*This was a long weekend. Here is my stream-of-consciousness recollection of it. There are probably lots of factual inaccuracies, spelling errors, and other whatnots, but in LJ land, all you get is a rough draft. Enjoy it for what it is. If it seems overly long, remember I've been saving up for it.
There were snakes.
In the days after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha, he sent a transmission, a teaching, back to Earth but no person on the planet was ready for it, their minds were too closed, too primitive. But it did not fall on deaf ears -- of all living beings, only the snakes were advanced enough to understand it. They took the teaching -- the Prajnaparamita in One Hundred Thousand Verses -- and kept it safe for more than four hundred years – until the time of Nagarjuna, a monk from Nalanda whose teaching was renown. On hearing of his great wisdom, the serpents asked that he come to their kingdom and teach them -- in exchange they would give him the lost text.
So Nagarjuna went and taught the serpents and brought back with him the Prajnaparamita. So much did they love and revere this monk that one day while he was teaching in the hot summer of India, six of them rose up over him, and spread their hoods wide to create shade that he may continue to teach in comfort. Nagarjuna has ever since been noted in images & sculpture as a meditating figure with with one or more cobras above his head.
It is because of this that His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama makes a joke about snakes and people laugh. I don't laugh because I don't understand the bit about the snakes yet and it's all above my head. We're sitting in the posh Hammerdon in midtown Manhattan where the Dalai Lama is giving a talk on one of Nagarjuna's texts and where I'll be (more or less) for the next two days following him around and making photographs as he meets people, makes decisions, and teaches the dharma.
I'm partially prepared for this. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time following heavy metal bands around stadiums, busses and hotel rooms taking photographs but this is different. While the Dalai Lama has, not unlike a heavy metal band, a large entourage and devoted fans, unlike most musicians he's also a head of state with death threats against him – this means bullet-proof limo's and guys with guns – lots of guys with guns -- in the form of New York highway patrol, state troopers, and some very bad ass looking guys from the Diplomatic Security Service of the US Department of State. Most of these guys have worked this detail before, and they like it. “He goes to bed early,” one of them tells me later, “he doesn't go out drinking, there's no sneaking hookers into his room, and most of the crowd management is just because people want to love him too much.” President Clinton, they tell me, would often throw a monkey wrench into the security plan by making an unscheduled detour across the street to shake hands, kiss babies, pose for pictures and generally cause a nightmare for the people trying to protect him. “He really loved that job,” a police officer tells me, “man did that guy love being President and meeting people.” The Dalai Lama, while he certainly seems to enjoy what he does, is pretty easy to deal with, and on top of that, he's just a nice guy. A nice guy revered by his followers in a way that's not really understood in the West. Clinton's fans might beam or scream when they met him. The Dalai Lama's followers sometimes faint, or, more often, throw themselves to the ground. When meeting people, he spends a lot of time telling them to get up off of the floor: “Get up! Get up! Please! Sit down in a chair!” People bow, they prostrate themselves, they kneel, they give him gifts. “Some people come to see me,” he says “ because they think I have special powers, that I can heal them, whatever, but I don't. I'm just a simple Buddhist monk, no more, no less.”
Buddhist monk perhaps, but he's also the spiritual and secular leader of the country of Tibet and believed by many to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Upon the death of each Dalai Lama, other lamas set out across the land to find him again as he is reborn. In the case of this Dalai Lama he was found in the body of a six year old peasant boy in Takster, Amdo, situated in North-East Tibet. The difficulties that may arise when your religion and government is based on a system that may leave gaps of twenty years without a regent probably seem obvious. But in the case of Tenzen Guyatsu, it's hard to think how they might have done better.
He studied for nineteen years in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, earning a doctorate in theology. He ruled his country briefly, but was driven into exile in India at the age of 25 when the Chinese invaded. This is where he has been ever since, working on ending the suffering of all sentient beings – his goal as a Buddhist – and also on getting Tibet it's independence, his goal of the ruler of that country. Now at age 74, he uses his charm, reputation and his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to slowly apply pressure to the Chinese government.
“I am working not for Tibet's separation from China,” he said in a statement on the eleventh anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, “ but towards a solution where Tibet's separate and distinct identity can co-exist and develop within the framework of an open and tolerant China.”
But back in Manhattan, in between changing lenses, finding the shot, waiting for the moment, I'm still not understanding the lecture. I ask one of the monks to explain. Do is a charming fellow who lives in a monastery in Virginia beach. He's quick with a smile and very happy that I'm interested, but doesn't want to touch my question.
“It is a very high level teaching,” he says, “before you can understand it, you need to understand the concept of non-self and my English is not good enough to explain that.”
Non-self is one of the principle precepts of Buddhism but one that Westerners have an extremely difficult time with. Western life is built around the idea of “me” and “mine”, but Buddhists believe that there is your body, and there are your experiences. You may have things, but they are temporary, your house will cease to be “yours” when you die. You may think there's a you but it's just things you've seen. There is no “reality” there's no “unreality”, there's just relativity. But how then, one might ask, do “you” get reincarnated? I guess this is the sort of thing that monks spend all day sitting and pondering.
More to Come
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