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On Top of the World

Spiritual journey finds fulfillment in Dalai Lama

David Mayer

Early in April 2007, while waiting to board a charter flight from Delhi to Dharamsala, India, I saw in our group a woman wearing a “Virginia” baseball cap. I, in turn, had on my 25th reunion cap. While our headwear confirmed it, clearly the Cavalier charisma had alerted Carmen Oveissi Field (Col ’93) and me that there was another Wahoo nearby. We introduced ourselves and, since we are in the same five-year reunion cycle, became natural allies during the next week. Given where we were going and why, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as the bedraggled pilgrim in an old New Yorker cartoon seeking answers from the wise man on his mountaintop. In this case, my mountain was a foothill of the snowcapped Himalayas, and my wise man His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This was the second time in so many trips to India that I had seen the “Virginia” logo. Three years ago, I was on a pilgrimage of sorts with another small group, visiting forlorn Buddhist shrines on the Gangetic plain with Stephen Batchelor, a noted Buddhist scholar. At one point on that trip, I had felt sick as a dog and was leaning against the grimy window of a bus looking out into the smoky haze. The dull browns and grays colored my mood, but then … a flash of orange, a sparkling clean Virginia ball cap atop a passing head. Curiously, it perked me up. I have no idea how it could have turned up in that remote place.

Now, I am back in India with this new group as an observer at a five-day Mind-Life Institute conference at the residence of the Dalai Lama. Every day we assemble in a big room near his private quarters, dozens of colorful thangkas draped on the walls under a cavernous ceiling. The Dalai Lama enters smiling, looks earnestly into the eyes of everyone in the room and bows to us with palms together. He kneels and touches his head three times on a prayer mat, gets up and takes his seat at the head of a ring of scientists sitting in easy chairs.

I sit less than 20 feet from His Holiness. Leading scientists in the fields of quantum physics, astrophysics, neuroscience, biology and philosophy explore the overlap between Buddhist principles and Western science with him and a select group of Tibetan monastics. One by one, the scholars present their research sitting on the “hot seat,” the chair next to the Dalai Lama. He asks penetrating and learned questions. His face dances like a diva, from a frown of deep concentration to a full-throated, gut-busting laugh. He often turns to the monks to clarify thorny points. They shuffle toward him on their haunches to engage, like an alert herd of saffron-robed gazelles.

We hear about quantum computers, the Buddhist understanding of the Big Bang and the meaning of reality. We learn about causation, dependent origination and why each group seeks answers—the scientists for pure knowledge and the Buddhists to alleviate suffering.

During breaks and at meals, I make friends with leading lights in the Western Buddhist community, some of whom are household names. We are all in love with the Dalai Lama.

He is a diminutive man, age bending his shoulders slightly, but a giant presence. He balances his profound intellect with a childlike mirth. He mesmerizes me. I don’t know why. It begs description. It is pure instinct, I think. I respond viscerally to his simple, real goodness. It overcomes my natural cynicism. It floods me with raw emotion. Back at my cottage, I weep, gratefully.

Outside the conference, Dharamsala’s beggars and crumbling roads provide the usual challenges, but the Tibetans here are as kind and charming as anyone on Earth. They greet you with a smile, palms together, and whisper “tashe delek (good luck).”

We visit the Tibetan Children’s Village, a 40-acre school draped atop a nearby ridge. The children there have been spirited out of Tibet by their parents (though some are orphans) to escape the Chinese tyranny. Many won’t see their parents again for years, if ever. They have only their books, each other, and the school’s dedicated group of teachers. No iPods. No Xboxes. Their radiant smiles show that nothing matters in life except attitude.

In turn, their beloved Dalai Lama projects humility, joy and strength in spite of the horrors that he and his people have endured. If simple morality and ethics aren’t enough reason to help Tibet, the lessons they can teach humanity about compassion and courage should.

The conference ends and we join the Dalai Lama for photographs. I offer him a letter I had carried from home written by my youngest daughter, Rachel (Col ’11). He takes it with a smile and puts it inside the chest folds of his robe. Her words touch the heart of a holy man.