Five days before leaving Dharamsala we met with His Holiness for about half an hour. He asked if our practice had produced any benefit and we asked for guidance for our future practice. He told us, among other things, not to isolate ourselves when we returned to the U.S., but to engage with people, and that if we did so our practice would become stronger, it would grow.
At the beginning of our audience I had a strange sensation, something I'd not experienced in previous private audiences, a feeling or perception of a discrepancy between His Holiness' actions and his person or being. It was as if his laughter was a mask, that there was something else beneath the appearance. Kay spoke to him about her experiences of seeing him in public; she spoke about her feeling that so many times he had been smiling or looking at her, and mentioned my comment that I believed she was merely experiencing his vast bodhicitta which radiated on everyone so that they all felt his attention was just for them. Then, as in our previous interview, he showed us the human nature that coexisted with the bodhisattva nature. He told us that he acted as people expected him to act; whether he was feeling pain or sorrow, he gave people joy and smiles. What I had been experiencing as a disjunction between the mask and the underlying personality was just this: what might be falsity or a persona in another was, in fact, the power of his practice. Bodhisattva activity did not merely emerge from him, like light from a flame -- he practiced it. With this insight that even a bodhisattva, like the one I was talking to, had to continuously practice bodhisattva activity the romanticism of my metaphysical idealism shattered. In this, his work was no different than my own.
Yet, there was something else. All during our audience, and especially as he and Kay talked, I watched the cascades of energy that passed through and around him. Behind the conversation and the kindnesses, behind even the personality, was something else. His physical person seemed like the tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the non-physical Dalai Lama, below the surface of the waters of physical appearance, was vast. This deep self was like an invisible master who pulled the strings of the material puppet of the body that sat in the room with us. Watching this aspect of him thrilled me. His movements were animated by this energy, they seemed controlled by it. At one point in his conversation with Kay his body shifted from leaning forward towards her to sitting bolt upright. At the same time, his eyes unfocused their piercing look and settled into a kind of full field awareness that seemed to be taking in some larger whole. At the same time, the energy in the room shifted and, later, I realized that in those moments our relation with him had also shifted. What had he seen? With that shift in posture the quality of our interview changed in some way which was difficult to discern until its very end.
As we stood up to leave Kay and I both joined our hands in a prayer mudra and bowed our heads to him. Suddenly we both found ourselves being embraced by His Holiness, our foreheads on his chest, his arms enfolding us. The embrace lasted for what seemed like minutes, and he whispered a few words to us.
When we returned to our room I realized that I was both stunned and shaken by his embrace. Kay and I spoke a little to each other, but mostly sat quietly with our feelings. I realized that His Holiness had implanted some sort of energy in me that would forever change my relationship to him. I wondered if between this and his Monlam initiation and teachings, I was now truly his disciple? He had not said so, but I reflected on his comment at our previous audience that with the death of Tara Rinpoche we should not be in a hurry to try to find another lama. Geshe Wangdrak, Denma Locho Rinpoche and Geshe Sonam Rinchen had been incredible teachers. In fact, I felt that Denma Locho Rinpoche could be my lama if circumstances would make it possible, for when I sat with him I felt like I was sitting with a Buddha, and my heart opened and softened as my mind simultaneously became clearer and sharper. These were the signs I required, but I remembered His Holiness' instructions and did not try to establish a lama-disciple relationship with Locho Rinpoche.
Now I wondered, had His Holiness meant that we should not look for a lama because he was our lama? That was too much to hope for, too preposterous; such thoughts indeed seemed arrogant. Yet I knew that establishing such a relationship was a mutual testing over time. In 1983, when I had first asked Tara Rinpoche for a Manjushri initiation, he had refused. For five years he watched and waited, and then in 1988 he gave me the initiation I requested. Was this what His Holiness was doing? Did he even take on western disciples? And if he did, what would that be like? My old friend and colleague Bob Thurman had said that His Holiness did not even take on Tibetan disciples directly, but would send them to other lamas for instruction. Might that happen for us? There was no way to know what, if anything, was happening; we could only wait and allow things to unfold in accordance with our karma and merit. We had followed his instructions from our first interview, and their fruit was an amazing seven months of practice at Namgyal Monastery. What would be the fruit of following the guidance given at this second interview?
He had told us that it would be good to come back to Dharamsala again to recharge ourselves after some time in the west. Perhaps our questions would be answered when we returned. If we returned.
During these last days in Dharamsala His Holiness' presence was always with me. He quietly sat in my heart and pervaded the space around me. At that time he was involved in a western meditation teachers' conference which was meeting both in town and at his palace. Word of some of the proceedings leaked out. Something His Holiness was reputed to have said stuck in my mind as his final teaching for me. A friend of a friend who was attending the conference had told her that His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. Up until our last audience I had not thought much about refuge. Now its profundity was apparent. Without taking refuge in the lama who is the living manifestation of the lineage, how could one practice, how could one purify the mind stream, how could one develop the correct view? That this had not been patently obvious to me in this specific form called "refuge" could only be attributed to subtle and coarse forms of western arrogance, a refusal to accept dependent arising in the form of the relation of the lama and disciple. But unrequested, His Holiness had given us refuge in his arms, in his embrace.
Now I also began to understand why Geshe Sonam Rinchen had criticized me for coming to him for answers while going to other lamas for blessings. He had said that I needed to learn that these two were inseparable. His words had been a stinging rebuke, a wound that had pained for months. Yet on the day before we left Dharamsala, when we went to see him to say goodbye, he was warm and his eyes were full of affection. He gave us advice about our practice and reminded us that transforming the mind was to be practiced bit by bit, moment to moment from morning to night. This was real spiritual practice he said, thinking about these things, transforming the mind through this way of thinking and understanding. Spiritual practice was more than just doing meditation.
His Holiness had told us to engage with people when we returned home, not to isolate ourselves, and to return to Dharamsala to "recharge." But that was not so simple to do. Apart from teaching, few jobs granted time for travel to India. And making a living as a professor was not my fate. We would not return to Dharamsala and another audience with the Dalai Lama until 2001. By then Kay had started painting thankas and she requested the meeting with him to discuss her work and gain some guidance. I thought I was coming along to the audience as company, and had no specific reason to meet with him. But as his brother Thubten Norbu had said to me back when I was a graduate student, you cannot be in the presence of beings such at the Dalai Lama without extraordinary things happening.
As Kay talked to him about thanka painting I enjoyed his company. We had greeted him in the usual way, offering scarves, but instead of taking the scarves and returning them to us as a blessing he had set them by his side. Throughout our time together my mind kept asking, would I get the scarf back as a blessed memento or not? Finally, as the conversation approached its conclusion, an attendant came in with a small tray in his hands. Two little bronze buddhas sat on the tray, and I thought, how wonderful, we had each received such statues from him at the conclusion of previous audiences, now I would receive a third one!
The conversation with Kay came to its conclusion and he stood up. The attendant put the tray to his side, he picked up a small buddha statue and began to hand it to me, and then stopped. He looked at me and said, "Often when I have visitors I like to give them a small statue. But I don't want to do that unless my visitors are Buddhists. Are you a Buddhist"? I was dumbfounded, almost speechless. How could I answer such a question? I had been meeting with him over a period of almost 20 years, and he knew quite well that I had translated Nagarjuna, had been Tara Tulku's disciple, was now Locho Rinpoche's disciple and had been on retreat in his own monastery. What did he mean, was I a Buddhist?
This was serious. Was I REALLY a Buddhist? What made a person a Buddhist if the question was now in the air? I stammered, "Yes, I am. At least I hope I am." He placed the small statue on his head to bless it and handed it to me. Without further conversation he blessed the second statue and handed it to Kay. Then, at my request, we stepped outside to have a group photo.
Dharamsala, 2001We walked back to the Green Hotel, and I kept wondering, am I really a Buddhist? Clearly this had not been a question but a challenge. Could I be a Buddhist? Nine years earlier His Holiness had said that the Buddhadharma could be boiled down to three things: refuge, bodhicitta and impermanence. To be a Buddhist meant that one took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, viewed existence as impermanent and expressed the bodhicitta attitude in their life. Had I really done these things? That was the challenge the Dalai Lama had posed to me. How serious was I? What was lacking? How hard would I work at the Buddhadharma? He had shown me how hard he worked at it. The question was like a Zen koan. It would stick in me mind for years. Was I really a Buddhist or just pretending?
The question would return again and again. Over the years Kay and I would attend many of his teachings and initiations in large public gatherings and he would challenge the audience's seriousness in sometimes gentle and sometimes strict ways.
In 2013 I joined many of my students in a gathering with His Holiness on the subject of Buddhism and Ecology. 13,000 people sat in Portland Oregon's Moda Center to listen to His Holiness and a panel of experts talk about the ecological challenges facing our world. At the conclusion of the day's events the entire audience rose to offer scarves to him, and stepping to the lip of the stage he in turn offered visualized scarves to everyone in the audience. Then he waved goodby to the audience in the auditorium, turned and took several steps away form the edge of the stage, stopped and returned to face the audience. Complete silence filled the hall. In a totally impromptu manner he said that we all were the same human beings, we all had the same human potential. He had become what he was by working to cultivate and develop that potential and we could do the same. In fact, that was our responsibility.
He turned and left the stage, leaving 13,000 stunned people holding white offering scarves. Again I had to ask myself, was I really a Buddhist? And there again was his challenge: how much effort was I willing to make?