Hello, Dalai

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, January 22, 2006

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.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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