by Meath Conlan
Early winter mists floated over the plains and valleys of this beautiful part of South India. Land that was donated by Nehru to the Tibetan refugees after 1959 has become a fertile estate for thousands. From afar the new gompa, a mediation hall as high as a five-storied building, looked imposing and surreal as it towered above everything else for miles around. Multi-coloured prayer flags flapped as columns of incense rose lazily into the blue and pinkish morning light, so typical of the sub-continent.
Sleepy, well swept, dampened white-walled streets and alleyways of the large monastic village quietly turned maroon as thousands of Tibetan monks in traditional robes walked to their newly constructed hall. Today was the culmination of years of effort by their retired abbot Khensur Rinpoche and many other lamas who travelled the world as lama dancers, butter sculptors, sand mandala creators, and above all as good will ambassadors of this tiny Buddhist sect that is gaining more and more attention from not only Western but also considerable numbers of Asian people who have become dubious of the materialist cultures in which they live.
This morning and for the rest of the week His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama would be presiding at inauguration ceremonies, and thereafter delivering teachings on significant though rarely commented upon Tibetan scriptures for a gruelling six hours a day. Each session commenced with 8,500 monks from as far away as Tibet and Mongolia. They intoned the familiar deep throated three-toned chanting now familiar as essential to Tibetan ceremonial. Countless steward monks quietly and efficiently serve breakfast of hot butter tea and warm rice to everyone, including the small contingent of foreigners who were, like myself, fortunate enough to attend as guests of the monastery.
From the moment I arrived at the monastery I was caught by the atmosphere of reverence and respect shown by each monk toward every other monk. Without pushing or shoving, younger monks would reverently take the hand of older monks and, either step back allowing them to move forward, or would gently guide them to a seat at the front of the crowd. Monks of equal age would bow to each other in an attitude of surrendering their place in the queue, or of even giving up their viewing advantage so that another might benefit. Even we ‘outsiders’ were shown such deference, to which we had no right, that it made one wince.
In the skies above the gompa thousands of eagles floated on air currents, waiting for the ceremonial rice and other food offerings to be placed atop the many monastery buildings. They also had a part in today’s proceedings – much as they do every day after morning and afternoon rituals that always seem to involve food offerings, either to the deities or to human beings attending and taking part.
Such witness to respectful and gentle mindfulness of the needs of one’s companions is as striking and edifying as is the whole community’s regard for nature’s needs in the animals and birds that abound within and around the monastery. Nothing seems to be too much trouble in the way members of the community relate to one another. Individuals are committed to showing this traditional respect as their way of spreading the Dharma – the Universal Law – as taught by Guatama Buddha, and they show it, as an offering for the benefit of these and all beings, without discrimination.
The Dalai Lama’s words are printed and displayed all over the monastic village: “We have no need for great temples or complicated philosophies: our heart is our temple, and our kindness is our philosophy.”
I’ve been associated with inter faith dialogue for nearly twenty years. From the first occasion, which was to lecture Tibetan Buddhists on the history, development and practice of the Christian Contemplative tradition, I’ve never seen any shift in the stance of gentleness, reverence and respect in the Tibetan attitude to all other beings. This is also extended to those who have in the past, and may wish to continue in the present, mistreating them, their culture and traditions. Archbishop Fitzgerald stressed that one of the aims of interreligious dialogue is, “to take a step forward and help people of various religions to cooperate together, that is, to cooperate to help humanity, to address the problems of our world together.” My friend and host, Khejok Rinpoche, a high lama who now lives and teaches in Australia, writes, “When you face a hostile person, think about this: he is simply having a hard time trying to find happiness and avoid suffering. It just so happens that when he was going about doing so, you got in the way. See yourself in him and your anger will melt away.” There is so much we can, if we are open, learn from other religious traditions.
At the end of the first day of instructive teaching from His Holiness, and the amazing witness provided by so many thousands of monastics patiently sitting cross-legged in reverential silence at his words, I left with all the rest. But it was not to rush off to do some other task, or to be somewhere else, or even to be taken up making plans for some future event that may have occupied my mind. It was simply to exercise the same gentle and respectful attitude of mind to myself that I been offered by the Dalai Lama and his community that day – the reverential realisation that I was and am valuable and quite okay just as I am. The Dalai Lama constantly repeats that his religion is kindness. It is my quiet resolve that today I’ll start again to treat myself with kindness, with gentle reverence that may, in its own way, spread to others with whom I live and work and play.
With this inner affirmation I walked with my companions back to the cottage provided by that once refugee monk Khejok Rinpoche. I realise, once more, that much of what passed for self-righteous judgment of others - within me and within whole communities in our world today - is based on fear and ignorance. I reminded myself that the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan community in exile offer me, and the suffering world a reminder of the need to acquire, or rediscover the quiet art of gentle, kindly self-acceptance. To accept this offering means showing compassion towards others as though to one’s self. It means granting tolerance and understanding for all in the many “tense and conflicting situations” people find themselves in today. Only in this way, by in fact realizing that, as my friend Khejok Rinpoche said, ‘the other’ is myself, will my anger melt away, and I’ll be able to do my part in overcoming the afflictive emotions that have brought us all to such a dangerous and fearful place in world history.
This article © Meath Conlan, Perth, Western Australia, 6 January 2003
Meath Conlan is an Australian researcher and author on Inter-Faith pilgrimage. Just before Christmas he joined the Dalai Lama for the Inauguration of the new meditation hall at Seramey Monastic University in South India. Thereafter he accompanied his Tibetan friend of nearly twenty years, H. E. Khejok Rinpoche on a pilgrimage of the Buddhist sacred sites in Bihar and Nepal. Meath is a member of the Bede Griffiths Trust.