The Dalai Lama and the Choices We Make
October 17, 2012
In March of 1959, which for many of you was long before you were born, a group of thirty-eight people stole out of Lasha, Tibet around midnight and walked through the Himalayas to asylum in India. The Dalai Lama, who was only eighteen years old, was in the group which included, among others, two other monks his own age he’d chosen to accompany him.
Behind him, he left hundreds more he knew would soon perish in a battle with the Chinese, as they gave their lives to insure the necessary time needed for his escape. Forty-two years later, my husband, Bert, and I came to meet one of those monks traveling that night, when we agreed to take on a project for a friend. The event was to bring a small band of Buddhist monks to Huntsville, Alabama, to perform their art. In our first meeting, they created a sand Mandala against the beautiful showcase of Tibetan Art the Huntsville Museum of Art put together.
Then one month later, they returned, their dance troupe performing at the Von Braun Center. The following day they held a ceremony for anyone to attend. There, they swept up the mandala, an extraordinary creation out of colored sand taking two weeks of eight-hour days to make, and released it to the waters of Big Spring Park. This marked its journey of return to the sea. How could we have known, even beyond the wonder of these young monks, we would also meet their Geshe(teacher), one of the two monks chosen by the Dalai Lama to accompany him out of Lasha that portentous night in history.
Since only one young man spoke any amount of English, we met on an intuitive basis, recognizing one another in novel ways. The Geshe recognized Bert at a depth most men never see in him, and they became as brothers in that short time. From then on, each meeting took on a mystical quality.
The monks modeled what life looks like when people choose to live in the moment. And never mistake America as an easy experience for these young men – they said very noisy and speedy.
However, they committed to a year on the road and gave themselves to the cause full out. They had hardly a penny in their pockets, living off the largesse of American amazement of them and their art. They were here to raise money, to keep the ever increasing number of refugee monks arriving in India, fed and clothed at their monastery. So many marvels took place in that short time, like when we stood atop Monte Sano in misty rain of an early spring morning, the monks chanting in response to the peace pole we planted there. Later, after the ceremony, the Geshe took Bert back to the pole, pointed to the Tibetan phrase for ‘Let Peace Prevail,’ and showed with his hands, it was upside down. We all laughed for a long time.
Grace followed then as when they pulled back into Huntsville late on the night before their performance, and there in the driveway only minutes after their arrival, the front axle of their 15-seater van, pulling a trailer, twisted and broke. Again it was lightly raining, and we sat on the nearby stone wall waiting for the wrecker. But they, like sweet children, laughed, chewed their bubble gum – something new to them – and sat, quiet. I teased the oldest of the men as they off-loaded the trailer. “I thought you monks were to travel with only a towel and a begging bowl.”
In reply, he smiled like a Cheshire cat and pointed to a trunk presently being pulled from the trailer. “Begging bowls in there.” We laughed, again.
My point is that theirs was not an easy life. They had to choose, every morning they woke, to be here, now. This was no cloistered existence but a working order of monks who were tested minute to minute: Could they remain present; could they choose to attend to beauty, wonder and joy, not succumb to their fatigue, their loneliness, their longing for home.
Life confronts us daily with a series of choices. Our lives are not fundamentally different from theirs, except they committed to paying attention to their choices. Thus they gifted us not only with their talent but also with what life looks like when we’re committed to right-minded choices. Whether as writers or human beings our lives hang in the balance of our choices.
One time while watching the Dalai Lama in a TV interview, the interviewer asked him what it was like to be the only Dalai Lama living in exile. One can only imagine the panoply of thoughts that could have invaded his mind in that moment—the memory of hundreds of monks who died for him, all those he was now responsible for, all the politics he had to entertain and excel in, all from a place that is not his home of heart. But what he did instead was chose to remain present. In response to the interviewer, while looking out a bougainvillea-framed window, he replied, “How beautiful these flowers are they not?” Then he was ready to answer.
May we not underestimate ourselves. We all can choose that which nurtures our lives and our art. No one said it was easy, but the reason we get goose bumps around people like the monks and the Dalai Lama is due to their choices well made.
Christina Carson is author of Dying to Know, a novel about the choices that are made.