A morning with the Dalai Lama and an evening with Big Joy

I hadn’t intended to see the Dalai Lama on this visit to Atlanta but a friend emailed and offered me a ticket.  I had a flexible day so I could move an appointment and go.  It seemed fated that way.  To protect my friend’s identity I will refer to her as Madam S.  Madam S is connected to the institution that sponsored the Dalai Lama’s visit and I will be somewhat critical of that institution, hence the hidden identity.   To pick up the ticket I suggested we meet at Ink & Elm across the street from the institution.  I had dined there once before and like the ambience.  Madam S had a glass of Merlot and I had “The Druid,” a concoction of gin and celery bitters invented by the mixologist at Ink & Elm.  It was what a swanky cocktail needs to be, unusual and pleasing to sip.  We ate cheese and crackers and caught up on our lives.  Madam S admonished me to get to the event early to see the set up.  We talked about how strange religious hierarchy was to us having grown up in Protestant churches that didn’t even have bishops.  She gave me some insight into the security protocols and the Dalai Lama’s handlers.  This framed my expectations of the event which was a week from the following day.

In the meantime Madam S sent me the instructions that the institution sent to all the ticket holders.  The event was not being held at the institution but at a civic center in the suburbs.  Thought the starting time was 9:30 AM, we were told to be there by 7:30.  This meant getting up before 6, something I almost never do.  Needless to say I slept poorly the evening before the event fearful that I wouldn’t wake up on time.

I drove around Interstate 285 to Interstate 85 and proceeded east to the Sugarloaf Parkway exit.  As I exited I entered a slow moving traffic jam, two lanes of cars inching by each other.  My friend Gus inched by me and we rolled down our windows and said hello but his lane was moving faster and his car disappeared.  Almost an hour later I parked and walked down to the end of the line of pilgrims who were moving slowly through the security check point.  The line snaked up and down a hill and as I moved to the back of the line I saw my friend Linda and gave her a quick hug.  Two guys in kilts behind her remarked to each other that this is how people broke in line so I didn’t give them the satisfaction of being right.  Later I saw Gus as the line moved forward and he was across from me.  He invited me to stand with him but I declined saying that my karma had put me in the spot I was in.  To alleviate boredom and to try to prepare for the Dalai Lama’s teachings I had been practicing patience with getting up before the crack of dawn, patience with the traffic jam and now patience with the creeping line moving towards security.  I imagined with the people ahead of me and the people behind me and that each of us was in just the right place vis a vis our destiny.  But just as security was in sight people behind me were directed to another security portal and our destinies changed so I no longer knew who was in front of who.

 

The suburban convention hall was an arena that could cater to concerts, sports, trade fairs and today the Dalai Lama.  The sponsoring institution had branded the event so it was unmistakably known who was putting this on.  There was a cultural program that was just ending as I took my seat on the floor towards the back of the hall.  Then there was a fairly long infomercial about the connection of this institution to the Dalai Lama and why we should donate money.  Then the president of the institution came on and gave an elaborate introduction of the university official who was to introduce the Dalai Lama.  Finally the Dalai Lama appeared and we all stood up and applauded.  He bowed and then went to greet a friend in the front row and then came back up on stage and began his talk.  There were two huge video screens on either side of him projecting his image.  Above him, obscured by a sound speaker was a screen where his words were being transcribed.  The Dalai Lama laughed a lot.  His message, as best as I could discern, was that the world population was growing, resources were diminishing and so we humans need to use our intelligence to behave more kindly to one another.

 I regretted being so far away from the Dalai Lama that the video screens distracted me from looking at him.  Right in front of me sat a family of three.  A very large man, a smaller man who looked to be adolescent and a large woman, papa bear, baby bear and mama bear.  Throughout the Dalai Lama’s talk baby bear would lean on mama bear and play with her hair.  Papa bear would look over disapprovingly from time to time.  The Dalai Lama was hard to understand and I think he was giving a talk he had given many times since it seemed to just roll out of him.  He gave a few random examples, like mammals were capable of kindness but not mosquitoes.  He said he had allowed mosquitoes to bite him but did not sense they appreciated his donation of his blood to their well being.  He was more lively in the question and answer period though had an oddly parochial response to a question about self immolating monks in his native Tibet.  He said it was a complex issue, that it was wrong for a monk to self immolate in anger but if it were a ritual offering it might be alright.  He talked about generational differences in looking at the world.  He said he and those born before 1990 belonged to the last century (I wondered if the Dalai Lama belonged more to the 14th century) and that those born after 1990 belonged to this century.  He said the younger generation have the future in their hands, literally.

The Dalai Lama ended his talk.  We all stood up and applauded and then  I made a beeline to the restroom passing the station where lunches were being handed out as I did.  We had to buy a lunch since we were not allowed to leave the arena and re-enter due to security precautions.  I had already convinced myself that I would leave before the afternoon panels.  Seeing hundreds of people in the lunch line I decided to bail on my turkey sandwich and head out.  I was not alone.  Half the crowd left with me.  It took almost an hour to exit the parking lot.  All I could scrounge to eat in the car were a couple of stale fortune cookies (“You have an active mind and a keen imagination” and “Remember three months from this date.  Good things are in store for you.”) and they were not enough to stave off hunger and irritation.  The good me who had weathered getting up early, a traffic jam at the Interstate exit, a long snaking line to get into the event was now not so compassionate in my thoughts as I wedged my way into the long line of cars trying to exit.   Finally I got back on the Interstate and headed to Atlanta.  I thought of food of course and decided on an Indian buffet near my gym.  I told myself I would eat and then go work out.  I ate.  A lot.  And then I wanted to go home despite the knowledge that going home would tack another hour onto my commute to my office.  I got home, took off my clothes and fell into a sound sleep.

I awoke about an hour later with a very odd feeling.  I felt a wavy vibration in my chest around my heart.  It was not painful at all but very surprising.  It persisted for some time and then something clicked in my head.  The Dalai Lama proclaims that he is the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is known both as Avalokiteshvara and Kuan Yin.  Kuan Yin, also known as the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, has been one of my favorite avatars for years.  I have five Kuan Yin figures in my bedroom, two of wood, one of stone and two tiny ones, silver and jade.  On the top of a pile of books near my bed is a copy of John Blofeld’s classic text “Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin.”  I bought the book in 1980 and it would be one of the few I would keep if ever I should need to live in a tiny space.  I reached for it and noticed it was bookmarked with a postcard.  The postcard is of a watercolor of a blue chrysanthemum (something that does not exist in nature) by Piet Mondrian.  It marked the chapter titled “Dreams, Reveries and Speculations” which is opened with this quote from the Lotus Sutra:
Imbued with supernatural power
    And wise in using skilful means
    In every corner of the world
    She manifests her countless forms.

I was still feeling the wave inside me as I got up and dressed and drove back to my office.  And it was making a little more “sense.”

 I asked a number of my Buddhist friends, all long time devotees and meditation teachers, for suggestions on how to prepare for my time with the Dalai Lama.  Two of them told me just to be present (easier when one is not hungry).  The third was more detailed about how to quiet the mind before and after so I felt a little guilty about turning on the radio but I did.  “All Things Considered” was being broadcast on NPR and they were talking about the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics and the Higgs Boson theory that they were being honored for.  The commentator then proceeded to give a lay definition of Higgs Boson that I couldn’t repeat if I tried but it made sense with the wave I was experiencing in the aftermath of my time with the Dalai Lama.  The New York Times ran a cartoon that is very helpful for those of us not well versed in science.

 

My wavy translation of this is that there is an energy that is the source of all forms.  As humans one of the ways we experience that energy is compassion.  Compassion brings us into a knowing that we are all one.  Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion stands at the edge of Enlightenment until everyone one in line catches up with her/him.  The Dalai Lama had re-minded me of this.

The next evening I attended the Atlanta debut of Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton which was showing at the Out On Film Festival.  Ecstatic poet and avant-garde filmmaker, the late James Broughton had been my friend and mentor.  Our mutual friend Stephen Silha had undertaken the project of making a film about James’ life and work.  James, whose nickname was Big Joy, would have been 100 had he lived until now.  His work in film and poetry is profound for different reasons.  As a filmmaker he was one of the first Americans to create experimental films and won a prize at Cannes for poetic film for his masterpiece, “The Pleasure Garden.”  Jean Cocteau who presented him with the prize proclaimed him, “an American who had made a French film in England.”  James followed “The Pleasure Garden” with thirteen more daring short experimental films including the much loved “The Bed.”  Poetry was a key element in James’ films.  He was always filming his poems.  Born in 1913 in Modesto, California James was a homegrown California bohemian mystic.  His poetry had more in common with William Blake’s than his contemporaries and his gifts for observing the natural world prompted poet Jack Foley to call him “Thoreau with a body.”  James synthesis of sexuality and spirituality spoke deeply to my generation of gay men, particularly the Radical Faeries, who sought spiritual solace and erotic affirmation out side the mainstream.  James was the perfect fairy godfather.

I had been in conversation with Stephen Silha throughout the making of the film.  It was a tough climb funding wise and it was Stephen’s first film.  He created a spectacular testament to James and his work, retelling his story, showing his contemporary relevance, bringing his imagery to life and all without pretending James was a saint.  James was a broken man who through poetry and film grew wings and learned to fly.

I have also been working on ways to celebrate James’ centennial. I edited interviews with James’ partner and collaborator Joel Singer and with Stephen Silha for the current Broughton themed issue of RFD   I donated his letters to me and his books to the Georgia State University Special Collections Archive.  I worked with archivists Stephen Zeitz and Morna Gerrard to get the letters online add to the narrative.  I worked with them and other interested people in my community to put together a symposium which turned out to be more of a big pain in the ass than big joy.  James always counseled, “adventure not predicament” and we turned our predicament into an online symposium that will launch on November 10th, James 100th birthday with a celebration of poetry, song and dance to be streamed live onto the Internet.  Atlanta’s Out On Film Festival and its director Jim Farmer facilitated the debut of the film last Wednesday evening.  Even though I had seen the film on my lap top I anticipated something more seeing it on the big screen in a room with lots of other people and I was right.

Movies to me are like dreams.  I am an empath by nature and by trade.  I am moved by what I experience.  And I was moved by this film shown in a theater in ways I had not been moved when I had seen it on the small screen.  Perhaps it was because many in the audience also knew James from his four visits to Atlanta in the ’80’s and ’90’s.  We were having resonance with each other that went beyond watching a movie.  Perhaps it was the way the movie ended which I can’t give away here since it is part of our social history.  We all knew that James died but the images of his leave taking were breathtaking.  I left the movie, had a quick bite with a friend and had to go home to ponder my experience.

I am part mystic and part cynic.  The two parts like each other and generally take turns informing my world view.  The cynic is the part of me that is experience.  The mystic is my innocence.  Mostly they operate in alternating rhythms but sometimes they dance.  James was a master of the coming together of opposites, the mingling of essences.  It was this resolution, this spiritual androgyny that drew me to him.  His muse was the androgynous trickster Hermes and perhaps it was the same Hermes that came to me in a dream that night naked with freckles on his back.  I rarely have sexual dreams, at least ones that I remember, and I don’t remember much of this one either, I just know I was visited.  James said Hermes came to him as a tiny child and never left him.  He proclaimed him a poet and gave him the gift of merriment or joy.  Joy is different from happiness in that it has no opposite.  Joy just is, as James wrote:

This is It.
   This is really It.
   This is all there is.
   And It’s is perfect as It is.

It is now the end of the week where I spent a morning with the Dalai Lama and an evening with Big Joy.  I know they are different and I know they are the same.  I know they both channeled an ocean of understanding that is beyond logic and known only by heart.  I know I am different for passing through these portals.  And I am the same, I have never really been separate.

 Franklin Abbott
13 October 2013
Midway Woods
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