Chants Meeting

He's not surprised by the West's interest in his religion, the fastest-growing in the world. "I think that the reason for the interest in Buddhism in the West is that the Buddha said, 'First, analyze my teaching. Then, follow me. But don't follow me just because you have faith in me.' He never said, 'Follow me--and if you don't, you'll go to hell.'

"Everyone likes to use their own wisdom. People have to have freedom of choice. The Buddha kind of gave people freedom--analyze it, and if you find it right, you can follow me. Otherwise, don't follow me. This must be one of the main reasons for interest here. The other is that the Buddha's teaching is based on love, compassion and kindness. You can't do harm to anyone. People like that, because that is their nature--a good heart. This is the reason His Holiness received the Nobel Peace Prize."

Rinpoche tells me he wants to go to Tibet. Wouldn't it be dangerous? "Yes. But I want to go anyway." He laughs, then tells me I don't have to worry about him. The Chinese denied him a visa.

It would be easy to dismiss the monks as a bunch of naive idealists. But to do so would be naive in itself. These are people who have been driven out of their country, who have known family and friends to be murdered or tortured or put in concentration camps. And yet they refuse to respond in kind. They refuse to hate. Though they've been brutalized almost beyond belief, they refuse to perpetuate the brutality, instead negating it with compassion. Few people have more reason for despair or self-pity, but they radiate wry optimism.

In a society like ours, whose system of justice is based on hatred and revenge, the presence of these monks is valuable. And their optimism might not be unfounded.

On Sunday evening, Rinpoche gives a talk at Arizona State University. The organizer worries that few people will show up, but tells me she went ahead with it because she believed it important that students at least have the chance to hear him.

The room is packed. All the seats are taken, and many more people sit on the floor. Rinpoche announces that the theme of his talk is "confusion to enlightenment--and it'll take an hour!"

His discourse could be called Buddhism 101; it's an outline of the philosophy of emptiness and impermanence. Not everyone gets it, but it's clear that most want to. The talk ends on schedule at 8, with Rinpoche saying, "Okay, then. Everyone's enlightened." He invites questions, and it's nearly another hour before he has to bring the session to an end. For some time afterward, people approach him and ask him to bless their mala beads--Tibetan prayer beads, similar to the rosary.

People also buy altar cloths, prayer flags, incense. These people aren't here out of curiosity about the latest political fad.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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