December 19, 2018

19 Years Ago: A Day in Shul with the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet sits before the towering ark in Sinai Temple’s main sanctuary. With humor, grace and wisdom, he has just addressed 2,000 admirers this Monday morning. Now, it is time for questions.

“What is Buddhism?” the interpreter reads from a card collected from the audience. “Tell us, as in the story of Hillel, as if you are on one foot.”

The Dalai Lama tilts his head to one side. “Hmmmm,” he says, then, his deep voice raising an octave or two, “Buddhism is Buddhism.”

He erupts into giggles, his shoulders hunched forward and his head bouncing, as he delights in this joke with his audience.

But he is quick, and he doesn’t let the moment pass. He takes his cue from Rabbi David Wolpe, who told the famous Hillel story when he welcomed the internationally beloved Tibetan monk into his sanctuary.

When a man came to the Mishnaic sage, Hillel, and asked to learn the whole Torah while on one foot, Hillel answered. “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”

The Dalai Lama’s answer is as deceptively simple as Hillel’s: “If you can, help others. If not, do no harm.”

The formula seems so basic, and indeed, much of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom imparted at this Westside synagogue this morning is straightforward: Self-confidence, with wisdom and awareness, is the key to happiness. Tolerance and compassion are signs of strength. No matter what ethnicity or religion, what size or shape, we are all the same.

At times it is hard to hear exactly what he is saying, as his words — sometimes in English with a thick accent, sometimes in Tibetan through a translator — get muffled.

But somehow, his wisdom hits listeners with stunning clarity. The message comes as much from the earnest cadence of his words as through his demeanor. He is unassuming and heroic all at once, his humility not fake, yet his greatness not diminished.

He is at one time both venerable and adorable.

What is most clear is that while he carries a tragic history of exile and persecution, this is a man who has mastered serenity.

It is an odd amalgam of people here to behold the Dalai Lama this morning. Pointy black polyester kippahs, provided by Sinai Temple, sit on the heads of Tibetan monks and American priests. Mystics in flowing skirts and flowery jewelry are interspersed among middle-aged, middle-class temple members.

No religion, philosophy or culture is left unrepresented.

Many in this audience are long-time followers of the Dalai Lama. This gathering was initially conceived of as a “thank you” to organizers, participants and hosts of the World Festival of Sacred Music, the 84-concert series held in L.A. this week. The festival, coordinated by the Dalai Lama’s Foundation for Universal Responsibility and Tibet House, New Delhi, was inspired by a speech the Dalai Lama made saying music can bridge cultural gaps and help bring about global harmony. Sinai Cantor David Silverstein performed at one of the festival venues, and Sinai hosted some concerts.

Once this gathering was opened to the public, Sinai members and curious Westsiders came flocking to hear the words of a man who is a best-selling author and spiritual guide to millions.

Conversing with Jews is nothing new for the Dalai Lama. Aside from the many Buddhists who were born Jews, other practicing Jews are admirers of his philosophy, oriented around personal fulfillment and what Jewish tradition refers to as Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world.

In the past decade, he has often held dialogues with Jews, most notably an encounter with a Jewish delegation from North America in 1990 at his residence in Dharamsala, India, as recorded by Rodger Kamenetz in his book, “The Jew in the Lotus.”

He spoke a few years ago at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and this week alone appeared at Sinai, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Stephen S. Wise — and not at any churches.

Despite essential religious disparities between Judaism and Buddhism, there has been much mutual empathy — and admiration — between the Dalai Lama and the Jewish community. Both know too much about holding a faith together through exile and persecution.

The Dalai Lama touched on that in his Sinai speech, saying that his exile from Tibet in 1959 has made him a stronger, better person.

“There is no time to pretend that everything is O.K.,” he told a nodding audience. “You are too busy dealing with reality.”

Being in Diaspora has also allowed him to learn from other cultures, to spread his message to the world. He sees a great need for inter-ethnic dialogue, as there are immense benefits that come from knowing about others’ traditions, about the common ground that unites us.

He spoke of his great admiration for the way the Jewish community teaches its children through celebration and festivities, passing on the tradition using joy rather than fear.

As The Dalai Lama sat before the packed sanctuary, the scene is at once familiar and foreign. The kippahs that rested on his head matched his maroon and saffron robes. To his sides, flower arrangements of the same color scheme adorned the bimah. It all came together like a well planned bar mitzvah.

And, in fact, the mood was festive. Sinai’s choir welcomed the Tibetan monk with “Baruch Haba,” the song that welcomes a couple under the marriage canopy. Rabbi Mark Fasman impressed even seasoned shul-goers with a stunningly long tekia from the spiraling shofar.

Rabbi Wolpe, Sinai President Jimmy Delshad and Cantor David Silverstein, who planned the Sinai event, wrapped themselves in kataks, long, white silk scarves presented to them by the Dalai Lama. The scarves look like tallises minus the fringes and stripes.

And with his constant flow of smiles, giggles and dainty bows, His Holiness managed to keep the mood downright haimische.

And yet, the joyous atmosphere did nothing to detract from the glorious impact of the day.

As the Dalai Lama finished speaking, his words, still lingering in the high-ceilinged sanctuary, found further flight in the performance that closed the event. Nawang Khechog, described as the foremost musician of Tibet, took the Dalai Lama’s words upon the notes of his Tibetan flute and brought them to lofty heights. His clear, soulful notes wafted from the hollowed out bamboo, conjuring images of holy men calling from mountaintop to mountaintop, of the wind carrying their words to regions beyond.

It was a powerful finish to a powerful experience. That it was musical was only fitting, as it was music — and the peace, harmony and understanding it could bring — that brought this diverse group together in the first place.