Dharma in the park

Sixty-five thousand people -- students, professionals, hippies and the just plain curious -- flocked to New York to hear the Dalai Lama. But did they find anything meaningful beyond a sunny day, a picnic lunch, and a guest appearance by Richard Gere?

Published September 22, 2003 6:44PM (EDT)

Sara was still sound asleep on Sunday morning in her Upper West Side apartment when her phone rang and shattered a perfect state of divine, peaceful bliss. She picked it up. It was her sister, Rachel, calling to offer her another perfect state of divine, peaceful bliss.

"Do you wanna see the Dalai Lama?" Rachel asked.

"Uh," Sara mumbled, "I don't know."

Rachel had spent much of Saturday night in a weed-induced philosophical frenzy, raving on and on to her friends about the history of communist China and Mao and the imperialist takeover of Tibet and all the other kinds of good, deep stuff that third-year Columbia students like herself are supposed to be passionate about. Rachel wasn't about to let her sister sleep through ... this.

"It's the Dalai-fuckin'-Lama, man!" she yelled at Sara.

So just after 10 a.m. they grabbed a couple of friends and piled into a cab and headed down to the park entrance on East 90th Street. Except that the line to get in already snaked down the avenue and into the 70s, before whipping back up until it finally ended at 96th Street, which is where I find them when I arrive after 11.

It just so happens that Sara is an old friend of mine from college in Michigan whom I haven't seen or spoken to in about a year. Considering the mile-long line of people waiting to get into the park, it is an extraordinary coincidence that I locate Sara in the throngs, a meeting I can only attribute to the miracle of karma. With the Big D.L. himself set to speak in less than an hour, to me this means one thing, and one thing only: God wants me to cut.

"Dude," Rachel says, peering at me from behind a pair of silver, mirrorlike shades. "You can totally cut. It's the Dalai Lama."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I first read about this massive spiritual shindig in two articles in the New York Times, both of which talked in somewhat derisive tones about what a pop phenomenon D.L. has become in America. This is the Dalai Lama's first talk in Central Park since 1999. In the meantime, he's written a few warm and fuzzy books, even had a self-help-style bestseller, "The Art of Happiness." You can find the picture of the red-robed, bald-headed, bespectacled monk on everything from Free Tibet literature to advertisements for Apple Computers.

But it wasn't until I saw his mug on the cover of this week's Time Out New York -- "Dalai-Rama! Start chanting: The Dalai Lama's coming to town!" -- that I realized this guy's for real. If he's significant enough to be featured in the same magazine as Heather Graham and the city's "new superclub," he must have something good to say about the meaning of life.

Like most other people, I can't really explain who the Dalai Lama is, or what exactly he does, but I know he's some kind of spiritual big dog, the 14th reincarnation of some, uh, guy or something. And not only was he plugged on the cover of Time Out, but there was a whole page devoted to him in the Chill Out section of the magazine, and really, who among us couldn't use some hard-core divinely inspired chilling out these days? I figured, what the hell, why not go?

So I'm standing in the gargantuan line with my fellow dharma bums. Throngs and throngs of people, plenty of piercings, plenty of dreadlocks and tie-dye and tattoos, plenty of paisley bandannas wrapped around sweaty white, middle-class foreheads, young and old. There are also gaggles of Tibetans milling about, the women in foot-length traditional dresses, some shiny and metallic, some faded and soft, the men in loose-fitting slacks and shirts bearing delicate designs, or perhaps draped in magenta robes like the D.L. himself. There are a lot of Caucasians dressed like the Tibetans, too.

The line still isn't moving. Rachel and I decide to go for another blessed cut, this time to the front of the line. We slip by a cop and make our way with hundreds of other people who decided to transcend the rules. Solemn chants boom over loudspeakers and fill the air as we and a dozen robed Tibetans twist our way through a tangle of weeds and wild plants.

Event volunteers wearing official Dalai Lama Tour '03 shirts direct us to the front of the line. Apparently, cheating a little bit is OK as long as your ultimate goal is seeing His Holiness.

"Oh, I want one of those shirts," Rachel sighs.

Through the trees we finally see the Promised Land, guided by a beacon of bright blue porta-potties that stretch across the green grass like tiny sacred shrines to the God of Human Waste Disposal. Our path opens onto a hilly field that is blanketed with, well, blankets, and about 65,000 people sitting on them, munching on picnic lunches, laughing and chatting with each other, making hats out of newspapers to protect their heads from the sun's rays. There are lots of very average, very normal-looking people here, the kind who eat cornflakes for breakfast instead of granola, who prefer lunch meat to hummus, and who enjoy washing their bodies, hair and clothing on a regular basis. But there's also plenty of the other kind.

Or, as Rachel puts it, "Look at all the hippies!"

Yet as I look over the masses of people who all traveled here for a common cause -- even if they're not sure what that cause is -- I can't help thinking that this must be close to what Gandhi or Jesus inspired. What we tend to forget is that beyond their specific messages, the great gurus of the past were able to connect to the average Joe on a very visceral level. That's what made them so subversive to the ruling powers. Reading the Bible, you quickly find that most people who went to hear Jesus preach didn't really know a thing about his philosophy -- they were just curious. They wanted to be cured. In some way, on a spiritual level, so do many of the people who are in Central Park.

Then I see the stage. It's flanked on either side by twin giant televisions like something out of a U2 concert, and I realize that things have indeed changed since Jesus' time. Sure, technology is a convenient way to get important ideas across. But how much of this is just spectacle? Just meaningless titillation? Would Jesus have used giant TVs to broadcast his message? Would he have allowed corporations to use his image to sell products? What would Jesus do?

Thankfully, he's sitting right behind me, so I can ask him. I turn around and talk to Jesus, actually Jordan Smith, a senior in college, and a guy who looks an awful lot like the Son of God. Smith made the pilgrimage here with a group of spiritually minded people from Drew University, a small college in New Jersey. In fact, he is so spiritual that he actually lives in a co-op-like place called "Spirituality Home," for -- not surprisingly -- spiritual people like himself.

He majors in religious studies, specializing in Hinduism, but says his spirituality is something that can't be easily defined or measured. "I was raised Presbyterian," he says. "I still feel a connection to Christian scriptures, but to other holy works too. Spirituality is just one of those things you have to feel inside."

This is the first field trip the people of the Spirituality Home have made in quite a while. The D.L. was important enough that many -- but not all -- of the residents woke up at 7 a.m. for the long haul to New York. Smith sits cross-legged next to another resident of the home, Kelly Mundell, a senior who does not resemble a biblical figure.

"There are a lot of people who just couldn't make it," Mundell said. "We woke them up and they were like, It's just not happening."

Mundell herself would've been sleeping in her holy bed at Spiritual Home now, but she felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Dalai Lama, even though she seems to know less about him than I do.

"I read one of his books for a class," she says wistfully. "I don't remember what it was."

"'The Art of Happiness,'" Jesus gently reminds her.

"Right," she says.

The air fills again with the chanting of monks. I look at the stage, cluttered with golden sunflowers. Although I can't make out the singers, I see their wrinkled faces and shaved heads broadcast on the giant TVs. The pitch of the humming grows higher and higher, reverberates through the air, until the sound is broken by the deep bass voice of a short, squat monk.

"Oy, oy, oy," he chants. The others slowly join him. "Oy, oy, oyyyy."

This must be meant for all the Jewish mothers in the crowd. Or maybe not. Still, the vast majority of people here weren't raised as Buddhists but have found something in the Dalai Lama's teachings that their original religions lacked.

Gary, a middle-aged high school English teacher from Long Island sitting nearby, traveled two and a half hours to be here. "I grew up Roman Catholic," he says. "Buddhism just makes more sense to me. I saw the Dalai Lama in 1999, and his voice has such a timbre of love. I wouldn't miss this for anything."

The New York City parks and recreation commissioner, Adrian Benepe, gets onstage for a few polite, reserved comments.

Suddenly, you can feel the tension building in the air. The anticipation. The knowledge that He, the One we're all waiting for, is about to speak. Hearts beat, brows grow moist with sweat.

Then he appears.

"It's now my pleasure," the park commissioner says, "to introduce ... Richard Gere!"

The crowd explodes. Rachel frantically calls her sister on her cellphone.

"It's Richard Gere!"

Sara, the sorry sap, is still outside. She's missed it. I feel bad for her.

Then Richard Gere -- Richard Gere! -- introduces His Holiness -- "one of the great beings to perhaps ever walk this planet." The Dalai Lama appears on the stage to a standing ovation.

He smiles, chuckles embarrassedly. His face is filled with kindness, his whole being exudes patience. He waves for everyone to sit down. Everyone sits down. Well, almost everyone.

"Can you sit down?" a few people call to the remaining standers. They stay standing. His Holiness starts to speak.

"Down in front, please?" Nothing. "Down in front!" What did you say? "Sit down!"

Yes, love and patience, love and patience. But really, can you blame them? After all, they came here to see the Dalai-fuckin'-Lama.

"We are all the same," the D.L. begins. "There are no different colors, no different faiths. We are all just human beings."

For all my cynicism, listening to the D.L. is an amazing experience. Not so much because of what he says -- honestly, the same basic messages of love and brotherhood I heard from Catholic priests on Sunday mornings throughout my childhood -- but of how he says it. His figure isn't imposing; his voice doesn't bellow or boom. Rather, he seems very at ease with himself and with the fact that so many people are listening to him. He chuckles easily and often, takes his time as he talks, as if he's just telling a pleasant afternoon story.

Yet the entire crowd, thousands upon thousands, is entranced by his every word. People take notes. When he laughs, a breathy, staccato chortle, everyone laughs with him. Aside from that, almost every person here is silent, listening. Not a cellphone rings. In New York, this is truly a miracle.

There are, of course, exceptions to the solemnity.

Sky-writing planes fly across the clear blue sky, leaving puffy advertisements in their wake. Hey, anywhere there's a crowd, there's a chance to sell, right?

Some people, latecomers or early leavers, seem to never sit down, perpetually winding their way across the fields without listening to a word the D.L. says. He decries the excessive materialism of American society, our overwhelming concern with the physical being. And occasionally, although the D.L. speaks mostly in English, he's forced to use a translator, leading to a few funny miscommunications. The best occurs when the Dalai Lama tries to describe the intimacy of motherhood, specifically how the baby is always drawn to his mother's ... what's the word?

"Breast," the interpreter says.

"What?" says the D.L.



"Breast, breast, BREAST!"

My favorite moment, though, comes when the D.L. gives his advice on how to find deeper meaning in life.

"Some people," he says, "[are] seeking pleasure from animals. But still animals do not provide us with full satisfaction."

I can only assume the D.L.'s talking about pets, but I have to wonder what's going through Richard Gere's, uh, mind right now.

When the talk ends, the Dalai Lama leaves to another standing ovation. This time, no shouts for people to sit down. Lots of people leave -- one budding Buddhist wearing pink velour pants with the word "JUICY" inscribed on her ass is surprisingly among the first to go -- but a lot more stay. The result is an eclectic bunch: Tibetans eating lunch mixed with hippies trying to soak up the last remaining positive vibes.

Gary the teacher is elated.

"I think he touched everyone in the audience," he says. "He really spoke from the heart."

"Did you feel the energy?" Gary's tall, thin friend asks me. "Lots of good energy," he says, shaking his head and grinning.

I stroll a little myself, gazing in amazement at the effect this afternoon has had on people, whether they really know anything about the Dalai Lama or not.

"This is one of those things you do once, and it changes you for the rest of your life," says Kelsey, a 16-year-old girl from New York City who came with four of her girlfriends. For these girls seeing the Dalai Lama was a way to connect with other people. They had read the articles criticizing the commercialization of the D.L. and his message, but while they disagreed with some of his beliefs -- he condemns homosexuality, for example -- they felt that embracing the moment was more important. "It's a community thing," says Kelsey's friend Lisa. "He's very much on everyone's level. One of the problems I usually have with religion is it's so serious -- there's no sense of humor. But he laughed so much -- he didn't take himself seriously."

A few feet away, a ring of hackey-sackers hackey their sack from one foot to another. They're just as diverse, just as human, as the beginning of the D.L.'s speech hoped. One Asian, one Latino, one Caucasian. A pale goateed punk walks up and asks politely, "Mind if I join?" Soon he's hackin' it up with the rest of them, just as a posse of bald Tibetan monks walks by, one of them chatting amiably on his cellphone.

Nearby, two police officers with thick New York accents have a conversation with two young neo-hippies, a girl wearing a paisley skirt, a hemp chord around her neck, and a silver hoop in her left eyebrow, and a pasty, slack-jawed boy, as thin as a bong, a rainbow Bob Marley-esque hat perched on his head. Aha, I think, the forces of establishment and anarchy finally collide. But instead they all smile with each other, laugh at some kind of inside joke.

What is this? The lions lying down with the lambs? The end of New York? The end of the world? Is the Dalai Lama the messiah?

On the bus ride home I sit across from a gaunt white woman, lovingly carrying a picture of His Holiness. Her thumb and forefinger work a small ring of prayer beads; in her other hand she holds a flower the color of burnt umber. She wears a fiery red robe, and her short hair hints of a recently shaved scalp. Her blue eyes bespeak a cool, detached wisdom.

Suddenly, the bus driver brakes hard. We jerk to a halt. A few of the standing passengers nearly fall. They grumble and yell. The car in front of us stopped short unexpectedly. The bus driver lays on the horn, long, hard, thick. Angry.

"Stupid idiot," he growls.

This is the New York I know and love.

By Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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