Hosting His Holiness

This is a tale of the transformative power in the simple presence of a spiritually advanced human being. In October of 1991, I had the honor of playing host to Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, during his visit to Yale University. At other times, both before and after that event, I have glimpsed the power of the Dalai Lama’s presence—initially in 1979, at Houston’s Rothko Chapel, during his first trip to North America. But this occasion in New Haven, with two days of closely accompanying His Holiness in various venues, gave me a privileged window into his remarkable capacity to lift the spirits of those around him.

My version of this story begins in the summer of 1989, with a visit that Ginger and I took to Dharamsala, the Indian village in the Himalayan region that is the seat of the Dalai Lama’s monastery and of the Tibetan government-in-exile. We were on a group trip sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), but one of our primary purposes was personal: we planned to meet Tenzin Choedon, then 14 years old, a resident of the Tibetan Children’s Village whom Ginger had sponsored since Tenzin was two. Ginger and she had corresponded and exchanged photographs since Tenzin could first draw stick figures, and their face-to-face meeting was a movingly joyous mutual recognition. I should mention that we remain in close contact with Tenzin, who considers us surrogate parent figures, and who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with a daughter who is about the age that she was when we saw her in Dharamsala.

IONS had arranged a probing stay: our group visited agencies, and met with officials, of the government-in-exile; talked with activists in the community; spent time in the monastery; and had a culminating audience with His Holiness himself. It was then that the idea occurred to me: Why not invite the Dalai Lama to Yale, and expose those busy, intellectually oriented students to his embracing presence, so enriched by decades of dedicated spiritual practice?

My position as Dean of Jonathan Edwards, one of Yale’s residential colleges, gave me access to a visiting fellowship that could cover some of the attendant expenses—although its stated purpose was to invite prominent figures in the sciences. I spoke, however, to the Master of the College, who chaired the fellowship’s governing committee; he encouraged the idea, and after consulting the donor, told me to proceed with the invitation. So a letter went out over my name, inviting His Holiness to Yale as a Tetelman Fellow and guest of Jonathan Edwards College. In the following months, we heard nothing; the Dalai Lama’s schedule, in his trips to North America, were largely arranged through the Office of Tibet in New York. But as it happened, a visit to the East Coast was on tap, as part of something called “The Year of Tibet,” and eventually word came from New York expressing interest in the visit.

I then found myself in a rather delicate diplomatic position, negotiating between figures at the Office of Tibet, for whom the Dalai Lama was literally a god, a Bodhisattva, on earth, and scientists on the Tetelman Committee, who were wary of their fellowship’s being turned over to some kind of cult figure. It helped that His Holiness had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989; but even so, he was not the widely known and revered public presence that he is today. When he finally did set foot on campus, however, all reservations dissipated into the New Haven air.

Before that point, we set about a program to educate the Yale community about the Dalai Lama and his personal history. It included documentary films, a photographic exhibit, a concert of Tibetan music, and a lecture by Robert Thurman, the renowned Colombia University scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. Eventually, as the official Yale welcoming team, Ginger and I found ourselves with a small entourage in a waiting room by the edge of a back runway at Kennedy Airport, anticipating the arrival of the Ocean of Wisdom.

With our group was the actor Richard Gere, who served as Chair of the Tibet House, based in New York. He was personable and gracious, but as I realized that he planned to be along for the ride, I found I had another diplomatic task ahead of me: to assure quietly that a glamorous Hollywood figure did not distract student attention from the Dalai Lama himself. The aircraft arrived; His Holiness greeted us with smiles and khatas; and after a proper round of pleasantries, we climbed into the small plane that had been chartered by the Office of Tibet to take us to New Haven. It was then that Ginger and I had our private time with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The plane, as I recall, accommodated about ten people: a couple in the pilot’s compartment, a row of four or five in a rear compartment, and a center cabin with four facing, padded chairs. As representatives of the hosts, we were given the central cabin with His Holiness and one attendant.

I have two distinct memories of the time in that cabin: one was the Dalai Lama’s almost childlike enthusiasm over seeing the Concorde, which was visible through the window as we made our way down the runway. The other was a conversation initiated by Ginger, who had recently returned from a group trip to Tibet. Living in exile, His Holiness had not seen his homeland since 1959, and he was intrigued to hear her impressions. Once in New Haven, the Dalai Lama was escorted to his hotel, and we prepared for the full schedule of events planned for the following day.

The Dalai Lama’s day at Yale, on October 9, began with a discussion with select scholars and other University luminaries, including chaplains, whose fields of interest might seem related to his experience. They met around a table in the College’s wood-paneled Senior Common Room, surrounded by a coterie of observers that included Messrs. Thurman and Gere and a number of students. The talk turned to philosophical topics, but the reaction that people carried away, I’d say, was predominately to His Holiness’s presence. Throughout his visit to this citadel of intellect, his message was that mind must be governed by a “good heart”—that wisdom, ultimately, springs from compassion. It was a message that he not only spoke but embodied. A small illustration lodged in my mind: as I was busily circulating about the room, making sure that all had received the proffered tea, the Dalai Lama noticed that I hadn’t gotten any tea of my own. “Don’t you want some tea as well?” he asked sympathetically. It was a small gesture, but emblematic of his attunement to the people around him.

In the following days, I spoke to some of the people who had been at that discussion, to garner their impressions. The Associate Pastor of the Church of Christ in Yale commented on the relationship between the Dalai Lama, whom she described as “that incredibly centered person,” and the Tibetan monk who accompanied him as translator. It was, she said, “extraordinarily energizing to my own sense of imagination as a Christian”; it “allowed me to picture Jesus as a human being, to imagine how he might have been witnessed by those who saw him.” The University’s Jewish chaplain had initiated a dialogue about suffering and karma. “I felt enormously lightened when I left,” he stated. “I heard my own tradition more clearly.” In the Dalai Lama’s remarks, he said, he heard echoes of “The Ethics of the Fathers” in the Talmud, expressed in a way that “seemed profoundly credible.” The overall reaction might have been best expressed by one of the student observers: “Just by being in his presence,” she said, “you know that he embodies what he’s saying—that’s the incredible thing.”

From that meeting with scholars, we crossed the College courtyard, headed towards an entrance to the living room of the Master’s House. It was there that the purpose I had in mind for this visit most fully came to fruition. I had been around the Dalai Lama enough to know that his magic comes through best in smaller groups, and I wanted to be sure that some of the College’s students had the chance to experience it. A group of 40 or so of them were awaiting His Holiness, chosen by lot from members of the college who had signed a list expressing interest. They were dressed neatly for the occasion, seated in chairs and on the carpet of the living room; and there was a palpable tension in the air before they rose to greet the College’s guest. Behind that tension, no doubt, was an understandable insecurity about exactly how they should confront the Wish-Fulfilling Gem—another of the titles bestowed on the Dalai Lama in Tibetan culture. Was this, after all, a god, or a head of state—and just what does one do in meeting either? Some had prepared well-informed questions, but in truth, none had any idea of what to expect.

Walking through the French doors that led from the Master’s garden, the Dalai Lama immediately sensed the tension. Standing in his monk’s robes, he just laughed. He probably appeared very different, he commented, but he was sure that if they could simply talk “as one human being to another,” they could have a lovely conversation. In that instant, the tension flew out of the room. The Dalai Lama took a manifest joy in being among the students, which they sensed; it was clear that not only were they there to meet him, but he was there to meet them. Within moments, as he sat in a wingback chair that happened to match the color of his robes, the students at his feet were comfortably laughing with him. In response to their questions, he recalled what he could of the time that he was recognized, when he was not yet three; he remembered having negotiated with Mao Tse-tung and Jawaharlal Nehru when he was no older than the students in front of him. The discussion ranged through the philosophy of ahimsa, or non-violence; the situation in Tibet; the implicit pluralism in Buddhist philosophy. But again, his principal message was the need for “a good heart”: Compassion, in his view, was the key to happiness, both for the individual and for society; it was essential as a guide to intellect. Kindness was the most fundamental human need, more basic, even, than religion. His way of communicating that kindness, through his very embodiment of it, left the students mesmerized and, as they eventually filed from the room, in a near-trance of delight. And I, I confess, was moved to tears: It was that effect that I was so hoping my Yale students would absorb, as a window to what could be the fruits of a life fully open to spirit.

With the students gone, we gathered with His Holiness for an impromptu strategy session. His prepared talk for the evening ventured into political territory, but he had sensed that the community’s greater need was for the message of compassion as guide to the mind. So instead of delivering the prepared speech, he was considering speaking impromptu on that theme, and he asked for our opinion—Ginger’s, mine, and the Master’s—on the proposed change. We strongly agreed, and His Holiness seemed delighted with the consensus.

Next on the agenda was a visit to the Yale Kanjur, the collection of fundamental Tibetan Buddhist scripture, which had been sent to the University in 1949, shipped first by horseback over the Himalayas to Delhi, and then a year in transit. The collection of 100 volumes had been solicited by the University from this very Dalai Lama, when he was 13 years old and when Tibet was still viewed as an isolated Shangri-La. The man behind that request had passed on to me a copy of the letter of thanks acknowledging that the Kanjur had been received, written in Tibetan with all the proper—and seemingly endless—titles and salutations. When I showed it to His Holiness at the luncheon that followed, it occasioned another laugh, for its antiquarian character: this eminently democratic Dalai Lama now seemed to find rather odd all the regal protocols that once accompanied his station.

There were some 100 guests at the luncheon, held in the elegant, circular President’s Room in Yale’s Woolsey Hall, with tables arrayed in white and blue splendor. The formality of the ambience, however, was no impediment to the Dalai Lama’s disarming displays of kindness and plain fun. My role gave me a seat at the head table, and at one point, as I glanced over at His Holiness and Yale’s president, seated side-by-side, I saw them engaged in what seemed to be something like thumb wrestling. The Dalai Lama cheerily explained that it was a test: The further back one could bend a thumb, the greater his compassion. President Schmidt clearly came out second-best: he jested that he must be “in the wrong profession.”

The luncheon’s most memorable moment came towards its end, after singing by the Whiffenpoofs, the University’s oldest a cappella group. One of the group’s members was a student aide in our College’s Master’s Office; a couple of weeks earlier, he had come up with an idea: In addition to the planned songs from their regular repertoire, the group could sing the Tibetan national anthem. The Master’s administrator loved the thought and phoned our contact at the Office of Tibet in New York, asking for the words and music. “Barbara,” the contact said dismissively, they can’t do that: It’s in Tibetan.” “Rinchen,” she replied, “this is Yale. They’ll learn it.”

Indeed, they did, although they admittedly found it a challenge, with its high melody line over the low drone of throaty Tibetan chant. His Holiness was visibly moved by the gesture. After the performance, the Whiffenpoofs, following custom, moved to file out of the room; but unlike on any previous occasion, this guest of honor got up and hastened across the room to the door, so that he could greet and thank each member of the group individually. It was one more instance of the Dalai Lama’s effect on those around him. “We were all surprised, and very touched, by the way he received us,” said Manoel, the Master’s aide. “Everyone had an ear-to-ear smile.”

The culminating event of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Yale was an address that evening at the University’s ornate Battell Chapel. Knowing something of his spiritual practices and his compassionate posture even towards adversaries, we had chosen a title at Yale: “Facing the Enemy.” But His Holiness’s office had altered the title, making it more pointed: “Embracing the Enemy.” In his now impromptu remarks, the Dalai Lama spoke of his belief in a fundamental goodness in human nature. The challenge is to access that goodness, and to release it. The obstacles to that, the real enemies, are within: characteristics such as jealousy and hatred, which can be overcome. His Holiness then returned to the message that he had given to students throughout the day: “Learning, increasing human intelligence or human knowledge,” he said, “is very essential, very important. However…education is something like an instrument. Whether that instrument is used properly or not, effectively or not…whether it becomes constructive or destructive, depends on your own heart. So therefore, when you are gaining new knowledge day by day, it is equally important to take care about your good heart.”

It was at the close of those remarks that I had an experience that has been as indelible as, at the time, it was puzzling. I was seated in the front row, applauding along with the crowd. His Holiness, hands together in front of him, was acknowledging the crowd with slight bows in his usual fashion, his glance sweeping around the room. Suddenly I felt something akin to an electric jolt. A his eyes swept across the crowd, I felt, or thought I felt, the Dalai Lama pause to look directly at me, and the buzz hit. It was instantaneous and passing, but certainly memorable. Later, I spoke to a friend about it, one more knowledgeable about Eastern spiritual practices than I. Oh yes, he said, that’s a shakti-pat, a direct transmission of energy from a guru. (Shakti, in this context, might be translated as “energy”; pat is from the same root as the English put.) Adding to the interest and puzzlement was my subsequent review of the video recording of that moment. I expected to see the pause in the sweep of the Dalai Lama’s gaze over the crowd. But it wasn’t there. He had made no discernable gesture in my direction. Nevertheless, for me, for that instant, time had somehow stopped.

In his brief sojourn in New Haven, through his graceful presence, Tenzin Gyatso brought smiles and calm into the tense busyness of University life. Manoel, I thought, described it best. The Dalai Lama, he said, “diffused tension wherever he went…. As soon as people met him, they completely relaxed.” He referred to the visit as “a sea of tranquility in the rough waters of Yale,” where generally there’s “so much pressure, stress, anxiety. People take that for granted,” Manoel said, “until someone like the Dalai Lama comes along and shows you what it is to be a peace with yourself.”