Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hello Dolly Redux

Well, mercies of mercies a friend called me on Sunday asked if I wanted to see the Dalai Lama lecture on Monday afternoon at 2pm. I said that since I had Vacation Bible School at my Church and a Christian Ed meeting at 12: 45pm it would be tight but I’d take ‘em. After all, only a few people can tell their grandchildren they heard and saw the Dalai Lama LIVE.

I drove into the lot at Stabler Arena of Lehigh University at 1:55pm and had to park in the back gravel lot. As I trudged through what seemed like miles of parking lot, passing very few license plates from Pennsylvania, I saw New York state well represented, New Jersey next then Vermont, Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Ohio. Wow! I had no idea I was at such a regional enclave!

Approaching my entrance I saw the “protestors” on one side of the driveway, safely barricaded and surrounded by police chanting and waving signs. Geesh, I thought, even the Dalai Lama has detractors.

Inside I had to pass through a metal detector and reminiscent of airline travel I had to empty my pockets into yellow dog food bowls and pass through. They confiscated my Carolina Blue cigarette lighter saying it was a “potential weapon”. That was somewhat daunting when I realized I could potentially fend off an attacker with it. Ok, lighters are cheap, and I asked if I could have it back after the lecture and they said yes, if I stopped back to pick it up.

Since it was 1:59 by this point I hurriedly rushed to my section after being pointed in that direction after showing a nice security man my ticket.

I found my seat and sat down next to a very nice lady who said she had purchased her tickets with my benefactor and had to sit in the seat with my number on it due to some handicap or condition and since beggars can’t be choosers, I acquiesced and sat nearer the stage. They were great tickets –on the side, but right up front.

At 2:15pm there was a rustling of the crowd and I looked to my left and there was the Dalai Lama surrounded by security agents in black suits, sunglasses and ear wires. I assume these were assigned by our government since the Dalai Lama is a head of state as well as a religious leader. We all placed our hands together in the traditional Asian posture for greeting and bowed profoundly (OK, that’s Church liturgy talk!) as he returned the gesture. He ascended the stage which was covered with burgundy and saffron-robed devotees and up the four steps to take his place on an elevated pillow where he sat down.

Much of his teaching escaped me as this was a fourth lecture on a specific holy book which I had not read and many of the foundational concepts had been dealt with in previous lectures. Having studied Buddhism some, I could follow a little bit of it. But what was important is that I was THERE.

The stage on which he sat was spectacular to the eye---a giant fabric icon of the Buddha which towered over the heads of those on stage which was set off well by the black curtain which ran the whole length of the front. The flowers, the smell of incense, the small actions and gestures of Buddhist ritual all fascinated me.

The Dalai Lama was indeed a holy man who gave in easily to laughter and jokes on himself and others. He was flanked by two huge “jumbo TV’s” on either side which usually had a split screen which always showed him and sometimes his translator who was clearly Asian, but wore a business suit as he sat on the floor under the Dalai Lama with a microphone in front of him. His manner was easy, he was devoid of self-consciousness, and yawned, rubbed his eyes and did whatever he needed to do while lecturing.

After the lecture the holy book he was reading from (which looked to be the width of a large file card but about 3 feet long and unbound) was carefully folded into a saffron cloth and handed to what I can only guess is the Buddhist equivalent of the “deacon” who carried them out behind the Dalai Lama.

On the way out I stopped by the “Dalai Lama Gift Shop” which said he knew his audience well. Although I have to admit that I was a little disappointed in this as I have much higher expectations of Eastern Religions being better at staying away from commerce than Christianity---alas! Another assumption blown to bits!

There, one could buy Dalai Lama posters, lanyards, coffee mugs, pens and books—lots of books. It reminded me of a phrase we used to use at Yale Divinity School about one of my professors, Henri Nouwen, who “didn’t have an unpublished thought!” It must be the occupational hazard of religious “gurus”.

I stopped by security to reclaim my lighter---remember that Carolina blue one I told you about earlier? The man had a box of about 10 of them but none were Carolina blue! I told him mine wasn’t there and he just shrugged and said “Someone must have traded up”. The nerve! So I grabbed a green one and stuffed it into my pocket and left.

As I lit up outside I thought I’d wander over and speak to the “protesters” to find out why they were protesting this man. These protesters worship the Buddhist deity called Dorje Shugden---a powerful 17th century monk who was murdered in his palace in Tibet (for reasons unknown to me at this writing). The Dalai Lama has made devotion to him mutually exclusive with Shugden worship—even though the Dalai Lama admitted to being a devotee of Shugden in his youth.

A driveway and a line of policemen separated me from them and I really didn’t feel like making a fuss. I just stood there and read their signs---“Dalai Lama Stop Lying!” and “Dalai Lama give Religious Freedom!”. They were chanting in some language other than English, so I stopped two of the burgundy and saffron robed devotees of the Dalai Lama and asked what language the protesters were using—Tibetan? They looked at me and very sweetly said,” It’s the language of discontent”. For the first time in my life I felt like throttling a Buddhist monk! I said, I understood that part, but what’s the language they chant in? They didn’t respond. As I walked away I quipped, “Well, if your signs are in English, you should at least come up with a protest chant that people here understand!”.

I was thinking something more like “Hey Hey Ho Ho the Dalai Lama has to go!”

As I got back in my car and joined the long wait of cars leaving on the little country lanes that surround Stabler Arena, I was glad I went. The pure spectacle of the scene was well worth it and I got to hear and see one of the world’s great religious leaders whose life has been full of challenge and controversy, but somehow seems to remain peaceful, centered and serene. I felt somehow moved by being in his presence. As a public religious figure of sorts myself, I realize the unrealistic expectations that people sometimes project onto you, and caught myself doing the same with the Dalai Lama. I’m sure that if we ever had the time and place to sit and talk, we’d have quite a bit in common.


At 5:55 AM, Blogger Lyara said...

I really enjoyed this, you have a great sense of humor! I bet you give good sermons!

I'm sorry you were not able to talk with the protestors. I won't clog up your comments with what we were protesting about, but I can point you to a useful website on the subject:

www.WisdomBuddhaDorjeShugden.com and its blogspot: www.WisdomBuddhaDorjeShugden.blogspot.com


At 5:59 AM, Blogger Lyara said...

By the way, I meant to mention that the language we were chanting in was English and Tibetan -- there were Westerners and Tibetans present in the demonstration. We were reciting "Dalai Lama, zu ma ma she", which is Tibetan for "Dalai Lama, stop lying" and "Dalai Lama, cho day nang wa te", which means "Dalai Lama, give religious freedom". Why we have to chant such things wherever the Dalai Lama goes hopefully will become clear from that website link I gave you. Thanks again. Sorry not to have made this just one comment.


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