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My Lunch With the Dalai Lama

  [Today's Rough Draft column.]

    Recently the Dalai Lama came to Washington to talk about religion, science, the mysteries of the human mind and various other topics that are important to any holy man whose first name is "the."

   I went to see him speak at a lunchtime event at the Aspen Institute on Dupont Circle. As we waited for his holiness to show up, the guy next to me said, "He just makes you feel better." And that's exactly what we needed. Washington has not been a happy place. We have not been centered. We have not been sitting in the lotus position and meditating on love. We plan to be at peace with the universe as soon as we figure out how to stop being at war with it. On any given day, the topic of conversation in Washington has been something like the Pros and Cons of Torture.

   So you can just imagine what a thrill it was to be in the presence of a person who radiates spirituality, talks about charity, compassion and forgiveness, and isn't even running for anything. The Dalai Lama glided into the room with a small entourage, and he pressed his palms together and blessed us. Tenzin Gyatso wore a dark red robe that exposed his muscular right arm -- he could probably crush anyone in the room were he the crushing type. He's 70 but looks much younger, perhaps because he follows the hip urban fashion of shaving his head.

    For the next hour he answered questions. He spoke good English, but he had a translator to assist him when someone asked an overly elaborate question, no doubt an occupational hazard for Dalai Lamas in general, and a particular menace in a roomful of high achievers who must show their interrogatory brilliance. These folks were asking questions for the ages, portentous and philosophical and totally incomprehensible, as though trying to redeem a lifetime of talking about tracking polls and earmarks on the energy bill. One long-winded person zoomed from theoretical physics to the strife in the Middle East, winding up, somehow, by asking the Dalai Lama to comment on "the combination of inner security and liberation."

   Someone should have interjected and said, "Wait, let's translate that question into English first."

   But the Dalai Lama's good humor carried the day. He has a big laugh. He shared what it's like to be him as he jets around the world and gives speeches.

   "I get up early morning, usually 3:30. Then some exercise. Then prayer, some meditation," he said. Then he has breakfast at 5:30, a heavy meal, because as a Buddhist monk he eats nothing after lunch. Fasting has its limits. He pulled out a little satchel from under his robe and produced a piece of bread. He always carries bread. "Sometimes, in an airplane, breakfast very poor." (Huge laugh.)

   At 9:30 or so he begins his workday, "meeting with people, making some jokes, occasionally teasing my friends."

   He's in bed by 8 or 8:30, he said. He indicated that perhaps Americans would have more peaceful lives if they didn't stay out so late, going to clubs and whatnot. And our emotions fluctuate too dramatically. We're not very even-keeled, he said. "These ups and downs are not good."

   Everyone in the room secretly vowed to start meditating that night.

   He talked about Tibetan independence and the long struggle against China, whose claim to Tibet forced him into exile in 1959. And he talked about science and spirituality. When the Dalai Lama was a child, studying the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism, his teachers explained that the moon emits its own light. But one day they brought him a telescope. He looked at the moon under magnification and saw that its surface contained shadows. He had made a discovery: The moon's light comes from elsewhere. It must come from the sun. The doctrine was directly at odds with what he could perceive with his own senses and a scientific instrument. What to do? Simple: Change the doctrine.

   "I always sided with modern science," he said. "I don't know what is the reaction of some of our older scholars."

   His new book, The Universe in a Single Atom, states that the scientific method by itself has never truly explained certain features of human spirituality, such as compassion. He makes a distinction between the core values of a religion, which can't change, and the doctrines that are mutable, like the bit about the moon. But he clearly sees no problem being fully spiritual and fully scientific. He believes in freedom, which includes the freedom to use one's brain.

    Then it was time for him to go. I shook his hand as he left, and, as had been prophesied, I felt much better. Especially after I told everyone I knew that I had lunched with the Dalai Lama.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 22, 2006; 10:14 AM ET
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Q: So will it be possible in the future for both males and females to be the highest lamas?

The Dalai Lama: Up to now, most of the abbots in the nunneries are males. Now, there will be well-qualified female abbots within the nunnery community itself. Then, if a female lama passes away and she's been a good scholar and practitioner, it is quite possible that the reincarnation will be a female, too. So, I think, that in the twenty-second century, there will be more female reincarnations at female institutions. Then there'll be competition between male lama institutions and female lama institutions. It'll be a positive sort of competition. [Laughs]

Posted by: Loomis | January 22, 2006 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the Dalai Lama is deep and spiritual and all, but after reading Weingarten's article on "The Great Zucchini" certain issues remain. How much does the Dalai Lama get for birthday parties? Sure, having the Dalai Lama show up would really stick it to your snobby neighbors, but is he any good? Can he make a 5-year-old giggle uncontrollably? Now that would be transcendent.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 22, 2006 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Joel, what was your question for the Dali Lama? Have these situations, detailed below, improved in the last 12 years?

Cultural genocide is China's "final solution" to overwhelm and absorb this once-independent country that refuses to bow to Chinese rule after 43 years of occupation and systematic destruction.

Birth control, abortion, sterilization, infanticide and eugenics

Only three sources exist for compiling information on occupied Tibet. First, the Chinese-controlled media and official documents which largely bolster and mirror Beijing's fluid development policies. Secondly, refugee and tourist testimony from which a fragmented and very regionalized picture emerges. And thirdly,
expert reports compiled by researchers and specialists working under Chinese auspices, or by parliamentary and human rights missions on brief and guided fact-finding tours of Tibet. However, there is today overwhelming evidence that:

* Sterilization is the principal form of birth control in Tibet. In some areas up to 80 per cent of Tibetan women of childbearing age have been sterilized under coercion or subterfuge.

* Mobile teams herd pregnant Tibetan women in rural areas for enforced abortions: some are already in their fifth and sixth

* Mothers delivering a second, or sometimes first, child without a "Certified to Bear Children" document suffer infanticide: the baby is injected and killed at birth.

* Tibetans employed by the Chinese TAR Government who defy the one-child policy, or give birth under 25, are fined up to US$
400, demoted and both parents may lose their jobs.

* In China's view its so-called Minorities are "less intelligent" and more prone to give birth to handicapped, insane, retarded or dwarfed children. Birth control is encouraged to enhance
"population quality".

Posted by: Loomis | January 22, 2006 10:56 AM | Report abuse

SCC: Dalai...Sorry, must have been thinking of Salvador Dali.

Posted by: Loomis | January 22, 2006 10:58 AM | Report abuse

...the calm of true intellect,compassion
and human spirituality...
an oasis most pleasant to visit...

Posted by: an american in siam... | January 22, 2006 11:06 AM | Report abuse

What a treat: I return to D.C. and discover not only that my Achenshirt has been delivered but also that Joel has Roughly Drafted about the Dalai Lama.

It just so happens that I received an unsolicited -- but not unwelcome -- blessing from a Buddhist monk while wandering the streets of Hong Kong. The monk was carrying his food bowl with him, and just as I was trying to decide whether I should put some money in the bowl (would money be too crass? Are those bowls just for food? Would he have preferred a steamed vegetable dumpling, or maybe a piece of fruit?) he put his hands together and uttered some words in my direction. [I briefly considered taking umbrage at being singled out as someone in need of such a blessing. Did I look like a particularly troubled soul? But then I reminded myself that if I'm going to get all offended because a Buddhist monk blesses me, I probably *do* need blessing.]

Perhaps he just pitied my Westerner status.


"Meditation is just a way of preferring reality to fantasy, as our abbot used to say . . . . Like many of the country abbots, he retained much of the shamanism of pagan times and liked to predict the future. . . . There will be a massive shift of power from West to East in the middle of the twenty-first century, caused not by war or economics but by a subtle alteration in consciousness. The new age of biotechnology will require a highly developed intuition which operates outside of logic, and anyway the internal destruction of Western society will have reached such a pass that most of your resources will be concentrated on managing loonies. There will be TV news pictures of people fleeing supermarkets and pressing their hands to their heads, unable to take the banality anymore. The peoples of Southeast Asia, who have never been poisoned by logical thought, will find themselves in the driver's seat. It will be like old times, if your time line stretches back a few thousand years."

-- from "Bangkok 8," by John Burdett

Posted by: Dreamer | January 22, 2006 11:13 AM | Report abuse

RD Padouk:
I've heard that the Dalai Lama is himself prone to uncontrollable giggling, so maybe he could indeed out-zucchini the Great Zucchini.

Posted by: Achenfan | January 22, 2006 11:27 AM | Report abuse

God bless us, every one!

Posted by: Tim | January 22, 2006 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Achenfan, welcome back!

I missed you, particularly on E-Prime day ("New Achenblog Comment Policy"). I was like, "What Would Achenfan Do?" (WWAD)

Which fits in to this kit if I segue to a story about my brother who lives in a small town in Oklahoma and attends a "Free-Will Baptist" church. He read some of the teachings of the Dalai Lama and he asked me to make him a t-shirt (wow, this has all kinds of referential connections) that said "WWDLD?" In his hometown, only he would know that stands for "What Would the Dalai Lama Do?"--he and I both thought it was clever. (Reasonable people may disagree.)

Posted by: Reader | January 22, 2006 11:40 AM | Report abuse

So, Joel, what did the Dalai Lama have for lunch?

[If you say that he had a Philly Cheesesteak, I won't believe you.]

On a slightly related topic (this one's for you, Dreamer), I've been doing some reading up on the late Eugene Wigner, and in particular the 'Wigner's Friend' thought experiment and "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences".

I had heard of him before, but I encountered some very interesting stuff in Stephen Baxter's "Exultant" that prompted me to do some research. Result: Hello, Observerism.


Posted by: bc | January 22, 2006 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Reader. I missed you guys, too. A lot happened while I was away: the 1-year Achenversary, the closing of the comments, the airing of many grievances, and, in particular, Hal the Schemer's visit to the Kaboodle.

[I initially misread "What Would the Dalai Lama Do?" as "*Would* the Dalai Lama Do?" and thought, Whoa; that's heavy.]

Posted by: Achenfan | January 22, 2006 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for that, bc. Indeed -- all things point to Observerism.

Posted by: Dreamer | January 22, 2006 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Big hitter, the Lama.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 22, 2006 12:08 PM | Report abuse

So what *exactly* did the Dalai Lama eat for lunch?

Did you know, according to consumer-research firm Mintel Group, that we guzzled $37 billion in carbonated beverages in 2004? The same year, we spent $3.9 billion on cookies -- $244 million of which were Oreo cookies sold by Kraft Foods for about $3.69 a package. In 2003, we splurged $57.2 billion on meals at restaurants such as Denny's, Chili's and Outback Steakhouse (the reporter Rosenbaum's personal favorite). Potato chip sales hit $6.2 billion in 2004.

Posted by: Loomis | January 22, 2006 12:23 PM | Report abuse

SCC: Rosenwald (rose of the forest) not Rosenbaum (rose of the tree)

Posted by: Loomis | January 22, 2006 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Did you notice that the toilet seats are smaller in HK?

Posted by: Ginny Goldfarb | January 22, 2006 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Dudes and dudettes like Loomis Curmudgeon and Bayou wanna watch each others' backs. And give a fine apology for an oh so nice description of a cruise. Sigh.

You and most of this blog's commentariat are overeducated bourgeois rearers of children with defective tastes and dyed in the wool with affectation and snobbery and amateur politics.

And you regulars write like head-injured kinders with extra chromosomes who have access to the espresso machine in the neighborhood tree house.

Curmudgeon howzabout the catering and the legal extraterritoriality? Tell us the part where you rake in some parentless pre-adolescent Venezuelans to your cabin. How many Prawn did you murder in your stomach? Did they retaliate with salmonella? Mickey Mouse was helicoptered in when you started vomiting. Right? Sorry chap - enjoying your retirement or whatever is one thing - writing about a cruise is bourgeois and gauche and one more French word imbecile. Which makes you a douchebag, minus the vinegar.

Posted by: Ben Roethlisberger | Jan 22, 2006 1:30:36 PM | Permalink

Posted by: tivo repeater | January 22, 2006 3:06 PM | Report abuse

[What would the Dalai Lama do?]

Posted by: Dreamer | January 22, 2006 3:46 PM | Report abuse

" regulars write like head-inujred kinders with extra chromosomes who have access to the espresso machine in the neighborhood tree house." I'm sure we'd all be terribly hurt if we understood what the heck this meant.

Poor little Ben, you probably don't understand that the first rule of insults is that they be understood by the insultee(s). As you grow up, you'll learn these things. Now go finish your homework so you can pass your SOLs and get promoted to fifth grade.

Posted by: Snarky Squirrel | January 22, 2006 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I feel fairly sure that my previous post would not pass the WWDLD test. Oh well. That's one more incarnation as a nut-eating rodent for me.

Posted by: Snarky Squirrel | January 22, 2006 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Nicely said, Snarky Squirrel. I declare today Squirrel Appreciation Day! Now excuse me whilst I giggle like the Dalai Lama.

Posted by: Caged Rabbit | January 22, 2006 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Has he commented publicly on suicide bombing, and how a civilized world confronts terror committed against civilians by Al Qaeda, whether in New York on 9/11 or, despite the best efforts of American soldiers, in Iraq?

Posted by: Lawrence | January 22, 2006 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Good luck tomorrow dr. We'll be watching.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 22, 2006 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Though we have enjoyed your articles before, but this time you seem either over assumptious or rather partonizing. First, for your information, when His Holiness brings his palms together, he's not blessing you duh.. but greeting you in a most humble way. It is a respectful tibetan way of greeting each other. Second, monks and nuns for centuries have shaved their head, so that they can devote more time to the spiritual needs rather than focusing on the exterior little nothings. Thirdly, the arms are beared for a good reason. I think since you are literate enough, i am sure you can check for yourself that out. There's a reason for everything. Please have some cultural sensitivities.

Posted by: Yangchen | January 22, 2006 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Ben, you sure got my number. I am devasted by your post. I never realized before that I was bourgeois and gauche--thanks for pointing that out to me. I believe I shall now go into the corner for a little "time out" and reflect upon my character defects that you've helped me realize I have.

To the best of my recollection, I murdered no prawns in my stomach--they were already pretty dead when I ate them (there were, if memory serves, five of the little buggers, and they were pretty good). Nor did I drag an Venezuelans of any age into my cabin. (The cabin steward was, I believe, Filippino, but I didn't have to drag him in. He seemed to arrive mysteriously when my wife and I were out of the cabin. Was this wrong of him? Was it my fault? I'm a bit confused about this, now that you've pointed it out.)

I'm not sure how to take your kind suggestion that Loomis, Bayou Self and I ought to watch each others' backs. If I wasn't so gauche and bourgeois, I'd say that kinda sounds like some sort of threat (not from you, of course; I know you're above that sort of thing, you not being bourgeois or gauche like I am). Since I've never met LL or BS (and don't have a clue where in North America BS lives), watching their backs sounds problematic. Perhaps if you posted a few more details about why we need our backs watched, I might be better able to watch theirs, and they mine.

I wasn't aware that my politics were amateurish, but thanks for pointing that out. I'll try to get some professional help. (There was a period in the mid-1970s when my politics were professional, since I worked on a Congressional campaign, but I suppose since then I've lost my "pro" status and have relapsed back to being an amateur once again.) I'm sure you're much better at it (politics) than I am, so perhaps you'd share a few pointers. I know I speak for many of my fellow boodlers when I say we'd all like to hear more of your social commentary and penetrating insight.

Can't post any further--gotta go Google to see if there are any 12-step gauche programs I can sign up for.

Much obliged, amigo.

(Memo to Loomis and Bayou Self: Don't worry, kids. I've got your backs.)

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 22, 2006 9:43 PM | Report abuse

SCC: Devastated. See? I'm shaken to the core.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 22, 2006 9:45 PM | Report abuse

Indeed I would like to elaborate my views, Smudge.

Don't get your panties in a bunch. Buy them one at a time. I made an observation about the commentariat and how they "watch each others' backs." That's the indicative mood. Not the imperative. Only a 12-step proselytizer with cognitive glaucoma would construe that as a threat.

Your attempt to declaim from some moral high-ground and rope me into a specified threat is not bourgeois or gauche - it's bush league psyche-out noise. You failed. I'm sure your community is grateful for your property taxes.

You went on a cruise? So what? I'm going to the Super Bowl.

SnarkySquirrel, it's probably not your fault that you haven't developed the attention span to follow a compound sentence. As for insults: here's the clipboard with a sign-up sheet. I run a clinic.

Posted by: Ben Roethlisberger | January 22, 2006 11:26 PM | Report abuse

I really think ben just needs to get some...

Posted by: lurking in ohio | January 23, 2006 1:52 AM | Report abuse

Welcome back, Dreamer and same to your cohorts. I hope your trip was successful.
We have missed your collective insights.

The Great Zuccini and the Dalai Lama all in one day! Both were treasures to read about. I felt the same way you did about the Great Zuccini, TBG.

The Dalai Lama has an amazing presence, I have heard. I'm glad he has a sense of humor. I loved the part about changing the doctrine when he discovered the moon had shadows. Lucky you, Joel.


Posted by: boondocklurker | January 23, 2006 2:04 AM | Report abuse

SCC: Zucchini


Posted by: boondocklurker | January 23, 2006 2:08 AM | Report abuse

Is this one of those compare/contrast assignments? Between Joel's article and Gene's?

I mean - no offense Joel - but you didn't exactly get buddy/buddy with the Lama. Whereas Gene has got this whole Jack Kerouac vibe going. Maybe next time you could at least invite him to S-bucks?

Posted by: ot | January 23, 2006 4:01 AM | Report abuse

Curm's reply to Ben suggests that Curm's earlier claim that eating was better than sex with his wife is correct. Only Curm would know. Curb your enthusiasm, Mr. C. We love you for what you are, not what you eat. Also, a tip: please don't bring your wife into this blog--or are you willing to share your original comparison with her.
Just some helpful advice from a wise gal.

Re Gene's tour de force: let's not lapse into comparisons. Gene's was Pulitzer quality. Joel A's recent work does not need to be compared with that

Posted by: omnigasm | January 23, 2006 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Ben R - Please report back on your trip to the Super Bowl. (Bayou Self looks over his shoulder, sees nobody at all back there.)

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 23, 2006 10:31 AM | Report abuse

No wonder this country is so screwed up with the likes of you guys rambling on. You are all so cynical. You can't even stop for a New York nanosecond and consider that we may just for one second learn something from the Dalai Lama.

Posted by: Julio | January 23, 2006 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Joel--I picked up one of his books at the library. And, although I tried very hard to learn something, I felt that it said nothing of importance. He spent more time describing the famous scientists he had met with including their physical appearances and personalities and didn't actually impart any of the knowledge he had gained from these meetings. I was thoroughly disappointed and didn't bother to read on. It truly was "lost in translation". What do you think of his books? Am I missing something here?

Posted by: Miss Toronto | January 23, 2006 4:19 PM | Report abuse

If the lone interloper theory is anything like the single shooter theory, your conceit as an AchenWag expert is the funniest thing I've heard today, if you don't count like forty other things.

Posted by: USMC Cpl. L.H.Oz | January 27, 2006 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Joel, Joel, Joel --

Regarding your suggestion that the IOC add American football to the Winter Games -- well, I sincerely hope you were kidding.

"There aren't eight people in America who care about these esoteric sports?" You might want to check the TV ratings before you make a cavalier remark like that. In our house, we never watch football but the Winter Games are an event to be anticipated and savoured.

Furthermore -- and I hate to shake your US-centered world -- the Olympics aren't staged solely for the enjoyment of American viewers. They are an INTERNATIONAL event. How interested are the Austrians, say, in ski racing? The Dutch in speed skating? The South Koreans in short-track? The Norwegians in cross-country skiing? The Finns in ski jumping? (Answer, in case you don't know: VERY.)

But let's assume for a moment that you're correct, Mr. Achenbloch, and that the Winter Games are only of passing interest to your typical (male) American sports fan. Isn't it good for our children to have a chance to see some of the less-commonly-viewed sports that we'll see in Torino? To watch the efforst and achievements of athletes who are often competing for the love of sport, not for financial gain? To be exposed just a bit to some other cultures? To become aware, even dimly, that the United States is just one of over two hundred nations occuypingn this planet and that we must learn to respect and get along with our fellow humans?

Besides, don't you realize that there are only about eight people OUTSIDE the United States who care about American football? The rest of the planet -- over six billion people, Joel! -- couldn't be less interested in a "sport" whose primary strategy seems to consist of gratuitous acts of assault committed by oversized, overpaid and often over-medicated men.

You and the rest of the gridiron fans had from August until January to watch the American Gladiators wreak their week-in, week-out streak of violence. Give us two short weeks once every four years to enjoy something different.

Bring on the Games, I say!

Posted by: Winter Olympics Lover | February 13, 2006 5:40 PM | Report abuse

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