In researching my memoir, I oftentimes slipped into the role of my alter ego, Nancy Drew. I’ve retrieved clues from dusty archives; revisited the vacant fields where my father pitched his revival tents; and reclaimed abandoned artifacts, strewn by the wayside as we followed the Sawdust Trail.
I unearthed this family treasure in the Oregonian archives. Years ago, my father purchased this advertising space, in anticipation of a large turnout for an indoor revival meeting. The venue’s long gone, and the intended audience has scattered. But this newspaper clipping is a voice from my past, harkening me back to my childhood. I remember the murmuring crowds, the rise and fall of my father’s voice in the pulpit, perfumed women and sweat-soaked laborers, gospel choruses and clanging tambourines… same as if it were just yesterday.
Most certainly, dusty pages like this would’ve been trashed, were it not for keen-eyed, good-hearted historians–librarians, genealogists, archivists, and volunteers–saints of a sort, who devote their time and energies to the preservation of our individual and collective stories. I’m grateful to them always, but I think they deserve special recognition on Thankful Thursday. Can I get a witness?
I’ve always found a quiet comfort in the 23rd Psalm, memorized in Vacation Bible School and carried into adulthood like a glowing candle.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
The imagery is beautiful, at once joyful and serene. To my ears, the King James version is especially lyrical, probably because it’s what I grew up hearing. In troubled times, we look for the light, seek the familiar.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate other translations. In fact, someone recently posted a modernized version to social media:
…He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with oils of tranquility. My cup of joyous energy overﬂows…
Written in the mid-1960s by a Japanese woman named Taki Miyashina, it felt to me like an affirmation–as refreshing as sea spray, calming as the ocean’s lullaby.
I sent it on to a special friend, who responded in a flash: “Very pretty word pictures that sound a little new age-ish to me. For me, it doesn’t fulfill the original meaning.”
Well, that ruffled my feathers, I’ll tell you what!
I pushed back on what felt to me like a purity test. We made nice, of course, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t respond more graciously in the moment.
I don’t think it’s for any one person to say, “This is the only way to write something, now and for all time.” Our ears aren’t always attuned to the same sounds and rhythms. Cultures vary; times change; vantage points differ. That any text should be considered inerrant, infallible, and indelible…that’s what I grew up hearing, but it’s always rung false to me.
Several of my writer friends posted like-minded messages to Facebook: “I have no words,” they said, though many found their voices in the conversations that followed.
I echoed their sentiments; added emoticons and cryptic hashtags, marveling all the while about the new-fangled ways in which we now express these age-old sorrows.
I don’t know why my mind works this way, but a Bible story came to mind. (Do we ever really outgrow the lessons we learned in Sunday School?)
Forgive me if I leave out any key details, but as I recall, the basic storyline goes something like this:
After they’d wandered through the wilderness for 40 long years, God told Joshua to march the Israelites around the walls of Jericho–seven long days, in absolute silence, after which they’d blare their horns and shout. To his weary, disgruntled charges (After all this time, you’re making us wait?), this edict must’ve seemed an outrage. Maybe, too, they questioned Joshua’s judgment. But that silent marching was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. It forced the Israelites to quiet their minds. Little by little, they turned their gaze in the same direction. Their footfalls settled into a synchronous rhythm. Their spines straightened, bolstered as they were by the shared belief that they’d soon find themselves in the Promised Land, which lay on the other side of those formidable walls. And on the seventh day, so the story goes, the rabbis blew their horns and everyone shouted, loudly and in unison. And just as God promised, those walls came crashing down.
I’ll leave it to scholars to argue the historical accuracy of this story, and maybe its religious significance. You might have a bone to pick with me for the way I’ve told it. But for today, I’m just ruminating on the value of getting quiet–especially during these dark nights and difficult days–and drawing from our collective stories whatever courage and comfort we might find there.
In the gauzy hour before sunrise, our shuttle pulls into the circular driveway of Ronald Reagan Medical Center. Streetlamps twinkle on shiny poles, and polished travertine gleams in our headlights. My husband collects his pre-op instructions; I give his hand a gentle squeeze. Sirens wail. Paramedics lower a gurney from an ambulance, and the hospital doors whoosh open, bathing everyone in light.
Hollywood-style glitz, more often associated with its namesake than your typical hospital
Here, staff members treat surgical patients with the same accord as trauma patients, who get the same level of care as celebrities who roll up to the entrance in chauffer-driven Bentleys. Stretched by limited space and overwhelming demand, staff members nevertheless find a way to share a deep appreciation for the human beings that occupy their beds. “What’s your story?” finds its harmony in the oft-repeated, “How can I help you?”
Several hours later, I find myself pacing the length of the recovery unit. A grizzled man clings to an IV pole, winces as he shuffles past me, pivots, and matches his steps to mine. “Way to go,” I say, and he gives me a wan smile.
“I was born in the original UCLA hospital,” I say.
“Don’t date yourself,” he warns.
We walk together in silence, but before long, he’s describing for me a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam. He’d signed up for the military after high school—same as his daddy, and his granddaddy before him. But while he didn’t expect a hero’s welcome when he returned home as a decorated paratrooper, neither did he expect to be pelted with glass bottles, verbal expletives, and spit. He shrugs, scratches the tattoos that span the length of his arms, says his heart transplant was probably caused by stress. But he is quick to reassure me that the protesters hadn’t broken his spirit. He is proud of his children, and several grandchildren look up to him, now.
We linger in my husband’s doorway, talking softly while he emerges from his anesthesia haze. A nurse swoops in, repositions the cotton gown around his shoulders, offers him water, and fluffs his pillows. Eric opens his eyes, gives me a weak smile that says, roughly translated: “I love you. We made it.”
They are worlds apart, my husband and this wounded veteran. Their paths converged in this hospital because of health concerns, nothing more. Their prognoses are good. They have everything in the world to live for, and they know it.
Believe it or not, the same can be said for the people who huddle inside these temporary quarters, parallel-parked on a road less travelled.
You’ve perhaps seen this kind of encampment on your way to work: a derelict dwelling that afflicts the comfortable. Most people avert their eyes as they hurry past…but I don’t.
What I’m about to tell you might come as a surprise to some, given that I most often blog about hummingbirds and butterflies, wonders of nature and writerly stuff.
As the daughter of an itinerant preacher, I’m intimately familiar with the musky odors of makeshift quarters like these. I’ve experienced poverty so severe that it creeps into your psyche, have endured hunger pangs so severe that they feel like a shank to the belly. I spent a good portion of my childhood in the margins, wholly dependent on the kindnesses of strangers. Despite–or maybe because of all this–I cling to the comforting words of my Nana: “In the darkest nights of winter, watch the skies and listen for the robins.”
Nana taught me to lean in the direction of things that are “lovely, honest, and true,” to believe, without wavering, that “joy cometh in the morning.” She never stood in the pulpit, but by her example, I learned the simple elegance of the Golden Rule. It’s the gold standard, when it comes to taking the measure of your life.
I’m not afraid to venture into neighborhoods best known for crumbling sidewalks, ghost signs and hazard cones, and curbs so steeped in garbage that you turn your ankle when you step into the street against the light. Call me reckless if you will, but I’m not afraid to venture into darkness to serve “the least of these.” I love the whirr of iridescent wings, but this is the pulse of my life.
Rarely has any of this made its way into my blog–not explicitly, anyway–for reasons I’d rather not go into right now. Mary Oliver once said: “Write for whatever holy things you believe in.” I’ve always done that, sometimes in broader strokes than others. But the events of this past weekend have inspired me to put a finer point on things this morning.
All that to say: when I sprinkle candies over a swirl of frozen yogurt (to celebrate my husband’s homecoming), I also toss a large wedge of gourmet Swiss cheese into the grocery cart. An impulse buy, for total strangers.
I keep a respectful distance, smiled as I peer into the shadows. “Hi, my name is Melodye,” I say, “Do either of you like cheese?”
Four hands, light and dark, stretch beyond the portal of the tent. A wordless answer, easily translated.
We exchange names, share a few pleasantries, and then I retreat to the warmth of my car. New friendships need oxygen, and grace.
In Inky and Starr’s mirrored sunglasses, I see reflections of our shared humanity.
Storm clouds cover the sun with a wooly-gray blanket. Heavy winds lift the edges of the tarp. My husband’s discharge process takes longer than expected, and as I tap-tap-tap my fingers on the steering wheel, my heart tugs me in the direction of their curbside home. Again. I cut the engine, shove my keys into my purse, grab my camera, and cross the street.
“May I sit with you for a while?” I ask. The answer is yes!
We warm ourselves around a makeshift grill, spin yarns about our childhoods, and muse about the events that brought us all together. They’d met two years ago, Starr tells me, at a bus stop in Hollywood. Inky gives her shoulders an affectionate squeeze, “I’ve been looking for her for all my life,” he says, “and we’ll be together for always.”
“Would you mind if I take your picture?” I ask. “And maybe take a short video, so I can share your story with my friends?”
Inky flings his arms open, fingers splayed, and flashes an open-mouthed grin. “Sure,” he says. Starr nods, with no hesitation whatsoever. So I switch my camera to video mode, and press the shutter button. The result is this unedited clip–not inclusive of everything we covered in our earlier conversation, but enough for you to get better acquainted. Roll straight through to the end, and you might learn something new about me, too. I’ve never fielded this question publicly, but his curiosity was genuine, and disarming…
Call them serendipitous, call them happenstance or good luck. But the truth is, these seemingly random encounters occur more often than anyone (aside from my closest friends and family members) might guess. My husband calls them “a Melodye thing.” I call them shivery magic–miracles that come of flinging your heart’s door wide open, and basking in the light.
For those who choose to bang the drums of war, slam shut the gates of compassion, and greet the hard issues with false bravado…
I offer these pictures of Syrian refugees, alongside sacred texts from the world’s major religions, all of which speak to the idea that we are our brother’s keepers, beholden equally to some version of the Golden Rule.
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. — Christianity (Luke 6:31, King James Version)
Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. –Taoism (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien)
What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary. –Judaism (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. –Hinduism (Mahabharata 5:1517)
Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not. Also: Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. –Bahá’í Faith (Baha’u’llah)
[A] state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another? — Buddhism (Samyutta NIkaya v. 353)
This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. –Brahmanism (Mahabharata, 5:1517)
None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. –Islam (Number 13 of Imam, “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths”)
In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self. –Jainism (Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara)
Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others. –Zoroastrianism (Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29)
Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, “It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” — Confucianism (Doctrine of the Mean 13.3)
This is a terrible problem, of vast proportions. There are no easy solutions, and platitudes won’t wash away the horrors. I’m not suggesting otherwise…just asking that we step away from our reflexive fears, and quiet ourselves long enough to contemplate how we might respond with compassion, instead.
Strange as it might seem to say, my brother’s hospice stay helped crystalize my thoughts about Father Junípero Serra’s canonization ceremony. Though I was personally conflicted, I was glad for the opportunity to witness this historic event firsthand. But it was during Roger’s illness, and his eventual passing, that I eventually found the words I needed for this follow-up blog entry. To wade into troubled waters, unafraid.
My moment of clarity came at Roger’s bedside when, plastic water pitcher in hand, I harkened back to an author’s chat with Anne Lamott. She spoke to us about a good many things, including Grace, which she described as “a glass of cool water from the flow of the Beloved.” I nodded, then as now. We tap into Grace when we ferry endless cups of water to the parched and suffering. We catch glimpses of Grace in a spoonful of ice chips, skimmed across the fevered lips of a cherished other. Crystal clear, Light-reflecting water. And the tears that flow, theirs and ours? Rivulets of Grace, flowing to and from the Source.
I thought about how, in fast-tracking Father Serra’s path to sainthood, Pope Francis must’ve known that decision would ignite the burning embers of controversy. Opinions were–are–sharply divided. While acknowledging Serra’s mixed legacy, some believe he should be judged in the context of the era in which he lived and worked. Such is the case with my new friends, pictured below. However–and without judging the source of his missionary zeal–historians agree that Serra (along with his fellow Franciscan friars) committed crimes against humanity. In elevating this colonial padre to sainthood, would the pontiff also call him (and the Church) to account for his actions?
Happy, Wick, and Baby are elders of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. Their direct-line ancestors were conscripted to build and inhabit the San Juan Capistrano Mission.
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The pope might view this historic occasion as an opportunity to personally address tribal leaders who circulated petitions to oppose the canonization. In his homily, he could respond directly their myriad letters of protest, as-yet-unanswered by the Vatican. In a Catholic mass, live-streamed around the world, he could weigh the practices of conversion against the larger issues of human rights. How better to heal any open wounds, than to administer a measure of Grace?
It would be surprising move, perhaps; but then again, this pontiff has a penchant for the unexpected. He expresses tolerant and compassionate views. He pushes the boundaries on social issues, more so than some of his predecessors. In my heart of hearts, that’s what I hoped for. Naïve or no, it was the prayer on my lips when the ceremony opened with the traditional ringing of the bells.
But as my Nana used to say, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Meaning: That’s not the way things unfolded. In his homily—broadcast from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—Pope Francis characterized Father Junípero Serra as a kind-hearted padre who protected Native Americans from colonizers—a trailblazer who relished the opportunity to spread the Gospel throughout California, while also preserving local customs and cultures.
Monument of Junípero Serra and a Native American boy. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, the 7th of 9 missions Serra founded.
In this uncharacteristically passive excerpt, Pope Francis attributed the known atrocities to a nameless enemy:
Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.
Pope Francis spoke at length about the importance of missionary work, related the joys it brings and spreads, and described Father Junípero Serra as a humble servant who fulfilled Jesus’ commandment to His disciples:
Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be. Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living. Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.
He then declared that, in meeting that commandment with an open heart and willing hands, Father Serra proved himself worthy of sainthood.
The moment of canonization, as seen from within the vaulted walls of the Great Stone Church Ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
In pivoting to this final note, the Pontiff completely sidestepped the more difficult truths of Serra’s legacy:
Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! … Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!
Here, a liminal moment in which Pope Francis might have delivered Grace to those who’d “hungered and thirsted after righteousness” for more than 200 years. But he walked right past that wellspring, and assumed his traditional place at the altar where a trio of ornate chalices rested.
I’m headed to Mission San Juan Capistrano today, to bear witness to an historic, if highly controversial, event. Pope Francis is officially declaring Father Junipera Serra a saint, and the canonization ceremony will be live-streamed in the Great Stone Church Ruins (pictured here).
I find sanctuary in these beautiful gardens, which is maybe hypocritical, given the gruesome events that once took place on the Mission grounds. True stories, oftentimes buried, in which Father Serra plays a key role.
At the heart of my own restlessness about today’s event is the mythology that surrounds Father Serra. The Catholic Church depicts him as a man of his time–a protector of Indians who displayed concern for the Juaneños’ physical and spiritual well-being. A father figure.
But descendants of those indigenous people suggest otherwise. They argue that Father Serra was, in fact, an anti-hero of sorts. These perspectives were whitewashed when I was a 4th grader, but the official California school curriculum now says: “The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the relative absence of native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions.
“The death rate was extremely high. Contributing factors included the hardships of forced labor and, primarily, the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity. Moreover, the imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and negatively impacted scores of communities.”
Given Pope Francis’s expressed desire to place a “New Evangelization” at the forefront of his papacy, I’m wondering how he’ll unite an otherwise friendly audience, who nevertheless view Father Serra’s canonization with no small degree of skepticism. Unambiguous anger, too, expressed on behalf of the indigenous peoples who suffered greatly during this period of colonialism.
In a written protest to the Vatican, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman Lopez says: “The Catholic Church will someday realize that canonization of Serra has seriously damaged their right to claim moral authority on issue of poverty, social justice, and indigenous rights. The Church’s treatment of California Indians clearly sends the message that they believe that evangelizing is saintly behavior even if it means the destruction, domination and the stealing of land of indigenous people.”
Perhaps Pope Francis will begin with a confession. He might admit, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the atrocities Father Serra and his missionaries committed during the establishment of the California Missions. Maybe, too, he’ll issue a formal apology, similar to his plea for forgiveness of the church’s “many grave sins” against South America’s indigenous people. How else to bridge the gap between mythology and fact, and to enjoin members of the Church to lead by example?
I’m just one member of a vast audience, mind you, but I’ll report what I see and hear.
Update: I’m working on my follow-up entry & plan to post it soon. But my brother is very, very ill, so I trust you’ll understand & forgive the delay. –M
Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment. –Dalai Lama
It took nine days for two monks to create a sand mandala, in honor of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. My friend Karin and I were fortunate enough to watch those artisans at work, and to share tea and conversation with them a few weeks back.*
Earlier this week, the Center for Living Peace provided a short video clip of the private dissolution ceremony.
<a href="https://instagram.com/p/5vC-qDvfVp/" style=" color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;" target="_top">"Impermanence" was truly the word of the day. • • • After spending 9 days of tireless work creating the Sand Mandala in honor of @dalailama's 80th birthday, the monks dissolved it this morning. Such a beautiful display of #impermanence @ucirvine</a>
A video posted by Center for Living Peace (@occlp) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2015-07-29T21:26:49+00:00">Jul 29, 2015 at 2:26pm PDT</time>
(For still images of a dissolution ceremony, click here and scroll down. A more detailed video is available at this link.)
In witnessing these ancient Tibetan Buddhist traditions, I am reminded of the simple joys available to us in each moment. Beauty. Unity. The healing balm of sacred rituals. Too, in watching the attentiveness with which the monks go about their tasks–the physical endurance and mental discipline required to create and then dismantle the sand mandala–I see illustrated the concepts of detachment and impermanence.
The metaphor is deep and wide, with a special resonance for each of us. I’m appreciating it anew this morning, as a memoirist whose book is currently out on submission to publishers.
When we contribute our stories to the collective, we spare them from the dustbin of history, albeit temporarily. Pages crumble; interests wax and wane. So we aim for the transcendent, more so than permanence. We stay in the room with story, despite any temporary discomfort. In writing about past events, we remain fully present. And we try to remember that who we are– in this moment; in light of our experiences, and despite them–is the heartbeat of our memoir.
*Oh my goodness, I’m remembering now that I teased a second blog entry about that! I’ll post it next week, I promise!
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. –Dalai Lama
Three friends and I were among the 18,000 people who flocked to the Honda Center in Anaheim last Sunday, in celebration of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. We paid big bucks for center-front seats, a worthy trade-off for the privilege of seeing firsthand the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who embodies Tibetan Buddhist values and the art of happiness. Creative souls that we are, we thought it serendipitous that program featured a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama about “awakening compassion” and “the transformative power of creativity and art.”
Artists put the finishing touches on a giant mural, in the final hours before curtain call.
You know me: I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of writer. But I’m gonna give this to you straight. Global Compassion Summit, Day One was more glitz than substance, accessorized as it was with frothy celebrities, a fluffy hashtag, and Styrofoam cake. As a local resident (in any capacity, really), I was well and truly embarrassed. #WithCompassion
In an emotional opening, Venerable Lama Tenzen Dhonden attempted to set the stage. “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day, but if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.”
I’m guessing the event coordinators handpicked the performers, measured each act against a set of objective criteria. No doubt, they asked the finalists to be mindful of the Dalai Lama’s very specific birthday wish. They probably choreographed everything beforehand, too, as organizers are wont to do. But you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Some presenters wove their personal remarks into the overarching theme, if only tangentially. “Meditation alone will not change the world,” Jody Williams told us. “We have to have action.” After the applause faded, she added, “The Dalai Lama is my favorite action figure.”
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, sings a few stanzas of “Happy Birthday” to “the most rocking, compassionate simple Buddhist monk I know.”
Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke directly to the Dalai Lama. “”Whenever I get tired or I lose hope, I remember you. For 60 years, you have been fighting for the rights of the people of Tibet without becoming tired and without losing hope.” I teared up, right here.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks in Farsi, in honor of her compassionate mother.
The oceans are signaling their distress, this team of bespeckled scientists warned. We must respond with a shared sense of urgency, or face together the dire consequences of our inaction. Believe you me, I would’ve signed any petition they put in front of me, would’ve appreciated a very specific list of action items. Even the most compassionate among us are prone to inertia…
Desmond Tutu’s grandson made a brief appearance, as did a couple of philanthropists. At several points in the lengthy ceremony, the lights dimmed and pre-recorded birthday wishes flashed across the Honda Center’s Jumbotrons. It was a parade of luminaries whose names I didn’t recall and whose faces I didn’t recognize. Putting aside for a minute the Archbishop’s charming songfest, the repetitiveness became a source of irritation for an increasingly restless crowd. “I didn’t come here to gawk at celebrities,” someone said. “I came to hear the Dalai Lama.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, singing to the Dalai Lama.
By and large, the panelists seemed unprepared for the discussion du jour, so they talked instead about the subject they knew best. That is to say: themselves.
Comedian George Lopez made a self-effacing joke about language barriers. When it fell flat, he turned it into a political jab.
Recognize the guy on the left? Hint: Harem pants, gold lamé, and‘80s hip-hop. It’s Hammer Time, and MC’s upgraded himself to designer shades and a suit! In a bit of revisionist history, MC described the lyrics of U Can’t Touch This is “an exultation” to God. Note the panelists’ reactions. They were mirrored by the audience.
Julia Ormond (patterned skirt, blue shawl) started out well: “An important part of acting involves hearing other people’s stories and then evoking their emotions in your performances,” she said. But she stayed too long in the spotlight, prompting someone in the darkened balcony to shout, “Let His Holiness speak!”
Through it all, the Dalai Lama remained calm and observant. At times, he seemed amused by the outsized personalities that flanked him.
“The source of contentment and happiness lies within our selves.”
When the children’s choirs marched in, we saw his tender side. During the Agape Choir’s performance, for instance, a caucasian child was holding the only mic. Standing behind that soloist: a diverse group of smiling, swaying, clapping children who seemed just as eager for attention. The Dalai Lama’s smile was inclusive, and his embrace encompassed all.
Randy Jackson bellowed, “Whasssupppp, Los Angeles?”
Duuuude, you’re in Anaheim. But yeah, whasssup. Or whatever.
When Josh Radnor and Wilmer Valderrama took the stage, Ann Curry introduced them in the context of their TV series, now cancelled. “Your Holiness,” the moderator said, “You probably saw that popular TV show…”
Hit shows or not, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t.
Notables and not, the panelists sat together on the lengthy white sofa, chatting among themselves and occasionally addressing the Dalai Lama in their remarks. Ticket-holders gathered their belongings and headed toward the exits. More’s the pity, because when the Dalai Lama eventually fielded Ann Curry’s question about being compassionate in the face of criticism, his answer was golden.
His Holiness recalled for us–with twinkling eyes and make-believe horns—the time he’d been called a “demon” by a high-ranking Chinese Communist. Our critics can be our best teachers, he said. But if there is no truth to what they say…he waved a dismissive hand. His comments were so self-effacing, his laughter so infectious that we found ourselves chuckling about the accusation, maybe also rearranging our thoughts about the absurdity of it all.
He was just as mirthful about the gigantic birthday cake that was eventually wheeled onstage. Carved from fondant-covered Styrofoam, the 8-foot confection was painted a high-gloss silver, and then festooned with saffron and maroon flowers that matched his monastic robes. From a hidden compartment in the back, someone pulled a smaller, edible cake: lemon-vanilla chiffon with strawberry filling. The Dalai Lama ate a pretty big forkful, and then let loose his trademark belly laugh. “You should visualize yourself taking a taste,” he teased.
At last, Ann Curry presented to the Dalai Lama his ultimate birthday gift: an aerobatic performer, female, gyrating above a spiritually symbolic lotus. I wasn’t the only one who cringed, by a long shot. No telling what the Dalai Lama was thinking, because his chair was positioned at stage right, and his face was cloaked in shadows.
The pink lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, associated with the Great Buddha himself.
When the symbolic metamorphosis was complete, Ann Curry accompanied the Dalai Lama again to center stage. Again, the belly laugh, as His Holiness took notice of the artists’ flamboyant costumes.
I later realized that, in these singular moments, the octogenarian monk was exemplifying some of the values we hold dear, as storytellers and visionaries. Beauty that comes of authenticity. Lightness of being. Diversity. Objectivity. Transcendence.
The Dalai Lama also said many lovely things about peace, education, happiness, and spiritual connectedness–variations on previous talks that you can easily find elsewhere. Now that I think about it, they weren’t all that different than his remarks at UCI, back in 2011 (my write-up). But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I came away with two important observations. Gifts of insight, if you will. 1) While compassion fuels creativity, ego is its arch-nemesis. 2) When we explore our compassionate, creative sides, we find the secret compartments in which the tastiest cakes are hidden. While I’m at it, maybe I should also add a third. 3) It’s difficult to write a fair but critical piece about something so subjective, and to (paraphrasing storyteller Ron Carlson here) “stay in the room with the story” for as long as it takes to discover the deeper truths.
In honor of His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, two monks visiting from the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, India are creating a sand mandala on the UCI campus. I count myself lucky to be among those who will be in attendance for The Dalai Lama’s actual birthday celebration, as part of the Global Compassion Summit in Orange County, California. But in advance of that day, I wanted to take part in this more intimate, sacred ceremony.
My Pentecostal upbringing was steeped in rituals, none of them similar; but when I first saw a sand mandala a few years ago, I was instantly drawn to its spiritual metaphors. Events like this are best when shared, so I was happy when my friend Karin agreed to join me.
Mandala-in-progress, featuring the celestial house of Avalokiteshvara. Tibetans regard His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama as the living manifestation of compassion.
Karin’s first thought, confessed over dinner? Netflix’s hit series, House of Cards. No spoiler alerts, please, because I’ve only watched Season One, Episode I. Still, I’ve read enough to know that the main character’s ruthless ambition is a driving force, that viewers are plunged into the depths of depravity as Frank Underwood claws his way up the political ladder. Having schemed his way into the White House by Season 3, Frank sets for himself the task of establishing his legacy. It is in this context that he and his wife Claire play host to a group of Tibetan monks, who create for the President and First Lady their very own sand mandala (brief video clip).
“Mandalas constructed from [crushed limestone] are unique to Tibetan Buddhism and are believed to effect purification and healing. Typically, a great teacher chooses the specific mandala to be created. Monks then begin construction of the sand mandala by consecrating the site with sacred chants and music. Next, they make a detailed drawing from memory. Over a number of days, they fill in the design with millions of grains of colored sand. At its completion, the mandala is consecrated. The monks then enact the impermanent nature of existence by sweeping up the colored grains and dispersing them in flowing water.” (Smithsonian Institute)
Vajra and bell, ritual objects used in the dissolution ceremony.
While four monks typically work in tandem on a sand mandala, passport-related concerns brought this seemingly unlikely pair together at UCI. More about that later... Press releases were late, so the place wasn’t crowded. We wandered at our leisure, posed questions and wrote in our journals. I snapped countless photographs, searched the familiar patterns for the inevitable surprise.
On the right, Venerable Sherab Chöphel; on the left, Venerable Tenzia Chödar, aka Namsa Chenmo–H.H. The Dalai Lama’s personal tailor.
Venerable Chöphel bowed over the table, balancing a fluted chakpus over the delicate edge. One brass chakpus grated against the other, until tinted sand flowed like liquid through its narrow opening.
Venerable Chödar took the measure of things…
while Venerable Chöphel transformed crystalline sand into waterfalls.
The process itself had a singular beauty. Mask-covered faces. Deep breaths. Sensible shoes and infinite patience. It was a collaborate effort, with creative license pushed to the margins. Not the tiniest sliver of space for artistic ego, here. The patterns were so deeply rooted in the monks’ collective experience that they grew organically into exquisite designs.
At the end of the day, their work remained unfinished. It will be, by the end of the week. Then, as with every sand mandala created before and after this one, The Dalai Lama’s birthday gift will be deconstructed in a special ceremony:
“The sands are swept up and placed in an urn; to fulfill the function of healing, half is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water, where it is deposited. The waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing. (Drepung Loseling Monastery)
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The dissolution of this sand painting is a reminder of the transient nature of things, of the ephemeral nature of our own existence. The name itself means “circle” in Sanskrit, a nod to the underlying symbolism of the mandala’s creation. Viewed solely as an impermanent art form, it is within itself of a house of cards, albeit with no power-grabbing or suffering involved.
My offering: A plumeria blossom that symbolizes impermanence
So the question arises: Does my having photographed this sand mandala alter in any way its meaning? If the purpose is solely to suggest life’s impermanence, maybe so. On the other hand, in sharing these images (and related pop culture references) I’m boosting the signal on a chosen path forward, beyond the isolated world in which Tibetan monks once lived. The Dalai Lama himself–by virtue of his political exile and reemergence as a global ambassador for peace–stands front-and-center in the social media spotlight.
Pixels, satellites, social media and streaming video…avenues, all of them, for continuous rebirth. At the very least, they breathe new life into religious traditions that might otherwise be relegated to the dustbin of history (e.g., this tent revival meeting, via True Detective). And at their best, they forge memories that eventually find their way into the stories we write.
Speaking of which…remember that “inevitable surprise” I mentioned? Stay tuned for Part II, in which we’re invited to stay for tea with the Venerables and discover that one of them is, in fact, The Dalai Lama’s personal tailor!
Update: The mandala is still a work in progress. Stop by to see the finishing touches! (UCI’s Banning House, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., until July 3)
The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.” Thích Nhất Hạnh
The invitation went out on Facebook: A Day of Mindfulness, led by Thích Nhất Hạnh, will take place at the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. I wasn’t feeling well, and my to-do list was long. But these kinds of opportunities don’t present themselves every day, so I cleared my calendar, downed some Tylenol and hit the road.
An early-bird by nature, I didn’t mind that I had to leave the house long before sunrise. I breathed deep the welcome silence, inhaled the salty mist along the Pacific Ocean until the GPS told me to turn inland. Black Tesla in my headlights, a rusted VW bus at my back bumper…I found myself in the midst of a miles-long caravan that inched its way up the narrow, steep road to the monastery.
I felt at ease among this diverse group of travelers: roughly 1400 smiling individuals, dressed in everything from yoga pants to monks’ robes, frayed cargo shorts to haute couture dresses. We sat elbow-to-elbow on folding chairs, knee-to-knee on meditation cushions. Latecomers huddled in the doorways or settled into the spillover areas that circled the rounded stucco building.The excitement was palpable, and multilingual. Headsets were made available for those who needed interpreters.
A gong sounded, and a hush fell over the crowd. A middle-aged monastic swept into the meditation hall, brown robes swishing as he walked. Young Brother—a reformed Catholic priest, formerly known as Father—led us through a sequence of acappella songs. Simple choruses with a shared message: mindfulness in every moment, precious gifts in every breath.
(I don’t have an actual transcript, so this next part is based on detailed notes and my best recollections.)
“Now that we’re all here,” said Little Brother, “we will walk together, up the hill. No talking, no thinking. Just breathing. Notice the flowers, the blue skies, the birds in flight. Enjoy the silence. Consider each step a gentle kiss for Mother Earth–an expression of gratitude for her gifts. Share this joyful experience with the animals and plants, and with each other. In…out…deep…slow. Breathe in the joy that comes of mindfulness.”
We hiked a dusty path together, following his instructions (to varying degrees) for about 45 minutes. Hipsters loped up the hill together, scrolling through text messages and snapping selfies. A grizzled couple veered from the trail, high-powered binoculars locked on a red-tail hawk that soared through the canyon. A toddler tugged on his mommy’s sleeve, just ahead of me. “Look, a lizard!” he squealed, oblivious to the yogini-Rastafarian-monk-absentminded professor pileup-in-progress right behind him. Me, I stayed in the moment as best I could, but I confess: my shoulders were quaking with surpressed giggles. And yes, I did stop now and again, to take in the view and snap some photos.
Just beyond the chalk-white Buddha statue—where the ground leveled out and the morning sun was slanted just so—I finally caught my first glimpse of Thích Nhất Hạnh. He was sitting cross-legged in the dust, wizened face haloed by a simple bamboo hat. Was he looking inward, or into the distance? I couldn’t tell.
Thích Nhất Hạnh. Zen Buddhist monk, prolific writer, social activist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was exiled from his native Vietnam for more than 40 years. Martin Luther King Jr. called him “an apostle of peace and nonviolence.” His students call him “Thây,” the Vietnamese word for teacher.
He sat motionless for several long minutes, flanked on all sides by monastics in identical brown robes. I stood off to the side and behind the assembled crowd…sort of, sometimes. I snapped a few photos, jotted notes into my journal. Random thoughts popped into my head: Wonder how long we’re going to stand here, baking in this heat? Sheesh, that winged insect sure is pesky!Oh hey, is that a security guard, hovering over Thích Nhất Hạnh? Sweat beads rolled down my cheeks and pooled at my collar–partly because of the blazing hot sun, but mostly due to a persistent fever. Fever, chills, fever, chills; jacket off, jacket on. Again and again, I had to call myself back to mindfulness, because yes, I’m human like that.
Slowly, methodically…Thíchbrought his palms together at the center of his chest, bowed to the singing bowl in front of him, and then raised it to the level of his heart. After a brief pause, he tapped the bowl with a mallet, thus inviting it to sing. And when the last notes echoed over the canyon, he clasped hands with two children, and led us back down the hill. Breathing in…breathing out…feet of clay in dusty brown clogs, mindful of every step.
We rearranged ourselves in the meditation hall, so as to better accommodate the influx of newcomers. Thích sat cross-legged on a cushion at the altar, with a bemused smile on his face. A devotee fell to his knees in the doorway, prayerful hands extended toward his teacher, forehead kissing the wooden floor. Friends stepped over his prostrate form, fingering mala beads and chanting.Thích took a slow sip of water, and thus began hisDharma talk:Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.Breathing in, we invite our ancestors to enjoy breathing with us. We inhale together, oxygen and thoughts. Our ancestors dwell in every cell of our bodies, and they enjoy breathing in with us. Together, we enjoy the exhale. Our smiles show the world that we are free spirits within our bodies.”
“We are in the habit of running,” he said, “running away from the moments that are brought to us by our ancestors. We are afraid of going home to ourselves and to the suffering. But you don’t need to run anymore. You’ve been running all your life. Walk instead like the Buddha, enjoying every step. Every step brings us home to the here and now; every step is healing. No matter how short or long the distance, you nourish yourself with every step. Stop thinking. Breathe and enjoy. Walk like a free person. Release all expectations. Touch Mother Earth…let her nurture you. Let her teach you to walk in joy.
The conversation turned serious, if only for a moment. “Be mindful of your sensory consumption,” Thích warned. “Everything is so accessible these days, but the messages are oftentimes toxic. This leads us to a state of anxiousness, fear and despair. Even with so many electronic devices, communication is more difficult now than ever before.”From deep in the bowels of a woman’s purse, a ringtone sounded. Her cell phone vibrated again and again, until the woman finally stepped outside to take the call. Thích’s eyes crinkled, and the corners of his mouth lifted–a smiling acknowledgment of this teachable moment.
Thích‘s Dharma Talk lasted roughly 90 minutes—a quiet unfurling of loosely stitched thoughts. He spoke quietly, in measured tones. Although their Buddhism-inspired messages are very similar, I’d say his speaking style is more subdued than that of the Dalai Lama, whom I especially appreciated for his burbling exuberance. He wasn’t judgmental; nothing he said was prescriptive. Just a kindly man, offering seeds of wisdom. I couldn’t help notice, however, that a handful of people took it upon themselves to stare pointedly at anything that violated their own, unspoken rules: whispered conversations, for instance, and restless children. At some point, the prostrate man rolled onto his side, fast asleep, and started snoring. Breathing in the humor…erupting in laughter. I stifled those giggles again, dodged the dagger eyes they aimed at both of us.
During a lull in the conversation, I leaned toward the woman next to me and asked if she perhaps had a couple of Tylenol. “Can’t seem to shake this fever,” I joked, “even with all this meditative breathing.” Well now! You would’ve thought I’d asked a vegan for a Big Mac. “Maybe,” she snapped, “you aren’t trying hard enough.”
“Suffering is the first awareness, Thích continued, “the first Noble Truth. The noblest aspiration is to help people to suffer less. Some of us do not know how to handle pain, and so we have a tendency to run away from ourselves and seek forgetfulness. [But] when we return to ourselves and recognize our own suffering, we can more easily understand the suffering in others. When that happens, it is very easy to feel compassion, and to help people come home to themselves.”
Home. This seems to me a good place at which to end this post. No, I didn’t summarize all the ideas that Thích shared with us that morning. Even if I had the transcripts at my elbow, I don’t think I could give them their due justice. Too, there was more to the group dynamics than I was able to see through my own, limited lens. But these are the memories that carry me back to that Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. Memories of my arrival, of my homecoming. Breathing in those moments as I write this; smiling even now.