My Lesson From the Dalai Lama

Recently a friend, who happens to be a Burmese nun, invited me to see the Dalai Lama address the Tibetan people residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had seen the Tibetan spiritual leader once before, and was moved by his talk and the film, “Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama.” More importantly, I had been somewhat adrift and in need of inspiration in my life. At 9am Saturday the morning of the talk, I picked up my niece for ballet when my father-in-law called to tell me he thought he might be having a heart attack. Oh, no, I silently retorted, you can’t be having a heart attack! I need to see the Dalai Lama and get spiritually enlightened this afternoon! I told him to call 911, and called my husband, practically yelling into the phone, “you need to take care of your father! I have to see the Dalai Lama!”

I dropped my niece off and peeled out of the parking lot, nearly knocking down one of her little friends as I rushed to my next destination - acupuncture. Dashing into Dr. Wong’s office 5 minutes late, I pleaded with him, “I need to get through this fast.” A wise, unflappable Chinese man, he simply nodded his head and told me to lie down on the table as he strategically inserted the slim needles designed to calm me and balance my energy.

As soon as the needles were out, I jumped in my car to pick up my niece and brought her to my mother’s for the afternoon. I called my husband to see if he’d looked in on his father. “He’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a false alarm.” “Well, I can’t handle everything you know, I need to see the Dalai Lama!” I screeched as I hung up the phone. I felt like strangling him as I drove back home, changed clothes and picked up my Burmese nun friend. Navigating through traffic stacked up by the Dalai Lama’s black limo motorcade, we desperately searched for parking and joined the long line of people waiting to enter the auditorium in Berkeley where his Holiness was speaking. After standing in line for an hour in the hot sun, we were searched with a metal detector and our water bottles were confiscated at the door. My friend was escorted down to the orchestra section with the other monks and nuns. I was herded up to the sweltering balcony with hundreds of other “Westerners.”  After all, we were just observers, this talk was for the Tibetans.

As we waited another hour for his holiness to appear, more and more people squeezed into the seats, aisles and stairwells around me. A delightful children’s musical presentation announced the entrance of the Dalai Lama, who settled himself in his chair on stage while we were told he would speak in English for the benefit of the foreign visitors. He arranged his robes around him, adjusted his familiar wire-rimmed glasses and began talking about how our culture is preoccupied with money, and how we’re all running around trying to make more of it. I craned my neck to hear him over the children crying and people coughing around me. Did I mention how hot it was? Feeling hungry and thirsty, I gazed around me at the aisles packed with people and wondered if the balcony could possibly hold the weight of all of us. Hadn’t I just read about a balcony collapsing in an old theater somewhere, killing hundreds of people? I peered down below to see my friend surrounded by saffron-robed devotees comfortably sitting in the third row. She looked like she was having a lovely time.

As the Dalai Lama talked about the importance of Tibetans educating their children, I mentally planned what I was going to have for dinner. He moved on to the topic of politics and the Chinese and the need for non-violence as I wondered how much traffic we’d have to navigate to get out of Berkeley and if I’d have time to stop at Trader Joe’s.

And then it hit me. There I was, in an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of the most powerful spiritual teachers of our time, and I was not even remotely present. Not only that, but from the moment I left my house that morning, I had single handedly violated just about every principle he’d espoused. In my desperation to discover spiritual inspiration, I almost took out a kid, strangled my husband, and abandoned my father-in-law in his hour of need. I was stressed out and angry at everyone who I perceived as an obstacle on my mad quest to hear the pearls of wisdom from the Master of Presence. For the remainder of the talk, which unfortunately was quite brief, I closed my eyes and basked in the presence of the Dalai Lama. And even though I couldn’t understand a word he said, I realized the most profound teaching came that day, as they often do, from me realizing my own human fallibility. I laughed quietly to myself thinking had I sat in my garden and meditated for ten minutes instead, I would have been a more powerful contributor to world peace.