October 14th, 2009

With the Dalai Lama, Final Installment

Thanks so much to everybody who's read along, forwarded, retweeted, and made this worthwhile. This is the last of three parts. As with the others, feel free to repost, linkback or otherwise spread the word. Tomorrow, more exciting projects.

Back at the Manhattan Center

Snakes, monks, nuns, emptiness and the Middle Path. Two and a half hours later the teaching ends, people rush the stage waving flowers, holding their arms out. Robert Thurman is there, sporting a tiny little goat beard that the Dalai Lama notices with much joy – he laughs a great laugh – reaches out and grabs ahold of this beard and tugs on it. People press in, waving their arms, it's all the madness of a rock concert without the noise and the shoving. Hands are shaken, blessings are given, there's lots of waving. His Holiness leaves with his security detail and the organizers begin to hand off a lot of the stage to the crowd, flowers, scraps of paper, water bottles, anything that was on the stage is in high demand. In 2005 the crowd dismantled the set themselves and, for want of a better word, looted everything, banners, teacups, cushions, gone. The organizers are better prepared for it this time. Emanuel, who was sitting on the lip of the stage with a Leica and a wide angle lens has found himself in high demand carrying people's prayer beads from the front of the crowd, pressing them on the Dalai Lama's cushion and then returning them. Someone hands him a baby. Dutifully he trucks it across the stage and plops him down on the seat for a moment. The kid smiles. Emanuel Smiles. He brings the baby back. “I hope it does something for him,” he says later.

We're invited to a vegetarian dinner with some Vietnamese and Tibetan monks and nuns after the event. Some of the food is so … meat-like I'm not sure I'm being tricked. “This is vegetarian, right?” I ask, “of course! Of course!” they tell me. I suppose it's like asking the worlds most Orthodox Rabbi if this plate of carrots he's passing around are kosher. I eat, it's great. Everybody's happy. The photographers go through our images and compare. Chris went all the way up to the 5th floor balcony where the spotlights were and got a shot of the packed house with a fisheye. In 2005 Emanuel got what I thought was the real winning shot of two monks putting the Dalai Lama's shoes back on after he walked off the stage. I don't think that I got anything definitive. Who can say though. Sometimes these things take a while to settle in. I feel pummeled by their talent, but I don't feel inadequate. This uncertainty comes with the territory. You suffer, you learn, you move on, better than you were.

Back at the Waldorf Astoria, once the home of Maryilyn Monroe, Herbert Hoover and Douglas McArthur we spread out across the sofas in the living room of our suite. Trillian, Phong, Chris, Emanual, Tina we upload photos and backtrack across the day, which began early with Tina going to the airport to meet the plane as it landed. The excitement is great, the day was long, we're tired. Tina and Phong go to their rooms. Chris and Trillian and I find very posh terrycloth bathrobes in our closet (the room service catalog says we can buy them for $125 each) and spend the rest of the night alternately sauntering around like Hugh Hefner and jumping on the beds.

The next morning Trillian and Chris head home. Phong, Tina, Emanuel and I meet early and head up to the Dalai Lama's suite with some Vietnamese monks we'd met the night before and also Lama Migmar, from Boston, author of Treasures of the Sakya Lineage:
Teachings from the Masters. Lama Migmar, who I later discover is also a Chaplin at Harvard, possesses one of the most wonderfully photogenic faces I've ever seen -- he should be in movies. The DSS has locked down the entire 35th floor which is filled with luggage, monks, nuns, and State Troopers.

The Dalai Lama advises us all to read the sacred texts of all religions, not just our own. He exhorts us to work to end the suffering of all sentient beings; which is about the most noble goal I can think of. I take photos of him with a lot of monks, and some visiting dignitaries, and with a bunch of people on his security detail. It's a wonderful time, I feel electrified, exhilarated, like something tremendous is happening.

To some, the Dalai Lama gifts small golden Buddhas. If the person's dress doesn't foretell their religion, he asks “Are you a Buddhist? I don't want to impose!” usually with a great laugh. The DSS agents say that Prince Charles is one of the nicest people they've met, and the hallways are filled with anecdotal praise for him, but standing in this room, I find it difficult to believe that any head of state could be this affable, this humble, and this personable. The professionals seem to agree, from the hotel staff on up. They've met heads of state before, this guy is something extra.

We see him down to his car. As he's about to get in, Emanuel calls out “God bless you!” – the Dalai Lama turns and bows and waves – he found words to what we all were feeling, they bubbled up and out. It seemed the proper thing.

Back in the hotel suite Phong and Emanuel and I crash onto the sofas. For Phong It's the end of months of stress. He gives me a gift to remember the weekend, a bundle of incense and a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the thousand armed Bodhisattva of Compassion. He explains that Avalokiteshvara wanted to end suffering in the world and vowed not to move on until he had alleviated the pain of all sentient beings. The suffering of the world was too great, however. But seeing this, Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, blessed him and gave him a thousand arms and a thousand heads, that he might see, hear, and heal the suffering of the world. Avalokiteshvara is believed by Buddhists to be reincarnated as the Dalai Lama. It's a wonderful, meaningful gift. A weekend I can't really comprehend or explain, except to realize that it was life changing, life affirming.

I've long believed that every night the Earth should be a better place for you having breathed her air. That weekend made me realize that it's not a futile hope.


As I write this I've learned that some of the monks I made friends with are losing the monastery and looking for a new place to live. You can see a video about their situation here, there's also a link to a Paypal donation. If you're feeling particularly moved, there are many things you can do to make the world a better place, one of them, I humbly suggest, might be to help these people who spend their lives teaching others how to be peaceful, quiet, and modest -- and if you've read this far, I'm guessing you're already predisposed to do so. Thanks for reading. Do something wonderful today.

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