight and whose pleas can feel overwhelming.  

My friend and former student and poet, Lon Young, is taking his family of six to Chennai to live for a year and work with the lepers there.  I can’t even say how amazing that is.   

They say in India you will experience your highest highs and your lowest lows.   And this can all happen in a single afternoon.  


Sufism: More Thoughts on “That Thing” Some People Call “God”

sufi shrive sufis

One of the things I loved about being in Mumbai was the prevalence of Sufis everywhere.  The Sufis are the mystical wing of Islam, a profoundly devotional tradition, eminently peaceful and tolerant, respecting all religions.

When the Muslims conquered much of India, the devotional spirituality of the Sufis found much in common with the bhakti-yoga tradition of Hinduism.  And many scholars have noted that this connection helped Hindus and Muslims find common ground and acceptance of each other’s religion.

Rumi: Great Sufi Poet and Mystic

Rumi: Great Sufi Poet and Mystic

Two weeks ago I posted some thoughts about “That Thing” some people call “God,” about the ways different spiritual traditions talk about what is experienced in prayer and meditation.  I began with some thoughts on Taoist and Buddhist terms for “That.”

As I noted there, In Taoism, the term, “the Tao,” is used to refer to the fundamental nature of being, the reality behind the changing phenomena of the world.  It cannot be named.  We call it “The Tao,” or the Way.

Buddhism asserts that what exists beyond the changing phenomena of the world and what is encountered in meditation is “Emptiness.”  This term emphasizes the fact that that Reality cannot be embraced or conceived of by the mind.  It is beyond images, concepts, ideas, forms.  So, it’s just called Emptiness.   That doesn’t mean its just a big scary gaping void.   For although we cannot “think it”–we can experience it.

People describe the experience of it as spaciousness, freedom, a feeling of a connection, joy, bliss, compassion, love.  I noted how Lewis Richmond said that his “teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “‘I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.’  Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, ‘Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.'”

Now, this approach of not naming, not ascribing positive qualities to that Reality has a counterpart in Christina mysticism, in the apophatic tradition, the via negative.  In this tradition, any idea, name, or concept about God that arises in the mind in meditation is negated.  One says, “Not that.  Not that.  Not that.”  Because Reality is beyond any idea or image that can arise in the mind.  I will say more about this in a post about Christina mysticism later.

In this post, though leaping chronologically, and from East to West, I’d like to share something very interesting about the mystical theology of Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, which parallels this “negative” approach to the contemplative life.

According to the Nasquabandi tradition of Sufism, the word Allah is composed of the article “al,” which means “the,” and “lah,” which mean “nothing.”

In Sufism, the greatest name for God is “The Nothing.”   Because God is experienced as Nothingness–No Thing, Something beyond the created world.

Shortly before his death, the Naqshbandi Sufi Master Bhai Sahib said, “There is nothing but Nothingness.”

The Sufi scholar-practitioner Irina Tweedie explains:

“There is nothing but Nothingness. . . . Nothingness in the triune, triple sense: Nothingness because the little self (the ego) has to go. One has to become nothing. Nothingness, because the higher states of consciousness represent nothingness to the mind, for it cannot reach there. It is completely beyond the range of perception. Complete comprehension on the level of the mind is not possible, so one is faced with nothingness. And in the last, most sublime, sense, it is to merge into the Luminous Ocean of the Infinite. I think this is how one has to understand it; that is how Bhai Sahib had meant it, when he spoke of the Nothingness and of the One.”

And as another Sufi scholar-practitioner Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written in “The Dhikr As An Archetype of Transformation” (“Dhikr” means “remembrance of God through repetition of the name “Allah” in meditation):

“Thus, the name Allah contains the essence of all Sufi teaching: to become nothing, to become annihilated in Him, so that all that remains is His Infinite Emptiness. This is the path of love, it is the cup of wine which is drunk by His lovers. In the words of Rûmî:

I drained this cup:
there is nothing, now,
but ecstatic annihilation.”

So, here, at the height of Sufi mystical theology, we find ourselves not far from the Buddhist notion of Emptiness, not far from the Taoist term for the unnamable Reality.

I love finding these connections among diverse spiritual traditions!

Happy (spiritual) trails!