My first encounter with Buddhism—at age eighteen—frightened me terribly. I’d gone to the movies with friends to see Martin Scorsese’s biopic of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Kundun. At university as a film major at the time, I certainly knew who Scorsese was, but Lord Buddha and the Dalai Lama were unknown to me. I found the movie to be a richly cinematic work. It presented a lot of good information and a sad history—and it is was a particularly wonderful introduction to both Buddhist life and the Sino-Tibetan conflict.
Yet I found myself haunted by one quote near the end, taken from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra:
My foes will become nothing.
My friends will become nothing.
I too will become nothing.
Likewise all will become nothing.
Just like a dream experience,
Whatever things I enjoy
Will become a memory.
Whatever has passed will not be seen again.
Later at dinner, as my friends rhapsodized about the film’s beautiful production design and shot composition, I sat quietly picking at a salad I couldn’t eat. That quote had taken away my appetite.
At bedtime, the lines replayed themselves in my head, bringing death to the fore. That’s when the fear came on—and came on strong. It’s happening again, I thought to myself. I can feel it, the terror. I’m like a child frightened by strange noises in the night. There would be no begging my way out of it: I was in the throes of a waking nightmare. All the hallmarks were there—a racing mind, a pounding heart, a sinking stomach. Please, no. Not again. Please. That night would be but one in a long succession of sleepless nights.
This intense restlessness always started the same way, with the thought of death. Fright easily found me then, for I had wandered into adulthood without making any sort of peace with the inevitability, mystery and finality of death. First, my mind would frantically go to work: When will I die? How? What happens after that? Is there any sort of continuum of consciousness? Do I even have a tangible, individual consciousness—a soul? Faced with these mounting and largely unanswerable questions, terror would cause my heart rate to rise. With no framework for tackling these thoughts, my fear would only intensify. The experience would become entirely visceral, guts twisting and turning. It’s happening again. From a very young age, I had sensed that nothing and no one lasts forever, that the promise of permanence or immortality was wishful thinking. But now I was stuck—really, terribly stuck. I didn’t know how to live with the truth of impermanence and be unafraid.
It would be another couple of months (and more sleepless nights) before it dawned on me to look to Buddhism for help, and it happened almost by accident. In a bookstore one day, a copy of The World of Tibetan Buddhism caught my eye, and a twinge of frustration arose. On the cover was the book’s author, His Holiness, smiling brightly. Like so many others, I was immediately struck by how genuinely happy the man seemed. But I was also confused: How can he be so deeply aware of the inescapable truth that everything must die, and yet remain happy? I purchased the book, determined to figure out how he and all these other Buddhists were tricking themselves into peace.
Instead of tricks, what I found was the path of practice. Studying the Dharma means practice, after all, and asks us not only to think about the teachings but to embody them. Since I was someone who took a cerebral approach to suffering (and pretty much everything else), this utterly tangible methodology for “waking up,” achieving true fearlessness, was nothing short of revelatory.
What quickly emerged as the most nourishing aspect of my practice was the quality His Holiness so beautifully teaches and lives, the wish for others to experience freedom from suffering. As I watered the seeds of compassion in my own life, my anxieties began to diminish significantly. Sure, Buddhist philosophy appealed to my intellect and was crucial in cultivating a proper view (I changed majors from film to religious studies at this point) but compassion began to take me out of my own head and open up my heart.
Inspired by other engaged Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh, A. T. Ariyaratne, Sulak Sivaraksa, Maha Ghosananda, and Aung San Suu Kyi, I began to devote myself to service for the first time in my life. I explored everything from nursing home visits to environmental work. I sat quietly with a dying woman, plucked garbage from a local river, and made myself more available to friends and acquaintances when they needed to talk. One of His Holiness’s teachings began to resonate:
The moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole reality narrows, and because of this narrow focus, uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your view widens. Within that wider perspective, your own problems appear to be of little significance, and this makes a big difference.
I had felt utterly alone on those sleepless nights––like a freak, the only suffering person in the world. Compassion began to show me how connected I was to others. I resonated with the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami—a mother in ancient India whose child had tragically died. She begged of the Buddha to revive her son. The Buddha agreed to her plea, saying that she need only bring him a mustard seed from a household that had never experienced loss. As Kisa Gotami searched, she began to see the pervasiveness of impermanence and suffering. Each family she visited had lost someone—a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a child. As she traveled from home to home, Kisa Gotami began to awaken to the truth. Her son’s parting gift was to show his mother not how much smaller her world had become but how much larger it really was.
Not unlike Kisa Gotami, I was able to grow thanks to the blessings of precious teachers who revealed themselves along the path. “Remember, just the offering of care is care,” one clinical chaplaincy supervisor told me, helping me to keep in check my neurotic need to “fix” things. “Compassion is the feeling experienced by a mother who has no arms and sees her child drowning,” one of my Tibetan Buddhist teachers told me. With the benefit of careful instructions like these, I have cultivated compassion in such a way that my own inner strength has also developed and freed me from paralyzing fear.
I’ve learned not only from my practice and my teachers but also from those I have served. Sitting with a dying woman one night as she told me the story of her rather tragic life, she stopped mid-sentence, leaned forward and said, “You know, you don’t have to look so sad when people tell you these things.” She helped me discover the importance of being both an empathetic presence as well as a steady, even-tempered and useful one.
Two years after that screening of Kundun, near the start of the new millennium, I found myself studying abroad as a student in Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India program. The sleepless nights were gone. I was no longer haunted by the unknown. I could face fear directly, and I had Buddhism to thank. Standing in a line at the McLeod Ganj residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, waiting to meet the man himself, I remember thinking: If anything is going to encourage me to stick with the practice and continue to learn and grow, it’s going to be this moment. Finally face-to-face with him, I was wide-eyed and emotional—delightfully discombobulated by the sheer joy and compassion contained in his being. I understood then why his office arranges these brief and seemingly unnecessary meetings: he is the real deal and it is instantly—and I mean instantly—apparent. He looked into me, curious. I could only choke out the words, “Thank you, thank you.” I didn’t even know where to begin. But he wasn’t confused. With glowing eyes and a slight, perceptive smile, he squeezed my hand gently, and I was on my way.