Friday, August 1, 2008

15 minutes with the Dalai Lama

I wasn't sure why I was laughing, an odd situation to find myself in that I'm a fairly serious guy. But moments after meeting the Dalai Lama, as he was blessing me by placing a white silk ceremonial scarf, or kata, around my neck, he started giggling. So did I. We sat there for a second, looking at each other, with me trying to catch myself and recognize I was shaking hands that grasped fifty years of world leaders ranging from Mao Tse Tung to American presidents, yet unable to stop giggling away like school boy.

I still couldn't quite believe how I found this moment. Yes, I've tried to suck the marrow out of most experiences and I've talked my way into more than my fair share of rich experiences, but giggling with the Dalai Lama didn't seem likely 24 hours prior. As part of our preparation for our trip, I emailed the Dalai Lama's office and told him of our group. I followed up once we got on the ground. We were thrilled to simply be in Dharamsala at a time when HH wasn't on one of his world tours, at a time where he would be holding public lectures next week. But then one of his aides called me and said we needed to be at his complex the following day to be a part of the receiving line.

So after an understanding Cross Cultural country director released guys with late volunteer placements, a ride up to McLeod and a decent security check we found ourselves sitting on a mossy ledge along a sloping driveway, inside the Dalai Lama's residential compound. As we waited, I could tell the guys were excited with some sitting quietly, while others had a short debate about the merits of two action movies, Demolition Man vs. Soldier. This is a great group.

We watched different groups of people walk up the slope and past our field of vision, stay out of sight for a few minutes, then emerge wearing huge smiles and scarves as they strolled down the hill. The first rotation were the maroon cloaked Buddhist monks, returning wearing the kata draped around their shoulders, what looked like a small red neck scarf tied in a loose knot, what looked like a scroll wrapped in yellow paper and some sort of letter. Then came what I guess were Korean Buddhists (the topic of the Dalai Lama's three day lecture); then a group of school age kids. Each passed through what we heard would be a short receiving line where our group would receive a blessing, take a photo and then quickly be escorted away.

I just tried to soak in the scene. The compound itself was anything but palatial, but that would have gone against fundamental Buddhist teachings. I saw a few hydrangeas as the sum total of the landscaping with a one story pale pink residence needing a coat of paint. With tax revenue less than the cab ride up to McLeod this could be understood.

We were close to going in, when the smiling security guard who moved us through the process, Thekchen Choeling, came and said that we would not be going up with the last group. Instead, HH would like to speak to us after the public reception. The guys started buzzing, and I recocked them to compare the experience to meeting with the Pope. End debate on Demolition Man now.

After the last group moved up the hill, Thekchen took us into the residence and we sat on low couches for a few minutes. The guys could see HHDL through a window and were a twitter. In a minute Thekchen asked us to stand and I walked out onto a porch to walk into a room with the Dalai Lama. Then came the giggling, his blessing of all the cadets. He motioned for me to sit immediately to his left. The room got quiet.

He looked over his right shoulder, to two aides sitting behind him. I heard words closely approximating military and cadet. The aides nodded approval by a short, curt bow of the head. He turned and looked at me. I sat on my thoughts and questions listening to him breathe, inhaling in tight audible breaths.

He asked me what we were doing in Dharamsala. I explained where we were from, my job, the cadets and our volunteering, and thanked him for his time and his aides for allowing us an audience. He took in a number of audible breaths where his cheeks drew tight.

He then asked the group, “So what have you learned?” I don't know why but my eyes shifted to Brian, the oldest of the group and one of my former students. Last night his question about Richard Gere was laughed off the table. But Brian pulled through and spoke to his renewed conviction towards medicine. Sean spoke elegantly about compassion towards others, despite a gulf of cultural difference. The room became quite again past the drawn breaths.

His Holiness said very good and described the ease of getting along with Tibetans, the difficulty with Indians, and the extreme difficulty of the Chinese. “Too national” he said, too mixed up after the protests against the Olympics. But he loved Americans and called us the “champions of freedom, of liberty, of democracy”. Our Army, as an Army of the American people was very good even though Iraq was very bad. We serve and protect the people. The Chinese Army, serves the party and instead of focusing on foreign, focuses on suppressing their own people. “Very sad” he said.

His infectious laugh would come out at odd times, like when describing how tragic the Iraq policy was and how much it had cost America’s standing in the Middle East to the benefit of China. I’ve read this is a true Buddhist laugh, not necessarily light hearted but in line with the desire to sweep away the troubles of your times. When it would emerge, he would turn, lean in so his face was about a foot from mine, look at me straight through the top of his large glasses, and open his mouth in a deep laugh.

He continued on Iraq, describing how he told President Bush the same opinion, and that he had a friend recently come back from Iraq stating how much it had changed for the better. The President he found to be “Very honest, very humble, yet very bad policy” and how he immediately connected with him. Surprisingly he said that Clinton held him at a wider distance, and it took three meetings to become friends.

In his last tour of America and last meeting with the President, he described his last words to George Bush. He prayed that the President could live a long life and could see the end results of his policies, to hopefully see a positive change in the Middle East. A tear, he said, formed in the President’s eye. Very sad he said. As I sat next to a man who fled his country almost fifty years ago, who has worked tirelessly for a return to Lhasa, and who has inspired and advised countless leaders, watching them come, lead and go, I think I saw the definition of compassion, to truly wish for someone else that which you hope for yourself.

He clapped his hands, said ok, we stood for pictures with him directing the tall ones to the back and the short ones to the front, clasping hands with those to his left and right. We all shook hands, as we made our attempts at Tibetan “thank yous” which produced more giggles. At the end he patted my back.

I never got the chance to ask the question on my mind the one I didn't tell the guys last night. “Who takes care of you…through an endless flow of people ranging from poor pilgrims, to Presidents to a group from West Point all wanting time, photos, advice, guidance and blessings?” Not like a world leader, whose rise and set on the stage passes in years, his only passes with death. I'm not sure exactly what he would have said, but I am sure it would have been in between a giggle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maj. Sowers:

I appreciated your comments about being with HH in Dharamsala. I've met him several times and the giggles and laughs do happen often. Excuse a bit of my experience that is much to long to be posted here, but, 15 years ago, I helped establish an educational program for Tibetan kids at a college preparatory school here in Utah. Serendipity played a huge roll in how this project came into being but HHDL assisted at the very beginning after a meeting in Dharamsala. I met the 1st kids (14yrs old)---the guy from the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal and the gal from the community in So. India---when they arrived in SLC. The Tibetans do have a way to selecting "their best & brightest" for important tasks and these two were no exceptions. Kunsang and Tashi had never been outside of So. Asia, much less flying to the USA, and arrived with nothing more than two little colored backpacks. Anyway, the HS education program has become a sustained success and is into its 3rd set of Tibetan kids coming for a 4yr education before college somewhere. Like the Buddhist concept of "the pebble in the pond" creating ripples that keep vibrating outward, this project has now touched multiple lives. 4 years ago, HH came to SLC and he asked to meet me and the others involved with the program. We had a fine conversation. It was amazing how everyone was either smiling or laughing at a photo I'd brought for HH taken at another private meeting, but that's another story! Best of luck with your continued So. Asia travels and the experiences for your cadets. It's a very special opportunity that will likely produce future "ripples" for them as well.

BTW---One of my oldest friends was an Army officer who attended WP and served in the early '70's. I need to get him interested hearing HH someday!

Hugh Bollinger, SLC, Utah