It's the kind of setting that makes you want to be cynical. I'm trying my hardest, but it's not working. Friday night, and the Scottsdale Center for the Arts is almost full of people who've come to see a bunch of Tibetan monks perform sacred music and dance.
Consider that this is the most fashionable political cause in the contemporary Zeitgeist--China's oppression of Tibet--and you really want to see some rain fall on the parade.
But you can't sustain your cynicism when the show starts. The monks' strange combination of brilliance and humility simply makes you feel privileged to be there.
This is the start of the monks' yearlong tour. They are traveling by Greyhound bus. Maybe, like any touring band members, they'll tire of it after a while, but tonight they're fresh and have an air of manic amusement.
There's chanting and singing aimed at invoking the forces of goodness, purifying the universe, purifying the environment and its inhabitants, severing the ego. There's spectacular dancing, including a lion dance that's simultaneously awe-inspiring and hilarious.
When the show ends and the Rinpoche (master) appears onstage to thank everyone for coming, it doesn't seem to matter whether it was trendiness or something deeper that brought the audience members here. What matters is that they're here.
It's late at night. I sit at a table in the kitchen of a house in Scottsdale, drink ginger tea, and talk with a spiritual master.
Za Choeje Rinpoche is 30 years old. Aside from the gray that's creeping into his black hair, he looks younger. But when His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans believe to be the living Buddha, recognized him as the reincarnation of a master who had died while imprisoned by the Chinese, he wasn't about to argue.
He was a 17-year-old student at a boarding school in southern India when his father received the news from the Dalai Lama: His son was a master.
Rinpoche came home from school, having no idea what was going on, and his father met him off the train. As soon as he saw him, his father folded his hands and bowed to his baffled son.
The kid had never had any desire to be a monk. "At first it was like a dream. . . . It was difficult. Of course, I had great faith in His Holiness," he tells me.
That faith becomes apparent when he describes a visit the Dalai Lama made to a local monastery. "After he left, I went to the palace where he stayed, with some of my school friends. My friends went to other rooms, but I saw this toilet. I asked one monk, and he told me, 'This is His Holiness' toilet.' So I asked, has he used this? And he told me, yes. So I went and drank some of the water from the toilet. Just an example of how I have great faith in His Holiness."
So he became a monk, and now resides at Drepung Loseling Monastery. The monastery was founded near Lhasa, Tibet, in 1416. Until the Chinese invasion, it was the largest monastic institution in the world, housing about 10,000 monks. After the invasion, when the monastery was destroyed, only 250 monks managed to escape the holocaust and start rebuilding in Karnataka State, India. Now it holds 2,500 monks.
Since 1989, monks from Drepung Loseling have been touring America. This is the sixth tour.
"The purpose of this tour has three objectives in our mind," Rinpoche says. "The first is, sharing our culture--sacred arts, sacred music, sacred dance. The second is to seek support for our culture, which is highly endangered by the Chinese. We need support to get our country back. The third is to raise financial support for Tibetans in exile."
He feels that responses to the tours have been getting steadily better. Does he believe that such support is because of a political sympathy for the plight of his people, or a growing interest in Buddhism?
"I think it can be both."
At the core of Buddhism is a belief in compassion for all sentient beings, a belief that all beings have the Buddha nature. The Tibetan monks wish no harm to the Chinese, and instead meditate and pray for peace. Rinpoche is also remarkably tolerant of America's tacit support of China. While spouting rhetoric about Iraq's brutality toward Kuwait, the United States continues to do business with China.
"The purpose of America's relations with China is economic, which is very important for every nation. So we don't think the United States is ignoring Tibet's cause and helping China. But we think the U.S. is helping us indirectly by allowing His Holiness to come, and allowing us to promote our situation, and granting immigration to Tibetans. But we understand America's relationship with China."
If he does understand it, then he must realize that the U.S. government would take a much harder line in support of Tibet if only the Chinese invasion threatened U.S. oil supplies and oil-company profits. But, like the Dalai Lama, Rinpoche expresses no anger, only sadness. In a classic understatement, he describes the genocide committed by the Chinese as "mean."
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.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org