Thursday, July 24, 2008


A Day with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

As I prepare to go to another day of sitting, taking notes, listening intently as the Dalai Lama speaks, even when it is in Tibetan, I look around me at the strangeness of this place and I find myself amazed at being here, at having this opportunity, at being so far from my comfort zone 250 miles away. Only the Dalai Lama could have gotten me in the van and thru this traffic to a place I haven’t seen in over 40 years, and had no desire to ever see again, if truth be told. As the morning fog rises around me, I tuck today’s text book in my book bag and look around.
The monsters across the street rise tall in the morning mist, empty, strange shapes - a freshman level sculpture project gone wrong – sitting in the silence of the morning dew waiting for the hoards of people paying gobs of money to get locked in them to be turned upside down and twisted one way or another shrieking with fear or delight or the delight of fear that it must take to get on one of those monsters and be hurled around high above the ground. I look at them and think how strange they are and yet see a similarity between what seems unreal and our perception of what actually is real in the world. In a way Dorney Park reminds me of life and all that we are being taught, the question of reality and the choices we make.
I think about the monsters in my life, all of them created by me, by my choices, my actions, my thoughts. How, like the monsters at Dorney Park, they wait there in the morning mist, wait for me to decide which one I am going to ride that day, or if I will have the strength and knowledge, the courage to walk away from the amusement park that I call my life, to follow the Path away from senselessly repeating my mistakes over and over like the kids lining up again and again to be tossed and swirled around screaming half in fear, half in imagined pleasure on the monsters across the street – going nowhere but up and down, around and around. Cyclic existence. Samsara. Life.

One good thing about being across the street from Dorney Park is it makes it easy to find the hotel! The hotel is actually quiet in spite of being across the street from the Park, and it is clean. The staff is more than polite, anxious to please, they even used their computer to pull up maps for me and run them off to help me find my way back from the campus as campus security won’t let me go the way the GPS says to go. They took two way streets and made them one way putting me out in a place the GPS did not like. The maps are nice, but I was to discover the street names are wrong. Sigh.
The hotel breakfast is fair if one has no great interest in breakfast, but the coffee is good and I am back drinking it in great quantities, saving the Starbucks for the mountains, as it were, swilling the European Roast while trying to digest pages of print from our texts.
After a couple hours studying, the real morning starts with trying to merge into a lane of traffic and get over to the U turn lane. The voice in the box does not understand concrete medians and she gets upset that I am stupidly going out of the hotel to the right and not the left. At the end of I-78, we turn into the town of Bethlehem , or a little corner of it, the kind of corner that reminds me of what towns used to be like back in the 50s. In a couple of blocks, the GPS tells me to turn right and I do so with mixed feelings. That first day, I was shocked as the Box sent me down a tiny road and across a single lane wooden plank bridge with a few boards obviously in bad need of repair. I follow a few other folks with their Boxes on their dashes and the same voice no doubt telling them the same things she is telling me. The road makes several tight turns, maximum speed limit would be 15 mph if you were feeling real daring! Across another one lane bridge, this one steel and concrete, and in another mile we turn onto campus. The tranquility of these last 2 miles thru the woods and over a little stream helps calm my shattered nerves, still on high alert from the panic of driving on a 6 lane interstate sandwiched between 18 wheelers going at least 75 mph, an unbelievable pace for this country girl. I peel my white knuckles off the steering wheel, take a couple of deep breaths and prepare to meet the challenge of today’s lesson while wondering what kind of lesson I am learning just trying to get here each day!
It only takes a few minutes to pull the wheelchair out of the van, load it with blankets, notebooks and text books, a warm flannel shirt, the only warm thing I brought up to PA with me, and an assortment of pens in different colors and a pack of those sticky page markers for marking important pages in the day’s text. I check my pocket for the hundredth time to be sure my tickets are findable, lock the van, tuck the keys away, and start to roll up the incline to the arena.

We are studying, and His Holiness is trying to help us understand, 3 Volumes of the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, (Lam Rim Chen Mo) by Tsong-Kha-Pa. When His Holiness fled Tibet as a young man, this text was the only text he carried with him. Tibetan Buddhist texts are written on long narrow paper, about 2 feet wide but only about 6 inches tall – kind of shaped like a big bumper sticker. He said it was his favorite text, he just had to take it with him. From time to time he actually read to us directly from the text then paused while his interpreter caught up with him and explained it to us in English. Sometimes he told us what page the translation was on in our texts. Pages quietly ruffled throughout the arena.

After the first day we started arriving on campus around 8 AM before the long lines started. It takes a while to get thru security, as bags get searched, we get wanded, and the ticket gets read by a scanner. After a couple of days, the guards recognize us and greet us as there are only a few of us coming to class in wheelchairs. There are vendors set up outside as well as in the lobby with tables of books on Buddhism and Tibet. There is a table of T-shirts, posters and mugs. I ended up buying an extra T shirt as the temp in the arena was in the low 60s. Each day I ended up wearing at least 4 shirts, my regular clothes, a T-shirt from the class over that, and my old blue plaid flannel shirt from the back of the van over that. My little meditation robe was wrapped around Anna who did not bring anything nearly warm enough and refused to wear a T shirt. People were bringing blankets from their hotels! One guy had a big beach towel he wrapped up in. By the third day, everyone had on socks. One girl wore a parka! It was really cold. Hands clutched warm cups of coffee or tea. We settled in, quietly visited with each other, shared stories about the morning’s traffic, looked for friends, or just sat quietly and watched the monks and nuns come in swirling their voluminous robes around them as they settled into their places along the stage on either side of the Dalai Lama’s seat, an elaborate elevated chair raised about 6 feet above the stage floor.

As the crowd gathered, one could not help noticing the differences and yet one could feel similarities as we were all travelers on a Path headed for the same ultimate Truth. There were great differences in ages and ethnicities, in sizes, shapes, colors and clothing styles; there were monks, nuns, and lay people, the rich and the struggling, college professors and students sitting side by side. But there was something different – a difference in the way everyone treated everyone else – a politeness, an obvious showing of respect. There was no pushing or shoving, everyone seemed to smile at everyone else. As a person in a wheelchair, I have been places where I have actually been pushed to the wall or into furniture, but here, everyone seemed anxious to help either by making room for me or by asking if they could be of any assistance. Strangers, they were total strangers, yet not one remained a stranger for more than a second or two.
Personally, I am almost as terrified of crowds as I am of highways and traffic. Each day there was between 2,000 and 3,000 people in a relatively small arena, yet it never felt like I was in a crowd. I felt like I was among friends, we just did not know each other’s names yet. I never felt “crowded.” Again, the word politeness is the only word I can think of, or that word missing in so much of today’s culture, respect. Maybe even the word kindness…

As we sat and waited for His Holiness to come onto the stage, people talked and visited, the hum of voices reminded me of standing under my redbud tree when it is in bloom and filled with bees. A steady hum… a gentle sound in spite of there being at least 2,000 people all in this space. Then suddenly, there was silence, total absolute silence as the group rose to their feet, pressed their hands together, and bowed in reverence and respect. I am not sure if any of us were even breathing! We stood in this perfect silence, slightly bowed, as He made His way across the stage, bowing to the people on stage, to the audience, turned toward his seat and the huge wall hanging of Maitreya, did his prostrations, rewrapped his robes and climbed up the stairs to his seat. I found myself envying the monk who stood behind the steps whose shoulder His Holiness held onto as he climbed to his seat. As he sat, there was only the muffled sound of 2,000 people silently sitting down and waiting. No one spoke.
The mornings began with chanting from one or more of the groups of nuns and monks sitting on the stage with His Holiness. Some of the Sutras were chanted in Chinese, some Tibetan, one day Vietnamese, and on the last day one sutra was done in English. On the second day, the chanting in Chinese was beautiful but seemed to go on forever. When they finally finished he said “Thank you” as he always did, but this day, he added, “A bit long.” The audience cracked up. His Holiness has a wonderful sense of humor and frequently chuckled about things and at times made jokes. Even when they were in Tibetan, his chuckles were so infectious, the audience chuckled along, just like we’d understood his words.
Each day as he greeted us, he chatted a bit about something as if we were all just sitting in his living room. He often teased someone about something, yet he became totally serious when discussing worldly problems, war, suffering. On several occasions he addressed the differences in religions in the world and the basic goodness of people and everyone’s desire for happiness. He mentioned the wonderful people who are Chinese and do not wish other people any harm. He talked about Islam, and that most Muslims are peaceful, loving people. Everyday started with a little lecture about nonviolence and loving each other, treating each other with respect, living mindfully, remembering the laws of karma, cause and effect, and that we all had been related to each other in some other time and place. I asked the guy sitting next to me if that meant we had been related before and this was just one big family reunion. He said, of course! And then reminded me he was my mother! He, Jeff, is Jewish, and so became my Jewish mother asking me everyday why I hadn’t called the night before! I guess his wife thought we were nuts! Or maybe she is used to this sort of thing! I was blessed to have them sitting next to me!

Sometimes His Holiness spoke in English, sometimes Tibetan with Dr Thupen Jinpa translating. Jinpa has been his translator for 23 years. I have videos of him as a much younger man with beautiful raven black hair. Now it is the color of mine! Or should I use the term multihued??? Possum colored? There were 2 big screens up on either side of the stage with whoever was speaking, chanting, or translating, sometimes with a split screen. On the bottom fourth of the screen, there was a running translation, theoretically in English, I assume from a voice recognition program which, given the accents of the speakers, probably did an amazing job, but when it screwed up, the words were often downright hilarious! Sometimes you could hear the audience suppressing a laugh as the butchered text appeared on the screen. Norah, Jeff’s wife and I frequently nudged or looked at each other or just groaned in amusement at the spellings on the screen. Some words were just simple slips, like psycho analyst but others were not even close to the intended words. Mostly I worked on watching His Holiness himself or the interpreter and not the screen so I did not get too distracted.

When he spoke in Tibetan, one’s mind was, of course, free to wander a bit. Surprisingly, mine did not wander far. But one thought kept coming back to me… I wondered about the crowds of people who had gathered to hear Jesus, especially those there for the Sermon on the Mount. How many of them realized the Greatness in their presence? How many of them felt the humility and awe of being in such a Presence? It was apparent from the respect shown by this large crowd that the people gathered in this arena on this occasion did feel something if only for those 8 hours and for that day.

After a couple hours, His Holiness would announce he was hungry, it was time for lunch. As he stood to exit the stage, once again there was that sudden total silence, like someone had hit the mute button on the remote, as we all stood, bowed with our palms pressed together in absolute silence until he was out of sight behind the curtain.
Lunch was an experience. I mention it only because it became a significant experience. There were vegetarian sandwiches available, the Portobello being especially nice, salads, fruit, and one hot Asian dish for those who wanted to stand in line waiting for an hour. There was no place to sit, most folks just sat on the floor as far away from the long lines as possible. There was a big tent outside but it was too far for us to try to go. After a couple of days, we figured out the easiest thing was for me to wait in the arena so we did not have to lug our books and blankets around, and let Anna go get lunch and bring it back to our seats. That way we had a place to sit and a spare chair or the elevated floor behind us to sit the tray on.
Lunch usually lasted about 2 to 2 ½ hours. After eating, time could be spent shopping for more books, or wandering around visiting. It was so cool to meet some of the people I had been seeing in the teaching videos and DVDs and to have a few minutes to talk to them. Each day people would try to get in to the ground level stage area to get up close to the nuns and monks, take forbidden pictures when no one was looking, and push for a space up near the barricade that separated the audience from the people on the stage and His Holiness. People begged and one woman even tried to bribe one of the security people into letting her stand back in the area where His Holiness had to walk thru to get on the stage. For the hundredth time that week, I heard the speech about how tight security was, not only the local cops, campus police and campus security, but there were dozens of what we called “Suits” walking around, security forces from the State Department that even sat on either side of the stage when His Holiness was there, escorted him on and off the stage, and walked the perimeters of the seating areas, floor and bleachers. Just trying to get in the place meant getting past at least 50 obvious security people and who knows how many others in plain clothes.
One of the reasons security was so tight was because there were demonstrators standing outside shouting at the Dalai Lama on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. And, let’s face it, there are some nutty people out there. I was told that the Chinese government paid this group of people to follow His Holiness around and try to harass him. So the Dalai Lama did not take his usual stroll among the people, and we were kept a safe distance from him. Consequently, there was also that 4 foot high barrier set up on the floor to keep people from getting too close to the stage.

There is a custom from Tibet of offering a scarf known as a Khata to a Lama or respected teacher which has to be folded and presented in a specific way. Generally the Khata is taken by the Lama and blessed and then placed over the giver’s bowed head. Google Khata and read the meaning and about the ritual. Well, people were lined up with khatas and malas (prayer beads) and things to be blessed, but no one was being allowed even close to His Holiness. I had emailed his official site, in India, and asked how I could present His Holiness with a Khata, and they in turn gave me the official phone number in NYC. I called that number with my request and got another number, eventually connecting with his right hand man in the States who travels with him and makes all his arrangements. His name is Tashi Wangdi, and he gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him when we all were at the arena. And so I did. He explained security was very tight, the university and secret service people were not letting anyone even close to His Holiness. But, he took my name and cell phone # and said if he could work it out, he would give me a call.
The last day of the teaching was half over. My Khata was still sealed in its plastic bag in my purse. I had given up any hopes of getting it blessed. Anna left for lunch; the arena was down to probably only a hundred people or so, so I rolled my wheelchair over to the rail closest to the stage to get a better look at the flower arrangements. A man came out from the back to speak to a couple of people down near the corner of the stage. As he turned, I recognized his face (don’tcha just love Google?) and I called out, “Tashi!” He turned and looked up at the railing above. I introduced myself and repeated my request. I guess he saw the sincerity in my face and that I was not just a groupie type autograph hunter, and he said he would see what he could do. He spoke with security. They came to the floor beneath my perch at the railing, so they would recognize me, talked to me for a minute, and decided to let me thru.
The long and short of it is – at 1:45, the chief of police gave me an escort to the backstage area where His Holiness comes thru the curtain, and we waited. As He came thru the curtain surrounded by the Suits, the audience fell silent, standing and bowing. He did a short detour to where I was standing, bowed, holding my Khata. He beamed the most beautiful smile, took my face in his hands, pressed his forehead to mine, said something in Tibetan, took the Khata, blessed it, putting it to his head, and placed it around my neck. He said a few more words, held my hands, patted my head, and I am sure it took only a second but time truly stood still. I thanked him as profusely as I could since I was beyond speechless. I sat back down in the wheelchair as he climbed up onto the stage. I should have remained standing, I suppose, but I swear I was afraid my knees would buckle. Tashi then came into view. He, too, was beaming at me. I thanked him, also. He looked pleased to have been able to get me back there.
The chief pushed me back to the elevator and to my seat. The security person for our section asked Anna how I’d managed to pull that one off! He was impressed.
As far as I know, from what security told me, I was the only person in the arena to get beyond the barricades. I did not see anyone else manage it though many tried. He did bless some people who were standing next to the fence outside where he entered the building that first day, but once he was in the building, no one got near him. And after that first day, security kept him covered. So from what I was told and saw, I was the only one in the arena to get to present him with a Khata. Anna is sure others did too, but I didn’t see it. And it doesn’t matter. Whether I was the only one or I was one of a thousand, not important… I was and am so blessed.
Whereas previously we had all been sitting huddling under shirts and blankets, I was suddenly burning up. It would have been interesting to take my temperature! I was on fire! I took off the heavy flannel shirt and tried to cool down. I stayed toasty warm the rest of the day. I am sure there is an explanation for that, but I don’t know what it is. All I know is, that experience was higher than any high I have ever experienced. As I finish writing this, days later, the high is still there. I have been touched by Pure Love and I have no words to describe it.

The monsters in the park are far away now, but my own monsters still lurk around the corners. Hopefully, maybe I have a better understanding of them and their reality. My six days studying with the Dalai Lama are over, but there is something that will stay with me forever, or at least I hope it will. The studying will continue, the desire, the motivation to get my act together is there, not just from a Dalai Lama high, but because he told me to think, to reason it out. Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith – doing something just because someone told you to believe, to do it; it is a philosophy, as the Dalai Lama said, “It is the science of mind.”