I’ve been meaning (and meaning, and meaning…) to upload my diary of the six days I spent listening to the Dalai Lama teach the dharma at Lehigh University in July 2008. It consists of 8 emails I sent to friends and family as a way of recording my experience. Those 6 days were transformative for me; I truly hope you’ll find some kernel of wisdom from His Holiness that will be useful to you as well.
And don’t worry — it’s not all serious new-ageyness; plenty of humor as well. The Dalai Llama is a funny guy. No Joke. He’s also everything you’d expect him to be and more.
Hope you enjoy!
Email Diary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet’s teaching of Tsong-kha-pa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. July 10-15, 2008
1. Next Week
Hello dear friends —
From July 10-15, I will attend a meeting in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet will teach on an ancient Buddhist text, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, or Lam Rim Chen Mo, by the ancient Buddhist thinker, teacher, and monk called Jey Tsong-kha-pa. This event will take place in the Stabler Arena at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
Seeing the Dalai Lama in person is one of the items on my “Lifetime List of Things to Do” — the fact that I am not only seeing him but learning directly from him is an opportunity I had not expected. I am feeling slightly overwhelmed by it, in fact.
The past month has been filled with a wedding, a trip to see family, a fun week at the beach, connecting with friends new & old, and other “everyday experiences” — so I’m not sure that I’ve completely connected with the fact that I’m about to have the privilege of spending 6 days in the presence of one of the great persons and great leaders of the world. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I haven’t been thinking about it too much and have not articulated many expectations or predictions for the event — or at least that’s what I’m telling myself since I haven’t been “studying” in preparation!
In any case, off I go on Thursday and I plan to write down my reflections each evening, just off-the-cuff and impressionistically. I will probably not do much talking on the phone (except in case of emergency, of course), but I would be glad to email you my reflections if you’d be interested in reading them — and please pardon my hubris in thinking that you might be!
Please let me know if you’d like to be included in my “correspondence.” I don’t know how or why (and please forgive the tone of portent), but I have the feeling that I’m about to have a life-changing experience — one that I’m sure I won’t fully understand right away. The only thing I do know is that I feel the need to share the process with my friends and family.
Wishing for your health and happiness,
2. Dalai Lama Day minus-1
Tomorrow I will see His Holiness the Dalai Lama in person…so I stand on the eve of being in the presence of one of the great persons of history, not to mention having one of my long-standing dreams come true, and here are my predominant thoughts:
* what does one wear to be in his presence? I know one is supposed to have legs and shoulders covered when in the presence of the Pope, but the DL always has one arm exposed in his habit, so perhaps the rules for this particular world spiritual leader are a bit more relaxed…it would be easier if I were a nun or some other member of the clergy (ah, the joys of a uniform)….in any case, I’m opting for the casual-yet-appropriate skirt and blouse ensemble until I get the lay of the land…
* why did my car have to go back in the shop now, for yet another “tweak” to the repairs made after a recent fender-bender? I’m driving a paid-for-by-insurance rental so transportation is not the issue…but the only car the folks at Enterprise had on the lot was a big ol’ honkin’ Jeep Cherokee, with black-tinted windows no less. So instead of driving my ultra-low-emissions/”I’m an environmentally-conscious adult” Honda Civic, I will be rolling up to the event in a gas-guzzling SUV, among what is bound to be a Prius-heavy crowd…I know anti-fur activists throw fake blood on people wearing fur, but what do hybrid drivers do to SUVs???
* is chocolate ice cream with strawberries really an appropriately ascetic night-before dinner? I’m thinking wheat grass and water would have been more cleansing…I did go to yoga class tonight, so the outlook for my bodily purity is not entirely grim…
Enough. If Buddhism, meditation, and seeking enlightenment are about anything, they are about quieting the mind so that everyone can be fully present in the moment and “dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.” Those of you who are familiar with the frequent ‘noisiness’ of my mind are no doubt chuckling now…
So my modest goal for tonight is to quiet my mind enough to get a good a good night’s sleep, and let the rest take care of itself…and perhaps the best way to close is to say that I wish you all the same.
Thank you if you’ve read this far –
3. Dalai Lama Day 1
Ok, so this is pretty long…but each paragraph is a discrete thought, image, or experience, so you can jump around paragraphs, just read 1 or 2, and not really lose anything. If you want the bullet-pointed highlights, skip to the very end where it says “In brief…”
Again, thank you for reading — or thank you in advance for not cussing me out as you delete this, unread.
Oh, and a special thank you to Kerry Peterson (hi KP!); I’m staying in her apartment — while she’s on vacation at the shore — so that my commute to Bethlehem isn’t as long.
PS — the irony of seeing the Dalai Lama in the little town of Bethlehem: discuss.
So His Holiness the Dalai Lama walks up a small flight of stairs and onto the stage: no fanfare, no “Ladies & Gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to present…,” no wind-up at all…the Director of the Learning Center which sponsored HH’s visit just said “His Holiness will be here shortly; he’s eager to join us” … and several minutes later the crowd is still milling around and adjusting ourselves when the Dalai Lama walks out.
Everyone got quiet immediately, no applause. HH greeted the 30 or so monks, nuns, and sponsors of the program (who are all sitting in the Lotus position on the stage, which has a raised platform on which HH sits to teach) with bows and blessings – yet he had the affect of someone in his own living room. A conversation in Tibetan w/ one monk gave the appearance of your typical “nice to see you/how’s the family/sciatica still bothering you?” exchange – unaffected, casual, and cheerful.
Then he turns to the 3,000+ of us in the audience and bows – we are silently joyful. We bow and he climbs the stairs of his “teaching platform” [I’m sure there’s an official Buddhist name for this small structure, but I don’t know it]. He needs some assistance w/ the stairs…but don’t entertain the notion that he’s feeble: he taught in the Lotus position for two hours w/out fidgeting or adjusting.
Once he’s seated on his platform, he starts speaking to the people on the stage [in Tibetan] and there seems to be a slight contretemps b/c several monks rush forward to assist HH – turns out HH just wants the platform on which he will rest the book from which he teaches moved from the front to the right of where he’s sitting. HH reminds me of a schoolteacher asking the students to rearrange the desks before class. No big deal, but you can tell that these Buddhist monks and nuns (who are Western, Tibetan, Chinese, etc) are very much feeling that they are in the presence of the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which makes me realize that the equivalent experience for Christians would be for Jesus to walk in the room and say “hey.”
Tears are streaming down my face from the moment HH enters until he gets settled. [This will come as no surprise to those of you who know that if you catch me in the right mood, I’ll cry at the McDonald’s commercial where the dad buys his son his first Happy Meal.] Seeing him has been a dream of mine for many years, and here he is, and I get to listen to him teach for six whole days (!). A “peak experience” indeed.
The “Great Treatise” from which HH is teaching is in the traditional format of Tibetan (and I think much of Buddhist) literature: separate, unattached pages about 6×16”, stacked quite high and wrapped in silk. HH flips through it as if it’s a paperback – which is astonishing as it turns out that this copy of the text, which is considered one of the great works of Buddhist thought, is the copy that HH brought from Tibet when he fled to India on March 17th (!), 1959. “Very special book to me,” he says.
After his opening remarks, HH teaches almost entirely in Tibetan and a translator then relays what was said. Now this isn’t a sentence-by-sentence deal – HH discourses at length and the translator then translates at length…the translator is an ex-monk who now wears a business suit as he sits cross-legged and shoeless on the stage…and I wonder about this guy: he’s wearing a wedding ring and a pretty nice suit and his entire job is to relay the teachings of one of the great leaders of the world to any non-Tibetan-speaking audience – and need I say that Tibetan is not the lingua franca of Bethlehem, PA? So what an honor it is for this man to be the voice, essentially, for the Dalai Lama – but I also wonder about the translator’s personal life: what does his wife do? What’s it like at their breakfast table? “Mornin’, honey – how’s your day with the DL looking?” I mean, you can’t exactly go around complaining about how the boss was today when the boss is the most revered incarnate being in your world…can you? HH would probably say yes, actually.
The “warm-up acts” for HH were Venerable Thubten Chodron, an American Buddhist nun renowned for her teaching; and Robert Thurman, a Buddhist, a prominent scholar of Buddhism, an ex-monk, and a pal of the DL for some 40 years. PS, he’s also the father of actress Uma Thurman, a fact which is never mentioned, I’m happy to report. Both speakers gave background both on “The Great Treatise” and the DL; they were just what you’d hope they would be: colloquial, earthy, wise, funny, and in no way pleased with themselves – which is how the DL is, come to think of it.
One often reads about how HH is a jolly, down-to-earth man who radiates good will…and he is exactly that — but not at all in a “hey, it’s Santa Claus” kind of way. There is no “look at me: I’m the jolly-yet-holy enlightened guy (not to mention the spiritual and political leader of a government in exile) and I’m here to show you The Way.” In fact, he says that anyone of any faith or no faith at all can get something from his teaching, but if any part of it doesn’t work for you, just forget that part.
And speaking of HH saying that we can “forget” any part of the teaching that doesn’t work for us and just use the parts that do work… Some background info first: HH’s accent is heavier than you might imagine, so it’s a little hard to understand him at times. It’s also important to note here that everyone who speaks on stage has his/her words simultaneously broadcast in captions on the large video screens on either side of the stage [I had to keep reminding myself to look at HH and not the big monitors b/c he was actually right THERE, in the room with me, and not just on a TV screen]. Okay, so HH says “you can find the part of the teaching that works for you and take it, and the rest that doesn’t work for you, just f**k it.” NO, he didn’t actually drop the f-bomb, but the way his accent made “forget” sound certainly had plenty of us laughing in surprise that HH would drop the f-bomb – until his words appeared on the big screen and we realized he’d said “forget” and not (expletive deleted). Definitely one of the highlights – or lowlights perhaps, if you consider that many of our minds went right to the gutter in the presence of the man Tibetans call “The Wish-fulfilling Jewel.” Yikes. Oh, well…
The teaching itself was intense but accessible – my brain will definitely be taxed over the next 6 days. Just going to try to immerse myself in the experience.
In brief, some favorite quotations and moments:
• “Those who cause you suffering are your greatest teachers.”
• “We spend so much of our time seeking pleasure and avoiding pain that we miss out on the true happiness that is available to us, everywhere and always.”
• HH having no compunction about yawning broadly, his face projected on the big screens, as his translator translated – he’d traveled today after attending a Muslim prayer festival (HH’s segment was 2:30 to 6:30am) in India. A simple human being, as he always calls himself. Love it.
• HH finishing a sentence of his teaching, then just saying “Ok, I’m done for today – got to go get much sleep,” and then walking off the stage (after bowing to us and the people on the stage) with the same lack of hullaballoo with which he arrived.
• HH the DL: “I just came from sitting in a crowded space, praying close by thousands of people, so my robes – they are smelling a little.”
• The image of HH the Dalai Lama walking hand-in-hand down the precarious stage steps with two of the most Law-and-Order, business-suit-and-earbud-wearing, high-and-tight-haircut-sporting, I-turn-off-the-safety-as-I-draw-my-weapon-instead-of-after-drawing-it-like-cops-are-trained-to-do Secret Service agents you’ve ever seen…yes, HH has a Secret Service detail, but I think it was at the US govt’s behest, not his – anyway, better safe than sorry. I’m a big fan of His Holiness AND the Secret Service…just never thought I’d see them holding hands. Hope someone got a picture.
4. Dalai Lama Day 2
Today: intense in a very good way.
This will be a short one b/c I’m still in absorption, rather than exposition, mode…
Most important ideas that came out of today:
• Human beings spend a great deal of time building the boundaries, conditions, preconceptions, lists, and prerequisites that we think will help us achieve pleasure and avoid pain…the fact of the matter is that pleasure and pain will come no matter what we do and no matter how many ways we try to seek the former and avoid the latter. Thus all our chasing, avoiding, boundary/condition/preconception/etc-building does not truly protect us and only serves to prevent us from being mindful, from “be[ing] here now”: in the moment and able to enjoy, absorb, and learn from our experience.
• “Buddhism is less a religion than a science of the mind.”
With gratitude, I am
very truly yours,
5. Dalai Lama Day 3
A long one w/no bullet points today, I’m afraid — but again, each paragraph is an independent unit, so you can just read 1 or 2 (or none, of course).
No doubt you’ve realized that I’m doing this (mostly) for myself. My sending it to you makes me actually write something every day and avoid procrastinating, so I don’t break my commitment [self-interest and guilt: not very Buddhist, but I’m workin’ on it] I do deeply appreciate your willingness to read these, or at least to have them clog your mailboxes — it means a great deal to me to share this experience.
What struck me most today is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is, first and foremost, a teacher (not that I’m biased toward teaching or anything!). His “job” is essentially to show others, through teaching and example, how to achieve liberation (a.k.a., enlightenment or Nirvana), not merely through wishing or praying, but through disciplining the mind. In fact he places much emphasis on the fact that we cannot hope to liberate ourselves from the “truth of suffering” unless we discipline our minds — then day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade, we will see improvement in our state (that’s why they call it Buddhist practice). This discipline is not only spiritual — it’s primarily intellectual and physical. The DL recommends that we always keep a corner of our minds devoted to observing our selves and our minds, not in a self-centered or obsessive way, but rather like a well-reasoned, detached, and compassionate critic who sees patterns of behavior and can correct or reinforce them — a “meta-awareness”… he explains it much better than I can, of course!
As a teacher I’m delighted by watching him, b/c his entire affect, behavior, and mode of discourse is that of an experienced, learned, compassionate-but-no-nonsense teacher — i.e., he doesn’t do the “holy man” schtick. Granted, we are in an educational rather than a strictly spiritual setting (and the DL does give reverence to the Buddha before every session), but it’s surprising, refreshing, and encouraging to feel engaged and educated rather than awed and stupefied when in the DL’s presence — my torrent of tears when I first saw HH notwithstanding! Now when I see him each day I just feel delighted, the way one feels when a favorite, no-BS mentor shows up — for those of you in the Keith clan, his affect reminds me very much of Uncle Jim’s. [please pardon the specialized info, those of you who are not loquacious or crazy* enough to be born as or marry a Keith!]
*’eccentric’ is actually the preferred term.
Before I started learning about Buddhism and its practices, I tended to think of Nirvana/enlightenment/liberation as some airy-fairy idea and/or place that could only be achieved by beings who are by nature “on a higher plane.” I have since come to realize that this is not the case at all — I won’t belabor the details of how my view has changed and what it is now, but if you’re interested in “freedom from suffering,” I recommend further investigation, b/c achieving this liberation, as I now understand it, is much more a process of learning, practicing, and reasoning than of abandoning the “everydayness” of life in favor of a spiritual/ascetic/saintly existence. Here’s what the DL said (not verbatim) about motivating ourselves toward this practice: we know that death is certain, but when we die is uncertain; therefore we must strive to: recognize and appreciate the precious opportunity of human life, motivate ourselves to make our precious human existence meaningful, maintain mindfulness and awareness, and keep observing our own minds.
Everyone had the opportunity to write down questions for the DL — mine didn’t get read, but one very similar to it (and also apropos of the above paragraph) did: “How is it possible to live an everyday life (work, family, etc.) without ‘grasping at the self’ [which essentially means running our little games that we think will make us safe, happy, righteous, pain-free, etc.]?” HH answered this way: instead of allowing ourselves to engage with others negatively (anger, covetousness, etc.), seek to engage with compassion for them as fellow suffering humans. A person who has fully entered “emptiness” will have compassion for others arise spontaneously — this takes work over time, of course.
Some background info: these are the “Four Noble Truths” that the Buddha perceived when he achieved enlightenment — they are the foundation of Buddhist thought and practice:
1. Life is suffering
2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
4. Freedom from suffering is possible through practice [of what Buddhists call “The Eightfold Path”; see bottom of this message if you want to know what The Eightfold Path is]
…sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the first of the Four Noble Truths: “Life is suffering” — this seems very depressing and doom-laden at times — and all this stuff about disciplining the mind seems like a lot of WORK. Yet, as the DL pointed out today, if we look at the first two Noble Truths only, then we will indeed become depressed and disheartened — but if we look at all four, and motivate ourselves to practice, then little by little (and HH emphasizes that we just have to keep chipping away, not always try to take leaps and bounds) we can free ourselves from suffering — which seems like a pretty good deal to me.
And here’s a very practical suggestion the DL made about how to go about disciplining the mind and practicing “meta-awareness”: “When you awake, make some determination to implement what you believe as soon as you can. At the end of the day, review the day — if you’re successful in your determination, then rejoice and reinforce your motivation to continue; if you are unsuccessful, then acknowledge that, cultivate remorse, and determine not to do the ‘unsuccessful’ things again.” I believe that HH has also said elsewhere that in the process of reviewing an unsuccessful day, it is also helpful to rejoice in the knowledge that we have another opportunity to implement/follow what we believe.
Interestingly enough, the DL does not recommend that non-Buddhists abandon their religious traditions — in fact he recommends that we practice them sincerely and observantly b/c all religions share the same essential values (HH is also deeply interested in harmony among religions). The “science of the mind” that is Buddhism, he says, can be integrated with other religious practices very effectively, and by the same token be used effectively by those w/no religious background.
[see the “Noble Eight-Fold Path”]
Noble Eightfold Path
Three Qualities Eightfold Path
Wisdom (panna) Right View
Morality (sila) Right Speech
Meditation (samadhi) Right Effort
6. Dalai Lama Day 4
Feeling a bit wiped out, but in a truly satisfying way…probably won’t write much today (try to contain your sorrow). Once again, paragraphs can be read as individual units (NoDoz sold separately).
The DL’s teaching is so practical — he is talking about some pretty complex concepts and texts that require a certain degree of scholarship to understand — yet he presents the information in an accessible and thought-provoking way. He clearly trusts the audience’s intelligence and by no means does he “dumb down” his teaching, but he doesn’t present it as if he’s in the ivory tower looking down upon the plebeians.
His Holiness cracks himself up a lot. The best part is that he’s laughing at whatever he’s saying in Tibetan, and the audience laughs b/c his laughter is infectious to say the least — then the translator cracks up as he’s relaying the words in English, and then we laugh again b/c we actually understand the words — priceless. HH pauses frequently in the explication of the text to relate funny anecdotes that start with words in this vein: “that reminds me of the time this Mongolian monk came to Tibet and…”
Still very much enjoying the sight of the DL and his Secret Service agents holding hands as they walk off the stage…
So glad the weather has been so beautiful — much sitting under trees and talking to some deeply cool people during breaks. The crowd is certainly occupied by its share of what you would imagine the audience to be: crunchy folks in Birkenstocks… but there are just as many soccer moms, surfer dudes, men in golf shirts and khakis, lotharios in expensive clothes with that slim Italian tailoring, grannies in their comfy shoes, glamour queens in Prada sunglasses, and of course a large contingent of Buddhist monks and nuns from all over the world (the majority seem to be from the US, though)…even saw two teenage boys today who looked like they came straight from Germantown Academy.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more congenial, loving cast of thousands than a large gathering of Buddhists and people interested in Buddhism — haven’t heard a single cross word. Guess there’s something to all that belief that compassion for others is one’s highest calling…
7. Dalai Lama Day 5
I think I haven’t yet mentioned the two women I met in the parking lot on the first day of the conference: Ann & Claire; they have practiced Buddhist principles for quite some time. We hit it off famously and have been hanging out during each break since Day 1. Claire is from Richmond and went to UVA Law (!); Ann is from Western Maryland — they met at an earlier conference and drove up to this one together. They are two of the neatest women I’ve ever met, and we’ve bonded the way strangers do when removed from their home turf and placed in a fairly intense (in a good way) environment. Are women particularly inclined to share close-to-the-bone personal stories and information when they’ve just met? I tend to think so, but I’m not sure…
In any case, Ann & Claire have been real companions and teachers to me, a novice in the area of Buddhist thought. Though the teaching by the DL is very scholarly and essentially academic in this particular setting, the ideas that it raises tend to “drill down to the center of one’s being,” and having some new friends to “debrief” with at the end of the day has been so helpful.
Think that’s all for today — feeling a bit “drilled” today
8. Dalai Lama Day 6
I know, I know: a “transcendent experience”? PUH-leez! “The Dalai Lama was aMAzing” — surprise.
Call me a cliché, but I can only describe today as one of the best of my life: no kidding.
Not pie-in-the-sky; not hallelujah-I’ll-never-be-sad-again; not even put-your-hands-in-the-air-and-wave-’em-like-you-just-don’t-care — just a deep and contented sense of the preciousness of life… a sense that suffering will undoubtedly appear, but through practice, it’s possible to chip away at the patterns and attachments (including to pleasure) that lead to suffering. I told a couple of people I spoke to immediately after the conference that I wished every bad thing in my life could happen today, b/c for possibly the first time since the blissful ignorance of infancy, I would have the ability face it all w/ equanimity (but of course, in Buddhist thought, that wish would be just another attachment;-). This feeling won’t last, of course, but I have the memory of it — and the useful information that comprises that memory. Oh, yay me…(ugh)… but I am grateful for this opportunity.
Today the DL said that he first became truly interested in Buddhist study and practice at the age of 15, and at the age of 73 he is “still working on it.” He said “proper practice takes many decades, but we must do it — we have no other choice.” Though the practice takes many years, he said, don’t feel discouraged or demoralized — because if we keep practicing it’s “100% certain that [with effort, determination, and discipline,] things can change.” Liberation from suffering, the organic arising of compassion for others, and enlightenment? I’m in.
I’m not trying to evangelize for Buddhism here…I’m just raising the proposition that there’s something to this Buddhist “science of the mind.” Though my beliefs have become more ecumenical over the years, I still cherish Christianity and the Episcopal liturgy & tradition…and right here I have to thank my family (including my two godmothers who are reading this) for bringing me to that tradition — their encouragement to acknowledge and believe in something greater than myself, and the friendship of others who believe similarly, have made all the difference in my life.
12:05am and all is well — I will probably write more at some point, but I think that’s it for tonight.
I’ll close with two Buddhist prayers. The 1st prayer is for “Generating the Awakening Mind,” which, along with a prayer for the Dalai Lama to “stay until samsara’s [suffering’s] end,” was recited aloud by all 4,500+ of us in the arena; the 2nd goes by the name of Brahma Vihara — in English it’s called “The Four Limitless Ones,” “The Four Immeasurable States,” and other variants of the same. For me, both prayers resonate with the same compassion and love for others as similar prayers from all religious traditions.
With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
Today in the Buddha’s presence
I generate the Awakening Mind
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May we be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May we not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May we dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.
With love and gratitude,