Sunday, June 12, 2011

Three days (and five minutes) with the Dalai Lama

I'm in Melbourne to attend His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's three-day teachings on Shantideva's Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life.

A bodhisattva is one who renounces their own enlightment until all sentient beings are free of suffering. The Guide is basically a text on cultivating the mind of enlightenment, compassion, patience and generosity.

Day One: Saturday 11 June 2011

The morning teaching session has finished and I'm free for the rest of the day.There'll be no afternoon teaching because His Holiness has other engagements. I've run into so many people I know that I'm beginning to wonder if there are any Buddhists left in Brisbane! I swear if I stand still for long enough, everyone I know will eventually come past.

This theory is instantly borne out because I bump into two old Melbourne friends, Lucy and Anne. While I'm chatting to them, a fellow Brisbane ATC member stops to make arrangements for us to catch up for dinner later on.

I have a couple of hours to fill in until I go to meet my family, so, since I'm a bit peckish, decide to get a quick bite to eat. Unfortunately, all the other 5,000 people have decided to do the same. Queuing for food becomes an excellent opportunity to cultivate patience.

The clan has gathered under the clocks at Flinders Street Station and there is a flurry of greetings as I hug my mum, my dad, my two sisters, my son and my niece. The seven of us head to one of Melbourne's famed laneways for something to eat and drink. It's great seeing everyone again and we all have a lot of fun catching up over wine and coffee before wandering through some of Melbourne's grand old arcades.

All too soon, it's time to bid them all farewell so that I can make my dinner 'date' with Kaye and Zoe, both ATC members. We end up in Chinatown enjoying scrummy Thai food.

I'm loving being back in Melbourne. It's great seeing all the old terrace houses, the trams, the street performers and artists. I get a real kick out of seeing all my favourite pieces of street statuary again, particularly the Public Purse outside the old GPO.

Day Two: Sunday 12th June 2011

Wake up bright and early (again) to find a thick fog blanketing the city. Fantastic! I really enjoyed walking in it to the Convention Centre. Got there about 7.30am and it was almost deserted. Grabbed myself a coffee and a muffin for breakfast and a packet of sandwiches for lunch (no long queues for me today!) and wandered about the slowly opening stalls that fill the concourse. The trickle of people gradually becomes a stream as the haunting tones of Tenzin Choegyal rise to the rafters.

There are about 5,000 people in the auditorium waiting for His Holiness' arrival and there is barely a sound. Just the rustle of movement as people make their way to their seats, the occasional throat-clearing and whispered conversations.

Yesterday's teaching touched on Ultimate Reality versus Conventional Reality. Today we're beginning with an explanation of the Laws of Causality and emptiness. Big topics and I can't help but admire the person providing the sign language interpretation. She's doing a fantastic job of translating these complex ideas into AUSLAN - and she's doing it in 2-hourly stints. The only time she rests is when His Holiness speaks in Tibetan. She then translates into AUSLAN what HH's interpreter translates into English.

After lunch, His Holiness begins his exposition of the text of The Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life. This is much easier to follow and requires less mental effort to understand. He picks key verses from a number of chapters that illustrate the qualities to be cultivated if we are to live a life of altruism. It's inspiring stuff and I'm sure many in the audience (including me) are going to take the bodhisattva vow tomorrow morning.

Tonight, I'm taking myself to dinner at a little Nepalese restaurant I discovered just around the corner from my hotel.

Day Three: Monday 13 June 2011

No fog today, on this third and last day of teachings. I'm at the Convention Centre early again to lodge my backpack in the cloakroom, then spend some time watching the Gyuto monks working on a sand mandala to the Amitayus Buddha. They've been working on it since Day One and this afternoon it will be destroyed in a Dissolution Ceremony. It's a powerful lesson in impermanence - that nothing remains forever. None of us is doing very well with that idea as we all commiserate with each other about the teachings coming to an end today! So the general mood is one of happiness mixed with sadness overlaid with slight anxiety about the air travel situation. Will we all get home tonight or will the ash cloud from that Chilean volcano ground our flights?

As I mentioned yesterday, the morning session begins with taking the Bodhisattva Vows, where we all undertake to practice the six perfections: giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, wisdom and concentration. His Holiness explains that first he has to take the vows and then goes on to say he usually takes the vows early in the morning but in the intervening hours there has been some 'misbehaviour', so he has to take them again!

Come lunchtime and the air is filled with the sounds of mobile phones being turned on as people try to get information about whether flights have been reinstated. There's a collective sigh of relief as news spreads that all the airlines but Qantas are back in business. Now we can relax and focus on the afternoon session of teachings. His Holiness returns to the stage and confesses his mind is already on the aeroplane to Canberra! He spends the afternoon taking us through the chapters on Awareness, Patience, Perserverance, Meditation and Dedication - highlighting verses of particular significance for us to think about. He suggests that reading the chapter on Commitment every day could form the basis of a daily practice and that each of us should slowly read the entire text, meditating on its meaning and message as we work our way through it. He glances at his watch and announces he has to go. And he does, it's 3.30 already and he has a plane to catch. There are some formal speeches of thanks given; His Holiness says he would like to return in a year or two, which raises loud applause from the audience and then he is gone.

The sand mandala Dissolution Ceremony takes place soon after the end of the teachings. Gasps go up from those in the crowd who have never seen, or didn't realise, the destruction of such a beautiful creation as the senior lama runs his dorje through the mandala and then brushes the sand into a pile. The sand is collected and then distributed in little twists of paper to the watching crowd. I'm shouldered aside by a number of people in the unseemly rush to secure a twist, but eventually I do come away with my own little piece of the mandala.

Stalls are being packed up and there's not much reason to hang around any longer, so I retrieve my pack from the cloakroom and make my way towards Southern Cross Station (it's still Spencer Street to me) to catch the Skybus to the airport. I get chatting to a woman in the queue who was at the teachings and we talk about being Buddhist all the way to the airport. I've arrived ridiculously early for my 8pm flight, but it's a good thing as the checkin queue is a mile long. It takes a good half hour to work my way to the counter, where they're offering free luggage checking, so I ditch my pack, happy to be free of its weight for the next couple of hours. My next task is to find something to eat. I get a spinach filo and a glass of wine at a little cafe bar. That fills in about 45 minutes. There's nothing else to do so I wander down to my boarding gate and read, keeping half an ear out for the boarding announcement. When it comes, it's not what we want to hear - the flight is delayed by an hour! Apparently because the flight bringing our crew has been delayed. I go and get another glass of wine. I've just finished that when my flight is announced and we all finally begin boarding. Two hours and quite a bit of turbulence later, we're in Brisbane and my weekend with the Dalai Lama is over.

It's been a precious three days. Receiving teachings on such a profound text is a wonderful experience. To receive them from His Holiness is a privilege. Being able to spend so much time focussing on living a life of compassion, generosity and patience is like going on a retreat. I've come away feeling revitalised, energised and with a deeper sense of how to be a good person. This weekend was like a gift to myself and I'm very glad I was able to go.

Postscript: Wednesday 15 June 2011

A dream came true when I met His Holiness today. A line reception at his hotel had been arranged for longtime supporters, and active members, of the Australia Tibet Council. We had a long wait as the Youth Forum he was attending ran over time and then, suddenly he was at the hotel. We were all standing in a long line, anxiously waiting when he appeared in a flurry of security and photographers. He slowly made his way along the line, shaking hands with each person as Kaye Hanschen, ATC Board member, introduced them to His Holiness. Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me. I think I stuttered 'Your Holiness' as I bowed. He smiled and took my hand and then moved on to the next person. All too soon, he was gone and it was almost as if it had never happened! But it did and I will never forget the day I shook hands with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.