I STUMPED THE DALAI LAMA
Yes, I stumped the Dalai Lama. I asked him a question that He answered, “I don’t know.”
“To stump” someone means to ask them a puzzling question for which they have no answer.
It was 1988 and His Holiness appeared in Thanksgiving Tower in Dallas, Texas. I was teaching at a nearby university when a notice arrived that two, and only two, of the faculty could attend a meeting of ecumenical international understanding, and the Dalai Lama was to be in attendance. I jumped to apply for one of the spots, feeling I was too junior there to win a seat. However, to demonstrate something about Texas, I guess, only two faculty applied. I got a ticket and went with great anticipation.
There were only twenty five guests in the small room. I took a front row seat on the far side. The He was ! Seated in the middle of fifteen or more of local religious leaders of all faiths in His robes was THE Dalai Lama. In concert with the theme of the meeting, each religious leader made a short statement, leaving the Dalai Lama to speak last. He made brief remarks about how Buddhism welcomes and does not negate a person’s faith in the other religions. Then, the floor opened for questions.
I was first to be recognized for a question. Remember, I was a real Ph.D. of cinema and aesthetic studies, riding high on my first tenured teaching post. I stood up and addressed His Holiness. I did not even know to wai, but I felt I had a good and very relevant question and in line with my profession.
In a steady voice, I asked His Holiness, “What is the role of aesthetic study on the path to enlightenment?”
I thought it was a soft-ball question, and one that would allow me to bask in the momentary spotlight of this occasion. I was vaguely aware of His Holiness importance and a sometime student, via books, of Buddhism and Asian philosophy. I was very happy with my question.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama understood my question immediately. He had actually listened to me! I was thrilled. He thought about my question. His eyes were cast upward and then downward. He showed all signs of deep consideration. He paused in thought for so long that people there began to look at me as if I had somehow done something negative with the proceedings.
Finally, He said, “I don’t know. I will have to think about it.” I sat down.
I had stumped THE Dalai Lama! His answer was the most unexpected that I could imagine. Little did I know then what a difficult question I had asked.
Here is my interpretation. One could say that aesthetic study and appreciation of beauty would be ennobling. Such study should enlarge and improve the human spirit. It could spread a feeling of deeper understanding of what it is to be human, I thought. However, what I have learned later is that to do aesthetic study, one must study some thing. Such concentrated attention on and even high valorization of a thing, even if thought beautiful, encourages attachment. Attachment is a major route to unhappiness and one of the highest cautions in Tibetan Buddhism. Clinging is a major factor that practicing Buddhists seek to avoid. One can read about this, or consult a high lama or monk, but believe me, that is the case.
Thus, it seems to me that my question is caught between a chance to ennoble the human spirit and, on the other hand, strongly encourage attachment. I guess this is what caused His Holiness pause.
About ten years afterward, I traveled to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s monastery as He lives in exile in Northwestern India. I was there on the date of His birthday. I saw and videoed the ceremonies and displays of Tibetan dance and song. I was sitting on the concrete in the middle of hundreds of Tibetan school children who looked at the big foreigner with his camera gadgets in wonder. I had gotten there early and had a great seat. Being respectful, unlike a good cameraman, I used a monopole camera support to hold my camera above my head and could remain seated and blocking no one’s view. I am still proud of doing that; it really worked well.
During the several days of the activities, I walked around on the steep roads and then hired a car for the day. One day, during a break, I saw from my car two figures in full Tibetan dress walking in the mud down the rough road. I had the driver stop because one of those people was a young Tibetan woman of rare beauty. They took my offer of a ride. I discovered that the woman was nineteen, ideal in my mind, and that the broad shouldered and browed man with her was her brother. Thinking quickly of my luck that he was not her husband, I began to ask questions and then to invite them as my guest for lunch, allowing me to prolong the visit. He noted that she was a student dreaming of visiting America (humm !) and that he worked as a translator in His Holiness’s staff.
I told the brother and his glowing sister, all complete in her best Tibetan clothes (but not an apron, thank goodness!), about my asking His Holiness my question years ago. I asked the brother if he would carry my new question to His Holiness. He said he would, maybe being generous, I did not know, but who could pass up the opportunity?
I hand printed a brief recounting of my question and then asked if His Holiness had thought about it and perhaps could he now offer to me an answer. I wonder about my brashness today. However, I gave the man the note with my return address carefully added.
The two took my name and address and promised to write. Being single at the time, I entertained spending some time with the lovely girl and maybe even hosting her in America. I admit I thought like that then. We did write several times and the two of them figured prominently in my later visit when I videoed testimony of Tibetans who had suffered Red Chinese torture and shooting. However, the girl never got to America, and I never got a reply to my question.
In 1999, I took Buddhist refuge and vows—in person–from His Holiness. Yes, I am now a Buddhist.