The Laughing Lama

By Rose Spinelli

“Welcome to…what do we call this any-way?” The holy man giggles and his eyes dance over our faces, as though hoping one of us might lob him the right answer.

The uninitiated could raise an eyebrow here. Some of us have been sitting cross-legged for 45 minutes, long enough for our lower bodies to be tingling a notch or two past unpleasant, waiting for the ceremony to start. Instead there are polite titters at the Tibetan’s daffiness. Still, we all know our place enough not to mistake this as an invitation for audience participation–not yet anyway. He continues unaided. “Well, whatever it may be, let me welcome you all.”

We are congregated, on a recent Saturday, in an unlikely temple. It is a smallish suite on the first floor of the Uptown Bank on Broadway, where the furnace kicks in too often with a too-loud blast. At the door of the suite, a long-haired, batik-clad woman held a glass jug. As we filed past her, she tipped into the palm of each hand a puddle of a brilliant orange yellow liquid she identified as a purifying saffron water. We were to drink it and then dab the remainder on the crowns of our heads. The color was misleading; the water didn’t taste like saffron. It didn’t taste like much at all. When we entered, we added to the neatly aligned rows of shoes and began a civil search for an unoccupied foam cushion.

This White Tara Healing and Long-Life Initiation is taking place in Chicago for the first time, and 80 or so participants have gathered to benefit from its touted effects. The event is sponsored by Jewel Heart, an international organization dedicated to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that’s headquartered on the eighth floor of the bank. It’s open to the public regardless of religious affiliation, if you can afford the $75 ticket price.

Apparently the payoff of a long life made money no object. Not surprisingly, the bearded, sandaled phylum is strongly in evidence. But so is the type who looks plucked straight out of a board meeting or health club. An older woman dressed in angora and hose struggles mightily to find a way to fold her legs in the least torturous arrangement as she poses the worried questions of a first-timer to an ultraserene looking neighbor. “What do you mean Buddhism is about suffering? Isn’t this a healing ceremony?” A half dozen small children freewheel in and out of the squeaky double doors unadmonished. In all, the room is filled with a quiet buzz.

The ritual in which we’re about to participate is named for White Tara, the deity whose blessings are to be invoked. Tara is said to be the female emanation of the Buddha. In Tibetan tradition, she has a special two-pronged concern for health. Emotionally, she eliminates mental pain; physically, she protects against untimely death. Tara is said to be so compassionate and nurturing that when taking her vows to practice the bodhisattva way of life–denying herself Nirvana to work to save others–she defied the patriarchal mind-set and chose instead to remain female. For taking this pioneering road, she is well loved by Western Buddhist practitioners. Now she stands before us, in the form of a large colorful poster, a luminous halo at her back and a flower in her hand, to liberate our minds and bodies.

Next to her image sits a portly and, well, Buddha-like figure in a smart suit and tie and aviator glasses. He is Tara’s earthly conduit, Tibetan Buddhist master Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche. The term rinpoche means “precious one” and is given to a “tolku,” or incarnate lama. Like all lamas, including the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, Rinpoche was searched out in Lhasa by holy men. At age four he was required to identify the belongings of the previous Dalai Lama, and after the proper oracles were consulted, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Khenpo Tashi Namgyal, former abbot of the Gyuto tantric monastery. He was then quickly spirited off to the Drepung Loseling monastery, the most prestigious in Tibet, where he trained with a hermit monk, and received the highest degree possible, Geshe Lharampa, in just ten years.

Rinpoche also happens to be the great-nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama. At 59, he is a contemporary of the current, the 14th, Dalai Lama, and one of the last lamas, or teachers, to be fully educated in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. He was among an elite group of 16 monks to study with the enlightened tutors of the Dalai Lama.

Tibetan terms and curriculum vitae aside, today Rinpoche is most beloved by his American followers for his Western ways. He spouts slang like a true Yankee, with a pleasing if rubbery accent, and has been dubbed the “American lama.” “Steven Seagal is an incarnate lama too,” he says like a People magazine quote. “Nice guy.”

Rinpoche observes before beginning that the White Tara ceremony seems to attract an abundance of psychologists and academics. For as well as healing the corporeal being to assure longevity, Tara’s blessings free us from mental attachments and neuroses, eliminating negative emotions. And since psychologists and academics are the hired hands to whom we appeal for deliverance, they come for guidance.

Scanning the room, I see the group is a miscellany of age, color, socioeconomic standing, and fashion sense. Yet, with erect spines and sentinel-like concentration, everyone appears ready and hopeful to drink up whatever divinity Tara will bestow through Rinpoche. Can she do something about my road rage? Can she look into quelling my impatience with my overbearing mother? Can she give one final heave-ho to my ex-boyfriend revenge fantasies? Please?

The ritual, Rinpoche explains, is a series of visualizations accompanied by a mantra representing the cleansing of the eight fears that are obstacles to spiritual enlightenment. They are the nasty usual suspects: pride, ignorance, jealousy, “wrong view,” miserliness, attachment, anger, and doubt. As though sensing our utter hopelessness in tackling this hulking list, Rinpoche speckles his lesson with comforting antidoctrinaire reassurances. “Negative emotions will pop up, they are always going to pop,” he says cheerfully. But this healing, he says “is something definitely achievable.” All right! Nods of relief.

It turns out that there’s a bonus for all those unwilling (suffering from one or more of the eight fears?) to shell out cash for this event. By extension, Rinpoche says, our presence will have a positive impact on all of Chicago. “At least we can make sure there will be no tornadoes–just kidding!”

Tara, he explains, manifests in many colors, all representing her manifold favors. Green Tara is ready to help perform multiple activities and Golden Tara is for richness and prosperity. (Note to self: find out about Golden Tara’s Chicago schedule.) And he imparts the concept that an enlightened person would be in possession of them all. “Think of her as a corporate executive with an extended office that has many rooms,” he says. More noticeable nods of recognition throughout the room.

White Tara, however, stands alone as the most benevolent. Mother, daughter, sister, “White Tara is a great female,” says Rinpoche. “She is extremely close in her passion for us. I mean, it doesn’t matter what you do; White Tara couldn’t care less.”

With that preparation, the ceremony begins. At turns, we drink milk (“I’m not sure if it’s 2 percent–just kidding!”), signifying nectar. We nibble three tiny herb pills, signifying a continuing oral transmission, as in a river that flows back to everything that came before us. And we chant repeatedly, past the scheduled lunch hour, in spite of the distracting savory smells wafting from the lunch that has just been delivered by the Tibetan Cafe. Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha, we sing. Tare Tuttare Ture Soha.

Rinpoche is considered a treasure locally because he is the only lama to reside in the midwest. He moved here permanently in the mid-80s, and now lives and works in Ann Arbor, where he was given a post teaching the Tibetan language at the University of Michigan. He is the founder and spiritual director of Jewel Heart.

But Rinpoche wasn’t always so keen on his assignment to root the dharma, most simply stated as Buddhist teachings, in our country. Though today he speaks with pride about his ten-year American citizenship, he arrived here not entirely of his own volition. Like many Tibetans, he faced the harrowing trek over the Himalayas to India to escape the Chinese in 1959.

“I came to visit America for the first time in 1964 and seemed to have an affinity with the culture. When I returned to India, where I was performing administrative services for the Dalai Lama as an archivist and editor of Buddhist manuscripts, I was told by his holiness’s tutors that I would be useful to Western practitioners and ordered to begin teaching Buddhism in English. I wasn’t too happy about it.” He moved to New Delhi and began teaching Westerners who had come to find Eastern enlightenment. His English improved and so did his knowledge of Western culture.

During this time Rinpoche was going through an “experimental” phase, rebelling against his upbringing. Eventually he decided to give up his monk’s vows and the all-protective, robe-clad lifestyle and began looking for some big kicks. At the wild-oats age of 25, he wondered what it would be like to experience some of the vices that he had been so carefully shielded from. He began smoking cigarettes, he took a liking to the taste of whiskey, and he satisfied his urge to have sex with women. Now he retains his status as a holy man, and continues his teachings as a layperson.

You might say he’s come a long way from home. And he places himself on no pedestal, baring his flaws for all to see. This quality may be part of what makes him so dear to Americans. His history makes enlightenment seem accessible. And the feeling is mutual. “I have very strong feelings for this country. You may not have a long history,” he said. “But from a spiritual point of view, America is very rich in life, culture, and tradition.”

I was told that despite his casual good humor, Rinpoche is a highly intellectual man and politically dedicated, and I felt honored and a little intimidated to be given an audience with him. By the time we spoke, I had drawn up two sets of questions for him. One set was serious minded, about the plight of Tibet and what kind of future he saw for it. The other set was much more personal. My struggle felt metaphorically Buddhist in nature: Would I seek spiritual enlightenment or splash around in more worldly concerns? Would I spend our time behaving like Ted Koppel or Ricki Lake?

I decided to ask him about his wild past. Did he ever feel guilt over it? “I don’t believe in guilt,” he said. “It is a perception of the mind. You must be conditioned to feel it. When there is no conditioning, there is no regret. Guilt is about hopelessness and I never felt hopeless.”

A world with no guilt sounded awfully attractive, but still I probed. How did the other rinpoches react to your indulgences? “During this time of exploration, I smoked and drank. It went on for 13 or 14 years,” he said. “They said it was unfortunate but that these things happen. And they assured me I was still living within dharma.”

And how long did the exploration with women go on? He laughed and said, “It’s still going on.” Excuse me? “The attachment is still there,” he replied. “I am a very open person. I am willing to talk about anything with anyone. I think this is why people come to me all the time and ask me about problems in their relationships or family problems, or with their work. They come to me and say, ‘Look, what do you think I should do about this?’ And I can use my own struggles as an example. I don’t offer advice, I just talk to them.”

Sure enough, Rinpoche’s honesty made Buddhism even more appealing. I had gone as an observer but I emerged a searcher. “So, I have this problem maybe I can talk to you about…” I began.

By now Rinpoche is well on his way to one or another European city where he will spend several weeks conducting ceremonies and spreading the dharma. Because of his short visit to Chicago, perhaps we can be optimistic about a reprieve from tornadoes. For some of us, the effects feel more intimate. For me, it couldn’t have been more so if we had spent the time in a bar smoking cigarettes and drinking Wild Turkeys on ice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche photo/ uncredited.