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An encounter with the Dalai Lama

Photo courtesy of the NY Daily news; found here.

The Dalai Lama is the reason I'm in rabbinic school.

Well, kind of. Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus -- the true story of a group of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum who went to India to meet with His Holiness, to share the Jewish people's secrets of Diaspora survival -- is the reason I'm in rabbinic school. Or at least, the reason I'm in this rabbinic school. Lotus is where I first encountered the Jewish Renewal teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Wanting to learn more brought me to the old Elat Chayyim. And the rest, as they say, is history.

My friend David gave me The Jew in the Lotus my sophomore year of college. (Yes, the same David who gave me my set of tefillin a few years ago. We go back a ways.) So it seemed eminently appropriate that when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama came to Albany, I should get to go with David to see him speak, at the Palace Theatre, an easy walk from the Capitol.

The Palace Theatre, downtown Albany.

My furtive indoor cameraphone photos didn't come out -- the light meter was fooled by the bright stage lights and the lights shining directly into the crowd -- so you'll just have to imagine the majestic old stage with a cushy leather armchair planted right in the center. (When we arrived it was a laquered Asian-style chair with two regal pillows propped on it; but shortly before His Holiness took the stage, big guys came out and swapped in the comfier one.) His Holiness looks exactly like he does in all of the photographs you've no doubt seen of him; he's iconic. An enormous screen over his head showed a simulcast of what was happening on stage, to make it easier for those in the back to see his facial expressions.

The first thing he did was toe off his big clunky boots and sit cross-legged on the chair. He called us "spiritual brothers and sisters," and warmed up the crowd with the same line he'd given to the legislature earlier in the day: his entire life, he said, he has struggled for the rights of minorities. So, naturally, he feels some identification now with Republicans. (Apparently the Republicans in the NY lege rose to their feet in applause; he added, somewhat sheepishly, that he'd had to point out to them that he was joking!)

After donning a red visor to block the stage lights, he began in this way:

My main talk everywhere I go -- the United States, Africa, India, Europe -- is to bring inner strength with inner calmness. With that, we can handle all problems more effectively. A compassionate heart is key for a meaningful life. And also for health, according to my own experience.

My life has not been a happy one. I lost my freedom at sixteen. At twenty-four, I lost my country. Fifty years, sixty years, of heartbreaking news. But my mental state is quite okay! This shows some impact on my health.

Some people consider 'the Dalai Lama has healing power.' This is nonsense! If this were so, then I would not have needed gallbladder surgery! Peace of mind is what makes the difference. It makes life happier. One's inner calmness, or happiness, creates an atmosphere that people enjoy. That is all we need.

He spoke about the importance of human conncection, and how infants need touch during the first weeks of life. Those who have enough physical contact in those early weeks, he said, grow up to have a mental state which is more stable, and a greater ability to show affection to others. While those who do not get enough compassionate touch -- and, worse, those who experience abuse -- grow into adulthood with anger, hatred, and fear eating them from the inside. But a more compassionate mind can boost the immune system. (He alluded here to medical research and to conversations he had recently at Harvard University Medical School, though I didn't get the details -- something about telomeres?) "When we lack care, it is like having a shortened immune system," he said.

"Warmheartedness and compassion are not simply a religious matter, but universal values." Whether or not to practice any given religion is a choice each of us makes, though he notes that people of faith tend to form these universal values. He joked that his Christian friends see him as a good Christian, and his Muslim friends see him as a good Muslim (he didn't reference his Jewish friends, alas.) But he's interested in what connects us across these boundaries.

I have no feeling of differences. I feel: we are the same, human beings! We accept deeper human values. If it would be: they are Muslim, they are Buddhist, so remain distant: what benefit?

Of course one's own tradition has certain philosophy. That's one's own business. But we can share in common practice, and we can learn from one another. Traditional Buddhist nuns and monks historically remain in the monastery. We had to learn community service from others. But our techniques can also prove useful: for love, compassion, forgiveness.

Scientific data and common experiences, he said, can together elucidate our shared inner values. "Money matters," he acknowledged -- without money, one cannot eat! -- "but there are other values. A happy family, service to the community, inner peace. The global economic crisis is worst, I think, for those who perceive only money value."

We pay attention to the development of our brains, he said, but what about the development of the heart, compassion and values? "This is not dependent on faith! The seed of compassion is biological."

It is easy to maintain compassion with the attitude of the other toward me is good. It is hard to feel compassion for an enemy. This is bias and attachment. But through awareness, we can analyze our compassion and our anger. We can develop new conviction in this way.

All sentient beings by nature want happiness. We can use reasoning to develop concern for others. Unbiased compassion: not oriented toward someone's attitude, but toward their being. It's not based in attachment... and, it's cheap!

That got a laugh. Though he didn't focus on the current economic crisis, per se, it was a thread which recurred periodically during his remarks; I suspect it's one of the lenses through which he's trying to make his basic ideas intelligible to a worldwide audience right now.

During the brief Q-and-A, someone asked him about the brouhaha surrounding the group which brought him to Albany (his appearance was scheduled, unscheduled, and then rescheduled; the group which brought him, the World Ethical Foundations Consortium, is regarded by some as a cult.) His answer was lengthy and thoughtful, and he spoke about what he said to the Bronfman sisters who came to see him in Dharamsala to plead the consortium's case. For me the piece that stood out was "It is my moral obligation to support anyone who cares about ethics. In today's world, there are many manmade problems in ethics. The moral principle is essential."

Someone else asked about how to remain egoless in the Western consumerist world. He began by offering an anecdote about meeting a Spanish monk and feeling pride first that he himself was taller than this fellow (His Holiness is not a tall man!) and then that his "broken English" was better than the other guy's. (He didn't offer a moral to the story, but it seemed to me to be a parable about how even people who seem very far along the spiritual path wrestle with ego.) And then he spoke about how living on a mountaintop eating only bread and tea and contemplating divine love works for some people, but not for most.

For most people, it's better to remain in society and carry on productive work and cultivate one's own compassion. In one's own life and society, one will be more contented. To be a modern Milarepa is not for everyone! Be someone useful in society.

...We often fail to bring forward what is important. We think that religion means rituals and ceremonies. We fail to bring forward the relevance. Ceremony is part of religion, but not that important. What is important is essence. Seeing human beings as brothers and sisters, in a true sense. Then there is no business of killing each other!

God has infinite compassion. So if you are a faithful person: dedicate your life to God. To love. Nobody says, "Our God is so full of hatred!" God is full of compassion. So the closer to God, the person should be more compassionate.

It's a cliché, but it's true: what struck me most about His Holiness was his presence. The delight in his eyes. His laughter, which rang out frequently. Seeing him speak reminded me a lot of seeing Reb Zalman speak; the rapt attention of the crowd (and how he repaid it with his own intense focus on us and on the moment), how often and freely he laughed, the warmth of his regard.

I don't know when I'll have another chance to hear the Dalai Lama speak in person. Maybe never. He may be in excellent health for a man in his mid-seventies, but at some point this worldwide speaking schedule is going to wear him out -- and I can't help figuring that the next incarnation may not have his charisma or his easy rapport with audiences, at least not for a long while.

As we were waiting for the presentation to begin, David and I talked about a scene from The Jew in the Lotus, where the rabbis are arguing over what is the appropriate blessing to make upon meeting His Holiness. Kamenetz writes:

Now we were faced with a new-age pilpul: what brakha do you make for a Dalai Lama?

True to form, Zalman had composed a brand new Hebrew prayer for the occasion, and Nathan Katz had prepared a Tibetan translation. But there were questions and objections. Rabbi Omer-Man wanted to know "the inner choreography" of the event, who who were saying the brakha to and what it meant. Rabbi Levitt thought the prayer too original, that it risked being "disembodied" from tradition. Blu Greenberg also disliked creating new brakhot, if traditional ones could be used...

In the end, the rabbis opted for the traditional blessing for meeting a sage and king -- which Reb Zalman offered in impeccable traditional style, followed by his own interpretive prayer rendered in Tibetan. (That's my rebbe!)

Since we weren't meeting him, per se -- just having the experience of entering into his presence and listening to his wisdom -- we opted to put a chatimah, a seal, on the afternoon by quietly reciting together the shehecheyanu, the blessing sanctifying time, which thanks God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day. Amen!

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