Dalai Lama Teaches Me Freedom from Suffering

The Dalai Lama recently visited Portland, Oregon for a four-day summit. His entourage stayed in the hotel below the condo where I live. A supporter of Tibetan culture, I was asked by the local Tibetan Rinpoche if I could help sponsor the visit. As I wrote the check, I asked him if there was any chance I could get a snapshot with His Holiness. Rinpoche replied that he thought it was possible and would see what he could do.

As the conference approached, Rinpoche asked me if the Dalai Lama’s cook could use my kitchen to prepare meals for His Holiness during the visit. I was delighted to be able to further contribute (even after I learned that his crew would be coming at 3:30 every morning to prepare breakfast and then take over my living space until 6 PM).

And so it was … four or five Tibetans streamed in and out of my place every day. This was fine by me because, having spent weeks in Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama resides in the foothills of the Himalayas, I love Tibetans. It’s a wonder how refugees whose culture continues to be destroyed in slow motion can still be so cheerful, forgiving, generous and kind. Tibetans, with the enlightening example of their spiritual leader, truly understand how to live out of joy and compassion, which makes them a delight to be around. Even though His Holiness never came over to visit, I was honored to be hanging out with his cook and personal secretary and others.

But I was also emotionally attached—very attached unfortunately—to my desire for that photo, and my suffering was growing daily. And this was the worst kind of attachment, because it was combined with some feeling of entitlement. And there was nothing I could do! The Dalai Lama was one floor away, surrounded by security, and there was no way I could get near him. So close, yet so far. (When I asked his secretary if he would take me down there, he grunted in his thick Tibetan accent “Very difficult.”)

As the last day of his stay approached, I realized that my growing anxiety was an example of what the Dalai Lama teaches about the Four Noble Truths. The first is that the life of a grasping ego is imbued with suffering and, as the second truth explains, the cause of the suffering was craving. My involvement with the Dalai Lama was teaching me Buddhism’s central lesson of freedom and happiness!

Of course I knew that the only important thing was to support his cause and what his model of compassion and selflessness offers the whole world. It brought tears to my eyes to consider that he’s getting frail, that he is going to die, perhaps along with Tibetan culture itself. This is when I flipped the internal “let-go” switch. In comparison to the value he brings, I realized how petty my attachment to having a photo was indeed. As I let go of my craving for it, I immediately felt freedom from suffering, just like the third truth promises (and I was able to sleep better that night).

At lunch on the last full day of the visit, Rinpoche asked me (much to my surprise), “Did you get a snapshot His Holiness?” Stunned, I replied, “No … but I would love it if that can happen!” He went silent, thought for a moment and said, “Be on the 5th floor at 6:30 AM.” Replied I, “No worries … I’ll be there!”

The next morning, when my turn came in the photo line, Rinpoche said to the Dalai Lama, “This is the man whose kitchen we’ve been using for your meals.” I chimed in, “It made me happy to help … and the leftovers were delicious. Thank you.” His Holiness put a ceremonial scarf on me and smiled knowingly. Snap!