Four days ago, during my morning walk, I discovered the trail through the woods that circles the crest of the hill where the Dalai Lama’s temple sits. Every morning and evening, really all day long, monks and pilgrims circumambulate the temple before entering it. It’s about a mile all the way around. That first day, I visited the temple, and the next morning, took my family on the same walk, and I made a commitment to doing it every day.
His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, is in Japan right now. I seem to have a habit of visiting ashrams and monasteries when the resident teacher is dead or otherwise missing. Part of my karma. His Holiness will be here starting May 17. We can’t wait.
On Tuesday morning, our family headed out of our cottage early to catch the morning air and as the town was just waking up. Mornings are cool and mountain-damp, like backpacking mornings in the mountains. We take a steep, rocky trail up from our cottage, avoiding the narrow, busy, horn-and-fumes-filled two-lane road that winds up toward town.
Where the trail intersects with the pilgrim’s trail, three orange-robed sadhus sit with begging bowls in front of them. Their eyes are clear and bright under their orange turbans, and their beards give them an ancient look. Everyday, I give them a few rupees, and in the afternoons, we see them cooking greens in their little pots at the edge of the woods. One of these days I’m going to sit down find out more about them. Sometimes you’ll be surprised that a penniless, begging sadhu in rags used to be a high-tech computer engineer or graduate student studying Ganges River dolphins or something.
That morning, we said, “Namaste,” and passed them by. Around a bend, we reached a spot where the day before an old Tibetan woman stood feeding monkeys and crows, which were both excitedly hopping around her. Today, it’s monkeys and cows. The boys love the monkeys. We stop and look and take pictures.
We’ve told Aidan and Kellen that this is a sacred place, that they may not jump around like the monkeys. They behave incredibly well. Like most of the monks and pilgrims, I have my mala beads in my hand and am repeating my mantra, when not talking to the family. I try using one of my regular mantras, but can’t help falling in with the Om Mani Padme Hum, the sacred mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, which everyone else is reciting, and which the prayer wheels are spinning to. There must be a couple hundred prayer wheels along the trail. “Om Mani Padme Hum” is basically untranslatable, but can be rendered as something like: “I honor the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus of the Universe.” The prayer wheels are filled with the mantra written on pieces of paper and as you spin it, you gain the spiritual blessings of having repeated it that many times. The turning wheels represent the turning of the dharma, the living truth of the Buddha’s teachings, which turn forever in the world. Aidan and Kellen love turning the prayer wheels.
The Tibetans, and especially the monks, have radiant smiles. You can see how years of meditation and repetition of the mantra have transformed them spiritually. They look happy with the brightest eyes, the kind that deeply spiritual people have everywhere. I’m amazed at how old many of them are. I’ve never been around so many ancient people. Many old women close to a hundred years old, hunched with walking sticks and faces wrinkled like prunes. But clear, radiant eyes smile out of their faces. The trail has steep places, but these ancient people climb it every day.
All along the way sadhus sit with their begging bowls. One man has a wooden artificial leg which he lies beside him. I give him 100 rupees each day—about $1.50. I also usually give one of the several groups of three sadhus 100 rupees every day to share. They often sit in groups of three. They are so grateful. This is an outlandish amount, but it gives them and me a lot of joy. Our family is on a budget of 2,000 rupees per day for food, so if we give away 200 rupees, that’s ten percent. And that seems about right.
Walking this trail with my family, I feel deeply that I am in the presence of the sacred. Yesterday, I stood at the edge of the temple, looking out through the tops of jade-green Himalayan cedars and had the feeling that I have had in a few places in my life. I felt that I could stand there forever. I had the same feeling a few years ago standing barefoot in warm drizzling rain outside Amma’s (Amritanandamayi Ma’s) lodge-like temple in California during a retreat. And of course I feel it often at my own guru’s ashram.
Standing there yesterday, I felt truly the meaning of the saying: “there’s no place to go, nothing to do, no one to be. Everything is right here.” The saying teaches that you don’t have to go anywhere special to find the Truth, that it’s right here before you, wherever you are. This is true, and in moments of heightened awareness we can feel it anywhere. Yet, at the same time, there are special places on the earth— “thin places,” the Celts called them, where the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is more permeable. Many of Europe’s cathedrals stand on places once sacred to the Celts. Standing on these places, you can feel the perfection of the moment before you, the holiness among these cedars, under this sun, in this breeze, below these crows. All places are equally spiritual, but for those of us not fully enlightened, some places feel more spiritually equal than others.
Aidan and Kellen and I turn every prayer wheel. Sometimes we come upon a large one in a stupa, which we walk around. A bell rings with each revolution.
Along the trail are views of the valleys far below the mountain and to the north and east, views of the high Himalayas, their snow struck silver by the white 9:00 sunlight. We round a corner and go up some steps into a stupa (a shrine that often houses sacred objects, relics, such as something said to have been used by the Buddha). Beside the steps, rises a two-story-high incense burner. All sorts of things are burning inside it, and its chimney sending out incense. The main part of the stupa is lined with smiling skulls. Aidan asks about them, and I explain how when Buddhism comes to a new country, it often incorporates elements of the tribal, native religion it finds there. These could be elements from the Bon religion, the main religion of Tibet, before Buddhism came in the eighth century.
When we come down from the stupa we walk across the trail to a little plaza-like area whose back wall is filled with photographs. A few people sit before them. As we get closer, Jennifer and I look at each other, for we both realize that these are faces of the more than one hundred Tibetans who have immolated themselves in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Young, beautiful faces. Monks, lay people. Men, women. Some photos show a person on fire, burning. Some show a pile of charred bones and ash on the street.
Aidan and Kellen want to know what it is all about. Aidan is ten. Kellen is seven. Are they too young for this part of reality? Jennifer and I both silently decide to tell them. We have told them something of the history of Tibet, the invasion and by the Chinese, something about the torture and imprisonments, about how the Dalai Lama and his monks walked over the Himalayas to get here, about how the Dalai Lama is a person like Martin Luther King, whom they know something about.
Aidan’s eyes fill with tears. All of our eyes are full of tears as we look at the faces.
“But why do they do they burn themselves?”
“Because they are powerless. Chinese soldiers control everything. The Tibetans are losing their land and culture. They aren’t even allowed to have a picture of the Dalai Lama. They are desperate and do this to try to make the world listen.”
“Is the world listening?”
“I don’t know.”
As we look at the faces, I think of other places of protest, of the “Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo” of Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, where mothers silently carried photos of their “disappeared” during the “dirty war” of the military dictatorship. I think of other places of silent protest.
We walk up the hill toward the temple gate, high above the green valleys of the Himalayan foothills, turning dozens of brightly painted prayer wheels–Om Mani Padme Hum–and I keep thinking of the Dalai Lama’s smile.
One never sees a photo of him in which he is not smiling. Someone said that he always looks like someone is tickling him. I keep asking myself how such a photo fits among the photos of these martyred lost we had just seen.
For they were his monks burning. As he is the spiritual father of the Tibetan people, these were his children. I think of Aidan and Kellen. How does the Dalai Lama smile at all?
The answer lies in the secret heart of Buddhism—in the essence of all authentic spirituality.
The Buddha taught that the joy we encounter in the spiritual life is unconditioned. It is not dependent on outward circumstances. It springs from an internal, exhaustible reservoir.
The Dalai Lama’s smile is not blind to the suffering of the world, to its poverty, violence, pollution, or martyrdom. The first of the Four Noble Truths—the first teaching the Buddha gave–states that suffering is an inherent part of the human condition. Buddhism begins with a clear-eyed look at suffering.
The Dalai Lama’s smile—his bright eyes—are ones that have cut through to the heart of that suffering. When we go fully, deeply, completely, into our own suffering, when we experience it absolutely, follow it down into the marrow of its bones, to the very end, what we discover there is compassion–the heart of Buddhism. What we find there is love. And from this love, joy is born. Unconditioned joy. And out of that joy comes a desire to serve the world.
The smile of Dalai Lama belongs among the faces of these immolated children just as it shines in the face of the destruction of the Tibetan culture, the invasion and appropriation of his homeland, his exile, the imprisonment, torture, and murder of his monks, his brothers and sisters and children and friends. It is not oblivious to horror, nor is it a response to it. But it is what may heal it.
As my wise, young, dharma-buddy, Jake Grossman, always says, “You don’t see unhappy people helping others. It’s happy people who help others.”
Unconditioned joy manifests in the world in acts of love. This is the Dalai Lama’s teaching. He said once that his religion is kindness. His smile bestows that kindness upon this broken world.