We walked in a humbled, hunched-over position of humility and sat on maroon velvet pillows on the floor. The was seated on a small yellow chair placed higher than his visitors. As per Buddhist tradition the teacher always sits higher than the students. My heart was pounding in my throat not just from the excitement of the moment, but it was still less than two minutes since squeezing by the vicious Tibetan Mastiff guarding the steps below. I figured it best to stay in the moment and not yet consider what we'd have to do to get by him on the way out. I slowly caught my breath. The altitude and dry air at fifteen thousand feet had destroyed my voice three weeks ago. I'd been speaking in a throaty whisper ever since.
Nobody spoke English so it didn't matter what I sounded like.
There is a strict protocol to follow when in thepresence of a living Buddha. We'd met many monks and lamas in the past four weeks and we knew the drill. Mostly they involved reverence, respect and ritual. These are the basics: Always bow first and take a humbled position. For someone as elevated as The Karmapa we performed three prostrations on the ground before him. Never turn your back to the Master, even if it means backing out of a room down treacherously dangerous steps with a vicious dog below. (We did eventually get a photo with The Karmapa and logistically had to have our backs to him, but I think as foreigners get a pass.) Never reach out to touch a Master, but if he offers his forehead to you, it is okay to touch foreheads with him--this method of receiving his blessings is known as utu. It is essentially a sacred Buddhist transfer of blessing in the form of a high-five of the forehead.
|The venerable Bhakha Tulku Rinpoche. |
Utu with caution.
Years later I would find myself invited to a Buddhist ceremony at the home of Steven Seagal in his Los
Angeles home. Steven was a great supporter of the Dalai Lama and a man as learned in Tibetan Buddhist theology as any other Westerner I'd ever met. We'd become friends through our mutual interests in Tibet. When the great Buddhist masters would come to visit him, he'd generously invite me to meet them at his house. He was receiving a visit from the venerable Bhakha Rinpoche, an eccentric Tibetan lama who was in his tenth Earthly reincarnation and who lived at a Buddhist monastery in nearby Santa Barbara. I was introduced to Bhaka Rinpoche. He stared at me for a moment and then leaned his forehead forward. I felt honored. I leaned forward waiting for the gentle touch of Utu inspiration from the Lama. Out of the top of my eyes I saw the old, grey haired master pull his neck back and then slam his head into mine as hard as he could. He had executed the perfect head butt. Moments later when the double vision went away, I focused on him and bowed in a "thank you sir may I have another" manner. I was goofy for the following three hours. I'm not sure why I got the head-butt Utu. Maybe one of my previous incarnations had upset one of his previous incarnations. If so, this debt was paid in full. Accounting for the transgressions of your self and your possibly ne'er-do-well preceding incarnations is tricky business. Later that day I mentioned it to Steven and he just said, "Good. Very good." Being a devout Buddhist is complicated. But when I thought about it, it made sense. If you are going to Steven Seagal's house you should expect to leave with either a blessing or a head-butt.
|Karmapa, The Boy|
Back in the chambers of The Karmapa a young monk in three layers of maroon robes stepped forward. He was The Karmapa's attendant and translator. He had closely shorn black hair and sun-burnt, Tibetan-weathered skin on his face and hands. He had a perpetually serious face that looked incapable of frivolousness. No one was smiling in the room. Not Dr. Ken, myself nor The Karmapa. Smiling was inconsistent with the moment. Also in the room was The Karmpa's director of security. He was a tall, quiet, wall of a man with a Tibetan face, but a long Roman nose. He never blinked. Meeting a living Buddha was not a slap-on-the-back, how-ya-doing occasion. It required the deepest concentration. We were seated, cross-legged, ten feet in front of a real-life Golden Child upon whose shoulders the future of Tibetan Buddhism rested. I was caught up in the focus on the moment and the humbling greatness of the experience. I had no idea what to say. This was a speak-when-spoken-to moment Sometimes you dream of a special moment. You dream and you plan and you plot to do whatever it takes to get there to make the moment happen. Then you realize you spent so much energy and attention getting there that you don't know what to do when you get there. We stared at The Karmapa. He stared back at us. The room was so silent that I could hear my pulse in my ears.
The Karmapa, even at age fourteen, cut a powerful figure in the room. He was tall for his age--nearly two meters tall. He had a brown, weathered face and deep dark eyes. He seemed to have the concentration and composure of a seasoned adult, but then again he really was nine hundred years old. We weren't sure what to expect from a young living Buddha. Our only personal reference was Yoda from Star Wars.
Karmapa's attendant broke the silence.
"Tashi delek, doctors. The Karmapa would like to welcome you to Tibet and Tsurphu Monastery. He would like to hear about your work in Tibet."
|Karmapa, The Man|
We spoke to The Karmapa. We told him about our project for the charity called SEVA foundation. Our
team of Westerners and Tibetans were moving from town to town throughout Eastern Tibet (coincidentally the birth place of The Karmapa) performing hundreds of free surgeries for correctable blindness. We didn't have to tell The Karmapa that this was saving not only the sight, but the lives of these people. He knew it better than we did. Life in Tibet is harsh in all aspects. For those without vision, it is a life of hoping someone will feed and shelter you from the cold, hard elements. If not, you die. There are no social services, handicapped assistance programs or even roads in the places our patients were coming from. Also it didn't help that the favorite toys of Tibetan children seemed to be pointy sticks. Life is hard here. Beautiful, but hard. The Karmapa knew this. He also knew that the Chinese were making it harder. We didn't talk about this. You assumed the walls had ears in Tsurphu.
The attendant translated this to The Karmapa and he nodded his head once. He had a look as grateful and relieved as Tibetan parents had after their children were treated. Then he leaned forward and stared at us silently and intently for about thirty seconds. He sat back and spoke again to the attendant.
|Karmapa, The First|
"The Karmapa says thank you for helping Tibetan peoples and the people from his home. He hopes you will
come back again soon to Tibet. He would like to give you some gift from Tsurphu." His attendant placed a few items in front of us: a number of thin, folded, beige envelopes full of assorted powders, incenses and herbs. Also a thick green and yellow woven cord that The Karmapa had personally blessed (the woven cord that still travels with me everywhere). It was time to leave, but I could have sat in that room for five more hours. It was deafeningly quiet and abnormally calm. It was the kind of room that just made you feel better when you were sitting inside. We prostrated three more times to The Karmapa, stood up and backed out of the room into the stairway. It wasn't until I saw the steps that I remembered the snarling, angry beast that lay in wait one floor below. Getting past him from a spacious room was tricky enough. Doing it from a narrow staircase was going to be harder. The only light in the stairwell was from a dull, yellow light bulb. Everything looked like a shadow. I waited at the top of the steps to follow the monk downstairs, but the old man just stood there and pointed to the floor below. His trip to The Karmapa was just one way. Fantastic. Well, if there was one thing worth getting bit in the ass, it was this. I slowly headed down the stairs using the toe of my shoe to feel through the shadows for the next step. In the darkness I could not make out the shape of the dog until I was half-way down. The beast, however, had heard us coming before we ever left The Karmapa's chambers. He had nothing else to do. I was within three steps of reaching him. It was Go-time. Then an amazing thing happened. The dog looked me straight in my eyeballs, snarled and lifting his foaming lips to expose thick, yellow, pointy fangs. Then he groaned, turned in a circle and lay down next to the wall. I was shocked, but not too shocked to see a moment of opportunity. Still it made no sense. This was definitely the same dog--there's no shift work for vicious, rabid, Tibetan Mastiffs at Tsurphu. Then I worried that he was just trying to suck me in to a sense of false security and get a proper piece of me. I inched carefully closer, but he didn't move. He couldn't be bothered. I guessWhen I was two feet from him I hit the last step and bolted through the doorway to safety. Dr. Ken did the same. The dog didn't even look at us.
"What just happened?"
"I don't know. It's the same dog, right?"
"Definitely the same dog."
"I guess we are in the club now. We better keep moving in case the spell wears off."
But he wasn't going to bother us. There were bigger forces working here. Bigger than a brutish, crazed, possibly rabid Tibetan Mastiffs. We'd find out more about these forces the next day.
We found our way down the steps, through the temple and out of Tsurphu Monastery. I was giddy from the experience and found a renewed stride in my step despite the fifteen thousand foot altitude. The taxi driver waited at the gates. He was asleep on a blanket on the hood of his car. He slept under the shadow of the Gurum mountains, in the sweet, cool, afternoon air. This seemed like the ultimate place to catch a nap. When we tapped the car, he woke up, took an impossibly long swig of whatever was in the silver Chinese thermos next to him and motioned us to get in the car. We stopped two hundred meters down the road at a stream that was running out of a small hill. Legend has it that nine hundred years previously the first Karmapa was walking on this hill and struck the ground with his walking stick. The ground opened up and this running stream of water came out and sent blessed water to the farms and villages down the road from Tsurphu. It has been running ever since. I leaned down, cupped my hands and splashed the freezing water on my face, over my head and down my neck. Our taxi driver, well-versed in the legend, drank from the stream and then filled his thermos. He offered it to me, but I politely turned him down. While I was certainly caught up in the mystical experience of the day, I was still wary of the blessed parasites in the water that would probably bless my intestines by morning.
|Personal Space, Lhasa street-style|
We made it back to the old center of Lhasa in time to make last call for Yak Burgers at the Snow Lion Restaurant. The Burgers were glorious. That night I slept the sleep of a man who had checked off a living dream the day before. Sleeping at high altitudes has the side-effect of incredibly vivid dreaming and that night my dreams were no less than epic. Living at high altitude also has the side-effect of powerful flatulence. They were also epic that night, but I blame the Yak Burgers. The next morning we had breakfast and decided to take a stroll around the Jokan Temple, the most famous, sacred Buddhist temple in Lhasa. But something was different. I felt........different. I couldn't put my finger on it, but people were regarding us differently since we got back from Tsurphu (and we did not wear an I Met The Karmapa tee-shirt). The Lhasa sidewalks are not a bastion of personal space. Most of the walking is done laterally dodging oncoming people, animals and delivery wagons. Today these sidewalks were suddenly opening up for us in a parting wave of unobscured pavement. People were unconsciously moving out of our way as soon as we looked at them. We made the walk to the Jokan Temple in unheard-of, record time. The thousand year old cobbled walkway that surrounded the Jokan temple was a circular path of shops and stalls and a place of religious pilgrimage. Buddhist pilgrims from across Tibet made their way here to walk endless, week-long circles of prayer around the acres of cobblestone at the temple. They came with nothing and lived on the accepted Tibetan tradition of begging the kindness of strangers. Tibetan Buddhist tradition looks at the occupation of begging as an honored, accepted and reincarnational activit. It could well be you in your next life. Foreigners, as expected, are singled out as the deepest pocketed targets for the slew of real and sham beggars at the temple. The begging can be aggressive and once the wallet is taken from the pants it becomes the closest thing to a feeding frenzy that you will see on dry land. On most days when we felt like being charitable we'd do a drop and run strategy. The sea of bodies could be daunting if you stayed in one place and within seconds you'd be surrounded. There was in impassable horde of hands and bodies every time. Not today. A group of three beggars in tattered brown robes spotted me walking and made a bee-line towards my profitable path. I looked up, caught the eye of the man in front and he stopped. He grabbed is two friends and pulled them aside. I figured he saw a better opportunity. Then it happened again. And again. Soon we realized: it wasn't them, it was us. Something had happened between yesterday and today that put us in the don't-mess-with-them, let-them-pass zone. Soon we were testing it out in different directions and clearing unlikely paths in the crowds. I felt like The Green Lantern on his first day of super powers. In total this lasted for about one full day. Whatever The Karmapa gave us in that thirty seconds of intense, silent, uninterrupted stare had gotten securely into our heads. It was just one more mystical and surreal experience in a country where there is no shortage of mystical and surreal events. We enjoyed that day more than any other day in Tibet, although I have to admit I was kind of hoping for telekenetic powers. The Tibetans seem to take these mystical manifestations in stride. Easy come, easy go. Much different than our Western thinking that would build a statue or start as pay-as-you-go church every time a cloud took the shape of the Easter bunny. It was refreshing to see and experience a place where expectations were so few and so many people could just, naturally, stay in a single moment.
I would get to spend one more afternoon with the Karmapa one year later on a return charity trip to Tibet.
The experience was just as thrilling. When you get to meet a living Buddha more than once in a lifetime, you have to believe that, so far,
|A rare, orderly line of Lhasa beggars|
you've thrown a good set of karmic dice. There was one special moment I remember as I sat directly in front of The Karmapa. As his attendant monk was speaking, I looked over at the Karmapa and he caught my eye. I unconsciously, nervously smiled at him. He nervously smiled at me too. In that moment the living Buddha was, again, a thirteen year old boy for just a few seconds. When the smile faded away, so did the child. At that moment I thought about the difference between legend and reality. As blessed as he was, the weight of a nation's political and cultural hopes are all on him. This would be hard enough to grasp and bear as an adult. He may be nine hundred years old, but part of him is still a boy. And this boy was under the scrutiny of the massive Chinese military with the understanding that he would go along with their plan or he would disappear. In the year 2000, the year after I'd visited The Karmapa for the second time, he escaped the sacred halls of Tsurphu during the night and showed up in India a week later. He had made a nearly unfathomable trek through the Tibetan Himalayas to escape the censure and control of the Chinese government. Back at Tsurphu I heard that heads did roll. His staff was punished. Punished severely and placed in horrible Chinese prisons. This was the collateral damage of a political war.
Meeting The Karmapa will always be one of my top five travel experiences. It was my once (actually twice) in a lifetime chance to meet the man of greatness while he was still a boy. Imagine meeting Bob Marley or Nelson Mandela or Mickey Mantle at age thirteen, knowing that they would be at the top of their game twenty years later. What would you say to them? What can be said to the child who will one day become The Man?