On the morning I was to meet His Holiness I woke up restless, sleepless and anticipating a day I knew would change me. I met my loyal writing partner, Nancy Dorrier, on a conference call at 5:15, and we wrote about the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, love and compassion. This practice settled my nerves, somewhat.
I could see the first light of day casting a new glow across the sky. I prepared to present four works of art from our collection, the Crow Collection of Asian Art, at the George W. Bush Presidential Center: Avalokitesvara, Varupa, Shri-devi from Tibet and a Guardian Lion from Nepal. President Bush and Laura Bush would be leading His Holiness through their museum. It was so interesting how I barely considered the intensity of meeting my second president when the opportunity was attached to the Dalai Lama. All three encounters, however, were powerful in their own way.
The Museum Tour: 45 Seconds with the Dalai Lama
I arrived just before my expected time of 7:30 am. at the loading dock entrance of this Federal Fortress in Dallas, Texas. I meditated for a few moments, breathing deeply and repeating a mantra of “love in, love out”. “Just love them.” I surprised myself by saying out loud.
I shuffled purses and papers, laptop and wallet. So much so when I arrived inside the dock entrance I was without proper identification. I failed the first step of a behind-the-scene tour with two heads of state. The stoic security officers were un-amused (that’s their job), and despite my agreeable offer to go back to the car, proceed to complete the extra-thorough background check for the girl who shows up to meet a president without her license. I’m sure they learned a lot about me in their Federal database. I was X-rayed, wanded, and wanded again. Then, with the alert and professional decorum of a Buckingham guard, a gentleman escorted me swiftly to my place in the galleries.
Danny Skinner, our Director of Exhibition and Charles Camp, Assistant Registrar, were loyally waiting for me next to the expertly-installed works of art from our museum. I nervously shuffled from purse to bag, to notes, to purse to bag to notes. We were alerted the tour would be in our gallery between 8:50 and 9:00 am. It was 7:40. We chatted with the wonderful collections team at the Bush Library about museums, presidents, collectors and objects as the time slowly ticked by. A security officer helped us with what was an excruciating countdown. A countdown to the Dalai Lama: 20 minutes. 8 minutes. 4 minutes. 45 seconds.
And then, I caught a glimpse of total goodness. Between two columns of the exhibition in the next gallery I saw the elegant profile of Laura Bush and the unmistakable robes of His Holiness. I was told later in the day that I gasped and exclaimed, “I just saw him”. And then they entered the room: A President, A First Lady, A Dalai Lama. They were holding hands and laughing. They paused to admire President Bush’s portrait of His Holiness. The Dalai Lama was lovingly critical of the work, but Bush, stalwart and humble in his labor of love, laughed it off. I believe portraiture is the most difficult kind of painting, and it takes notable courage to be out there learning something new, and offering these works to the world.
The tour continued as they paused to reflect on the moments in history that the Dalai Lama presented various gifts to the First Family: a prayer cloth, thangkas and relics of Tibetan culture. The curatorial team at the Library also displayed several objects of other faiths as a reflection of an inclusive world view of religion.
His Holiness stopped at a Bible, poignantly the Bible used in both inaugurations. He opened it freely to Psalms and read something to President Bush we couldn’t hear. Context aside (of course I would love to know which Psalm it was), it was a beautiful exchange.
My heart was jumping out of my chest as they rounded the corner. Love in, love out, love in, love out. And they arrived at our stop on the tour. We were graciously introduced by Mrs. Bush and the next few moments were a whirlwind of Tibetan art, His Holiness taking the lead as teacher, the swiftest exchange in the history of Asian Art tours. It was so clear to me that His Holiness is already in the next moment—he literally and very happily skipped past us into the day and perhaps already into tomorrow.
I took a deep breath and leapt into my moment to offer him a gift: an eightieth birthday gift. I handed him a first edition of “Pocket Sunrise”, a collection of twenty-four photographs I have taken over the past four years of our beloved White Rock Lake at sunrise. He seems a fitting recipient for this little morning project of mine. The back page is inscribed with this text from the Buddha: Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. I was honored by Mrs. Bush’s appreciation of sharing a little bit of Dallas with him. She could not have been lovelier, the President more magnanimous and welcoming, and the Dalai Lama more joyful. The whole experience was brimming with joy and total delight in the day. It was all about being together and celebrating life.
And then they were gone. Like a cloud passing back over the sun. The galleries fell silent again (save for the haunting 9-11 sirens in a nearby display). He was there and then he wasn’t. We amused ourselves with interpretations of this fantastic whirlwind of power, peace and possibility. I hugged Danny who steadily “had my back” as the swiftest tour in the universe unfolded. It was an astonishing morning, and it was all well, done and packed up by 9:30 am. I made my way (escorted of course) back through the rhythms of security and into the bright hot sunshine of this new July day.
In the car, I tried to write, but the words were swimming too quizzically in my head. It truly was so fast. And so wonder-full. I made a few calls, downsized to a practical clutch and returned to the front door of the Bush Center for a very small luncheon hosted by the Bushes in honor of His Holiness. Yes, this day is just beginning in its splendor.
I landed on the public side of the Bush Library at the valet (Dallas-style) and was whisked in for another x-ray and presidential greeting. The protocol was simply put: a lesson in Presidential protocol. We were blessed with a photo-opportunity (my second) with the Bushes and His Holiness. The Dalai Lama took my hand cheerfully, and I said without hesitation, “I’m going to get as much of you as I can!” (Author’s note: you can’t always plan what you’re going to say to the Dalai Lama, and when you say what you do, you just know that it is both delivered and received in love.) I thanked them and moved into the area where we dined.
The tables, just ten, were appointed with beautiful green and gold china and brilliant summer hued-centerpieces of roses and mums. A gold-inscribed place card led me to my seat. I joined a Rabbi, friends of the Bushes from Iowa and several Dallas leaders at my table. What a privilege to be in this moment with other seekers. The atmosphere was buoyant and tangibly so. We dined as princes and princesses do, and at the start of the dessert course we sang a hearty Texas round of “Happy Birthday” to His Holiness. He was delighted. It was such a sight to behold.
President Bush introduced him with total love in his heart. These men love each other: as friends, brothers, colleagues in peace. Their mutual-admiration is real. As the Dalai Lama launched into his remarks, he mirrored Bush’s affection, likening him to a younger brother. He talked about the authenticity of their friendship: one cloaked in truth, love, forgiveness and compassion. He demonstrated their friendship as a model for peacemaking: if two friends can be honest, loving, forgiving and compassionate, what is possible when two countries are like this? This Dalai Lama has been practicing compassionate loving kindness for so long, with such admirable discipline, he has become loving kindness. He has become love: a walking manifestation of love. He is love.
During the close of this talk at the end of a remarkable birthday lunch a woman in the audience asked this question: “If all of the languages in the world were merged into one language, what single word would be the most important?” I heard a few whispers of the answer “love” around me but without a moment’s hesitation, he swiftly responded with the word “life”. Life, the word we never think about but the word we exist by. There was a barely-audible intake of air across the room. The power of his word, it’s meaning and the way it lingered in the air around us was arresting. Love might be the first order of the day, but love and the capacity to love are only possible with life.
This was my first real, visceral in-person lesson from the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Too stunned to speak about anything small, we floated downstairs to the shuttles that would carry our pre-screened bodies into Moody Coliseum at Southern Methodist University. I was efficiently escorted to the front row, Aisle 1, Seat 6. My astonishment of this day only continues. I am introduced to my seatmate in #7: known to me as Tenzin without a business card: a kind, stately gentlemen traveling and working with His Holiness’ entourage from Dharmasala. We muse on our impressions of the morning, as the anticipation builds. The Dalai Lama delays the start of the talk by about 15 minutes. I later learn he has chosen to linger a little longer with a group of 25 Tibetan refugees who now live in Austin. This day, they have journeyed here to Dallas as pilgrims to see him. And he won’t disappoint. 5,500 people can wait as he laughs and charms and blesses. He is theirs and they are his—their moment in time suspended just as it was for me. This Dalai Lama, who has said he will live for 20 more years, is on his own time.
One of the most poignant moments of the day happens just as the lights lower. The crowd across the stadium is pin-drop silent. No one is coughing, laughing, talking, moving. Silent. Two monks are seated from His Holiness’ team and small cheers erupt from somewhere afar. They quickly realize these two devoted gents are not the Dalai Lama. A wave of laughter then silence falls back over the crowd.
Brad Cheeves, a good friend and Vice-President of Development and External Affairs for SMU, welcomes us to this glorious day. He warmly welcomes the First Family of Dallas, SMU President Gerald Turner and Mrs. Turner, the President of the Bush Library and Presidential Center, the board, my friend Jim Falk of the World Affairs Council, Dallas –Fort Worth and me. In front of a crow of 5,500 I am introduced. Jim and I stood grinning ear-to-ear, so happy to be acknowledged as community partners in this event and so deeply honored to be present for this historic Dallas moment. I sit down, breathless and bursting with joy.
I am humbled, recalling that twenty-five years and one-month ago, I sat several rows back in this same spectacular coliseum, as a senior at Plano East Senior High School’s graduation: one of those marvelous effervescent rites of passage. And here I am inside of another one.
Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration is invited to the stage and she welcomes His Holiness and our moderator: the skillful Cokie Roberts. She then introduces two young students from the Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts. These darling girls are part of the 20-member Tibet Club at the school and represent a 15-year museum-school partnership between our museum and the school initiated by my treasured friend Eva Kutscheid. Prayer flags were given to the Dalai Lama, made of linoleum and woodblock prints and His Holiness is purely delighted. He matches the bubbly energy of the girls with a playful waving of the flags. Eva, who passed away in February of 2014, fills my heart in this moment, no longer on this earthly plane, but unquestionably with us through her beautiful legacy and spirit.
The girls dance off of the stage, and then all of us, all 5500 of us are drawn into the most spectacular lesson.
During his speech, we are captured by this tremendous heart of a man. Given the length of this post, I will re-listen to his words and write tomorrow about the talk itself. If you can “experience” the Dalai Lama, I experienced him in three different ways yesterday: one on one, one on one-hundred and one-on-fifty-five hundred. His intensity increased exponentially and relationally to the size of his class. There was more connectivity in the coliseum than I have ever known. It was truly magical, the air thick with his real and honest, humble love. We laughed through our tears, and we cried through our laughter, but we mostly laughed. How seriously we take ourselves! It is this simple: love, forgive, be true and compassionate. This enchantment is certain to long stay with all of us who were there. This enchantment is the limitless expression of a life in love. This enchantment is love.