My Teachers: The Dalai Lama (1)

In Bloomington, while I was still a graduate student, my friend John used to say that he could feel the Dalai Lama "floating around, above the campus." He attributed the presence to out-of-body visits to Thubten Norbu, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, who taught in my graduate program. I never had such an experience, but I am not a visionary. John is. He has told me repeatedly that he had dreamed about my arrival in Bloomington before my body actually got there, and recognized me the minute he saw me outside his dorm.

My first encounter with the Dalai Lama, at least in the body, was in Amherst in 1979.  Accepting Bob Thurman's invitation, he spoke in the Amherst College field house. As he was making his way into the building I felt a shower of flowers on my head; a sure sign of being in the presence of a bodhisattva. And a presence he surely is. In fact, that is how Tibetans refer to him, "The Presence."

In 1982 and 1983, while in Dharamsala, I arranged to meet with him for some conversations about the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy. As I later wrote in the published transcript, I had been wondering if there really was much of an intersection between the art/science of psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation. To have a fruitful conversation there were a number of problems to deal with because our technical languages were so different. Partially due to these problems our discussions never really resolved the questions I posed, but nonetheless, the opportunity of spending a few hours with him one-to-one was worth it to me irrespective of any specific outcome. I hoped that he had gained something as well.

Beyond the language problems which plagued us, there was an even more fundamental problem. It was his very "presence." It was overwhelming. I'd begun to feel his presence through the wall of the reception room while I waited for our meetings and found myself almost swooning in the bliss I felt. To sit across from him and attempt to carry on a fairly sophisticated conversation was almost impossible. To look him in the eyes was even more difficult -- they were bright and intelligent and present in a way I have never experienced with any other person. In fact, looking directly into his eyes just a few feet across from me was pretty much paralyzing. Somehow I managed to keep to the interviewing job at hand, but it was remarkably difficult. 

Fortunately his sense of humor and genial kindness softened all the difficult facets of the experience. In fact our first meeting began with his uproarious laughter. Not as yet familiar with protocol I had stepped into the audience room holding an offering scarf in outstretched hands only to have it whisked out of my hands by the door handle upon which the fringe of the scarf had caught. I can only imagine the astonishment on my face as I looked down at empty hands, and then over my shoulder to see the scarf dangling from the door handle. I retrieved it and handed it to him with profound embarrassment. He laughed through it all in a most friendly fashion.

When our first meeting ended he took my forearm, held it before me in his own and walked me to the door, all the while pulling on the hairs on my forearm and laughing. I was so overwhelmed by the whole meeting that I had to take a seat in the reception room to compose myself. My very sense of time and space seemed altered, just as one might feel when on the verge of an accident, when time telescopes and events seem to unfold in slow motion. The walls of the reception room no longer seemed to contain me. Rather than by walls, I felt bounded by the cries of the hawks that were circling in the air currents several hundred feet above me.

In those days Dharamsala was much smaller and more undeveloped than currently. In 2001, when I last visited the community, there were actually traffic jams. But in the early 1980s there were only a handful of vehicles in the town. Small size breeds intimacy and by the end of the day of our first meeting everyone I knew had become aware of my audience, though I had not said a thing either before or after.

When Alex Berzin asked me how things had gone, I summarized our discussions, and then took an opportunity to ask him a question. He had been in Dharamsala for years and knew the ins and outs of meetings with important lamas. So I asked, "Had I been receiving some special blessing when His Holiness had been pulling on the hairs on my forearm?" "No," he answered. "Tibetans are fairly hairless and find the body hair of Caucasians pretty amusing." More embarrassment --- mixed with some deflation.

But some mystery also remained. I'd taken a small tape recorder to our meeting so that I would not have to take notes. That evening I listened to the recordings and began to reflect on the problems we had tackled. Just after I rewound the tape and shut off the machine there was a knock on the door. Several friends stood outside, wanting to talk to me about the meeting. Personal audiences were extremely rare, and everyone was curious. I invited them in to talk. One of them saw the recorder on my table and learning that I had recorded the meeting asked if she and the others could listen to the tape. "Of course," I replied, and switched on the machine. No sound at all. We looked at each other with curiosity. I rewound it to the beginning, and tried a second time. Silence. I began to sweat, fearing that somehow I had erased the tape when listening to it before their arrival. "I guess we are not supposed to hear it," she suggested a bit archly. Shortly thereafter my friends left. With deep nervousness I started the tape recorder again. His Holiness' voice came through loud and clear.

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