Well, I’ve been back in Dharamsala for a couple days now, and have been going to the Dalai Lama’s teachings. These are three and a half hour affairs, 1-4:30pm, and are quite interesting…he teaches at many different levels at once, from very basic introduction to deep philosophy. (It’s impossible to tell how deep since the higher levels are way over my head, but I know enough about, hmm, logical structures to see that he’s thought things through on a very deep level. It’s very unusual for nuance, sequence, and structure to line up completely, but his do.)
Structurally, the teachings start with chanting Tibetan prayers, then an offering, both of thrown rice, and something more complicated that the Dalai Lama does. (I have no idea what those are about, since they aren’t translated.) Then His Holiness teaches for three and a half hours, with a short break in between. Translations are available by FM radio in four or five different languages…the English translation is quite good, but it clearly leaves out a great deal. I wish I understood Tibetan.
(On the other hand, a Tibetan friend of mine says that she doesn’t understand half of what he’s saying, either…apparently a lot of the vocabulary is specialized religious words, which she doesn’t know–so, oddly, it’s easier for her to listen to the English translation–more accessible.)
Listening to the Dalai Lama speak is very different from reading his books…the books are consistent, but not nearly as complex. It’s wonderful to watch him go straight from “It’s a good idea to practice compassion” into a precisely presented discussion of the philosophical differences, history, and source of the split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. (Actually he talked about much more subtle differences than that, but I can’t cite them, because they went right over my head.) So people of pretty much any philosophical depth can get something out of the teaching, and I’m certain this is deliberate…he has a beautifully complex and self-consistent mind.
(I’ve developed the odd ability to “read” people’s minds–which is to say, by talking to someone for a couple of hours, I can develop a pretty good idea of the world they live in, their internal “rules”, and how deeply they interact with their worlds. Some people have complex minds, some have relatively simple ones, some people look at things in depth, some don’t. The Dalai Lama has one of the most complex, well-structured, and well-balanced minds I’ve seen in a long while…which, of course, one would only expect, given his reputation. Nonetheless it’s a delight to hear him speak. I’d love to talk to him sometime over dinner–not that I’m likely to get the chance, of course. But you never know. 😉 )
The Dalai Lama also has a great sense of humor, which isn’t as obvious in the books…for example, he was discussing impermanence, in particular how age destroys youth and beauty. He said, “As the great sage _____ remarked once, the only thing to be said for aging is that it comes on gradually…I mean, if you were young and beautiful one day and woke up the next day wrinkled and ugly, you’d probably die of a heart attack. So it’s good that it comes on gradually.
“In my case, I used to run up the mountain back behind the monastery in my youth, and leave my attendants far behind. This worried them of course, because the mountain was quite steep, and if I had fallen, I might have died, which would have been bad for them. But now, of course, my knees aren’t so good…my eyesight is okay, at least right now, but then, my hairline is receding, and you can see the gray hairs coming in…I joke sometimes that my gray hair is racing my receding hairline. But being bald is okay, since there’s a Tibetan joke that baldness, goiter, and [missed the third] are the beauty marks of a monk. This makes some sense, if you’re a skinny monk with a skinny throat…”
That’s a pretty good example of his speaking style…funny, memorable, rambling, humble, and deep all at the same time, plus full of illustrative stories. It’s wonderful sitting and listening to him.
That’s not to say that the teachings are all fun and roses. They’re absolutely *packed*–the courtyard of the temple is completely full, you have to arrive an hour or two in advance to get good seats–and the sun can be blazingly hot. It’s incredibly crowded, too–I had to crouch for an hour once because there wasn’t even enough space to sit. (Fortunately, I finally found a space big enough–my legs were *killing* me.) It’s difficult to pay attention for three solid hours, too. But it’s been fantastic, and I’m staying as long as I can before flying back to Bangkok. Next year, I may come back to Dharamsala, just for the teachings.
(Mind you, I’m still not a Buddhist. The deeper points of Buddhist philosophy make no sense to me. But there is something very powerful about the Dalai Lama’s message, that transcends theology…he very clearly and squarely puts compassion first, and the rest of the theology is philosophical window-dressing. (Not to say that they aren’t important, but they take a definite second place to compassion.) This dedication to compassion shows up not just in what he says, but in the way he teaches, and the way he presents his arguments…he doesn’t just believe it intellectually, but practices it on every level. Very beautiful. Also really, really, really cool. 🙂 )
I suppose at this point it would be irreverent to say that he also looks really cool in shades. 😉 But, in fact, he *does* look really cool in shades. 😉
In other news, I went by the Norbilinga Institute this morning to watch thangka being painted…it was, of course, amazing. The artists paint with incredibly fine brushes, and can spend a month or more just laying out the outlines. They train for at least six years before they are fully qualified to paint for Norbilinga…and the detail on some of the thangkas is absolutely fantastic. I was looking at a thangka of the Dalai Lama today (Buddha of Compassion with a thousand hands and some large number of heads)–you couldn’t get a computer to print at that resolution, let alone paint it with a brush. And the thangka at Norbilinga are supposed to be the best of the best.
I must say, I really like the better thangka. (Tonight I spent two hours looking through the shopkeeper’s private collection…the “good” ones that he keeps at home…woo. I mean, woo. Woo woo woo. Words cannot describe. 😎 ) Thangkas have incredible detail and elegance in the artistic lines. They’re less about rampant self-expression (the basic composition is fixed), more about grace in painting a fixed theme. I’m tempted to study painting them, if there’s anyone teaching in the Bay Area. (Not that I’m going to devote six years of my life to learning thangka-painting–that outlasts my attention span by a good 4.5 years, thank you very much 😉 –but it would be nice to learn something about that kind of brushwork.)
It turns out there are actually two kinds of thangka…the non-painted kind are made of fabric, and make the eighteen months I spent on my wedding dress look simplistic. They’re hard to describe, but basically they cut out pieces of silk along the basic outlines of a thangka, then border the edge of each piece with a fine silk-wrapped horsehair cord (about the same thickness as fine florist’s wire), then embroider the finer details. It takes an incredibly long time and costs the earth. I watched them wrapping the silk around the horsehair, and carefully couching the resulting cord with nearly invisible stitches in incredibly fine thread…wow.
It looks like the Internet cafe is now closing, so I’m off…more later, if I get the chance.
I’ll be in Dharamsala through the 24th…I take the night bus to Delhi Monday night, and fly out to Bangkok Tuesday evening. I fly back to San Francisco March 31.
I look forward to the hot showers. 🙂