The Dalai Lama turns 77 today. Celebrations will be held at the Tibet government in exile in Dharamsala, India, and around the world.
As he would be the first to tell you, he’s not the “Pope” of Buddhism, he doesn’t speak for all of Buddhism. He’s just a simple monk.
In honor of his birthday, here’s an a short piece on an incident I witnessed at one of his teachings some years ago:
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is crying.
Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, a man considered by some to be a living Buddha, sits on a large throne-like chair above the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and he is weeping. Like a child.
It’s a warm day in May 1999, the first afternoon of a four-day teaching on the “Path of Liberation,” and there are several thousand people in attendance.
The Dalai Lama has been telling the story of a Tibetan monk who lived long ago. After a life spent purifying himself, wiping away every trace of selfishness and desire, the monk seeks solitude in his final days. He climbs high into the mountains and when he finds the spot he seeks, he offers up a prayer and then makes a heartfelt plea:
In this cave, far from any human sign, may the prayer of a dying beggar, may my aspirational prayer be answered . . .”
The monk’s plea is futile, for as we shall see, his wish cannot be fulfilled, and yet, the Dalai Lama is deeply moved by the sublime drama of the appeal, and cannot control the tears that flow from his eyes.
The audience is moved as well. An electric silence pervades the auditorium, the stillness charged with expectation. It is a powerful moment that seems suspended in time as everyone waits for His Holiness to compose himself and continue.
The Dalai Lama has been talking about compassion, and the altruistic aspiration to free others from suffering. After years of self-sacrifice, the old monk in the story has only one thought: how can he continue to help to other living beings?
Reflecting on the monk’s spirit of selflessness and compassion has provoked memories of Tenzin Gyatso’s own spiritual labors, and this has helped to unleash the emotional outpouring. It might also be that the prayer uttered by the dying monk is the same prayer the Dalai Lama cherishes above all others, and recites daily.
After a few minutes, he has finished drying his eyes and then he offers up the prayer himself, a well-known verse that has long been a source of inspiration, not only for the Dalai Lama, but for countless others, composed by Shantideva in the 8th Century:
As long as space endures,
and for as long as beings remain;
Until then, may I too endure,
to dispel the misery of the world.”
The verse expresses the noble wish to remain in this world of pain and suffering in order to work for the welfare of others. It’s a prayer of sacrifice and profound compassion. The cosmic imagery lifts the verse up from a plain of minimal and unadorned words to a plateau of staggering and magnificent dimension.
But here’s the problem: the prayer cannot be answered. No person can remain as long as space and time. And what is implied in the verse is the wish to save all living beings. That is impossible. No one can save all living beings. But, it doesn’t matter. It’s the aspiration, the spirit of altruism, that is important.
After the Dalai Lama has recited the verse, he explains:
The root of this prayer is compassion. To be interested in one’s own welfare and to desire happiness for oneself is natural. But it is more important to be concerned with the happiness of others. What an altruistic aspiration like this does is counter the self-centeredness that neglects others. If you are centered on your own well-being, and ignore the well-being of others, you will never find true happiness. The act of wishing others to be free from suffering brings great benefits and blessings to you, even though you do not seek them.”
Happy Birthday, Tenzin Gyatso, and long life . . .