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Hippies and Lamas

Updated on August 6, 2009

The Tibetan Lama sat on a dais which was draped in colorful silk banners.  At his side, sitting cross-legged on a lower platform, was an older British woman with a refined accent.  Her hair was dyed blonde, and her eyes rolled in two directions at once.  She was translating for him, but it was difficult to know where to look.  Were her eyes watching us, or were they staring out the window?

He talked about life and death, and non-attachment.  She listened attentively, one eye straining in his direction, the other eye lingering on the distant wall.  “Yes, yes,” she was saying.  “Yes, I know, yes.”  She went on to translate for us, explaining the ideas of karma, samsara, and nirvana in an animated way.  Apparently she and the Lama have been working together for thirty years, and occasionally they would spat about the best way to translate a word or an idea.  She always came out victorious.

“One must not develop too much attachment to one’s body, or one will be very upset when it is time to die,” she said, nodding seriously as the Lama sat with crossed arms and watched the crowd.  “When one is dying, it is important that they be in a positive frame of mind, so that they may attain a desirable rebirth,” she went on.  “One does not want to become a horse or a cow if one can help it.”

The talk went on for an hour, and then the roomful of people took up a hearty Tibetan chant.  As the Lama left, everyone stood up and bowed deeply.  Then an American hippie with knotted hair began an enthusiastic prostration right in front of me.  The room was packed tight, and there was hardly even room to lean back on your hands.  But he didn’t seem to notice.  In his devotional excitement, he stepped backwards onto my umbrella and crushed it.  That makes four dead umbrellas in under a week.  I had a sudden urge to plant my hands on his butt, and push him face forward into the crowd.  It would have been hilarious to see him stumble and fall, and I would have felt a slight redemption for my poor, crushed umbrella.  But I restrained myself, and watched him prostrate instead, standing up, arms in the air, and then dropping to his knees, the beads in his hands clattering noisily on the floor.  He did this again and again, fervent in his faith, oblivious to his dirty shoes trampling all over other people’s coats and bags.  I hoped the look on my face didn’t give away my un-Buddhist thoughts.

When we left, my friend leaned in and said, “Do you think you could have handled that scene on mushrooms?” 

I giggled and thought about it: the English woman’s rolling eyeballs, the ideas of birth and death and rebirth, the dirty hippie with a penchant for ruining people’s things.  Then I pictured a secret doorway leading out of the back of the room, into the high, misty mountains. 

“If there was an escape hatch, yes,” I said.  “But only if I could get out of there.”

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