The way I remembered it, Sister Palmo, the bald-shaven English Buddhist nun, said that His Holiness, the Karmapa Lama, could kill parakeets with a glance. She'd seen him do it, in his Tibetan-refugee monastery in Sikkim.
When I heard that His Holiness, said to be a peer of the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority, was coming to Washington, I decided to doublecheck my notes on that lecture of three years ago, in Boulder. Sure enough, I was wrong. Sister Palmo had said only that he could "put birds into samadhi," samadhi being an advanced state of enlightenment/purity/saintleiness/oneness-with-all.
Still, it's enough to give you the willies, even if Sen, and Mrs. Charles Percy have put their imprimatur on him by putting him up at their Georgetown house, along with four of his 30-person retinue, all of which and more, showed up for Mrs. Percy's lamb-curry lunch yesterday.
"Chuck and I met him seven years ago in Sikkim," said Mrs. Percy, adding that the 53-year-old 16th incarnation of the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu, or Red Hat, sect, had a "message of contemplation and mediation and serenity." Also, he requires no special accommodation or food, but, as luck would have it, "our cook is Chinese," Mrs. Percy said.
Mrs. Percy had expected S. Dillon Ripley and Robert MacNamara at the lunch. But Ripley "just called to say he had a cold," said Mrs. Percy, who didn't get around to recalling why MacNara hadn't arrived.
Fortunately, she was being helped in hosting the Tibetans by Molly Whitehouse,over on Foxhall Road. Mrs. Whitehouse wife of Ambassador Charles Whitehouse, took in Swami Muktananda and his entourage during their visit to Washington a couple of years ago. But His Holiness belonged to Mrs. Percy.
Anyway, there's nothing like a retinue of Tibetan monks in crimson robes and gold-silk undershirts, to liven up a brick garden and swimming pool. Headed by the Karmapa Lama himself, sitting in the far corner with a monk, a translator, and C.T. ("Call me C.T.") Shen, board chairman at the American Steamship Co., and donor of 250 acres of New York State for a Buddhist monastery.
He looked harmless enough, even charming. Even jolly, like most of the monks in the garden. No dour anchorites, the Tibetans. Maybe it was the glasses he wore: around and hornrimmed, classic 1927 left-wing Oxford poet glasses. Or maybe it was the best across-the-pool wave and grin you're apt to see. It suddenly came clear that it would cloud no brows to walk over and ask him about those birds.
He stood up, held out a strong soft hand to shake. Was he tired after six months of steady touring about North America, performing the Vajra Crown ceremony?
The Karmapa Lama laughed. Nodded. Flashed eyes. One sensed the possibility that a translator might be superfluous.
However: "He says he is very encouraged by his ability to answer to a need here," said Aachi Tshepel, in mufti of French-cut blue blazer.
He does this by among other things, performing the Vajra crown ceremony in which, after much chanting and blowing of horns, he mounts a throne, chants OM MANI PADME HUM 100 times (clocked by a crystal rosary) and then places an ancient black crown on his head. The crown symbolizes a spiritual crown whichn service, the ceremony makes [WORD ILLEGIBLE] power visible only to other enlightened ones. Like a communio visible only to other enlightened ones. Like a communior available to its audience like the one which is scheduled [WORD ILLEGIBLE] her at Gaston Hall, Georgetown University, tonight at 8. (Tickets are $50).
Says a background sheet in His Holiness [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "The ceremony is said to be a direct communication of the awakened state of mind."
Which gets us back to the birds 'insamadli - and His Holiness, who was slapping shoulders and laughing again, after explaining that America is a "land of plenty," but it needs more monasteries.
I told him about Siter Palmo, what she said.
"Oh yes," said the translator. "I have seen him do that many, many times. They gointo samadhi, and they die. But they don't die the way other birds die. They die with their heads up and their feet still holding the perch. It is a great blessing that His Holiness would do this."
Just then, Mrs. Percy announced lunch. His Holiness went first at the buffet table, then chanted with three crimson-robed fellows, plus C.T. shen, for three minutes before eating. The rest of us were told to eat in the next room.
After lunch, His Holiness sat on a couch, inside, and entertained questions. He drank tea from a jade bowl set in a silver, eight-petaled, lotus-like stand, (He takes butter, salt and milk.) He played with something gold, which turned out to be a very tricky ball-point pen, with retractable pocket-clip and hidden cartridge.
When he was asked if he could remember his past incarnations, and replied that he wouldn't say, I got to wondering if, unenlightened by just another good American like yourself, I might be able to see that spiritual crown over his head: his halo, his aura, his nimbus.
I fixed a casual stare about three inches over his crewcut, looking for even a mirage, a shimmer.
Then I say the grin, huge totally private and unqualified, like my best buddy had just caught me trying to con him.
As the Karmapa Lama said when I asked about that spiritual crown, asked if he could see it in the mirror: "It cannot be related over a cup of tea."