Meeting the Dalai Lama

-- Amy Sedivy


In the early 70's when so many people were becoming born-again Christians, I lived with a strange fear that the hand of God was going to come out of the sky, knock me upside the head and say, "Poof. You are now a born-again Christian."  I didn't want to be one and I worried that it might be out of my control.

Now in the late 90's, as I prepared to spend three days at Pasadena Civic Auditorium listening to HH the Dalai Lama, I started hoping that some universal flash would come and zap me inside my head and give me the gift of full enlightenment.  For I wanted it and I worried that it wasn't ever gonna happen to me.

Well it didn't. And I know full well that having enlightenment as a goal is contrary to the practice of Buddhism, since meditation is not goal-oriented. Still, I'm a Western child of the 60's and I can't seem to restrain my desire to have something happen to me as a result of my meditation and spiritual quest.  The fact that something has happened to me - I am happier, calmer, less angry, more compassionate, and (most importantly) have a great deal less road rage-seems to have escaped my notice most of the time.  As I sat uncomfortably cross-legged in an auditorium seat, watching the Dalai Lama and a stage full of monks and nuns perform ceremonies, sit in comfortable meditation, move their hands to the correct mudras at the correct times, chant and bow, I felt as disconnected from their activities as I did in the Christian church of my childhood.

Back then, before I was twelve (twelve was the magic age wherein my mother allowed us to make our own decision to attend church or not and we all chose 'not'), I would sit in the hard pews and listen to everyone sing songs that I didn't particularly like; they tended to be too sweet and syrupy with melodies that didn't really grab my attention, competing, as they were, with the onslaught of Beatles and Stones. Then the minister spoke for a very long time and never said anything that I was interested in. Occasionally, he would relate a story from the Bible and, as if it were a soap opera, I would perk up and listen, but when the story was over and the lesson explained I sank back into the doldrums.

In my early 20's, I married a lapsed Catholic; we attended one mass when his father died and I was both amazed and annoyed by the intensity of the ceremony at a Catholic Church. There was all this mysterious stuff: dipping into water and making the sign of the cross, wearing a hankie on your head, the priest moving things around at the altar with some significance that entirely escaped me, and all in another language (Spanish, not Latin). As I watched the Dalai Lama in Pasadena, it took me right back to that Catholic Church. What are all these objects that come forward, are blessed and returned? What do these different chants mean and are they translated anywhere in the program guide? Why is it that when HH the Dalai Lama speaks in Tibetan and his words are translated to English, the English version is so much longer than the Tibetan version?

I really didn't feel like a good audience participant. I felt too skeptical. I thoroughly embrace the teachings of the Buddha. I have never been happier since I began reading and practicing the path of Buddhism. I like the fact that you are encouraged to be skeptical, that you are told to ask questions, to experience for yourself, to not take anyone's word for it.

At the beginning of the three day teachings, the Dalai Lama stated (as he often does) that it is best for people to stay with the religion of their culture and their upbringing. I argued with him (in my head) about why my childhood religion had not helped me on a spiritual path, and 'his' Buddhism was beneficial. I argued internally for about a half hour until I realized that it didn't matter what he thought of my path, it only mattered what I thought of it.

So I listened intently to the teachings. It was exhausting. Like grad school, but with all the information first stated in a language completely incomprehensible to the Western ear (I kept trying to hear Spanish words, or French, the only other languages I have a vague familiarity with), and then translated into English by a remarkably able young man whose memory was enormous. His English was marked by his Tibetan accent but most everything was easy to understand. I particularly liked his pronunciation of the word, 'inevitable,' with his accent on the 'vit' syllable rather than the 'nev' syllable.  But in day two, as His Holiness began a terribly esoteric part of the teachings about the nature of reality and dependent origination (don't even ask me to explain; I'm borrowing my friend's taped transcript of the event and making my much more logical-thinking husband listen and explain it to me) I was sure he was speaking about the nature of reality and *Tibetan* origination.  Since I didn't really understand the lesson itself, I preoccupied my mind with what Tibetan origination might be and how something so specific to one country made its way into Buddhist Dharma.

What else did I do? I watched the Tibetans in the audience around me respond to the Dalai Lama's words long before any of us could. I  watched the Tibetan children run up and down the aisles, as bored with all this talk-talk as any four year old child would be. I watched who came late and who had to kick interlopers out of their seats. I watched who fell asleep and who made repeated trips to the bathroom. I watched the State Department security men talking into their cuffs and scanning the crowd with eyes serious and intent as radar beams. (A high point for the security guys came on the final day, when a woman rushed down the aisle with her young child, put him on the edge of the stage and urged him to go to the Dalai Lama and give him a piece of paper. The security guys were beaten to the kid by a very fast monk on stage (who got out of his seated, cross legged position
and over to the child much more quickly than the men who were merely standing in the wings). The monk took the boy to the Dalai Lama's throne, held him up to be blessed and deliver his paper, then led him back off the stage to his mother. After that transgression, the security guys moved out from their discreet wall positions and stood right at the ends of every aisle by the stage. An impenetrable barrier was now in force; no more dangerous children could reach His Holiness again.)

On the third day, we took vows. We repeated that we took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, but we did so in Tibetan and it was difficult wrapping my tongue around those very round syllables. We were led through an initiation in which we visualized the Lama Tsong Khapa with three deities, one at his crown, one at his throat and one at his heart. The blue-faced one and the white-faced one we were to imagine sending out blue and white rays of light respectively. But the yellow-faced one on top for some reason sent out red rays of light. It was interesting and rather engulfing to visualize all of this, trying to remember which deity of which color, emanating what light was placed where on this body. But when he called for us to absorb ourselves into the deities and the light and become one with it, I did that visualization and it felt wonderful. Not overpowering. Not enlightenment. Not the blow to the head I have been avoiding/waiting for all my life. Just fulfilling and pleasant.

As we neared the end of the teachings, the Dalai Lama said that he hoped when he returned in some later visit, all of us would be farther along our path than we currently are. Can he read the vibrations, the auras, the intensity of the audience? I felt marked, caught, as if I had been cheating on an exam. So I nodded my head and vowed along with the others (the Westerners anyway) that yes, I would continue my practice and be further along the path when he next came our way.

He left. We left. My friends and I had Indian food before returning to our regularly scheduled work worlds. It seemed somehow fitting.  That night, another friend called to see what I thought, and my only possible reply was "I'm fried."

However, in the aftermath, I have started to realize the teachings did creep through me. My meditation practice has improved. My desire to work on some projects that are important to me has returned. I am happy I went through those three days. It was all so mysterious and in most ways, so disconnected from my version of reality. Still the spirit seeped through all the ceremony and strangeness to leave me with the sense that somehow, something did gently come in and touch my spirit. No big whack to the side of the head, no big flash of enlightenment. Just a small, warm openness around my heart and that is, after all, where compassion grows.