The handrails along the steps leading up to the inner sanctum of Norbulingka Monastery, where the Dalai Lama offers his teachings when in residence at Dharamsala, were completely swaddled in bright yellow cloth. I didn’t notice this until I watched an elderly woman reach for one of them while descending, only to be pursued by a gangly Tibetan wearing what appeared to be a canvas tool belt, hands flapping in dismay. The walnut-faced matron with her cloth bound braids raised her hand and muttered at him, shaking her head, in what I imagined to be a variation of “Alright, young whippersnapper, keep your shorts on!” I hypothesized that the cloth-consecrated handrails were only for the express use of His Holiness, not to be tainted by the dermal secretions of the less enlightened, but the Dalai Lama scurried up those steps without so much as a hand at his elbow. I filed this enigma under the already “at capacity” category of “Things I See But Don’t Understand.”
My third date with the Dalai Lama this year bore a great deal of resemblance to my initial encounter last fall, even down to the seat I chose amongst a crowd of Tibetan elders in front of the television screen where we could watch His Holiness deliver his teachings from the hall above. This spot also afforded me a prime view of the Dalai Lama as he made his entrance, not by darkly tinted SUV this time, but striding in on foot with a detachment of monks and security, swift and sure as a man half his age. I was once again without access to the inner sanctum, as we had arrived in Mcleod Ganj too late to register for passes.
The English translator appeared to be the same as last year, judging by his heavy accent, and tendency to breathe loudly through his mouth into the microphone. I started to develop a bit of a grudge towards him as the teachings progressed (mouth breathing aside, unpardonable though it may be), as the other translators tended to go on for a few extra minutes after he had ended, and I wondered if the Anglophones weren’t getting the short end of the stick. Not to mention the fact that when he is speaking, His Holiness cracks himself up on a regular basis with jokes and puns, and these little zingers were not deemed worthy of translation. Oh, the power wielded by the polyglot!
The teachings themselves were somewhat obscure, as they were specifically addressing the Mahayana school of Buddhism and various sutras associated with it, which I wouldn’t know from the Book of Job. However, with his customary ease, the Dalai Lama did manage to present some pearls for the layperson. The gist of it seemed to be that the Buddha teaches us that our perceptions affect appearance- that all external objects are extensions of our internal reality, and we respond to each reality to the same degree on all levels.
Now, I was following all of this to the best of my ability, despite the ridiculously precious exchange between a broken-toothed monk and the cackling toddler trying to consume his face one gummy bite at a time just in front of me. I mention this as a caveat, in case what I think I heard the translator say may not be what he actually said. But what I think he said (in the words of his Holiness), was that a prime example of how we respond to internal and external realities in the same way is the fact that when one has a sexual, um, experience when dreaming, one often awakens to find that one has had that same experience in external reality. The word “emissions” was used with enough frequency that I stopped checking my earpiece, and settled in to the possibility that the Dalai Lama was just keeping it real for the sake of accessibility.
Later, I asked some of my students whether they had heard this particular analogy, and I got enough “Oh my God, I thought it was just me!”-flavored responses to resolve most of my lingering uncertainty. So either it happened, or we were all projecting some sex-obsessed reality onto one of the most spiritually evolved beings on the planet. Either way, message received.
My belly was a bit ominous on this day, so I decided to slip out when the gigantic vats of butter tea and what I call “Tibetan frisbee bread” (for its unique taste and texture) began to make the rounds. The grandma beside me had already shoved a piece of politely declined cardboard under my bottom with enough velocity to send me toppling (you will NOT sit on hard concrete, granddaughter!), so I was under no illusions about my ability to evade her insistent offerings of food. I did return the next afternoon for the last round of teachings, and was amazed at how deserted the place was. I had an incredible spot on a mostly empty dias, and when the Dalai Lama strolled in, it seemed as though he would walk right up to me and pat me on the head. I sat in dumb wonder and fought the urge to wave maniacally like Gilligan at a rescue plane. As it turns out, this last afternoon was to be a question and answer session exclusively for the Korean monks who had requested the teachings, and there was no English translation to be had. I gave my transistor radio to an elderly Tibetan lady sitting beside me (the sound system upstairs was not up to the task of filtering down below with any accuracy), and made my way out through the serpentine monastery corridors.
If there is one thing I’ve gleaned during my forays into religion as it is practiced in India and other parts of Asia, it is an unshakeable belief in the power of simply being in the presence of an enlightened being. There are many parts of my ego-dominated psyche that resist the idea that I might in any way be improved by mere proximity to another, but the experiences I have had with my nieces and nephews, my mentors, my loved ones, wild places, and the Dalai Lama himself have given me considerable evidence to the contrary.