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Embodiment of a Leader: The Dalai Lama

I am leaving Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama, after attending three days of public teachings taught by the Dalai Lama himself. As an American, my respect for leaders and politicians is currently at an all time low, so listening to the Dalai Lama was like being in the twilight zone. Between the kindness of the Tibetan people, the sincerity of their reverence for the Dalai Lama, and the complexity of their philosophy, I felt like I was living in some kind of utopian dream world where everyone (including leadership) was striving to be more loving. Of course the situation in Tibet is far from utopian, but from a human perspective, the way that they conduct themselves is totally inspiring.

Before visiting the Dalai Lama’s village in northern India, my opinion of him was that of the typical westerner. Isn’t that the cheery Buddhist guy that has almost as many Twitter followers as Justin Bieber? But as I explored the Tibetan history museum, learning about the defilement of Tibet by the Chinese, I started to understand the gravity of the Dalai Lama’s position as a figure of dignity, hope and Tibetan-ness. In fact, his esteem is so strong within the Tibetan Buddhist community; there are whisperings that he could actually be a Buddha. Over the course of his teachings it dawned on me that he possessed the type of compassion that is only found among the historically oppressed. Only then do leaders seem to understand the full implications of human rights.

The Dalai Lama’s smile was infectious. A good leader is one who smiles. The desire for happiness is the most universal characteristic among humans, so if a leader constantly appears in public wearing a sourpuss face, why should anyone follow them? Upon his arrival at the temple, I felt a tremendous sense of peace and positivity. This was accompanied by a mood of sincere reverence on behalf of the Tibetans, not the kind of reverence that gets projected blindly onto leaders as it often does in America. The relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans was one of a profound respect that can only be established by merit and reciprocity. Needless to say, when the Dalai Lama walks into his temple, one does not divert their attention or move around to find a better seat because if the roles were flipped, this is not how the Dalai Lama would greet you.

As the teachings progressed I was amazed at how complex and detailed he was in his analysis of second century philosopher Nagarjunas’ text “The Middle Way”. The Dalai Lama placed great emphasis on learning the importance of discovering the true nature of reality.  He advocated for a critical approach to learning, even if it meant questioning the teachings of his deity, the Buddha. The Dalai Lama applied the scientific method to advance his analysis of the Buddha’s teachings and he spoke with the confidence of a late Charles Darwin discussing the theory of natural selection. I couldn’t help but notice the dichotomy between the Dalai Lamas’ fidelity to the truth, and the current presidents’ pathological lie telling. Can you even imagine a discourse in the oval office directed at discovering a truth that was independent of party politics or personal bias? It’s hard to think of a situation where our president would entertain such a discussion. For the Tibetans, this approach to governance has resulted in a body of leaders that makes decisions purely based on reason for the good of all sentient beings, rather than out of special interest, pride, or greed.

At 82, the Dalai Lama is still a symbol of good health. He maintains a strict schedule of discipline to ensure both mental and physical health. Some of his followers told me that he wakes up at 4am to read, study, meditate and do yoga. In almost all of his public addresses, the Dalai Lama will inevitably make a caveat promoting healthy eating habits, exercise, and preventative medical care. This message is incredibly powerful as it shows his concern for his people’s wellbeing and longevity. At the core of his talk, the Dalai Lama voiced the Buddha’s practice of arranging the inner conditions such that the highest ideals of love and compassion can be made to flourish.

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Our Expiration Date Is Not What Kills Us

Assume that my voyage in India is a microcosm of my overall life. In this sense, I was born when I landed, and I symbolically die on Nov, 2nd (too morbid?) when my return flight is booked. That leaves me with six weeks to pack in as much awesomeness, love and learning as I possibly can. Originally I believed that the awareness of my own mortality is what caused the most fear in my life. This mentality can be described as someone who is so attached to the sand that is slipping out of their hands, that they can’t appreciate the sand which they are still holding. What I have discovered is that the fear surrounding the expiration date is not what keeps us in the mental cages of stagnancy, complacency and paralysis. Instead it is the reaction to this fear that results in the inability to change our ideas and expectations. It is precisely this reluctance let go of our fixed ideas and preconceptions that prevents us from entering into the stream of life.

Believe it or not, I am able to verbalize these feelings because I myself struggle with the process of letting the sand slip through my fingers. Here is an example from my 6 week life in India.

While I was in Rishikesh, I became very focused on the next leg of my journey, which I believed would be a place of great spiritual awakening. The place where I was longing to be is called Mcleod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama, epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism and haven for Tibetan refugees. I was so excited for Ganj, that I left Rishikesh without checking everything off of my Rishikesh bucket list (rookie move… but I still had a blast). My attachments to Ganj grew even stronger when a fellow traveler from the UK informed me that the Dalai Lama himself would be in Mcleod Ganj to give teachings starting on Oct 3 (15 days after my arrival). I decided I couldn’t miss it.  With my mind fixed, there was no amount of time that I wasn’t willing to endure as long as I got the chance to hear the Dalai Lama. However, after four days in Ganj, I had checked everything off my Ganj bucket list and I really couldn’t fathom spending eleven days sitting through eleven Tibetan Buddhist teachings. That’s when the fear crept in. Was I really going to allow ⅓ of my time in India to be spent waiting in Mcleod Ganj?

Some musing, became some obsessing, which then invited my dear friend insomnia into the sandbox. I get this way when I have to make a career decision or major life move. The problem is compounded if the decision involves a prospect that is not exactly what I envisioned. But this was India! I should be sleeping soundly after rowdy jam sessions under the stars with fun hostel peeps! The contradiction of my endless freedom and the current feeling of being trapped, complacent, bored and eager was troubling. After all I could literally decide to pack my bag and travel anywhere in India, but my mind had been set on seeing the Dalai Lama.

The next right thing to do was to burst out of my fear and self-loathing and get to higher ground. I managed to pack my bag and catch a tuk tuk up to Dharamkot, a mountain village about 500m above Mcleod Ganj.  There I checked into a hostel and immediately felt a shift in energy. (Later I realized that this energy was the concentrated power of young people). After a few short minutes I had met a young New Englander named Rowan and a bunch of Indian travelers who were bursting with life and enthusiasm. It seemed like everyone was either coming from or going to their next trekking adventure. Within a night, a new path had presented itself – an overnight trek in the Himalayas. Here I was, living and sleeping on the side of a mountain, and I hadn’t considered trekking! This is the fault of so many minds that remain closed to new experiences that are literally right in front of them. Now it was just up to me to break free from my immediate plans and hop into the stream of life. Needless to say the mountain air and the pumping of the blood brought me tremendous clarity. I left the trek with a host of new friends and fresh plans to travel to Amritsar.

All of this to say: (this might get preachy y’all! Break out your fans).

Our lives are wrought with structure. Even in India, I had a rough timetable for where I wanted to go and when. When I landed in Delhi, on my anecdotal birthday, my fate could have been completely written had I not chosen to step outside of my fixed ideas and limited conceptions of what my experience should be like. As followers, we tend to do so unquestioningly. And when their is a fork in the road, who do we go to for advice? Usually ourselves or people that will validate our experience, rather than tell us the unbiased truth. It is much more convenient and comfortable this way.  Sticking to the script is much easier than exposing ourselves to the rawness of improvisation. In turn we habituate our limiting beliefs and devour our creativity and spontaneity. In fact we are so set in our routines, so infatuated with our to-do’s that we rarely get a chance to hear a new perspective or learn a new trick. And so it is not the expiration date which kills us, it is our fixed ideas.

The Butterfly Who Mistook Himself For An Eagle

The butterfly who mistook himself for an eagle soared at dizzying heights. When even a small gust of wind blew the butterfly would have to flex all his muscles in order to regain control. And the eagles laughed. “That butterfly is crazy,” they would say. But the butterfly kept pumping higher and higher to the realms of the eagles.

The butterfly even learned to hunt like an eagle. Alas! He spotted a mouse! The butterfly tucked his chin and plunged into a nosedive,  but when he got close, the mouse became ENORMOUS, and his heart almost burst with fear.  

Meanwhile, on the forest floor, some of the other butterflies would gossip about the one who wished to be an eagle, “Pay him no mind” they sneered. “He is crazy.”

After days of flying with eagles the butterfly was tired. His wings were tattered and his body was very sore, so he landed on a rock and tried not to pass out. “Who am I?” the butterfly asked himself. “Am I an eagle or a wimpy little butterfly?” He was very upset and he sat for many hours trying to come up with an answer the would ease his mind.

The other butterflies, seeing his tears, came and jeered. “Show us your talons!” they teased. He thought about his skinny little legs compared to the eagles’ massive claws. “Show us your beak!” they yelled. He touched his soft round face and pressed his finger against his thin lips. “Go away!” he yelled at the others. Eventually they got bored of teasing and fluttered off.

Then a great eagle came and landed next to the butterfly. Whoosh! It’s wind was tremendous. The eagle looked down at the dejected butterfly pityingly. “Where have you been?” the eagle asked. “Why are you sitting here on this rock instead of flying high in the realms of eagles?” The butterfly looked longingly at the massive eagle. “I am done with all of that” he whimpered. “I was never meant to fly to the realms of eagles. The other butterflies think I am crazy, and I’m starting to think that they’re right!”

The eagle looked down at the butterfly and decided it would try to cheer him up with a story. “When I was your age, I wanted to fly in the realms of gods, so for many months, I climbed and climbed, higher and higher, trying to be like the gods. I flew so high that I could see the curve of the earth, and the hurricanes spiraling over the ocean. One day, gliding among the stars, I became very sad. ‘How will the other eagles know that I have reached the realms of the gods?’ I thought to myself. I became certain that they would tease me and call me crazy if I tried to explain where I had been. So I decided to tie a string around the moon and bring it back with me to the realms of the eagles. ‘No eagle has ever flown so high’ I gloated as I finished tying the last knot. ‘The others will worship me and put a crown on my head.’

For days I tugged at the moon and dreamed of fortune. The air began to change and familiar smells of home wafted into my nose. I was so determined that I hadn’t noticed what was happening to my leg. The string, which was wrapped around my ankle, had made itself so tight. I began to feel tendons ripping and bones cracking in my leg. The only thing that was keeping my talon attached was the flesh. Screaming, I wrapped my beak around the string, bit down hard, and POP! The moon began to launch upwards, back to the realms of the gods! ‘My moon,’ I yelled! Frantically, I collected the broken string and bolted after it. But it was too late. The moon was gone.

When I returned to the realms of eagles my friends and loved ones rejoiced that I was still alive. They gave me fresh meat and built me a warm nest. ‘How could you be so foolish?’ they scolded. ‘No eagle has ever made it to the realms of gods!’ I tried to convince them but it was no use. With my broken leg, no one would believe me.

As time passed, and the pain of losing the moon faded away, I began to remember the beauty of the realms of the gods. The sparkling lights of New York and the mountains of Nepal and Tibet appeared in vivid images while I slept. While I hunted, which is what us eagles do, I hummed the melodies of the exotic songs that the star gods sang when they had fallen in love, or when they got lonely. ‘What are you singing?’ The other eagles asked. I told them that the music helped to lure in prey.  “It hypnotizes the squirrels so that they can’t run as fast,” I fibbed. Soon, everyone was singing the sweet melodies of the gods to hypnotize their prey and we rejoiced over bountiful feasts of squirrel and rabbit.” The butterfly watched as a tear fell beside him on the rock. “Everyone is so happy and I feel like I am the richest eagle in all of the realms.”

The butterfly gasped! “How foolish I have been!” he shouted. “This whole time I was so concerned with being an eagle, I forgot to appreciate all that I am, and all that I have experienced in the realms of the eagles! Imagine!” The butterfly was ecstatic. “A butterfly, soaring among eagles, singing songs of the star gods, kissing the peaks of the snow mountains! Thank you! Thank you!” The butterfly cried. “I am so thankful you have told me this story, even if you just made it up to shut me up from my crying.”

“OH!” The eagle burst loudly, darting a sideways glance at the butterfly. “Out of all creatures of the forest, I at least hoped that you would believe me.” With a woosh the eagle took to the sky, and the little butterfly bellowed, “I BELIEVE YOU!”  

Again and again, he rejoiced and jumped up and down with great big tears in his eyes.

“I BELIEVE!”

Thinking About Trees

I met a man named Raj in Rishikesh. Originally he was just supposed to be my tour guide, but during our voyage through the Himalayas we became close friends and spiritual companions. In the few days that we got to know each other, I learned a great deal about how to live a full and extraordinary life and by his example, fell completely in love with this complete stranger.

I imagine Raj was in the middle of an epic story when I walked in to inquire about renting a motorcycle. His smile was immediately noticeable as he turned to greet me, folding his hands in a very business like way, although his mannerisms were too flamboyant to be taken at face value. I was hardly seated and in the middle of my inquiry when he stopped to tell me which Bollywood star I resembled (the legitimacy of this statement was promptly verified on Google images). The reason I was there was to rent a bike and to have a guide on another bike lead me up into the mountains. As I was explaining this, he kept flashing his eyebrows up and down at me as if he was mocking the legitimacy of my request. “Will you do this or won’t you?” I was forced to ask as he sat there bobbing his eyebrows.

“Yes, yes of course we can do this Hrithik!”

“Who is Hrithik?” I asked confused.

“That’s the guy you look like! Come on man!”

Wow, I love this man already. “Okay then, are you going to be my guide?”

“Of course! C’mon man who else?” Raj was a charmer and a hustler so I’m sure he got the better of me over the price haggling, but the deed was done and all we had to do was wait for the Boss who was going to lend me his personal bike. Fortunately the $23 dollar bike tour included a great insurance policy oddly titled, ‘‘you break it you buy it.’

When the boss arrived I hopped on his bike, trying my best to hide my blatant inexperience. Before I started up with Raj, the Boss wanted me to show him that I could start the bike and make a tight circle. I looked disbelievingly at the tiny street full of cows, tuk tuk’s, people and honking buses. The men at the shop, who had nothing better to do apart from watch me struggle, smirked as I attempted to shift through the gears. I told the Boss that I was going to ride down the street a bit, knowing full well that any slow turns in front of them would ruin my chances at being approved. I came back, after an awkwardly long turn, which thank god they didn’t witness, and was cleared (though not before the boss reminded me of the (no) insurance policy). As Raj and I rode to the gas station, I could feel a light surrounding us. Just before we left the station he leaned off of the side of his motorcycle, pushed his face close to mine, and uttered four words that sounded like a Stevie Wonder song. “I love my world!” he said. And we were off.

The ride went without a hitch and the assent to Kunjapuri temple was breathtaking. We did happen to get stopped by the Indian police, but Raj managed to sweet talk his way out of any exorbitant fines. When I asked why we had gotten pulled over he replied, “Don’t worry, Indian police are corrupt.” Wow! A man after my own heart!

The next time I met up with Raj was the following day, this time without the pretenses of business, so I was interested to see how Raj would be different if at all. We met at a beautiful cafe overlooking the Ganges. We ate big breakfasts and drank sweet Chai. When I looked at my plate of eggs, beans and toast, I mistakenly called it an ‘American breakfast’ because of its size. Raj quickly corrected me for making a separating comparison between one place and another. I agreed – this was just a big breakfast, no need to place an arbitrary title on it.

Raj had already been out on a sunrise tour early that morning and he showed me the photos from the trip. As he scrolled through the pictures, I could tell that he genuinely loved the people that he guided. He spoke about the woman as if she was close family. “Doesn’t she look pretty? Doesn’t she look happy?” I was very relieved by this because I had been reserving the fear that I was just another easy tourist to make money off of. Rest assured, Raj genuinely loved his work and the people that he served, money was just a necessary component, not the whole pie.

While we were sitting, we began to transition into more personal subjects. He told me about the suffering he and his family endured over the loss of his younger brother. He also told me a very profound story about the Buddha, one which I hadn’t heard, and it’s message I hadn’t fully considered. Raj orated while I sipped my tea. “There was once a guru in India that demanded that he cut off one of the fingers of all his students, which he would then sow onto a garland and wear them around his neck. The Buddha heard of this man and questioned if he could be reformed but was warned by his counterparts not to test fate. Endowed with total honesty and humility, the Buddha was too intrigued and decided that it was worth it even if it meant losing a finger. Sure enough the guru demanded that he take one of the Buddha’s fingers for his necklace. The Buddha consented under the condition that the guru grant him a favor before he gave his finger. So the Buddha asked, “Can you go and pluck a leaf off of that tree?” The guru left and came back into the room holding the leaf which he had plucked from the branch and again demanded the Buddha to splay out his hand. But the Buddha was not finished with his request. He looked up at the deranged guru and said, “Now go back to the tree and re-attach the leaf onto the branch.” Of course the guru could not complete the request and was shocked by what it implied about his own practice of taking fingers from his subjects. In fact he was so humbled by this extraordinarily lesson that he quit his life of filleting fingers and became a follower of the Buddha.”

As we sat in this cafe, surrounded by nature, I was quite touched by this piece of wisdom. How many times have I been the guru who takes the finger, ignoring the fact that it will never be reattached? How many times have I abused situations without considering the effect on myself and others? Perhaps you could get a prosthetic finger but it would never be the actual thing. How often do we take things, people and opportunities for granted without realizing their preciousness to us. When you lose something, be it a finger or a leaf, it is lost to eternity. When you lose the body, that body is gone. We are all connected to life in this way, and so often to we forget the repercussions of our actions. We take down trees, frack for oil, bomb each other’s cities and villages, all without thinking about the precious impermanence of such things. Raj told me that the lush leaves surrounding us made him think of telling me this story. He was thinking about trees.

My friendship with Raj has left me greatly moved and empowered to become an embodiment compassion in my work. I want to squeeze the juice out of life in every moment, and to be conscious of the way that I treat others in the process. Indeed I want to ‘love my world’ with the same fervor and passion that Raj has for his.

Awakening in Delhi

This morning during meditation I rediscovered a part of myself that is fundamental and very solid. The trait, however, is very basic to the human condition/spirit, so I think that it applies to everyone. The characteristic that I found was the overwhelming desire to be seen by others, and the corrosive desire to be validated by other people to affirm my humanity.

This realization struck me the morning after my first day in Delhi, which is not surprising since Delhi is a place where appearances at first glace are so unfamiliar, the characteristics of life so foreign to my own, that I was led to believe that I was somehow different than my Indian counterparts. I think, at its core, the comparing/dualistic mind latches on to perceivable objects of difference and internalizes them at an incredibly deep level causing immense turmoil from within. Immediately a fear arose that I was not being seen – that I was fundamentally different from the crowd –  and my logical mind, un-attuned to such cultural immersion, projected it’s bias based on my own limited experience being the minority. I have different hair, different customs and different language, therefor I am different. 

I believe the source of my bias arose from my natural insecurity about the validity of my experience (compared to that of others), but also from my obsession of being someone else or living a different life. It is natural for me to say “I have only one life and I wonder if my life is the right one for me.” Sounds like a stupid question given its impossibility but when you think about it, the fear of squandering opportunities and dying with the feeling that you haven’t lived out your fullest potential is very real. So, when I was the only one (the outcast), these existential questions began to crop up, causing me to think negatively towards myself and towards this new place and it’s people.

Upon arriving in Delhi it was incredibly tempting to snap pictures at these differences and remark at their absurdity. I am not like this. This is very strange etc. My inferior mind told me that perhaps these physical and cultural differences are a result of some fundamental physiological or spiritual difference. I am guilty of projecting this bias in my initial reaction of the crowded markets in Old Delhi, unfamiliar tones bellowing from Sikh temples, and in the difference between the Indian vs. mine gut bacteria, which makes me susceptible to illness if I drink the water.

Without a reference to validate our similarities and common humanality, being alone in a foreign country can be incredibly isolating. That being said I have experienced the same isolation in my all-white high school, when I convinced myself that I was somehow different from my peers. Moving right along. What are the effects of this fear based mentality on society?

People stay in homogeneous groups and the systems of racial and cultural separations continue to strengthen because people are afraid that they won’t be seen if they decide to desegregate themselves. The human need to validate oneself based on the approval of others is not readily available in situations of immersion. In fact, if one is seeking validation solely from an external source and no similarities are to be found, genuine human connection can be entire absent from the picture.

Due to the time zone change on the morning of my arrival in Delhi,  I stayed up all night and left the hostel before dawn. As I walked through the streets by Humayun’s Tomb, I was impulsively reacting negatively to the poverty on the streets. Relative to the United States, poverty in India is so pervasive and because of my positionality, I may have even been perceiving middle class Indian’s to be in poverty. I found myself snapping photos of the families sleeping on the sides of the streets so I could later show others just how bad it was. Later that afternoon, after some much needed sleep, I realized that I had been biased in my initial assessment of poverty in India. This poverty, although manifest in slightly different variations than in America, is still poverty and their is not one form that is better or worse. India is no more to blame for their poverty than are we Americans. It is still poverty.

The basis of this on a cognitive level is still the same as the human need to be seen, but it is also linked to my Western conditioning to find faults in others so that I can feel superior. Unbeknownst to me, I was carrying a fair amount of prejudice with me to India. Oh their infrastructure is underdeveloped. Oh their traffic is terrible, oh their institutions are not as established as in America. For a competitive New England boy, these assessments were automatic and therefor comforting. They allowed me to feel safe about my differences. They also validated my position making me feel like my life is the right life, my country the right country, my poverty the right poverty etc. But this is also untrue and therefore it was affecting my ability to truly see and be seen. Superficiality -the animals on the streets, the texture of the dirt, the color of the skin, the labels on the currency – were all inhibiting me from seeing the caring eyes and the vibrant life that was all around me.

The channel for resolving this problem, the corrosive need to be seen and validated by others who are similar to you, is to look inward for an internal source of validation. While I was meditating on the terrace of the hostel, I repeated this mantra so that I wouldn’t have to feel separate anymore from the people around me.

Take away the desire to be seen.

Take away the desire to be validated by others. 

Let my light shine from within. 

After this meditation and long quite car ride to the Kashmiri Gate bus station with some other foreign travelers, I began to meet eyes with many Indian’s, exchanging smiles of the heart. Now I can see India’s beauty for what it really is.