Tibetan Buddhism

The Dalai Lama, Reefer Madness, kaiju, and more!

Prop newspaper with a story headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered

What does his Holiness the Dalai Lama have to do with moral panics over “marihuana,” (sic) a backwoodsman becoming an unlikely political hero, noir skulduggery in wartime San Francisco, Ronald Reagan, a resurrected Egyptian mummy, President Taft’s bathtub, and a giant reptile terrorizing Japan? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Several years ago, someone told me about a reference to the Dalai Lama that had appeared in fake (prop) newspapers in two old Hollywood movies: “Reefer Madness” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” (Unfortunately it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was that told me about this, and even a search of my emails has failed to turn up any clue.)

The newspaper story has the title, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.” This seems to be a reference to the discovery of the Dalai Lama’s “tulku” — his new incarnation — in Tibet in 1936.

I have to say I was a little skeptical when this was brought to my attention. I’d assumed that the prop newspapers used in old movies were entirely fake. My understanding was that to avoid incurring licensing fees, any prop newspaper used in a film would contain stories that were entirely invented. That turns out not to have been the case in the early days of cinema, because at least some of the stories were genuine — including the one about the Dalai Lama.

You can see this headline — just, if you screw up your eyes very hard and look sideways at just the right phase of the moon —  in the image above, which is from “Reefer Madness.” The main story is “Harper Verdict Expected Tonight.” This is a reference to the plot of the movie. Underneath that is the rather improbable, “Dick Tracy, G-Man, In Sensational Raid.” And tucked under that, you can just about make out, in the blur of a low-resolution image taken from a TV scan of an already low-resolution celluloid film, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.”

You can see the headline much more clearly in the image below, which is from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” starring an improbably young Jimmy Stewart. Here I don’t even have to circle the headline. In fact you can almost make out the subheading.

A newspaper prop from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, showing the headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

This is from the pivotal moment in the film when Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper tosses a coin to decide whether to replace a deceased senator with either a political stooge or a naive local hero. The tossed coin ends up beside this newspaper, helping him to make his decision.

“New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” and “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” are the filler stories.

I later discovered that His Holiness shows up in a number of other films as well.

These include “This Gun For Hire,” where our “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” appears below the main story, “Chemist and Woman Murdered.”

Prop newspaper from This Gun For Hire, with the story, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

Also (and thanks to the blog, “And you call yourself a scientist!?” for this) it’s in “Gigantis, The Fire Monster.”

Newspaper prop from Gigantis, The Fire Monster.

Thanks for eagle-eyed commenter Jeff (see comments below) I know that the article also appears on a prop newspaper on episode one of “Backstairs at the Whitehouse,” which was a TV miniseries that came out in 1979. That’s the most appearance of this story that I know of, and the only one I know of (so far) that’s in color.

Still from BackStairs at the Whitehouse, showing a prop newspaper with the story 'New Living Buddha Reported Discovered'

Earlier it appeared on “Girls On Probation” (1938), which stars Ronald Reagan, and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942).

The Dalai Lama gets around!

I can’t say for sure who originated these newspapers, but it’s likely to have been The Earl Hays Press, which has been supplying props to Hollywood for more than a hundred years.

But is this “Living Buddha” story really about the Dalai Lama? And is it based on a story that actually appeared in real newspapers.

The answers are “yes” and “yes.”

On Wednesday, 27 May 1936, an Associated Press story with the title “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” was published on page 25 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The same story was also published in other outlets under different headlines, such as “New ‘Living Buddha’ Discovered After Two- Year Search in Tibet,” in The Atlanta Journal, on the same date.

Here for the sake of completeness is the entire article, in case you were curious about what was behind the blur:

NEW ‘LIVING BUDDHA’ REPORTED DISCOVERED
Two-Year Quest Ends After Tibetan Priests Study Surface of Sacred Lake.

By the Associated Press.
SHANGHAI, May 27. Dispatches from the forbidden kingdom of Tibet reported today a new Dalai Lama, or “Living Buddha,” was discovered in the Han Jen district, northeast of Lhasa, after a search of more than two years.

The new Buddha was believed, the Tibetan advices [sic] said, to be a reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died Dec. 17, 1933.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Tibetans believe their “living god” is immortal and that when he dies, his attributes are handed down to a child born about the time of his death.

Tibetan monks and professional “diviners” have been searching for the reincarnated Dalai Lama ever since the death of the previous ruler. Reports received earlier from Lhasa said the omens were favorable for an early finding of the new “Living Buddha.”

The Tibetan new year began in February under auspicious circumstances, reports said. Spiritual authorities sent a deputation of high priests, sages, monks and philosophers to the sacred Chugkhorgyae Lake, east of Lhasa, near which the first Dalai Lama was born, to contemplate images reflected on the surface.

The lake gazers were reported successful in their quest for indications which might lead to discovery of a new Pontiff. Visions of a house wearing the mysterious words “a ka ma” appeared, thought to bear some relation to the name of the parents of the future Dalai Lama.

The populace was instructed then to join in the search for the house and the child.

The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, has been living in exile in China for the last 12 years.

He would be unable to go back. to assume his duties as tutor to his reported new “reincarnated brother” because no invitation has been extended to him.

Since the death of the late Dalai Lama under mysterious circumstances at Lhasa, affairs of state have been in the hands of the temporal regent, Jechen Hutukehtu.

Some of the other stories, such as “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” and “Fire Destroys State Arsenal,” were also taken from real newspapers.

Anyway, there we have it: The Dalai Lama made appearances in a number of films, from the classic “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” to the risible — “Gigantis” and Reefer Madness.” No doubt he was in many more as well. If you notice any others, please let me know!

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“Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again.” — Padmasambhava

One time, when I was rereading a massive Tibetan Buddhist text called the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, I was struck once again by the spiritual power of one particular quote: “Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again. That is the heart of my advice.”

I quoted these words to a friend, and she was completely puzzled. “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?”

In a way it is. In a way it isn’t. I’ll say more about that in a minute. But first some background.

Padmasambhava was an Indian teacher who travelled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. His name means “Born from a lotus” and is shortened just to “Padma.” That’s how I’ll refer to him from now on. The king wanted to convert his nation to Buddhism, and in fact had previously invited a noted scholar-monk, Shantarakshita, for that very reason. (Shantarakshita means “Protected by peace.”)

Shantarakshita had been the abbot of a major monastery in India, and his approach to practice emphasized the study of philosophy. This was how one tamed the mind. In the support of this, he had large bodies of Buddhist texts—sutras and commentaries—translated into Tibetan. But this approach failed to resonate with the fiercely devotional and pagan Tibetan people, and definitely not with the king’s ministers, who followed a form of paganism and were fiercely opposed to Buddhism. In a symbolic representation of this mismatch, it’s said that as fast as the walls of Shantarakshita’s monastery could be built up during the day, the demons of Tibet would dismantle them at night. Hence Padma’s invitation.

Padma was a different kind of teacher. He was steeped in the teaching of Tantra, where the aim was not to eliminate potentially destructive energies such as craving and ill-will, but to harness and redirect them toward positive ends. He was a sort of shamanic teacher, who tackled the demons of Tibet, battling with them until they promised loyalty to the teachings.

Shantarakshita and Padma both taught meditation, but they had different approaches. If craving and hatred are mental poisons, then Shantarakshita’s approach was to use antidotes to eliminate those poisons. Padma’s was to see how these poisons could be used medicinally.

Padma’s instructions for meditation often deal with “allowing the mind to rest in its natural state.” The mind, resting in awareness, is naturally clear, blissful, and wise. Ultimately we don’t “effort” our way to enlightenment. It’s already there.We let ourselves settle into it. We let go into it.

To make some sense of that, let’s turn to a simile, or series of similes, that the Buddha used. He talked about various disturbances of the mind being like water whipped up by the wind (worry and restlessness), water that’s stagnant (laziness), boiling water (ill will), water that’s been dyed (craving), and water that’s had mud stirred into it (doubt). In all these similes, something pure, clear, and natural has been altered in ways that make it unwholesome or dangerous. In all of these similes, if the water is allowed to be at rest, it returns to a pure state. Boiling water, left alone, cools. Water that isn’t stirred up by the wind becomes still. When it’s still, it reflects clearly, and we can also see into its depths. Mud stirred into water settles, and the water becomes pure. And so on.

How do the expressions, I do not have, I do not understand, and I do not know fit in with this? How can they be spiritually useful?

The idea that we “have” something, whether we’re talking about a physical possession or the belief that we possess some kind of truth, leads to disturbance in the mind. When a possession is threatened we get anxious, or depressed, or angry. Think about how you feel when a physical possession is lost, or broken, or is compared to something “better.”

And our understandings and what we think we “know” are just other ways of having or owning. What I think Padma is referring to here is when we cling to particular ways of seeing things. We do this in order to feel secure. Pretty much all of us say “But I don’t do that! I’m open-minded!” And yet it usually bothers us if someone actively challenges our views on things like politics and religion. It even bothers us even if we just learn that someone has different views!

Having, understanding, and knowing disturb the mind. They also limit it. They stop us from being open and curious. They’re forms of holding on, that prevent us from letting go, which is what we need to learn to do.

So back to that question, “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?” I said earlier that the answer was both no and yes. It’s no in that it’s not, ultimately, about developing an encyclopedic understanding of the Buddha’s teachings or of later teachings. It’s not about mastering the map. It’s about traveling the territory that the map is describing. The kind of understanding and knowing that comes from studying maps is fundamentally different from the kind we get from traveling the territory.

The Buddha talked about this, when he was asked whether what we taught was something he had memorized. He said,

When clever aristocrats, brahmins, householders, or ascetics come to see me with a question already planned, the answer just appears to me on the spot. Why is that? Because the Realized One has clearly comprehended the principle of the teachings, so that the answer just appears to him on the spot.

Just before saying this he gave the example of knowing how a chariot is built and how it works. When you understand this from experience, when you’re asked about the topic you don’t have a bunch of pre-prepared, memorized statements to make. You just speak spontaneously.

I think what Padma is getting at is that we maintain an attitude of skepticism about our having, our understanding, and our knowing. That we hold all these things provisionally and lightly. That we be open to learning. That we be curious about what we might learn. That we don’t confuse what we have heard with what we know from experience. And that when we talk to others we distinguish between whether we’re talking about our knowledge of the map, or our knowledge of the territory.

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Ebola: the Buddhist connection

mukpoThere’s an unusual connection between Ebola and Buddhism.

Ashoka Mukpo, one of a handful of Americans who have contracted Ebola, was identified soon after his birth as a reincarnated lama, or Tulku.

Mukpo is the son of Diana Mukpo, who married Tibetan lama Chogyam Tungpa in Scotland. Ashoka is not Trungpa’s biological son, but was raised as his child after his mother became pregnant while romantically involved with another of Trungpa’s followers, Dr. Mitchell Levy.

As a child, Ashoka was identified as the reincarnation of Khamyon Rinpoche, and he was enthroned as a tulku in Tibet.

Although Mukpo regards himself as a practicing Buddhist, he decided not to pursue a monastic life, and he works in the U.S. division of Human Rights Watch. He has also worked as a freelance cameraman for Vice News, NBC News and other media outlets. He spent two years working in Liberia, doing research for the Sustainable Development Institute, a nonprofit that highlights the concerns of workers in mining camps outside the west African country’s capital, Monrovia.

It was in Liberia that he was diagnosed with Ebola. Soon after he was moved to Nebraska Medical Center for treatment, where he is recovering.

NBC News reports that his parents say he “would likely rather the attention be paid to the West African countries that have been ravaged by the disease.”

Although many people in the west are anxious about Ebola, we should remember that the vast bulk of the suffering that’s taking place is in Africa, where thousands have been infected, and where its possible that a million people could contract the disease.

This article on Forbes suggests ways that individuals can contribute to fighting Ebola in Africa.

Sources: NBC, ABC.

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Akong Rinpoche was key to Tibetan Buddhism flourishing in the west

Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian: Buddhism’s popularity over the past half-century in the west has surprised and dismayed in almost equal measure. Alongside the fad for Buddhist statues in garden centres, there has been a much more serious engagement with hundreds of centres opening, many of the most dynamic founded by Tibetan Buddhists. Given that Tibet had limited contact with modernity until the 20th century, it’s been an extraordinary story of cultural export. The vivid colour and spectacle of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and the warmth and humour of their teachers, have contributed to making Buddhism into a rare religious success in a deepening secularism…

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Surprising ally for snow leopards: Buddhist monks

Tia Ghose, LiveScience: The endangered snow leopard has some allies in unexpected places.

The leopards are being protected by hundreds of Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan plateau, new research suggests.

The scientists, who detailed their study last week in the journal Conservation Biology, found that half of the monasteries are within the snow leopards’ habitat and that monks patrol the wilderness to prevent poachers from killing the rare cats.

“Buddhism has as a basic tenet — the love, respect, and compassion for all living beings,” said study co-author George Schaller, a biologist with the endangered cat conservation group Panthera, in a statement. “This report …

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From the ashes, Tibetan Buddhism rises in the Forbidden City

On a freezing Tuesday this week, dozens of special guests from China’s cultural, political and business elites gathered within the blood-red walls of the Forbidden City. They were there for the opening of the newly restored Hall of Rectitude, the center of Tibetan Buddhism during China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing.

After a fire in 1923, the hall and about a half-dozen surrounding buildings that comprise the Buddhist architectural complex lay in ruin for nearly a century in the northwestern corner of the 8,000-room former imperial palace.

After six years of restoration funded by the Hong Kong-based China Heritage Fund, the Zhong Zheng Dian …

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Meditation experiences in Buddhism and Catholicism

Susan Stabile, OUP Blog: Becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun is not a typical life choice for a child of an Italian Catholic police officer from Brooklyn, New York. Nevertheless, in February of 1988 I knelt in front of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, as he cut a few locks of my hair (the rest had already been shaved), symbolizing my renunciation of lay life.

I lived in the vows of a Buddhist nun for a year, in the course of spending two years living in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India. Including my years of lay practice, I spent twenty years of my …

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Law professor to speak about Buddhist meditation and Christian spirituality

University of St. Thomas law professor Susan Stabile will present the lecture “Adapting Buddhist Meditation Practices to Christian Spirituality” at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in Quad 264 at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.

The lecture is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning and is free and open to the public.

Drawing from her book “Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation,” published this month by Oxford University Press, Stabile will explore common values that underlie Christianity and Buddhism and how interreligious engagement can offer mutual enrichment for people of both traditions, giving special attention to how Buddhist meditation practices can enrich Christian spirituality.

After the program, Stabile’s new book will be available for purchase and signing.

Stabile holds the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, where she also serves as a fellow of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership and offers retreats and other programs of spiritual formation for students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Raised as a Catholic, Stabile devoted 20 years of her life to practicing Buddhism and was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun before returning to Catholicism in 2001. She is a spiritual director, trained in the Ignatian tradition, and one of the leading scholars in the United States on the intersection of Catholic social thought and the law.

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His Holiness the Karmapa: The technology of the heart

The name “Karmapa” means “the one who carries out Buddha-activity,” and for seventeen lifetimes, a karmapa has embodied the teachings of Buddha in tibet. The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born a nomad in Tibet in 1985 and recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1992 as the 17th Karmapa. The young boy was brought to the Tsurphu monastery to live and study for his life as a spiritual teacher and activist.

At age 14, he made a daring flight from Tibet, and now works from a temporary camp in Dharamsala, near his friend the Dalai Lama. (After the Dalai Lama, he’s seen as Tibetan Buddhism’s second-highest-ranking spiritual leader, though the two men lead different schools within the faith.) In 2008, he made a long visit to the United States, where he spoke and taught at Buddhist centers around the country. And in 2009 he toured Europe, speaking about faith — but also about protecting the environment.

Translator: The way I feel right now is that all of the other speakers have said exactly what I wanted to say. (Laughter) And it seems that the only thing left for me to say is to thank you all for your kindness.

Translator: But maybe in the spirit of appreciating the kindness of you all, I could share with you a little story about myself.

Translator: From the time I was very young, onward, I was given a lot of different responsibilities, and it always seemed to me, when I was young, that everything was laid out before me. All of the plans for me were already made. I was given the clothes that I needed to wear and told where I needed to be, given these very precious and holy looking robes to wear, with the understanding that it was something sacred or important.

Translator: But before that kind of formal lifestyle happened for me, I was living in eastern Tibet with my family. And when I was seven years old, all of a sudden, a search party arrived at my home. They were looking the next Karmapa, and I noticed they were talking to my mom and dad, and the news came to me that they were telling me that I was the Karmapa. And these days, people ask me a lot, how did that feel. How did that feel when they came and whisked you away, and your lifestyle completely changed? And what I mostly say is that, at that time, it was a pretty interesting idea to me. I thought that things would be pretty fun and there would be more things to play with.

(Laughter)

Translator: But it didn’t turn out to be so fun and entertaining, as I thought it would have been. I was placed in a pretty strictly controlled environment. And immediately, a lot of different responsibilities, in terms of my education and so forth, were heaped upon me. I was separated, largely, from my family, including my mother and father. I didn’t have have many personal friends to spend time with, but I was expected to perform these prescribed duties. So it turned out that my fantasy about an entertaining life of being the Karmapa wasn’t going to come true. It more felt to be the case to me that I was being treated like a statue, and I was to sit in one place like a statue would.

Translator: Nevertheless, I felt that, even though I’ve been separated from my loved ones — and, of course, now I’m even further away. When I was 14, I escaped from Tibet and became even further removed from my mother and father, my relatives, my friends and my homeland. But nevertheless, there’s no real sense of separation from me in my heart, in terms of the love that I feel for these people. I feel, still, a very strong connection of love for all of these people and for the land.

Translator: And I still do get to keep in touch with my mother and father, albeit infrequently. I talk to my mother once in a blue moon on the telephone. And my experience is that, when I’m talking to her, with every second that passes during our conversation, the feeling of love that binds us is bringing us closer and closer together.

Translator: So those were just a few remarks about my personal background. And in terms of other things that I wanted to share with you, in terms of ideas, I think it’s wonderful to have a situation like this, where so many people from different backgrounds and places can come together, exchange their ideas and form relationships of friendship with each other. And I think that’s symbolic of what we’re seeing in the world in general, that the world is becoming smaller and smaller, and that all of the peoples in the world are enjoying more opportunities for connection. That’s wonderful, but we should also remember that we should have a similar process happening on the inside. Along with outward development and increase of opportunity, there should be inward development and deepening of our heart connections as well as our outward connections. So we spoke and we heard some about design this week. I think that it’s important for us to remember that we need to keep pushing forward on the endeavor of the design of the heart. We heard a lot about technology this week, and it’s important for us to remember to invest a lot of our energy in improving the technology of the heart.

Translator: So, even though I’m somewhat happy about the wonderful developments that are happening in the world, still, I feel a sense of impediment, when it comes to the ability that we have to connect with each other on a heart-to-heart, or a mind-to-mind, level. I feel that there are some things that are getting in the way.

Translator: My relationship to this concept of heart-to-heart connection, or mind-to-mind connection, is an interesting one, because, as a spiritual leader, I’m always attempting to open my heart to others and offer myself up for heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind connections in a genuine way with other people, but at the same time, I’ve always been advised that I need to emphasize intelligence over the heart-to-heart connections, because, being someone in a position like mine, if I don’t rely primarily on intelligence, then something dangerous may happen to me. So it’s an interesting paradox at play there. But I had a really striking experience once, when a group from Afghanistan came to visit me, and we had a really interesting conversation.

Translator: So we ended up talking about the Bamiyan Buddhas, which, as you know, were destroyed some years ago in Afghanistan. But the basis of our conversation was the different approach to spirituality on the part of the Muslim and Buddhist traditions. Of course, in Muslim, because of the teachings around the concept of idolatry, you don’t find as many physical representations of divinity or of spiritual liberation as you do in the Buddhist tradition, where, of course, there are many statues of the Buddha that are highly revered. So, we were talking about the differences between the traditions and what many people perceived as the tragedy of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but I offered the suggestion that perhaps we could look at this in a positive way. What we saw in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was the depletion of matter, some solid substance falling down and disintegrating. Maybe we could look at that to be more similar to the falling of the Berlin Wall, where a divide that had kept two types of people apart had collapsed and opened up a door for further communication. So I think that, in this way, it’s always possible for us to derive something positive that can help us understand one another better.

Translator: So, with regard to the development that we’ve been talking about here at this conference, I really feel that the development that we make shouldn’t create a further burden for us as human beings, but should be used to improve our fundamental lifestyle of how we live in the world.

Translator: Of course, I rejoice in the development and the growth and the rise of the noble land of India, the great country of India, but at the same time, I think, as some of us have acknowledged, we need to be aware that some aspects of this rise are coming at the cost of the very ground on which we stand. So, as we are climbing the tree, some of the things that we’re doing in order to climb the tree are actually undermining the tree’s very root. And so, what I think it comes down to is a question of, not only having information of what’s going on, but paying attention to that and letting that shift our motivation to become more sincere and genuinely positive. We have hear, this week, about the horrible sufferings, for example, that so many women of the world are enduring day-to-day. We have that information, but what often happens to us is that we don’t really choose to pay attention to it. We don’t really choose to allow that to cause there to be a shift in our hearts. So I think the way forward for the world — one that will bring the path of outer development in harmony with the real root of happiness — is that we allow the information that we have to really make a change in our heart.

Translator: So I think that sincere motivation is very important for our future well-being, or deep sense of well-being as humans, and I think that means sinking in to whatever it is you’re doing now. Whatever work you’re trying to do now to benefit the world, sink into that, get a full taste of that.

Translator: So, since we’ve been here this week, we’ve taken millions of breaths, collectively, and perhaps we haven’t witnessed any course changes happening in our lives, but we often miss the very subtle changes. And I think that sometimes we develop grand concepts of what happiness might look like for us, but that, if we pay attention, we can see that there are little symbols of happiness in every breath that we take.

Translator: So, every one of you who has come here is so talented, and you have so much to offer to the world, I think it would be a good note to conclude on then to just take a moment to appreciate how fortunate we are to have come together in this way and exchanged ideas and really form a strong aspiration and energy within ourselves that we will take the good that has come from this conference, the momentum, the positivity, and we will spread that and plant it in all of the corners of the world.

His Holiness the Karmapa: Tomorrow is my Talk.

Translator: Lakshmi has worked incredibly hard, even in inviting me, let alone everything else that she has done to make this happen, and I was somewhat resistant at times, and I was also very nervous throughout this week. I was feeling under the weather and dizzy and so forth, and people would ask me, why. I would tell them, “It’s because I have to talk tomorrow.” And so Lakshmi had to put up with me through all of that, but I very much appreciate the opportunity she’s given me to be here. And to you, everyone, thank you very much.

(Applause)

HH: Thank you very much.

(Applause)

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Dalai Lama appoints American as monastery abbot

Via NPR.

Michel Martin: if you wanted to predict just who the Dalai Lama might select to lead one of the faith’s most important monasteries, you probably wouldn’t think about a boarding school educated, globe-trotting New York photographer whose grandmother was one of the most celebrated fashionistas of her time, but that’s just who the Dalai Lama did select, saying his, quote, “special duty is to bridge Tibetan tradition and the Western world,” unquote.

Nicholas Vreeland is the new abbot of the Rato Monastery in India and he joins us from there now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NICHOLAS VREELAND: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.

MARTIN: Now, in my introduction I made it sound as if you’re some sort of fish out of water, but when I think about it, probably not. You were born in Switzerland, lived in Germany and Morocco and New York. Your father was a diplomat. Your mother was a poet, and fashionistas will certainly know that your late grandmother was the longtime editor of Vogue magazine.

So I wanted to ask if, in a way, all this was preparation for your life now.

VREELAND: Well, I don’t know that it was preparation. I suppose that living in a lot of countries prepared me for living in a Tibetan refugee settlement where the monastery that I belong to was reestablished, but I’ve been here now – I’ve been a member of this monastery for over 27 years, and so it’s sort of home.

MARTIN: How did you first learn about Buddhism? And if you can describe it, what do you think it was that appealed to you?

VREELAND: I was in a French school in Germany and I began reading Tintin books when I was about six or seven, so Tintin and Tibet was my first introduction to Tibetan culture, to Tibetan Buddhism. Then I went to – I should say I came to India in 1972 to visit my godfather, who was the political officer in a little then country, now part of India, called Sikkim. It was a Tibetan culture that Sikkim had with Tibetan Buddhism as their religion. That was my introduction.

MARTIN: What is it that you think appealed to you, if you can even describe it?

VREELAND: It puts the responsibility for where you are on your shoulders. We, by our past actions, determine where we are today. How wealthy I am, how healthy I am, the opportunities that I have – all of those things are determined by my own past virtuous or non-virtuous actions.

MARTIN: Can you remember when you decided to become a monk? And I am assuming that that’s kind of a complex process and decision, but to the degree that you can, can you tell us why you think you chose this path?

VREELAND: I was working as the picture editor for the Vanity Fair that was being reestablished. We were working on the dummy issue and I was studying with my teacher, a Tibetan Lama in New York, and my mother had been discovered to have cancer, and all these different influences made me realize that to devote my life to a spiritual path was the most valuable thing I could do.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re have a Faith Matters conversation with the venerable abbot Nicholas Vreeland. He is abbot of one of the most important monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism, the Rato Monastery in Southern India, and he’s telling us about his journey to that place.

And you know I want to ask you your family reacted when you told them that you were becoming a monk. I can imagine that Diana Vreeland, who was so committed to style and fashion, was not as enthusiastic as one might think about your shaving your head and committing to a life of saffron and red robes.

VREELAND: No. She wasn’t very enthusiastic, but she understood it. She had seen me become more serious about my study of Buddhism, my practice of Buddhism. We were very close. The years before I came here to become a monk, I spent a few of those years actually living with her. My parents were both very supportive and understanding and have remained supportive, as has my brother.

MARTIN: Now, could you tell us about how you reacted when his holiness, the Dalai Lama, selected you to become the abbot of this important place in Tibetan Buddhism? How do you – how did you react to that?

VREELAND: Well, it was really a surprise. I must say that I’m sitting in the abbot’s chambers in the monastery here in the south of India. I helped design and rebuild the campus of the monastery recently and never would I have imagined that I would be inhabiting these quarters. I mean, it’s just – I might have designed it rather differently had I thought that I would end up here. It came as a big surprise.

MARTIN: Could you tell us about the ceremony when you were officially enthroned?

VREELAND: Initial ceremony was the investiture, which took place in California, actually. His holiness, the Dalai Lama, proclaimed me the abbot and I made three prostrations and made an offering to him and he then offered me a scarf and said congratulations to the new abbot of Rato Monastery and then advised me on just what he wished me to do.

I then came to India to assume my position. It was a sort of formal procedure. Early in the morning, at 5:00, I was led from my room in the monastery to the abbot’s chambers and I was told to sit on the throne and then the administrators made three prostrations before me and made symbolic offerings. And then, after prayers were said in my room, I was led to the temple and there in the temple were all the monks of Rato seated and they all bowed when I came in and I made my three prostrations to the throne of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, and assumed my position on the throne of the abbot.

And then each of the monks in the monastery came and offered me a symbolic white scarf, which is a sort of Tibetan way of showing one’s respect. And that was it. I was the abbot.

MARTIN: And there it is. As we mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama, his holiness, said that he felt that your mission is to unite the two or to be a bridge between the traditions and the Western world, so I hope that we will speak again, that maybe we could be part of that, you know, bridge.

But before we let you go, I wanted to mention that you’ve been the director of the Tibet Center in New York for some time now, and so I envision that you’d be going back and forth. What else do you think it means to be that bridge? Do you have any sense of how else you envision that role?

VREELAND: What I can bring as a Westerner, as someone born, raised and educated in the West, to this very, very traditional, ancient world – Tibet was a country that was totally closed off to the rest of the world until 1959 and the monastic traditions helped maintain a curriculum which was extraordinary – which is extraordinary, and I wouldn’t want to, in any way, tamper with that.

However, it is necessary that we bring modern day procedures to this society, so that’s one part of my responsibility. The other is helping to bring my knowledge and experience of this world, this Tibetan world, to the West as a Westerner.

But ultimately all I can really do is be myself wherever I am, and my self is a Tibetan Buddhist monk. My self is an American. And so wherever I go, just being myself as best I can is the way in which I might be actually bridging these two worlds.

MARTIN: The venerable Nicholas Vreeland is the abbot of the Rato Monastery. It’s in Southern India. He’s also the director of the Tibet Center in New York, but we were able to reach him in India.

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