The Dalai Lama
For five amazing days in July of 2008, over four thousand people gathered at a coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, to listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak. He guided us through fifty hours of selected readings from his book Stages of Meditation and Santideva’s A Guide To The Bodhisattva Way Of Life.
His talks, focused on reverent topics of religion and spirituality, were often broken up by a spontaneous burst of laughter from His Holiness.
“Oh, that’s mistake number one!” he said after a false start. He tried to begin again. “Oops! That’s mistake number two.” On and on he would go.
The morning sessions ran from 9:30 am to 11:30 am. After a break for lunch, the afternoon sessions ran from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Evenings were taken up with Tibetan cultural activities like competitive basketball, talent shows, concerts and shopping at dozens of small stands in the ad hoc coliseum bazaar.
During the afternoon the Dalai Lama often fielded questions from the assembled crowd:
“What is the quickest way to enlightenment?” “Lay down.”
“What is the smallest form of a sentient being?” “A sentient being is something that can move on its own from one place to the next. As far as we know now, it’s the amoeba. That may change, though.”
“Does Buddhism believe in a force of universal good?” “All organisms are in this manifestation. Consciousness is the energy of the Buddha arising.”
One woman had a more personal question: “This morning I discovered a lump in my breast. There’s a history of cancer in my family. We have little money and no medical assistance. Should I call my husband and let him know about this now or wait until I get home? I don’t want to worry him.” The Dalai Lama thought for some time and with a slight quiver in his voice said, “Possibly you can get some help from a non-governmental agency for your medical care. I know this is difficult for you, but only you know what is best in terms of letting your husband know directly or not.” The Dalai Lama thought awhile longer and continued. “I will give you a little bit of money to help with medical costs.” He then moved onto another teaching.
Halfway through he stopped. “I just can’t go on with this teaching. I’m still thinking of the woman without medical care and the lump she found.” He then spoke to her again. “My doctor is with me now. I will instruct him to meet with you. Sometimes Tibetan medicine works where western medicine does not. Just come up and my assistant will help you.”
On the fourth day the Dalai Lama did a layperson’s initiation where all those who chose to read vows together from A Guide To The Bodhisattva Way Of Life:
Devoid of merit and destitute, I have nothing else to offer. Therefore, may the Protectors, whose concerns are for the welfare of others, accept this by their own power for my sake.
I completely offer my entire self. . . . O Supreme Beings, accept me! I reverently devote myself to your service.
Being free from fear of mundane existence due to your protection, I shall serve sentient beings; I shall completely transcend my earlier vices, and henceforth I shall sin no more.
In sweetly fragrant bathing chambers whose beautiful pillars are radiant with jewels, glowing canopies made of pearls, and crystal floors transparent and sparkling.
. . . Death does not differentiate between tasks done and undone . . . for it is like an unexpected, great thunderbolt.
. . . Just as a blind man might find a jewel amongst heaps of rubbish, so this Spirit of Awakening has somehow arisen in me.
. . . It is the great sun dispelling the darkness of the world’s ignorance.
For the caravan of beings traveling on the path of mundane existence and starving for the meal of happiness, it is the feast of happiness that satisfies all sentient beings who have come as guests. (selected readings)
Long Life Offering Ceremony (July 24, 2008)
On the fifth and final day of the conference, the Tibetan community gathers from across North America to hold a Long Life Offering Ceremony (Tenshung) for the Dalai Lama. It is the first ever performed in the United States.
The drums sound. Dancers in traditional Tibetan clothing appear. One hundred Lamas stand from where they are sitting on stage to face His Holiness the Dalai Lama as he enters. Cymbals crash and the sound of Tibetan horns resonate like bagpipes throughout the coliseum.
The Dalai Lama laughs in the midst of the low chant of the Lamas. “I am not here to teach today, but to enjoy the atmosphere.” His laughter is infectious. A long line of Tibetans and admirers of the Dalai Lama begin to walk down the aisle with their hands lifted up, holding small gold prayer vessels and sacred texts on white prayer shawls.
Rice with raisins is passed out to everyone in the coliseum by hundreds of organized volunteers. Everyone eats together, including the Dalai Lama, who is now singing from the sacred text.
Above the Dalai Lama hangs a colorful cloth image of a 50-foot-tall Buddha. Four directional images of the White Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, surround him.
Drinks are now passed out to everyone, which tastes like diluted mango juice.
The Dalai Lama puts on a pointed gold and yellow hat. He is wearing the traditional red and yellow robes of Lamas, as he sits in the lotus position. Comfortable. Smiling. Voice deep. Resonate. Chanting. The Dalai Lama explains the ceremony as it unfolds.
Twenty Lamas put on large yellow and orange hats with feathery cloth that fans upward like a mohawk haircut from the back of their heads to the front, looking like exotic birds of the Amazon.
Three monks give the Dalai Lama three strands of string that he rolls outward into the Lamas who surround him.
As I watch this all unfold, I think about the many rich cultures of the people I have known across this earth. How so many seem to be fighting for their very survival. How could anyone be afraid of these teachings, this religion of kindness, this beloved Dalai Lama? To support the sovereignty of Tibet is to simply be a supporter of justice.
The chanting stops. The Dalai Lama is lost in meditation. A soft wind blows through the coliseum and the White Tara prayer cloths start to sway.
The Dalai Lama shares a story, “Through the years I have received many teachings. In 1958 one Lama came to visit me. He was the reincarnation of a great teacher. He brought me the gift of the White Tara. While reciting the mantras he saw a strong white light that reached into his heart. He told me that I would live a long life. I have been with you now for six days, sharing fifty hours of teachings, and still no sign of tiredness. The Lama’s prediction may well be true.”
The chanting returns as Lamas bring more food. The Dalai Lama laughs and exclaims, “I made another mistake.”
For the young Tibetan children in the audience, this moment in time will be a powerful memory, like the one I have of listening to Billy Graham speak when I was a child with my Grandmother. For these are times when giants walk upon the earth. This 14th Dalai Lama—this child of a peasant—now challenges the emerging Chinese Empire with the kindness of Christ.
Three monks stand and sing in a low monastic voice of sacred scripture. The procession stands again. Everyone follows in song. One of the standing Lamas is holding orange seeds. Another is separating orange seeds from a large bowl and gingerly placing them into a smaller one.
One hour has passed. There is a wonderful feeling of ritual in the coliseum as the spirit of the low chanting resonates from the Lamas. Four other monks now stand, draped with green, blue and yellow sashes.
My troubadour and spiritual brother, Mitch Walking Elk, says, “Fill your life with ceremony.”
The Dalai Lama says, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
Mitch says, “Take it slow. Be careful. Take your time.”
Mother Teresa says, “From silence comes prayer. From prayer comes faith. From faith comes love. From love comes service. From service comes peace.”
As I reflect on their words, the procession begins to move. One lone Lama chants sacred text while standing before His Holiness. Yellow and gold sashes are draped over the top of the Dalai Lama’s throne which is decorated with wooden carvings of thousands of incarnations.
The procession walks onto the stage with sacred objects to give The Dalai Lama, who then places the gold cloth crown back on his head. The chanting of sacred text is complete. The Dalai Lama returns to the text. One by one the gifts are offered to His Holiness, blessed by him and then brought over to the banquet table which is already overflowing with flowers and blessings.
The head Lama redons his large Mohawk-styled yellow hat. Cymbals crash again. The Tibetan horns blow like bagpipes. The single voice chanting the sacred text returns.
Volunteers begin passing out snacks to the crowd. The procession concludes with Canadian, Tibetan and United States flags flying. All hats are removed. The Dalai Lama places his hands in a prayerful way to his chest, chanting. Everyone receives Sweet and Salty Mix or Keebler Chips Deluxe Mini-Rainbow cookies.
Three monks return, mixing orange seeds. The Dalai Lama reads from sacred Sanskrit. Lay Buddhist now stand in line with white scarves to be blessed and draped over their shoulders by the Dalai Lama, followed by red scarves. The Lamas place hats back onto their heads. The Dalai Lama, too, places this hat back on after the last person’s scarf has been placed on their shoulders. The hats are then removed.
An elder from Tibet reads from sacred text. An elder reads a blessing for long life to the Dalai Lama: “Since 1959 you have worked on the development of the Tibetan people and to find a just solution. You have tried to bring happiness to the six million Tibetan people. We recommit ourselves to your leadership. We now see how this effort for our children has increased their interest in learning Tibetan. They now, too, make this effort to participate. We stand in solidarity with those in Tibet, until justice is brought to the Tibetan people.”
An organizer of the event addresses the Dalai Lama and everyone in the coliseum. He reads off the amout raised from the event, minus expenses, and says, “This amount will be offered to His Holiness. Thank you.”
The Lama looks solemn and then responds, “I do not take money for teaching. I suggest this money be given to the Tibetan community in India and to lowly Indian people who are suffering for medical care and education. You might wish to put it towards health facilities and education inside and outside of Tibet. So that’s that.”
Returning Home (July 26, 2008)
After my return I spoke with my instructor at the Common Ground Meditation Center in South Minneapolis. I told him that I had just completed two days of fasting and dancing at the Sundance in Porcupine, South Dakota followed by five days of teachings with the Dalai Lama in Madison.
He asked, “What are you doing now?”
I laughed. “Tomorrow I fly to Las Vegas for a reunion with my two beloved sisters without our spouses.”
He smiled. “After the Buddha reached enlightenment, he rode a donkey back into town to see if he could apply what he had learned with others.”
I laughed again. “I’m flying on Northwest!”