THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Stolid Lama Tenzing, the older of the two--whose age was a guessing game, 40?—did not understand the English language. He was Tibetan and quite literally so for he had, as the refugees say, “walked out.” His escape on foot was from the distinct East known as Kham, a very far point and a lot of dangerous trek territory from that glorious and peaceful monastery in India that had become his home.
Yeshe, or possibly Lama Yeshe, with the enthusiastic energy of a wiry lad, was trying to learn English. He was able to tell me he was from Ladakh where his Tibetan family had taken refuge in the hinterland. The distance south to that enormous monastery where he literally grew up was not so far, the drop in altitude not fateful, but now at just 21 years of age here he was in his shaved head and red robes seemingly 15 and looking at sea level in a California highway ramp community like ET.
Neither monk had a car or driver’s license, a salaried or wage job, benefits or credit cards. Both were stuck with each other and totally dependent on the kindness of strangers, which amounted to the thoughtfulness of any Tibetan oriented Buddhist who knew they were there. I made their first delivery of Himalayan food.
Just months before, at the midpoint of the year, two monks in their late 30s, Lama Wangdu from the Nepali highlands of Manang and Khenpo Jigme from eastern Bhutan were dispatched from the mile high chaotic bustle of Kathmandu to the silence of a remote hamlet two miles high in the southern Rockies. Khenpo Jigme had aced Buddhist academics to earn his title, Khenpo being roughly equivalent to Dr. from a doctorate, but he had never learned English. And like the two in California, these two in Colorado were dependent on the kindness of the strangers called dharma students for their food, transport, medical needs and anything not inside the partially built retreat center they had been consigned to.
None of the four had exactly volunteered for an American tour of duty. None was a transcendent or realized being or what we call a Rinpoche, precious one. Although their titles of Lama and Khenpo indicate they’d risen to commissioned officers, they were all foot soldiers sent forth by their respective leaders for what our John Wayne American culture would probably call the war on suffering.
As mere human beings separated from their pack, these pioneers have themselves been suffering. I’ve been told they’ve been so homesick, they try to call anyone who can speak Tibetan. They hanker to eat momos and hot hot sauce. They yearn to share milk tea and laughs with their brothers in robes, see something familiar. Their plight is quite different from, say, the Thai monks imported by the expat Thai community. At the very least, these men have people of their own ethnicity to welcome them. And they benefit from the cultural norm of battening monks, something we don't do.
The Dharma seems to have served this vanguard well. They show only a smile and make sure the show goes on, steadfastly performing all the rituals and rites right on schedule as though they were back in India, Tibet or Nepal. After all, this is what they have been sent to do. They arrived as gifts, Care packages from great teachers who exiled them to minister to our need to see the light and end our suffering. Their evident willingness to be cheerfully of benefit certainly testifies to the antidepressant value of the Buddha’s teachings. As I have been told, if you can't change your circumstances, change your mind.
Dharma teachings always start with their lineage and often mention the extraordinary difficulties some of the individuals in it had to endure to obtain them. Marpa had to travel on foot over the Himalayas to India and Nepal, Milarepa had to build the same tower seven times, Atisha in the 10th Century had to take a boat from India to Sumatra and then get to Tibet. These monks had to go over mountains too to train in their respective monasteries.
We in contrast don’t have to do anything. In some remarkable reversal known as the mountain coming to Mohammed, everything is being spoon fed to us. No longer do the great gurus sit unmoved in sky high caves or sit tight in the throne rooms of mountain peak monasteries. They have become frequent flyers spinning around the globe like prayer wheels. Almost all of them seem to pass through at least once a year, creating for us a lavish smorgasbord. Miss one this weekend, you get another next one. They are all marathon men, Olympic class road warriors.
Many of these teachers are in their 70s and suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes and arteries clogged by too much fat. Yet they keep to a grueling schedule that would daunt Iron Man, flying every week to another location with another accommodation, another cook, another climate, another bunch of people who they have to trust will be able to take physical care of them. I have seen my teacher unwillingly gain 30 pounds because at every stop some student or other treats each meal as the place to show off a ten year supply of gourmet cooking skills.
Sometimes every three days they have to face airport security, as foreigners, in funny looking robes and sometimes with not much command of English. Frequently they are searched and scanned as though they could be terrorists. Last year my teacher actually missed his plane because some San Francisco security guard decided to inspect and question every single empowerment ritual item in his suitcase—implements so sacred no one is supposed to handle them. Yet he is coming back this year again zigzagging from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Vancouver to Austin—between stops in Southeast Asia and Europe. Trust me, he doesn’t need to do this. He wants to. That is how determined he is to help me/us get out of my/our own way and thus free of suffering.
And just to fill in the gaps between visits we get permanently placed monks ready to answer questions, remove obstacles, pray for the dead. These monks do not in essence know those of us in whose hands they’ve had to put their life in order to improve ours. Moreover, maybe my teacher knows my name but other teachers don’t, just as mine doesn’t know the names of 75% of the foreigners who think of him as their spiritual mentor. So it seems to me we are seeing a magnificent illumination of compassion at work. All of it-- the monks and gurus depending on us to physically feed and transport them while we depend on them to spiritually feed and transport us--looks like a teaching on how powerfully transcendent the kindness of strangers can be.
My New Year resolution is not to be a stranger to that kindness. i plan to say Thank You through renewed determination to practice what they are teaching.
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