Despite all the challenges of pulling off this talk successfully, I think I handled each one in a fairly sane manner. I had to cope with intense cold for five hours, faced an old PC computer for about 3 of them, created several new slides for my Powerpoint (and then lost them all when the power failed and computers crashed; not just once but several times each hour, prompting a “savesavesave” mantra). I rebuilt the slides in the last 30 min. before the talk, did not have lunch, and craved tea/coffee but there was no time to go get one.
I’m writing this almost exactly 24 hours after the talk, at a time when my lecture was supposed to begin in 7 minutes. And I was not yet even in the right building but was still extricating myself from a dismal little media center. A pox on the Indian power system, and the so-called engineers who are supposed to make it work!
At 3:25, five minutes before the 3:30 start time, two of the library’s IT people were standing over a laptop trying to get its display projected on the wall. Next they tried and eventually succeeded in getting my Powerpoint to appear at 3:29. I was hovering in the front, being fitted for a microphone, trying to remember to breathe deeply. Amazing how that can help keep a situation from spinning or sliding or slipping into full-blown anxiety.
By 3:35–to my astonishment–the room had around 30 people in it (w/ more to come later). Two-thirds were Tibetans working in various institutes, offices, and centres around the Library complex. The other few were foreigners from here and there who had either seen one of the flyers I posted in McLG or heard about it via the LTWA email list. Later I learned places of origin: Quebeq, Denmark, Greece, Australia, U.S. and Tibet of course, (b/c it is a foreign country and, increasingly, a foreign concept to the younger generation tuned into their cell phones and websites).
I had thought that maybe six or eight people might show up, given the off-season, the time of day, and the ambiguity of a topic called “Experimental Buddhism.” I remember experiencing a brief flash of annoyance pass through the lobby of my consciousness as I looked out at all the people…partly because I knew I had to win this room’s attention, and that took effort….and I was already feeling depleted due to the ordeals of the frigging media center.
Magically, a cup of chai appeared, prepared perfectly and piping hot. I gobble down a chunk of cheese and enjoy the tea immensely as I’m being introduced by Geshe Lakhdor, director of LTWA. The physical act of eating and drinking get me out of my head and back to my body, so I’m feeling more balanced and ready to roll.
Geshe Lakhdor is not only the director of LTWA but is also a well-known and respected teacher who travels around India frequently to give talks about the dharma, with a speciality in the bodhisattva’s vow. I liked him immediately when we met for the first time a few days ago, and recognized a sharp intellect w/ no time for bullshit.
It’s now 3:35 and suddenly I’m alone at the front of a room full of people. As silly as it sounds, I remember thinking, “How did this happen? Why did I put myself in this situation?” I’d much rather be hiking a trail or reading a book than trying to present complex information which the audience may or may not understand or reject or find unconvincing. But with big, framed images of Gandhi on one side and the young Dalai Lama (in his black frame glasses) on the other, I was suddenly in the spotlight without ever having reviewed my Powerpoint. I could only hope the slides were in order and that their transitions (from image to image or from one bullet point to the next) worked as intended.
Somehow it all comes together, and I don’t see anyone fall asleep during the next 45 minutes. I guess this the point to copy the talk description from the flyer about “Experimental Buddhism.” The talk outline, created that morning and then finalized in the frigid media center, shows some of the content and organization of the presentation.
(from the flyer) This talk will help identify some of the dominant forces influencing a variety of Buddhisms in contemporary societies. Most people are unaware that cultural and social conditioning shapes the ways they understand and practice Buddhist teachings (as well as the teachings themselves). Examples from North America, Japan, and India will show how both individuals and organizations “experiment” with religious and spiritual resources (in sometimes controversial ways!) to lessen suffering and promote awakening.
The last two slides were created very last minute, between power outages and a finicky computer, but to my surprise did a reasonable job of linking “experimental Buddhism” (and its emphasis on context and situation) to the early Mahayana idea of “emptiness” (which does the same). The idea to make this connection overt came from an interview with David McMahan (author of Buddhist Modernism) where he mentioned the great thinker and monk, Nagarjuna, who noted “All things arise from cause and context” and thus lack inherent existence. Put another way, reality in general (and in detail) is “empty” of inherent substance and existence. No thing, form, thought, emotion (etc.) exists in isolation but is dependent upon a web of interconnections. Once this is understood (and experienced via meditation or other methods that unify consciousness), the world, our emotions, mental dispositions, and social conventions seem much less imposing. In fact, we can gain a freedom from their insistent conditioning that results in calm, balance, and a feeling of integration with the world.
So my final point was illustrated with an image of a young woman priest in Japan (Rev. Akari Miura) holding a guitar. Right here we have two “experimental” innovations in Buddhist practice (a woman priest using a guitar to teach about the dharma) that is completely foreign to a Tibetan audience. I closed the talk saying that approaching Buddhist practice experimentally–that is, choosing resources from a range of traditions to find a combination that makes some tangible improvement in one’s consciousness, life, and society–is how Buddhism will attract a new generation of practitioners.
It is after the Q&A that I meet a number of very interesting people. The LTWA director of translation and research, and a student from Quebec, wants to know more about mindfulness meditation. Another Tibetan official wants to know how to deal effectively with cultural “others.” A ditzy woman from Greece (whose rambling questions were cut off twice by Geshe Lakhdor!) wants to tell me about Jesus as an enlightened being. And I’m pleased to meet a scientist from Australia whose job description is listed as “Change Manager” for implementing complex systems or new research. Finally, there is a young woman finishing a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity school, and a couple from San Francisco on a long trip who have already traveled Nepal and, more importantly for me, Turkey.
Rather than taxi back up the hill after sitting in the cold for so long, we all hike the rocky back trail. Ending up on the mani path and walking by the Dalai Lama’s temple seems very appropriate to conclude the afternoon.