October 16, 2007
This weekend, Tricycle's hometown of New York City was lucky (or big and rich) enough to host His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In lieu of his usual barnstorming, His Holiness gave three full days of teachings at a Manhattan landmark, Radio City Music Hall, home of the Rockettes (yes, they're alive and... kicking). Did they welcome him to town with a saffron kick-line? Sadly, no, but Radio City made for a magnificent venue, the huge arched ceiling lit a subtle orange. (Here's a photo from flickr that gives you an idea, despite the biblical scene.)
I've always found there to be a certain jolly energy in the air before and after HHDL events (this is my 4th, if you count the one in central park that I didn't end up getting into up but did show up at). Perhaps that's why waiting in enormous lines to see His Holiness is a somehow pleasant chore. (The staff at Radio City managed to move 6,000 people in and out of the hall twice a day in such efficient fashion that it almost felt like cheating this time around.) There's plenty of devotion floating around, of course, as well as the occasional whiff of desperation, and maybe a sprinkle of magic here or there, but in general it's a warm, excited, and slightly blissed-out vibe.
Despite the throngs, I always run into someone unexpected. This time it was my friend Shannon Service, whose name I dropped in the book review I wrote for the Fall '07 issue. She and her Students for a Free Tibet cohorts were out in force, coming off of a summer of daring protest actions around the upcoming Beijing Olympics (yes, that's the Great Wall):
Given the love in the air, people don't seem to mind too much if they have no idea what His Holiness is actually talking about, which is fortunate, considering that this time around he chose to teach from a text on one of the most inscrutable Buddhist topics there is: Emptiness, a la the great Madhyamika master Nagarjuna, specifically from his text Sunyatasaptati, or Seventy Verses on Emptiness. (He also taught from The Diamond Cutter Sutra.) Call me a pessimist, but I have to guess that the majority of the people there had considerable trouble keeping up. I know I did.
The question is, does it matter that it went over our heads? Well, obviously it would be wonderful if everyone there understood every word, grasped every concept—most of which were about getting beyond our solid concepts—and left with a taste of the fruits of monastic study. But that is by no means the only thing one can get out of hearing a teaching from a great teacher. Last year, Tricycle ran an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, among other best sellers, who gave one take on what we get out of such experiences:
I also think that neural interconnection may partly explain the tradition in Asian cultures of darshan, simply being in the presence of a realized being. People go to be with someone who has stabilized in an equanimous, loving awareness. And because the social brain makes their state of mind contagious to anyone in their presence, those beings transmit a taste of their mind-state to those around them. So the point of darshan is just going to be in that presence, because you come away with a bit of what they have.
Sharon Salzberg, who was interviewing Goleman, responded "No wonder I follow the Dalai Lama around everywhere!"
I saw both of them in the lobby of the Radio City this weekend.
-Andrew Merz, associate editor