Monday, April 27, 2009

Tobias Meets the Dalai Lama

I'm not exactly certain how the world has skipped and jittered in such a way that these events happened. Sunday, our son Tobias was one of 49 individuals honored by his holiness, the Dalai Lama in San Francisco at a ceremony entitled "Unsung Heroes of Compassion." He was being recognized for his work in the organization that he started, called "Human Translation."

The last two days have seemed like one of those euphoria-induced highs from a previous decade: A massive positive flow of energy that seemed to wash down the hills of San Francisco into the bay. It was not merely the excitement, but an actual sense of positive energy that seemed to lift our spirits and perhaps affirm what it means to be human. So I will, as best I can, report from my perspective the event and the feelings that it inspired.

I met Tobias the evening before at the Ritz-Carlton, which is way up near the top of San Francisco. They had invited the honorees to arrive the day before the event to get to know one another. There were 49 honorees altogether, from all over the world: India, Alabama, Israel, Washington State, Zimbabwe, New Jersey, etc. It was truly a gathering of people from all over the world. And each honoree had been permitted to bring a guest, and Tobias permitted me to be that guest that night of orientation. We ate a buffet dinner and then mixed about. I met Jack Kornfeld from Spirit Rock, and lots of others, and Tobias had a look like the cat that had eaten the canary: He was clearly in his networking element. There were nuns from India, Tibetans, Chinese, English, Aussies, Americans, Canadians: All people that Dick Grace had encountered in his many travels. Tobias and I split up at about 8 and I drove home, while he stayed at the hotel in a kind of reverie of networking frenzy.

Judith and I came in the next morning for the ceremony itself while the event was still getting organized, and had a chance to revisit some old acquaintances who I did not expect to see there: Tim Mondavi and his daughters, and many others. All told, there were about a thousand people who had ponied up $500 to attend this event – something way beyond our means, but which we managed nonetheless.

The event was a sit-down luncheon in a humongous banquet hall. Peter Coyote was master of ceremonies (I kept asking Judith if we were in the middle of a NPR TV show about brain health), along with Isabelle Allende. Jack Kornfeld gave a wonderful talk about the nature of compassion, as understood by Buddhists, with some lovely anecdotes and stories, all told with humor and masterful nuances.

Tobias sat at our banquet table – one of the two tables seating his supporters from Human Translation – and once again he looked like the cat who had eaten the canary. Judith was all smiles, chatting and laughing. Food was okay, and I had a nice chat with the couple beside me. It seemed like we were in a sea of crazy people, all smiling and happy, and yakking away.

Then the Dalai Lama came in, walked through the room in that rambling gait that makes him look like a wise old Orangutan, greeting various people before arriving at the dais. He sat and talked a bit in response to two questions from the audience, and then there were three wonderful performances, one of which was by Justin, who had sung at the Human Translation fundraisers in the past. I had spoken with Justin before the event in the waiting room. He was so happy to be there, he just glowed. But he was very nervous. When his time for his singing began, the energy was ecstatic. His Holiness sat at the dais, and at one point seemed to be rocking to the music itself, as Justin sang "Old Man River". Then Justin was greeted by the Dalai Lama, after his wonderful performance and later he was still so nervous that he was shaking when I caught up with him. His singing was incredible: Indescribable. The energy was contagious. He had received a standing ovation.

Finally, each honoree was introduced to the Dalai Lama by Isabel Allende and Peter Coyote. A description of their projects was read as they came forward. Tobias, towering over His Holiness, bent low to receive a silk Khata (scarf). All of us at the HT table were beaming in incomprehensible joy for the recognition that he received.

That was pretty much describes the ceremony.

However, though this describes the event, it does not describe the level of energy that permeated that room. I think it was akin to a drug-induced euphoria, like psilocybin or something. Quite potent. The cynical nature of my general outlook had led me to anticipate a sense of vertigo. But, after speaking to many of the honorees the night before – hearing about their projects and their efforts – by the morning of the event it was clear that I had already checked my cynicism with my coat at the door.

These were honest-to-goodness bodhisattvas: People who were doing good deeds because their nature made them that way.

One little woman, from India, had opened an orphanage in Darsana where she takes in street urchins. She is, I swear, shorter than five feet tall, and her desire is to take all the pain of the world and exchange it for the happiness that she feels. That’s her desire. She exudes happiness – crazy happiness – while she takes care these 80 orphans. She and her husband, whom I also met, are child-like and sweet, managing as best they can – sort of like coming across Hansel and Gretel in the deep dark woods, before they meet the witch. They were just bubbling with happiness, and had just come off the plane after 30 hours of travel. “This is our first time” she kept saying, like a person who was on a first mescaline trip. Their energy was contagious.

Now imagine a room of fifty people like that, surrounded by a thousand supporters. All of them had this sort of contagious energy. A sort gathering of spiritual batteries, all getting recharged by the Dalai Lama, who sat at the dais and switched all our switches off and on, little verbal switches, and changed all the negative polarity to positive polarity like a master spiritual electrician: His high little voice rising and falling, then deepening, then suddenly laughing and making us all laugh. Then, quite suddenly, he said “That’s all! Good bye!” and up he got to leave, again wandering like an old Orangutan through the hall.

It was no wonder that Tobias looked so happy, to be among such a group of truly outrageous crazies. He fit right in.

Tearing him away from this festival of compassion was incredibly difficult. A couple of the members of his board of trustees, Linda Scheibal and Susan Shay and husbands and donors, wanted to have some personal time with him. So eventually I extracted him and we climbed even further up Knob Hill to the St. Francis Hotel where we opened a couple bottles of wine and sat around and talked.

Finally, it was about 6 and we wandered back to our cars – some people wanting to party on – and Judith and I came home. It was a wonderful event, far in excess of energy than I anticipated.