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.