His Holiness In The Villa Of Holy Faith

Theologico-Journalistica Treatise No. 1

In the golf comedy “Caddyshack” Bill Murray, playing the blundering groundskeeper, brags:  “I caddied for the Dalai Lama.” 

Doug Preston, a Santa Fe writer, can say, “I rode a ski lift with the Dalai Lama.”  But it’s no laff line. It’s true.  His reminiscence in Slate releases a flood of links on Google if you search Dalai Lama Santa Fe.

It happened at the end of the season at Santa Fe Ski Area, the first week of April 30 years ago. His Holiness broke from a demanding schedule and asked his host driver to turn the rented limo onto a mountain highway after learning that up there they were skiing, which he had never seen. 

The Dalai Lama at 55. (Kuan Yin Unlimited photo)

Preston, volunteering to help as a sort of press secretary, slipped  onto the quad lift with the then 55-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate draped in red and yellow, as the lift loaders held back the line of amazed skiers. On top the operator barely stopped the lift in time and the group slid down the off ramp in their dress shoes, according to Thom Cole’s alert coverage for the daily New Mexican.

The skiers at the top were “bemused,” Cole wrote. “Is that the Dalai Lama? No kidding,” one asked.  Another approached the Tibet spiritual and political leader and shook hands.

In the small snack shack at midway an entranced waitress asked His Holiness, according to Preston’s memoir: “What is the meaning of life?” The Dalai Lama sat her down, focused only on her, and gave his speech about the happiness of non-attachment.

In his introductory news conference, attended by a swarm of photographers, his theme was “the good heart,” which he repeated in subsequent public appearances. He was curious about all those 35 millimeter film cameras and the view mirrors slamming. When he took off his glasses to clean them the concerted cameras sounded like a gust of wind. So he put on his glasses and removed them again, laughing at the mass reaction. I knew that Zen trades on laughter, but I saw that even Tibetan Buddhism can be fun.

There were of course serious things that week — a closed meeting with Pueblo leaders, another with the New Mexico governor and U.S. senators. But what returns to me even now are two things that happened at the closing public appearance, at Santa Fe high. One is intellectual, and one is emotional.

The first was like a koan in which a Zen master asks a question with no correct — or often even possible — answer. The question came from the audience, in writing as requested. The question, as I recall it, was: 

Why do people do things that harm themselves?

His Holiness turned and engaged his Tibetan interpreter in a long conversation.  The two monks talked back and forth in their native language.

I expected the modern Western answer, that people do wrong to prove they are free (some call it the false freedom of adolescent defiance).  Or maybe he would give the martyr’s answer: people act without fear of personal consequences because it is the right thing to do. Or the evangelical answer: Satan entered the heart of Judas. Or even the easy political answer, now current: Let me be clear, blah blah blah, opioid crisis. 

The two monks on stage stopped talking, and the interpreter responded for the Dalai Lama:  “I don’t understand the question.”

I have tried to understand the question too, with painful images of close loved ones (my father, the mother of my daughters) fatally fallen into “harmful compulsions,” as Gabor Maté put it in “In The Realm Of The Hungry Ghosts” (a Buddhist metaphor). Prefacing his book about drugs on the streets of east Vancouver, he wrote:  “I can say only what I have learned as a person and describe what I have seen and understood as a physician. Not every story has a happy endings, as the reader will find out, but the discoveries of science, the teachings of the heart, and the revelations of the soul all assure us that no human being is ever beyond redemption.” Meaning: there are no answers. Only stories.

The Dalai Lama at 55, I submit, knew or should have known at least one such story.  And if you will stay with me as I construct my notes from a book by one of the leading Western scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, I will tell you a story. The scholar is Donald S. Lopez, Jr., of Princeton, a respected translator of Tibetan manuscripts into English. His book is “The Madman’s Middle Way,” subtitled, “Reflections on reality of the Tibetan monk Gendun Chopel.”

The documentation of the life of GC, as Lopez calls him because of the diversity of transliterations of the name, is missing (or erased). But GC’s main writings (aside from his poetry and art) have survived:  a pilgrim’s travel guide called “The Golden Surface,” an erotic manual called “The Passion Book,” and his masterpiece, “Adornment For Nagarjuna’s Thought.”

Nagarjuna was a second-century Indian philosopher whose metaphysics is a treatise on the Buddhist Middle Way. This Way is not the simple avoidance of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification preached by the Buddha, but rather a literary conceit expanded from that concept. Lopez says Nagarjuna’s middle way lies between existence and non-existence, but in my reading the logic leads to a psychotherapy of accepting the conventional while keeping the absolute in mind. Anyway, Nagarjuna is to Buddhist scholasticism what Aristotle was the Christian scholasticism. 

The Madman in Lopez’s title was a label that a college professor (the Tibetan monastic equivalent of one) stuck on Gendun Chopel because of his strident adversarial questions in the classroom. He had excelled in the debate court rituals of the Gelupka monasteries and could not be ignored, but the renowned professor refused to call on him by name, pointing only to “the madman.” The nickname is not completely negative (c.f. Bhutan’s crazy-monk Drukpa Kunley who originated the tiny nation’s irrepressible phallic decorations.)

Gelukpa monasteries took control of Tibet’s government in the 17th century, and the successive Dalai Lamas belong to that sect, which is conservative.  It’s 14th century founder, Tsongkhapa, recorded a dream in which the wisdom god Manjusri warned that he must protect conventional knowledge.  So in writing a novel commentary on the Middle Way, Gendun Chopel was going against Gelukpa conservatism. 

More specifically, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s epistemology he rejected knowledge verified by simple authority.  Just because the Buddha said something did not make it true. Who said the Buddha was infallible?  If Nagarjuna, then who said Nagarjuna was infallible? And so forth, down to yourself. Besides, the Buddha practiced what today is called “skillful means,” that is, adjusting your words to the understanding of the audience. The Buddha, of course, taught with similes — how to catch a snake, how to tell if what appears to be gold is really gold — so at least changing imagery did not always change the principles involved.

Another GC impiety was in his prologue to the “Adornment,” usually a standard dedication to the Buddha. But at the end of this one GC took a radical turn. One of the sacred vows in all sects is to seek refuge in the Buddha. Apparently referring to known stories from the life of the Buddha, GC asked, What person in his right mind would seek protection from someone who responded to “the sharp weapons of the demons” with “delicate flowers” and who “practiced silence” when his cousin tried to murder him?

GC was among those who felt that Buddhism was eclipsing Tibetan identity, which was also steeped in the Bon religion. He constantly condemned the corruption of the Gelukpa monks. And even though he was ordained as an incarnate lama as a child, he satirized “the notion of lineage that is so central to Buddhism,” Lopez says. 

The first scholarly commenters criticized GC’s innovations. “One might initially fail to identify why this is a fault,” Lopez says, “But in Buddhist scholasticism, there is no more damaging charge that could be leveled at an opponent.” And Tibet, isolated from the rise of modernism, was wedded to scholasticism.

Then commenters as late as 1997 said the opposite: that nothing in GC’s work was new.  “This polarity of positions among opponents, therefore suggests that the compulsion to condemn the text sometimes overwhelms serious engagement with its arguments,” Lopez says. 

But it was likely not iconoclastic scholarship, but politics, that got GC in deadly trouble. He had become increasingly critical of the government of Tibet and the corruption in its monasteries, Lopez says. “He believed that major reforms, if not revolution, were necessary in Tibet.”

When GC returned to Lhasa in January 1946 after twelve years of study and travel in India and Sri Lanka, he took a covert route through Bhutan. He made notes that somehow fell into the hands of the British in India at a time of increasing anti-colonialism. One night later in 1946 as he returned from visiting a friend, Khribang Rinpoche (rinpoche means teacher), he was met at his door by police magistrates. Khribang was a tutor of the young Dalai Lama and a Buddhist conservative, but Lopez says so was Gendun Chopel.

He was arrested, taken to jail in Lhasa, and interrogated, possibly with torture that included 50 lashes. Eventually he was charged with distributing counterfeit bills. If that was all, why did the police confiscate the black box of his notes and books? He never saw the box again, nor have any scholars. He was sentenced to three years in the dungeon at the foot of the Potala — the 1,000-room palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

Lopez suggests that the boy, who liked standing on a balcony with a telescope, could see the prisoners and may have been aware GC was among them.  The ruined intellectual was released sometime in 1949 or 1950, possibly by the general amnesty granted when the Dalai Lama turned 15 on July 6, 1950. 

Whether the boy had anything to do with the persecution of GC is unknown, at least to Lopez, but it is clear that the Dalai Lama regent, Stagbrog Rinpoche, also condemned a rival Lama about the same time after an assassination attempt. The rival lasted only a few weeks before he died in the Potala prison, probably poisoned.

A poem left on the wall of GC’s cell was supposed to tell of a child left “in the wilderness where the frightened roar resounds / Of the stubborn tiger drunk on the blood of envy.”  The regent’s name means “tiger rock teacher.” 

During his time in prison, Gendun Chopel became a hopeless alcoholic. Food and drink for him were supplied by his students. He continued drinking heavily when he was released. He never wrote again. The People’s Republic Army of Mao’s China marched into Lhasa in October 1950. Gendun Chopel died a year later. He was 48.

The Madman’s Middle Way was published by the University of Chicago in 2006, fifteen years after the Dalai Lama visited Santa Fe. The book, mostly an exegesis of the “Adornment” does not in my opinion cast a shadow upon Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Rather, it describes the bitter rivalries — in both scholarship and politics — that he inherited and cut through to become a world celebrity. China dissolved the Tibetan government in 1959, and the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, in northern India, where he still resides. He has renounced his status as political leader but still pleads for a free Tibet. He remains a world spiritual leader.

When I entered the Santa Fe high auditorium, flashing my press pass at the stage door, I found a vacant seat a couple of rows up. Next to me was a young Asian woman — Korean, maybe — sitting with an Anglo man I presumed to be her boyfriend, although they were not talking much.

When the Dalai Lama entered from the stage door, the young woman gasped and caught her breath. She whispered, “I know him!” She said it like some people say, “I know Jesus!” She sat transfixed through the whole the whole event that ended with the questions including the one to which the Dalai Lama — brilliantly, I now surmise — responded with Buddhist silence.

Then, as he left the stage and walked with his entourage toward the stage door exit, he suddenly stopped, turned and looked directly at the young woman next to me, eye to eye. He put his palms together and bowed. She burst into tears as he walked away. She was still crying when I followed with other members of the press.

I wondered later why I did not get her name. 

 

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  1. C. Rae says:

    Much gratitude for this beautiful piece.

  2. Tim says:

    Intimate brushstrokes of close encounters with HH the Dali Lama

  3. Gussie says:

    I was in the Santa Fe High auditorium that night, too, though unfortunately much farther from the stage.

    I love the way you ended this piece—winding through time and layers of interpretation and politics and scholasticism and then landing so concretely and intimately on one person’s experience. I didn’t need anything else you might have gotten from her if you’d gotten her name and called her to follow up.

    Thanks for sharing your talent for following complex, broadly related threads and inviting us to join you to see where they lead. (Like in our conversations, which I miss.) Always somewhere interesting.

  4. Jeff Bingaman says:

    Larry,
    Thanks for the excellent piece.
    I was not in the Santa Fe High auditorium, but I do remember meeting with him over lunch at Sol y Sombra. I was particularly struck by his humorous and mischievous approach to life.
    A few years after his visit to Santa Fe, I met him again in the LBJ room just off the Senate floor. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader had invited him to meet with any senators who were available. I recall Harry’s first question to him, “Your Holiness, what brings you to Washington?” The Dalai Lama said, “I always come to Washington when I am in the United States. It bothers the Chinese government to see me meeting with U.S. officials, so I never pass up the chance.”
    S

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About ljcalloway

I am a writer. I love the Rocky Mountain West. For more than 50 years my primary residence has been in the upper basin of the Rio Grande.