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Endless Buffet

I was tagging behind Foster, hot-footing it from his faculty spot to see the Dalai Lama.  To be honest, I was along for the free ticket and a chance of free food.

The lines in front of the UCSD RIMAC Center, where the Dalai Lama was to speak, stretched twice the length of a football field.  The line moved slowly.  As if to tease those of us in line, a football field ran alongside conveniently for comparison.

Yes, I’d heard about the Dalai Lama, his exile, how he was discovered at age 2 when he identified the 13th Dalai Lama’s prayer beads, and his Ultra Hand contraption (The Ultra Hand was the Nintendo’s first break, invented by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi. The Hand was a way to turn on a TV without leaving the couch.  Rumor had it that the 13th Dalai Lama had one, but, of course, had no TV). Shortly thereafter, Tenzin Gyatso became “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.”

“But we’ve got reserved seats” Foster said impatiently, as a vender handed him a leaflet for a free compressed air colonic. “There must be another entrance.”

It was the Dalai Lama’s first visit to San Diego, which got a lot of surfers off their boards and in line.  What was it about his personality that was such a magnet?  Most of these folks were not Buddhist, were they?  Or maybe, like me they’d gotten free tickets or word had spread about the Buddhist Buffet.

Soon we were seated and listening to the percussion section warm-up.  I didn’t realize the Dalai Lama had a back-up band. Obviously, his message was becoming more relevant.  The indoor stadium was immense and quickly filling with people. We’d been seated in the geezer section and conversations were depressingly about laxatives.  I looked around for some closer seats out of earshot.

Two big screens next to the stage were lit-up. A man was standing in front of the mike holding a pair of maracas, waiting for the audience to look up from their programs.  He didn’t look like a Buddhist.  This was going to be some sort of morning meditation, maybe. Over the PA a mix of synthesizer, clicks, chimes and drums pulsed a very non-Buddhist beat. The man on the screen began swaying to the rhythm.  He lifted a maraca and the sound of swirling beads permeated the space.  Then, he got louder.

Chik-chik-sha-chik chik-chik-sha-chik.

He waited for an audience response.  Was this going to be a sing-along? I wondered. Foster busied himself with the program notes. “This is Steven Schick,” he said pointing to the page.  “Head of the UCSD Music Department.”  He looked more like a heavy metal drummer gone awry.  Suddenly, we heard the sound of beanbags against a window.

Ka-choo-ka-choo ba-ba-ka-choo shoo-cha shoo-cha-ka-choo.

Wow.  He was good.  My foot, still asleep, was tapping. The maracas cha-cha-ed harshly now, seeming to reprimand us.

Sha-CHA sha-CHA rat-ta rat-ta rat-ta Shi-ka-ma-ooo-CHA-ka sha-cha SHA-CHA

The applause bubbled up as Maestro Schick bowed, the lights dimmed and Mary Anne Foxe (our chancellor) guided His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on stage.  The audience roared.  It was like Radiohead had just jumped on-stage.  We were on our feet, clapping.  I was helping an old woman up, clapping my program, picking up her glasses–and I wasn’t even Buddhist!

“Over-the-counter laxatives don’t always work,” he was saying. Or, rather, the geezer in back of me had resumed.  I tried to focus.

Now, to a quiet stadium, DL (as I have come to call him) said we needed real friendships.   The stadium murmured. Obviously, he’d seen my friend requests get ignored and my tweet followers dwindle to 98.

“We must see the Oneness of Humanity,” he said in choppy English.  His dutiful assistant was mic’d up and whispered suggestions for phrasing and occasionally slipped in available places to eat after the teachings.  DL nodded. “Then we can trust, respect others. Oneness, you see.”  The arena shuffled, maybe chewing on this concept of Oneness. My stomach was gurgling.  My mind too was gurgling.  It was an odd hunger.

“Then we will know true friendship.”  These were people who actually liked you, weren’t befriending you for some reason, weren’t luring you to events, selling their latest book, or building up their social graphs.

“Then,” DL continued.  “We can cooperate.  Without friendships, we cannot cooperate.”

Friends do things to help friends.  That’s what he was getting at.  Not because they could rack up more friends, but because they were fun to be around.  But where do you find these sorts of people?

He was looking right at me, over the big screen.

“Oneness, you see.”

This was big-screen Oneness, a powerful hi-def Oneness, an all-pervasive, drop-what-you-are-doing Oneness. He was looking right at me.  My mind stopped rattling, like I’d gotten a swift slap on the back of my head.  He and I were so much alike, I was vaguely thinking now:  we both liked to wear orange for instance and shuffle around in sandals.  We both liked Indian food, samosas, nans and dals.  It was clearly getting close to lunch.

Now, V. Ramanathan was speaking.  I’d seen his name before. He was a gentle Indian professor, but his words were packed with optimism about climate change.

“Black carbon,” V. said.  “Soot.  It’s much easier to reduce the harmful effects than CO2. As much as 50%.”  I envisioned Al Gore being lowered gently on his forklift, being eased down, the oceans settling.  Maybe even the Maldives breathing easier, the waves receding against their shores. “Simple stoves,” he was saying, “can change the world.  Think about it.  Villagers use cow dung to burn their fires.  Yet, this ash covers the Himalayan snow caps, melting them.  Why not give them small stoves?  Each stove reduces the pollutants.”

If CO2 emissions were the drug runners, black carbons were the kingpins.  You get more bang for the buck with the kingpins.  V. was making sense. We had a War on Drugs, I thought, a War on Terror.  Why not a War on Soot?  They probably just needed a better slogan.

The audience was restless, feet shuffling, looking down at their programs, maybe wondering about the stoves.  Maybe we were worrying again – about being able to breathe when we get older or the cost of A/C in the winter.  The geezers had lost interest in climate change, but then, it wasn’t their problem.

“I have nothing but optimism that society will solve this,” V. said.  “We just have to cultivate it.”It was not just the environment that weighed heavily on me, but also my odd jobs, my skimpy bank account and the noisy upstairs neighbor, who seemed to be practicing flamenco at the oddest times.   How can I solve the big problems when the small ones eluded me?

“We must think bigger,” DL said.  “If there is a solution to a problem, you see, there is no need to worry about it.  Yes?”  He smiled broadly to the audience. “If there is no solution, there is no point!”

Everyone was in the same Oneness boat, he said.  We all have odd jobs and noisy flamenco neighbors.  With some of us having odder and noisier challengers than others.

Now DL was on his feet with his guests bowing in gratitude.  Mary Anne Foxe had worn a prayer shawl in, but DL smiled, removed the old one, and gently placed a new one over her shoulders.  It was time for her to start a new beginning. She smiled too and said something that made DL laugh again.

And soon, we were filing out.  Foster was on his phone arranging his afternoon, but I had to get back. So, I thanked him declined his offer for lunch and explained that I had something (this article) to write.  Besides, I wasn’t that hungry anymore.  DL had indeed treated us to an endless buffet.

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