“My religion is kindness.”
– H.H. Dalai Lama
Today, June 6th, is the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, a day celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists around the globe. It’s hard to believe he’s actually 80, because he doesn’t seem to have aged at all, especially considering his tireless schedule and constant travel.
I will always feel such profound love and gratitude for this “simple Buddhist monk,” my ordination master and heart Guru, who has had a greater positive impact on my life than any other – and my life has been influenced by a lot of amazing people.
And it all traces back to the first time I saw His Holiness, in 1996, when he told a story about compassion that completely rocked my world. I want to share that story with you today, because it’s one of the reasons I eventually became a Buddhist monk and decided to try to devote my life to meditation.
Almost 20 years ago, I didn’t really know who the Dalai Lama was. I had seen photos of him wearing sunglasses and I remember I had thought he was just another religious phony. At the time, I was an aspiring artist, living in Chicago, going through a philosophical crisis. And having grown up gay in a very anti-gay Christian community, I was especially bitter and skeptical about anything religious.
But thanks to a meditation book leant to me by a friend, I had started meditating, and it was helping soothe my constant sense of anxiety and meaninglessness. So when the same friend invited me to go see a public talk by the Dalai Lama, I figured it might help with my meditation, and I accepted.
A few days prior to the event, by a stroke of luck I had called and gotten literally the last available ticket, which turned out to be in the third row. Richard Gere gave an introduction, and Phillip Glass played piano, and as a jaded 22-year-old, I was still unimpressed. But as soon as the Dalai Lama walked onstage, I found myself spellbound.
There was something about him that was unlike any other human being I had ever seen. I was also surprised and intrigued by how he spoke about love and compassion in a way that was so vast, and at the same time refreshingly pragmatic, and even scientific.
Then he told a story about a dear friend of his, a fellow monk, who had been imprisoned and tortured for many years by the Chinese communists who occupy Tibet to this day. Eventually the monk had escaped and fled to India, where he was reunited with the Dalai Lama in exile, and at their first meeting, His Holiness asked him this question:
“At what point did you feel your were in the most danger?”
The monk replied, “There were times when I felt in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.”
Even now I get choked up recalling this story of such unfathomable compassion. And at the time, it completely cracked me open. Tears streamed down my face for the rest of the talk. My nose was running, and I didn’t have a tissue. I felt like a mess.
I remember being surprised by my uncontrollable emotional response, thinking, “I wonder if this means I’m going to be a Buddhist? That would be really weird.” And it did seem strange, because I had adamantly sworn off any form of religion.
Then towards the end of the talk His Holiness said, “But there is no need to become a Buddhist. The most important thing is to have a good heart, a kind heart.” And I guess that sealed the deal. (Reverse psychology gets me every time.)
After the talk I felt flooded and overwhelmed, and I quickly made my way to the nearest exit left of the stage. As I started to walk down the street I heard people scurrying, and I turned around to see His Holiness being ushered into a shiny black sedan.
Seconds later, I was still standing partially in the street, dumbfounded, as the car drove slowly past me. And there was His Holiness, with the tinted window rolled down, leaning out, palms pressed together, smiling so kindly and looking me deeply in the eyes with what felt like a trace of recognition, as if to say, “see you in India!”
In honor of His Holiness’ Birthday, with gratitude and prayers for his long life, here is a 10-Minute Compassion Meditation.