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HH the Dali Lama


Today is the 28th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising and as such there is a day off from HH's teachings. This is the day in 1959 when Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka (summer) palace in Lhasa to protect the Dalai Lama, who they though was in immediate danger of being imprisoned by the Chinese, to protest against the occupation. These events precipitated the fleeing of HH across Tibet in secret to seek exile in India where he has been ever since. There are a number of events planned in commemoration of this day but unfortunately there have been heavy thunderstorms all day and I've taken refuge in an internet café and subsequently haven't seen any of them. Yesterday HH advised any newly arrived Tibetans to stay away from these events as the Chinese have spies here and they would be imprisoned on their return to Tibet. A sobering thought, but one of many that are a daily occurrence when talking to the Tibetans here. All of them have stories of their plight; from the monk who was imprisoned and tortured for four years who is collecting signatures for a petition to allow the Dali Lama to speak to the United Nations (China has vetoed all previous attempts), to the lady who walked for twenty four days over the Himalayas in winter to get to India with 10 others, some of whom died in the attempt. You cannot be here and not feel compassion for these lovely people and the terrible human tragedy that is largely ignored by the west.

Amongst all this the Dalai Lama has been giving the spring teachings on the Bodhisattvas way of life. The teachings start at 9 am and go to 3:30 pm with an hour and a half for lunch. There is a security check to get in and cameras are not permitted which is why there are no photos of the events to accompany the entry. The teachings take place in the grounds of the temple which is situated in front of HH's residence. The Tibetans sit on one side and the westerners on the right with a narrow path down the middle for HH to walk the short distance to the bottom story of the temple where he sits to give the teachings. I was lucky and came a few days early to bag a spot on a bench at the very back of the courtyard, one of the few places to actually sit on a chair. However, the best thing about this spot is that it's right near to the gate where HH walks down from his residence before going into the court yard. Every morning I get to see him having little intimate moments with his entourage before walking out to the public. No matter what your beliefs it would be hard not to be completely enchanted by the warmth and jovial compassion that HH emanates.

HH sits on a raised platform covered in a most beautiful gold, orange and yellow cloth. Either side of him sit the high lamas and other members of the Tibetan government in exile. In front are the monks and nuns and behind them the general public. As soon as he has taken position the chant master begins leading the monks in chants to request teachings and guidance from the lineage masters. Normally I'm not a huge fan of chanting. In the west (in my experience) it tends to be done very badly by overly pious, over-meditated hippie types which, apart from anything else mostly sounds awful. Plus, there is often no explanation or understanding of what or why you are doing it. This is miles away from the experience of listening to the Tibetan monks. The deep, guttural vibrations that resonate around the courtyard set up an ethereal atmosphere that seems to touch something beyond words. I have a book containing the translations of what is being chanted but really I just like to listen and soak it all in. After the chanting the monks come around and serve the thousands of people with steaming cups of Tibetan butter tea before HH starts with the teachings. I've become quite addicted to this strange salty drink, much to the astonishment of other westerners who seem to universally find it repulsive. It tastes like weak milky tea with salted butter in it, great for keeping you warm in the high Tibetan plateau but not so good for your cholesterol levels I'm sure!

The whole scene inside is quite magical and is accentuated by the decorations hanging down the front of the temple in the yellow, red and blue of the Tibetan flag. In particular there is a yellow awning that projects a short distance over the monks and nuns from the second story. This has the effect of creating a surreal golden glow over HH and all the lamas in their bright saffron robes. Up until today the weather has been just glorious; sunshine and blue skies with the crisp chill of early spring. The site is quite high up and huge red kites and other birds of prey circle majestically above us as we sit and listen to HH. No matter what your state of realization, if you want a taste of nirvana you just have to look up at the huge snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas set against the turquoise blue sky.

As I've stated before I find Tibetan Buddhism a little too esoteric for me but after a week of listening to the discourses of the Dalai Lama and witnessing it first hand my level of understanding has deepened significantly. There are many flavours of Buddhism but the fundamental principals are the same and to have the opportunity to listen such a high and accomplished Buddhist scholar has been amazing. Many questions I have had for years have been answered. The teaching is focused on the way of the Bodhisattva and development of bodhicitta (the wish to achieve full enlightenment, in order to liberate all sentient beings from suffering). The Dalai Lama is the embodiment of this way of life and is such an example of the benefits of developing compassion. This also permeates deeply into the Tibetan people who have suffered so much. An example of this is a conversation I had with a young Tibetan man who is trying to come to University in San Francisco to study the relationship between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. He left his family seven years ago to come to India from near the border with China and has had no contact with them since. I asked him if he felt anger towards the Chinese and he replied that being angry would only cause him to suffer and he felt only compassion for the pain that must drive the Chinese to act in such a way. It is really humbling to be amongst a people who are not driven by the greedy ways of the west and, even after suffering so much as a nation maintain a deeply Buddhist perspective on life. Of course not all Tibetans are like this, there are a few, especially the young men who are loosing patience with the non-violent approach to the situation and are becoming disillusioned with the Dalai Lama.

However, all this teaching on compassion and consideration of others goes completely out of the window when it comes time to leave the temple and go for lunch! There are literally thousands of people here for the teaching and they pour out of the narrow gates of the temple complex onto the tiny road. There is so much pushing and shoving, the worst culprits being the monks and the old Tibetan ladies. It can get really quite scary, I've had friends who have been pushed over and pinned against walls. There is a huge sea of maroon robes shoving to get out first, it's quite a sight! There are so many monks here that the whole place is inhabited by a population explosion of maroon dust bunnies. My favorite monks were the one I saw wearing bright red Converse high top sneakers with his robes and the one with a "Hello Kitty" back pack. In the midst of all this are the Indians trying to drive rickshaws, taxis and motor bikes through the chaos, all the time beeping their horns destroying ear drums left and right. The best thing I brought with me on my trip was my musician's ear plugs, I pretty much live in them. After four months of aural assault from the continuous vehicular beeping I would be deaf by now without them!

Anyway, I apologize for the length of the posting but it's raining and there's nothing much else to do except raise my cholesterol levels with too much butter tea!

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