A holy man of laughter: My encounter with the Dalai Lama

A holy man of laughter: My encounter with the Dalai Lama

Faith, science, and humility in Dharamsala

Dharamsala, India — The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Dalai Lama is the absence of majesty. You walk up bare concrete steps, past some trees and a building, and hear street sounds.  

This is not the Vatican, or the White House; though it houses a man as well known as any in the world, the only indication is the rigorousness of security. Your cellphone is taken and you are frisked thoroughly — really thoroughly. The man standing next to me had the security guard comb through his Afro with his fingers several times, and everyone surrendered a passport.

My brother, sister-in-law, and I were ushered into the waiting room for our private audience. The waiting room was a small antechamber, with a few books and photographs. One showed a 21-year-old Dalai Lama, with a full head of hair and without his trademark glasses, sitting beside Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. It was taken in India in 1954 and showed the deep links the Dalai Lama (invariably referred to as “His Holiness”) had with India even before he took refuge there after his exile from Tibet in 1959. 

The room was full: local petitioners seeking blessing, a delegation from His Holiness’ home town that had brought items for him to bless; Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan state in exile; and some businessmen. In and out came his nephew and private secretary, Tenzin Coegyal.

I was there because my brother Paul is director of the ethics center at Emory University, with which the Dalai Lama had begun a science and ethics exchange. A group of students from Emory spend time in India, and Emory professors have gone to India for the past decade to teach Tibetan monks about science. As one of the professors commented to me, it begins introducing science to people who do not recognize an equal sign. This was a project of His Holiness, who said that it is a 100-year initiative. 

My brother and I both were also there to give lectures at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives — he on ethics and I on the Jewish experience of exile and what Tibet might learn from our experience — all arranged by Emory professor and former monk Lobsang Negi. 

After some time waiting, we were ushered into the room where His Holiness receives visitors. Once again, if you are expecting grandeur, you will be disappointed. It is a small, square room with a couple of couches and a padded chair in which he sits. There are no pictures with world leaders, nor is his Nobel Peace Prize on display. A few works of Tibetan art adorn the walls, and there is a small Buddhist shrine. 

Before you enter you are given a khata, a thin white scarf. You unfurl it and hand it to His Holiness, who then drapes it over your bowed head. In other words, the meeting begins by the visitor receiving a blessing.  

As we sat down I asked to offer a Jewish blessing — for when one meets a scholar or wise person — in return. He replied with an enthusiastic “yes,” and I pronounced the blessing in Hebrew: “Blessed Be God, Sovereign of all, who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.” 

Then we asked questions, and he responded with themes dear to his heart: that all people are the same, that we need an ethic that all religions, and non-believers, too, can fulfill, and its foundation is compassion.  

He insists that science must be taught and a healthy mind — “mental hygiene” — is the basis of a good life. Education, in both the Eastern and Western worlds, should include not just information, but how to deal with negative emotions and to live a good life. 

His Holiness insists that he has no interest in making people Buddhists. Rather, he wants them to be more fully what they are. All religions teach compassion, love, and goodness, and we just need to be more true to the teachings of our own traditions. 

He spoke about power and powerlessness, and the obligation of the former to the latter. Having mentioned the problems in the Middle East, he turned to me and said, “And what is this about chosenness?”  

I answered that Jews believed God chose them for a particular purpose, but it does not mean we are the only ones chosen; different peoples can be chosen for different things. He laughed, and said yes, it is true, Tibetans think they are chosen as well. 

It seems strange to say that a religious figure’s authority is dependent on his laugh. There is far more, but nonetheless His Holiness’ laugh is striking. Having met my share of religious leaders, I don’t think any of them is as unselfconscious and as devoid of a sense of self-importance. Every now and then, if feeling particularly mischievous, he will stick his tongue out to emphasize the ludicrousness of it all. It reminded me of a comment by 19th/20th century writer G.K. Chesterton, that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

A visitor quickly understands why his schedule runs behind. He loves the exchange, and to dwell on his favorite themes. One of his disciples told me he used to be more discursive, tell more stories, but at 82 he increasingly feels the urgency to focus on what he has learned and has to teach. He sees America as a beacon of freedom and urges Americans to remember their responsibility to the world. And this unusual man, who begins his day with four hours of meditation, followed by watching CNN and the BBC, having seen his nation decimated and swallowed by an authoritarian regime, is clearly conscious of the political edge to his spiritual message. 

Still his primary message is human. He pointed to a student at the outset of his talk, and said, “You have problems.” The student nodded. “And my experience can help you.” The student again agreed. But then he said the unexpected: “And I have problems. And your experience can help me.”  

Six million Tibetans remain in Tibet and some 150,000 live in exile. In the afternoon I spoke to a group of monks and students about the Jewish sense of mission, our tradition of family, storytelling, ritual, the miracles of history, and how we maintain hope.  

Dharamsala, a small Indian town that serves as the capital of Tibet in exile, is nestled at the foot of the Himalayan mountains, where the dogs bark at night and the monkeys survey you suspiciously from the trees each day, where the cars jostle and avoid each other with circus-act skill. This village houses Buddhism’s most revered living personality, who has — combining tradition, modernity, joy, and sheer stamina — projected his people’s cause before an often indifferent world. Years ago His Holiness said in an interview that gardening was almost impossible in Dharamsala because the monsoons come and destroy everything. The monsoon already struck in his life and the life of his people; but he is still here, laughing and planting flowers.

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